Spiritual Friends on Chastity, Romance, and Freudian “Sublimation”

A half-dozen of the usually non-monolithic Spiritual Friends have joined forces in an educational project that, unfortunately, will probably bring more confusion than clarity to Catholics seeking to understand what the Church has to say about same-sex attraction.

The website CatholicSexuality.com—a chastity-education project from a Yonkers, New York group called the St. Augustine Foundation—invites people to register for free online video-based courses, complete with quizzes and frequently asked questions on a variety of subjects related to human sexuality. The site’s home page claims: “Every message on this website is completely consistent with and in harmony with the teachings of the Catholic Church on sexual morality.”

But that’s a claim I dispute. A series of lessons on same-sex attraction features video three-way conversations among several of the Spiritual Friends: Ron Belgau, Gabriel Blanchard, Joshua Gonnerman, Joseph Prever, Melinda Selmys, and Eve Tushnet.

The six different sessions and fifteen video lessons cover a lot of territory, from chastity to reparative therapy, to “falling in love,” to myths and misconceptions. As is usual with the Spiritual Friends, amid some genuinely helpful commentary, one unfortunately finds significant problem areas associated with the human person and “gay” identity, same-sex eros, and same-sex friendship.

The Importance of Chastity—A Selfish Pursuit?
The first lesson focuses on chastity. To my surprise, Belgau, Selmys, and Tushnet frame chastity rather oddly, seemingly pitting the “external” consequence of purity of heart—self-mastery as “self-gift” to others—against its “internal” pursuit.

Selmys: I think one of the difficulties with a certain kind of ex-gay approach is that it tends to put excessive focus on if you have … an inclination or an aesthetic experience that is in any way gay that you have to sort of stamp it out…. I got into this really almost obsessive state where, like, I wouldn’t listen to Queen because I thought it would somehow be damaging to my spiritual life and ultimately that kind of fearfulness became very damaging to my spiritual life. When I am realistic about, okay, this is how it is for me, this is what is going on in my interior life, I don’t need to get caught up in a whole bunch of shame about it. I don’t need to become obsessed with trying to stamp it out.

Tushnet: Well … I mean, the focus so much on avoiding lust requires a constant self-interrogation of, like, is what I’m feeling “right,” which is self-centered, really. And kind of endlessly, you know, there’s never going to be a good-enough answer to “am I feeling the correct emotions”… “am I having the right impulses.”

Regarding sexual temptation, Ron Belgau added that “obsessing about it is unhelpful” and that “we all need to get on with the business of caring for each other, of reaching out to people who are in need.” For Belgau, doing volunteer work helps him get “past that self-focus.”

I find this odd precisely because it seems to cast doubt on the “interior” value of purity of heart pursued out of love of God. Is the only motive for seeking purity for the sake of its own virtue a motive of “obsession” and “self-centeredness”? Of course not. Pursuing chastity out of love of neighbor is fine, but it’s not the only “goal” of chastity—one’s interior life is not an “obsession.” The pursuit of Christian perfection, interiorly, is done out of love of God.

Also, one can contrast these thoughts with the thought of Pope St. John Paul II, who clearly taught that the task of self-mastery was precisely in examining every impulse or attraction to discern whether or not it was in accord with authentic purity of heart.

Intimacy and Support: If Not Romance, Then Spiritual Friendship?
In the lesson titled “Spiritual Friendship,” Belgau says:

If you’re not going to have people in romantic relationships, then what are other avenues for providing support and intimacy? So, it’s been important to talk about friendship and … spiritual friendship is really the true friendship that the Church is trying to encourage us towards.

Prever: People are taking friendship a lot more seriously than we’ve seen before. People are recognizing the real importance of same-sex friendship in a way that they haven’t before.

While I find Prever’s claim quite myopic (as though we moderns are the first to really “get” friendship), I’m more concerned about Belgau’s implicit supposition that the “support and intimacy” associated with romantic relationships is somehow capable of being supplied through “other avenues” like “spiritual friendships.” And, frankly, the Church encourages those with same-sex attraction to pursue disinterested friendship—not the same thing as the “spiritual” friendship encouraged in Belgau’s own project.

Shouldn’t We Be Crushing the Crushes?
The most concerning lesson in the whole series is titled “Falling in Love,” a video featuring Gabriel Blanchard, Joseph Prever, and Eve Tushnet. The conversation brings into focus the significant problem the Spiritual Friends seem to have with understanding same-sex “eros” as being objectively disordered in both its affective and genital expressions.

Prever: When we’re talking about same-sex attraction, we’re always talking about people. And that means that eventually the question of falling in love comes up…. It’s not a small question…. Some of the most difficult times in my life have been coming to terms with being just completely head over heels for some guy and not really having any way to deal with that. And that’s a different set of problems if it happens to be a straight guy and it’s a different set if it happens to be a gay guy, like, each of those for the faithful gay Catholic comes with a whole set of headaches and heartbreaks….

Blanchard: Loving someone, if that love is authentic, if it really is a matter of perceiving the glory and the beauty of God in a person, that isn’t a simply bad thing. When I was with my ex-boyfriend, it wasn’t just a matter of, you know, the two of us were hot for each other or anything like that, I mean it can’t be reduced to that. No relationship can be reduced to that. It was a matter of really perceiving God’s goodness in this other person. Now the way we handled that may not have been ideal, but it can’t be simply dropped as though it’s not relevant to a human experience or to a Catholic experience.

