Spiritual Friendship and Courage: On the Need for Variety in Ministry

This post is a somewhat tardy response to a question about Spiritual Friendship and Courage that Fr. Matthew Schneider asked last month:

First, the short, un-nuanced version: I think that each movement has something positive to contribute to the Church. Courage provides anonymous support groups, while Spiritual Friendship is more public and works toward the day when gay and lesbian people can receive all the support they need in their families and parishes. Both of us agree that friendship is important for those who are trying to grow in chastity. Like the Pope, Spiritual Friendship is comfortable using the word “gay” to describe attraction to the same sex, while many in Courage misunderstand and criticize us for this. Spiritual Friendship tries to talk about the difficult intersection between friendship and same-sex desire in a way that takes the Catholic moral tradition seriously. Some (though not all) writers at Spiritual Friendship have some reservations about the 12-Step model Courage uses. And we all disagree in varying degrees with the Freudian theories of causation that Courage has adopted, though we haven’t made attacking those theories a priority.

Now, the much longer, more nuanced version. (Because this is a large topic, this is, unfortunately, a long post. In order to make it a little bit easier, I have broken it up into sections addressing different parts of the discussion. It may be easier to come back to it and read it a bit at a time, rather than trying to read the whole article at once.)

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Deacon Jim Russell and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Update (9/18/2015): In his reply to this post (see his comment below), Deacon Russell says, “we can meet any time, face to face, to charitably address and correct things. I’d be all for that.”

He goes on to say, “As it is, now and forever, here is my challenge to you, Ron. We are engaged in public discourse. In that framework, I will gladly defend all my assertions and positions of the last three years in a direct exchange with you. I will do so charitably and fairly in any number of formats, including live and in person, publicly or privately. This offer will not expire. God bless.”

On July 1, 2015, I invited Deacon Russell to meet face to face with Saint Louis Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice mediating our conversation. He did not accept. My offer still stands.

Original Post: I rarely respond directly to Deacon Jim Russell; I generally find that there is so much “spin” in his posts that it is difficult to find a productive point of engagement. I usually have responded indirectly, trying to present Church teaching in a positive way that I hope clarifies some of the misunderstandings about Spiritual Friendship that I see in his writings. A couple of points he makes in a recent article, however, may deserve direct clarification (especially in light of the timing of his post and the amount of media attention focused on me because of the World Meeting of Families).

Dome of St. Peter's

The gist of my response is simple: despite Deacon Russell’s efforts at spin, there is nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in ideas like, “obsessing over sexual temptation is unhelpful,” “service to others is helpful in overcoming temptation,” and “friendship is an important avenue of support and intimacy” for those seeking to live a chaste life. But since these straightforward claims have sparked Deacon Russell’s critique, I am taking the time to respond to his criticism at length.

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Friendship and Catholic Teaching about Homosexuality

Popes Francis and Benedict

Friendship has been an important theme in the Catholic Church’s pastoral guidance regarding homosexuality. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which provides a comprehensive overview of Catholic teaching,

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

The Catechism also draws a more general connection between chastity and friendship:

2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.

Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.

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What is the Relationship between Experience and Revelation?

There’s been some recent discussion on Catholic blogs about the relevance of personal experience in conversations about how the Church can provide community and pastoral care to gay and lesbian Catholics who are seeking to be faithful to Church teaching. In order to answer this specific question, it’s worth examining the relationship between revelation and experience more generally.

John Paul II

The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel. In a footnote to the General Audience of September 26, 1979, he wrote:

When we speak here about the relationship between “experience” and “revelation,” indeed about a surprising convergence between them, we only wish to observe that man, in his present state of existence in the body, experiences many limits, sufferings, passions, weaknesses, and finally death itself, which relates his existence at the same time to another and different state or dimension. When St. Paul speaks about the “redemption of the body,” he speaks with the language of revelation; experience is not, in fact, able to grasp this content or rather reality. At the same time, within this content as a whole, the author of Romans 8:23 takes up everything that is offered to him, to him as much as in some way to every man (independent of his relationship with revelation), through the experience of human existence, which is an existence in the body.

We therefore have the right to speak about the relationship between experience and revelation; in fact, we have the right to raise the issue of their relation to each other, even if many think that a line of total antithesis and radical antinomy passes between them. This line, in their opinion, must certainly be drawn between faith and science, between theology and philosophy. In formulating this point of view, they consider quite abstract concepts rather than the human person as a living subject.

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Interview: LGBT Youth and Homelessness

The best available research suggests that between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. When youth come out (or their sexuality is discovered against their will), some families reject them, pushing them onto the streets, where they are often even more vulnerable to prejudice and abuse than other homeless youth. They will also encounter a legal system which can be more focused on punishing and imprisoning the homeless than on helping them to get off the streets. And as rising social and peer acceptance has emboldened teens to come out at a younger age, more youth are over-estimating their parents’ readiness to deal with revelations about their sexuality, with tragic—even life-threatening—consequences.

This is a problem which Christian parents and pastors need to understand and take much more seriously, since it is, in part, an unintended consequence of Christian activism for traditional marriage. Moreover, since Christian ministries often provide food, clothing, and shelter to the homeless, how they approach homeless LGBT persons will have a big effect on whether their ministry draws people toward Christ, or pushes them away.

In order to provide better perspective on these pressing issues, we recently spoke with Kelley Cutler, a Catholic social worker and advocate on homelessness who has worked in San Francisco for over a decade. She shared some of her insights about homelessness, how it affects LGBT youth, and how Christians can respond.

