Reflections Inspired by the Courage Conference in Detroit

Modern times being what they are, it can be quite difficult to have a civil, Catholic discussion of same-sex attraction. People who experience it are sometimes reluctant to speak out about their experiences, which is understandable considering that those who do speak open themselves to criticism from many directions. For those who are not same-sex attracted, there is generally a strong sense of wariness in approaching this topic. Of course we all know that it is considered insensitive in our time to say anything that is not entirely, 100 percent supportive of all feelings and actions of gays and lesbians. This creates an uncomfortable conundrum for anyone wishing to discuss the topic generously, while speaking from a Catholic perspective.

Of course it is perilous not to discuss same-sex attraction when the phenomenon is being used as a wedge to undermine marriage and family. Defending the family without marginalizing the same-sex attracted can be difficult; at the same time, concern for this group seems especially important when we recognize how much their struggles have been exploited by the progressive left. Altogether, it’s an awkward situation.

Dr. Janet Smith has never been one for shying away from difficult subjects. I knew her only by reputation until this past winter, when she asked me to contribute to a book (Living the Truth in Love) and conference on the subject of “Welcoming and Accompanying our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction.” I was wary, knowing that this is emphatically not the kind of project one wants to list on a resume. Nevertheless, I was interested. This is an important topic, and Smith seemed like the right person to tackle the challenge.

The conference, in my estimation, was excellent. I was sorry to hear that Joseph Prever was less thrilled, but to my mind it seemed very healthy and refreshing to create a setting in which people were at least attempting to have a sympathetic, but also Catholic, conversation about same-sex attraction. Being in such a place makes us realize just how guarded most of us are with this topic. I was constantly flinching while listening to other talks, and I’m sure my own inspired the same. I would wonder: is it right to refer to someone “having” same-sex attraction, or does that sound too much like a disease? When is humor appropriate, and when insensitive? How many times can a speaker use the word “chaste” without becoming a nag?

Obviously, everyone’s feelings are not the same; the joke that lightens the atmosphere for one person may alienate another. To me, though, it seemed that the conference did a good job of transcending that ocean of (perfectly understandable) insecurities, and focusing instead on what the participants shared: a real desire to be united in our faith, and to grow in virtue and love.

“Good” is of course not the same as “flawless.” This was a conference held by and for mere humans, and there really is no way to make the subject comfortable, given the basic reality that a Catholic anthropology simply cannot view same-sex attraction as healthy or normative. It is disordered; however sincere our interest in loving and affirming those who experience it as people, this must be a basic premise of any Catholic discourse on the subject. It takes enormous humility and goodwill on all sides to engage in that kind of conversation, because from the listener’s perspective, it is hard to avoid taking offense, while speakers are constantly worrying if they are being too dismissive, unsympathetic or patronizing.

I hope the conversation will continue, because the project is far from hopeless. We should keep in mind that the Church, our Mother, has millennia of experience in dealing with every kind of brokenness, alienation and pride. We all in our various ways come to her as supplicants, unclean and unworthy. The only way any of us can get past our sins and sensitivities (or insensitivities?) is by viewing our lives against the backdrop of fallenness, grace and redemption, and recognizing the smallness of our particular struggles in that elevated context.

This is of course a universal truth. We would all be better Catholics if we could regularly achieve that kind of perspective. But perspective may be especially necessary for those who struggle with same-sex attraction, because the world promises them so many things, and the Church may seem, at first glance, to offer very little.

To a certain sort of listener, any genuinely Catholic discussion of this topic (no matter how sensitive, nuanced, or sympathetic in tone) will invariably sound like yet another repetition of the offer, “Be chaste, and you may be one of us.” It feels belittling and in a sense really is, although the smallness it demands is not truly dehumanizing so much as pre-sanctifying. We are called to the littleness of children, not slaves, and the membership offered is far nobler than most of us even begin to appreciate. Nevertheless, set against the backdrop of a modern world that is delighted to explore and affirm every possible nuance of sexual experience and identity, the Catholic offer (chastity first, and then plebian normalcy) may seem stingy and insulting. To many, it very obviously does.

Given the range of “more affirming” options that are available in our society, I’m inclined to be generous to any same-sex attracted person who stays even moderately within the orbit of orthodox Christianity. Still, it’s important to be clear: as faithful Catholics, we aren’t looking to invent yet another trendy flavor of sexual-identity affirmation. (Though we shouldn’t doubt for a moment that the modern world would be thrilled to help celebrate such a project.) This emphatically was not the purpose of the Detroit conference. The goal is to approach questions about same-sex attraction in the same way we should approach all significant life questions: by seeking wisdom and inspiration from the tradition that defines us as Catholics.

One theme that arose multiple times at the conference involved a group of bloggers who discuss same-sex attraction and the Christian life in a forum called Spiritual Friendship. The bloggers at this forum have themselves struggled with concerns about sexual identity, and in broad terms, they seek to articulate a more positive and affirming way in which to live as a faithful Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. Some readers (myself included) have concerns that the group’s sensibilities seem more modern than Christian, and their anthropology seems to be out of step in important ways with the broader Christian tradition. Spiritual Friendship nominally associates itself with one obscure medieval thinker, but this is a thin thread on which to hang such an original and wide-ranging project. Reading through entries from the various bloggers, I myself was concerned about a lack of engagement with traditional Christian texts, and I noted that the modern assumption that we need to break new ground in exploring sexual identity seemed mostly to be taken for granted. Obviously this is not a traditional perspective.

The issue is difficult because Spiritual Friendship does have some laudable goals. It surely would be good to achieve a fuller understanding of sexual attraction (and the various related disorders); in that sense Spiritual Friendship seems to be undertaking a project that is refreshing and sorely needed. There can also be real spiritual benefits to listening to one another, and appreciating more keenly the crosses that others are called to bear. At the same time, given that our society is saturated in sexual disorder of every kind, it seems only prudent to start with the assumption that all modern sensibilities are effectively broken. We should not trust ourselves to work through these matters merely on the basis of intuition and personal experience. Tradition is the obvious corrective, and approaching such weighty questions without that rich resource is hazardous in the extreme.

Of course, any given blogger or writer will be limited in his time and personal resources, so it’s hard to fault a particular person for not steeping himself extensively in traditional texts. Might that not, however, be one good reason for having a conference in which people with relevant background and expertise can offer some perspective? To me it seemed that the Detroit conference achieved a fairly good balance by inviting several speakers who had personal experience with same-sex attraction, while also including a number of others with relevant knowledge of psychology, philosophy and Catholic moral philosophy.

I myself found that this range of perspectives laid the groundwork for a conversation that was both informative and uplifting. For such efforts to succeed, however, we need to engage one another with presumptions of goodwill from all sides. Clearly there is more to be said and done, and we would all do well to pray for God’s grace, asking him to bless us with better discernment, greater humility, and a heightened willingness to immerse ourselves in the grace that can ultimately draw us all together around the table of the Lord.

(Photo credit: Catholic Charities / Jeffrey Bruno)

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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