Tushnet: The pattern for me has really been a crush that’s sort of an overwhelming, almost noticing, as you say, of the other person. It’s almost like she becomes a sort of concentrated moment of beauty in the world, and then having that slowly deepen into some form of actual self-gift … then, after I became Catholic, I tried to find some other way to deepen these crushes into genuine self-gift. Sometimes that didn’t really work out. Other times it genuinely became a friendship that was truly loving. And so I think the most important thing, I think, from my perspective about what [Blanchard has] said is finding a fruitful and creative way to live in the kind of the intensity of the crush and of its deepening.

Blanchard: I think one of the most important things that I never realized until fairly recently about this experience is that this is not uncharted territory. I mean the Church has always—the world and the Church as well—has always been full of people who, for one reason or another, had a love that was not requited in the normal way.

The final quote from Blanchard reveals how these “crushes” really are perceived more as experiences of unrequited love, and less as experiences of objectively disordered attractions toward another person, attractions that ultimately objectify the person to whom they apply.

Here is what I mean: As a man, the “glory and beauty of God” that exists in other men is not meant by God to elicit an experience of “eros” in me. This is simply true for men—period—regardless of the kind of sexual attraction the man experiences. The Spiritual Friends’ discussion about two men or two women having “crushes” or “falling in love” really misses the fundamental truth that what is “unrequited” here is unrequited precisely because it is not real love.

The “true-good-beautiful” that we may perceive in another person of the same sex is not there to serve as an object of desire for us toward that person such that we will “fall in love.” The “spousal meaning of the body” of another man is not a self-gift that is meant for me. Same-sex “crushes” and “falling in love” are disordered realities because they are based on same-sex eros, which is a disordering of authentic eros-love. Such a pseudo-love—even when alongside authentic expressions of either philia or agape—will have a corrosive effect on the soul and will undermine any such relationship. Eros just has no place in the love that is either disinterested or “spiritual” friendship. As long as everyone who pursues either same- or other-sex friendships (this isn’t just applicable to the same-sex attracted) acknowledges this, true friendship—real philia—is attainable.

And yet, Tushnet, Prever, and Blanchard’s trialogue speaks not of “crushing the crush”—crucifying the disordered erotic desire—but rather living in the “intensity” of the crush and then somehow “deepening” the relationship through this experience.

Is Freudian “Sublimation” Really the Answer?
The way to “deepen” this disordered same-sex eros, according to the Spiritual Friends, is to sublimate these desires. This is an ironic claim, given that Belgau and his colleagues are largely anti-Freudian when it comes to developmental theories about the psychological genesis of homosexuality. Yet, the secular psychological defense mechanism of sublimation, originating in the work of two of the “masters of suspicion” named by Pope John Paul II*—Nietzche and Freud—is the linchpin in their refusal to eradicate same-sex eros in favor of acting on the impulse in a way they perceive as morally acceptable.

Thus, the Spiritual Friends say a same-sex “crush” is not merely something to walk away from—it just has to be “deepened” so that its “intensity” is redirected toward more fruitful and “life-giving” things. But the Church’s moral teaching is clear that the response to disordered inclinations is an unequivocal no rather than a yes or a maybe. Attempting to “sublimate” a disordered inclination is at best a tentative maybe, at worst an outright yes, and definitely not a no.

Time for the Spiritual Friends to “Defend or Amend”
I can only scratch the surface regarding the Spiritual Friends’ lessons found at CatholicSexuality.com. The FAQs and quizzes associated with the videos are also misleading in places: they say that Catholics should “recommend condom use to gay men”; that for a “gay” Catholic, “[r]omantic attraction towards a person is not necessarily at odds with disinterested friendship.” They claim that “homosexuals can participate in spiritual fatherhood and spiritual motherhood, just as priests and vowed religious do,” but never mention the nuptial context of promised celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.

They downplay the good of reparative therapy; express tolerance of including same-sex “partners” in family activities; mistakenly claim that Jesus says “friendship” is the “greatest of loves”; and erroneously claim (based on non-authoritative episcopal-conference documents) that “homosexual inclination” refers exclusively to “the desire to engage in homosexual acts,” and not to “other aspects of same-sex attraction.”

There is some good news about SSA at CatholicSexuality.com: two other sets of available courses. One is about a same-sex-attracted man who discovers his vocation to marriage and family life, and the another is about the Courage apostolate. If you want more faithful fare, I’d suggest those.

As for the Spiritual Friends, the time has come. For three years, critics like myself have pointed out problems then waited in vain for some direct response. What we see instead is a continuation of the same old patterns. Will there be a direct response this time or an amendment of views to bring them into accord with the fullness of Church teaching on the human person and human sexuality? Time will tell.

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*Author’s note: While clearly not a fan of Freud’s “hermeneutic of suspicion,” Pope John Paul II does refer to “sublimation of affection” in his book Love and Responsibility and sees this as related to the experience of “tenderness” in the reciprocal relations of man and woman. But nowhere in his corpus have I seen reference to attempting to act upon disordered inclinations such as same-sex attraction via sublimation. SSA would not fall into his category of “affection” as described in Love and Responsibility.

Deacon Jim Russell

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Deacon Jim Russell serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective. He can be reached via e-mail at DeaconJimRussellSTL@gmail.com.

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