A Word of Caution for the Spiritual Friends

Melinda Selmys thinks that I have entirely missed the point of Spiritual Friendship, the blog to which she contributes, along with several other same-sex attracted Christians. Her response to my essay (found in this now-available volume and profiled here by Austin Ruse) declares that I am quite wrong to suppose that she, or her fellow “Spiritual Friends,” are interested in promoting “gay unions.” She doesn’t really advise people to pursue eroticized non-sexual friendships, recognizing that these relationships tend to be unhealthy for both participants. My essay, in short, has completely missed the point of Spiritual Friendship.

One possible response would be to breathe a sigh and shake hands. I’m certainly pleased to hear that Selmys doesn’t favor eroticized same-sex friendships, even when celibate.

There may be a bit more to say, however. First of all, Selmys has seriously misconstrued the purpose and scope of my essay. From her response, one would suppose that I took Spiritual Friendship to be little more than one long argument for eroticized same-sex friendship. That’s not accurate. I happily acknowledge that the Spiritual Friends have diverse perspectives, and that some of their goals are healthy and good. But I’m not convinced they are all good, and my argument represents an attempt to draw some boundaries that, I hope, might direct the conversation along more productive lines.

The essay is primarily interested in the question: can same-sex attraction be good in itself? This struck me as an important limit question, because if it is possible to direct same-sex attraction towards some good and proper end, we should of course seek to do that. If, on the other hand, the attraction is intrinsically disordered, our goals will be somewhat different. We might try to suppress the attraction, or to change it to something that is rightly-ordered. If none of those things are immediately possible, same-sex attracted persons might endeavor to live with the desire in a way that has as little direct impact as possible on their life and character.

Based on Selmys’ earlier writings, I surmise that she is not enthusiastic about any of these options. She believes that homoerotic desire can be fruitfully channeled through what she would describe as a “sublimated homoeroticism” she attributes to the work of such masters as Michelangelo and Gerard Manley Hopkins to precisely this kind of sublimated homoerotic desire. I’m mildly curious how she thinks she knows this, but more importantly, I would like for Selmys to explain: if she finds my recommended “boundary” for orthodox discussion unacceptable, what bounds would she set?

My impression (based on her own writings and that of others featured at Spiritual Friendship) is that she is reasonably sanguine about most non-carnal forms of erotic expression. And she doesn’t seem overly distressed even about same-sex relationships that do have a carnal element. Even eroticized non-sexual friendships aren’t actually wrong in her view; she simply advises “caution” in approaching them. Very little, in fact, seems to be out of bounds for Selmys when it comes to relationships, and self-reporting seems to be her main method for diagnosing a relationship’s health.

I think Selmys is sincere in her desire to help same-sex attracted people achieve richer and fuller lives. But it’s hard to take her writings seriously when she is so blithe about the spiritual dangers that homoeroticism can pose. In the spirit of modern times, she seems intensely interested in finding uniquely Catholic ways to celebrate homoerotic desire (Hooray for Hopkins and Michelangelo!), and in that spirit, she seems to think it possible to perform a kind of precision surgery on her sexual desires, removing just the carnal elements, and celebrating the rest. One of the main objects of my essay was to suggest that this project is (to put it mildly) unwise. Centuries of experience suggest that human beings are not really capable of sub-dividing the elements of sexual attraction in such a deliberate and voluntary way.

My hope in writing the essay was that it might prove helpful to the Spiritual Friends, rather than stultifying. I fully believe that same-sex attracted people face real challenges, living in a society that is brimming with eagerness to celebrate sexual disorder. I admire the constructive spirit with which the Spiritual Friends explore the question of how same-sex attracted people might live richer and more fulfilled lives, in harmony with authentic Christian teachings. But since the Catholic tradition unambiguously regards same-sex attraction as disordered, it’s important to specify that there cannot be a proper application of this kind of desire as such. It is possible that same-sex attraction may be indirectly salutary in the manner of St. Paul’s “thorn in the side,” and it may also be that same-sex attraction is a disordered manifestation of some other, healthier form of desire into which it could be channeled or transformed. But before we can meaningfully discuss any of these attendant positives, it’s necessary to come to terms with the disordered component of same-sex desire. Selmys seems to shy away from that.

This is evident in her reply to my essay, which breezes past my concerns about applications of homoeroticism, and focuses instead on the good of finding “spiritual friends.” This is something of a dodge, for reasons already explained. But there is another basic problem here: the term “spiritual friendship” doesn’t mean anything to most people, and there is no significant Catholic tradition to clarify what it might mean. I myself feel blessed to have a great many valued friends of both sexes, but I cannot tell you which of these friendships would qualify as “spiritual.” Are we talking about Aristotle’s friendship of virtue? Must “spiritual friends” pray together, or discuss matters of faith or philosophy? Spiritual Friendship ostensibly claims St. Aelred of Riveaulx as their patron, but referencing one obscure medieval figure really does not provide much connection to the Catholic tradition. In any case, St. Aelred was working in a dramatically different context from the one to which his work is now being applied. In short, this response to my critique of Spiritual Friendship really isn’t very helpful.

The Spiritual Friends often become frustrated by what seems like a lack of sympathy from fellow Catholics who should (as they see it) be eager to support their mission of outreach to same-sex attracted (and in Selmys’ case, trans-sexual) people. Reading over Selmys’ writings, however, it’s easy to see why orthodox Catholics tend to shy away. Her enthusiasm for exploring sexual identity is not tempered by a sober recognition of the dangers, or, even more important, by a serious engagement with Catholic tradition. Why take refuge in vague terms like “spiritual friendship” when she could draw on more traditional categories and concepts and discuss the relevant questions directly? Of course no one is opposed to friendship, but invoking it here, in the context of a discussion of homoeroticism, very naturally raises suspicions that she is trying to justify some form of disorder.

Reading over Spiritual Friendship and other writings of the Spiritual Friends, one constantly has the discomfiting impression that they are trying to re-invent the wheel. They want some connection to Christianity, but personal experience is very prominently in the foreground, and many seem largely to accept the modern presumption that different forms of sexual desire and identity should be explored and celebrated.

It should be obvious why this raises suspicions among other Catholics. Living in a society saturated in sexual disorder, we should start from the assumption that our sensibilities concerning sexuality are probably already quite untrustworthy. This is one important reason why we need religious tradition; it can serve as a corrective especially in those areas in which our own culture is most confused. That can only work, however, if we submit ourselves to that tradition with humility and a sincere desire to be taught. If there is a way forward in this discussion, it will need to take place on that common ground.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Hermia and Helena” was painted by Washington Allston in 1818.

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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