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The Luxury of Division

First: Julie Rodgers (who apparently isn’t dead, despite the funerary tone of many articles) is a dear friend who has endured far more gross scrutiny with far more grace than most people would be capable of. Her urgent passion to serve those who have been marginalized by society has made the world a better place, and I am sure that wherever she decides to minister next she will witness to God’s love through deep friendships, hospitable spaces, and simple human kindness.[1]

Second: A few years ago I was visiting a small Palestinian town that had lost much of its surrounding land to illegal settlements and was facing restricted access to its ancestral olive groves. After a Catholic mass in the morning we all (local Catholics included) attended a lunch hosted by the evangelical church before being shown around the village by the Greek Orthodox priest. I couldn’t help but marvel at the familial closeness displayed between those from various church traditions as they worked together to welcome this obtrusive group of college students into their threatened home. It was more than mere cooperation; it was genuine friendship.

While chatting with one of the hosts I mentioned how struck I was by the ecumenical character of the village and the solid relationships between the different Christians. He tilted his head. “Our land is being stolen, people are leaving, the olive groves are being terrorized, and we are at risk of forgetting who we are. Unlike some places in the world, we do not have the luxury or the time to be divided.”

In 21st century American churches, however, division seems to be almost all we have time for.

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The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships

Sam Allberry, a Christian minister and someone who has been open about his own same-sex attraction, has written a review of my Spiritual Friendship book, and this week I’ve been posting some responses to it (see the first one here and the second one here). I’m grateful to Sam for his engagement of what I’ve written. And because his reaction to my book is one that I’ve encountered before, I thought it would be worth talking about. So here, again, is Sam’s basic worry about my book:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

This line of criticism is something we at SF tend to hear a lot, and I hope a lot of us here decide to write more about it in the near future. Francesca Aran Murphy voiced a similar worry about Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic: “It just seems to me that there’s something inherently erotic about ‘vows,’ so that ‘vowed friendship’ [as Tushnet calls it] is friendship perpetually on the verge of turning into erotic friendship.”

In a previous post I already gave some indication of how I’d respond to this: Basically, the fact that close, promise-bound friendships can be problematically “eroticized” doesn’t mean must be. The fact that something can become distorted doesn’t automatically mean the thing itself is bad. (For the positive case—that vowed friendships are, or can be, good, I’d say go read Eve’s book!)

Now for today here’s one other thought. Sam’s criticism seems to assume we’re talking about two gay Christian people who are contemplating entering a vowed friendship. But what about those who are already in such relationships?

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Forsaking All Others

For one of my graduate school classes last year we learned to create lists of goals with a counseling client, a process called “goaling.” Our professor went through the process with a classmate and then asked each of us to break up into pairs and work through goaling with our partner. After dictating to my partner, a close friend of mine, we were instructed to begin talking through how to order them and to make sure they were just hard enough to be difficult but not so difficult as to be impossible. After doing this together I had assembled what I felt was a good list. It covered the major areas of my life: spiritual, educational, personal, and financial. My partner felt that after looking at my list something was missing. He didn’t say what he thought that could be other than that it just felt like my list was missing something. At that point it dawned on me the things that everyone else in my class’s list included but were missing from mine. So I leaned over to complete my list that he had been recording on his laptop and wrote the following at the top of my list:

  1. To marry the man I love.
  2. To have a family who is centered on Christ and that we would grow closer to Him and to each other.
  3. To have a home that is a refuge for many.

After writing these it took me a moment to absorb the shock of actually verbalizing these desires. My friend was then satisfied that I had written an honest list rather than merely the list I felt I should write. After looking at it for a moment I then deleted the three additions and left the list as it was originally.


Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb

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Spiritual Friendship and Julie Rodgers

Julie RodgersJulie Rodgers blogged for Spiritual Friendship between August, 2013 and October, 2014. Prior to that, she had spent a decade with Exodus International, serving as a keynote speaker at the final Exodus Freedom Conference in 2013. Until this past Monday, she also served in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College, counselling students who were struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues.

On Monday, Julie resigned from Wheaton and put up this blog post. The post was mostly a cri de cœur about the damage done by conservative Christians who bind heavy burdens on LGBT people—particularly youth—without doing much to help. But she also wrote, “Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now.”

Although I spoke with Julie briefly as recently as a week before she put up this post, I had received no indication at all that her views were shifting, and did not learn of it until a friend drew my attention to her post Monday afternoon.

Julie is right that conservative Christians have done a bad job of showing Christ’s love to LGBT people.

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Matt Jones at OnFaith: Avoiding Hypocrisy as the Church

matt_001Spiritual Friendship writer Matt Jones recently contributed to a series on sexuality and the church over at OnFaith, focusing on ways his current church community is modeling a traditional sexual ethic that avoids much of the hypocrisy found in more conservative churches. Some excerpts:

When I joined, I simply became a part of that redemptive movement. This is an enormous blessing, because — believe it or not — I really want to proclaim the gospel through ministry and advocacy. (And, as a white dude brimming with privilege, learning how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce inequality can be a challenge!) I want to be a Christian, and I want my church to urge the congregants on in our shared vocation of pursuing justice for the marginalized (which includes a sizable portion of the church population itself).

Often lgbt+ Christians are treated as if we have one job this side of Jesus’ return: don’t have gay sex. But, as Eve Tushnet so quotably stated, “You can’t have a vocation of no,” of only avoiding something. We need something to live for, and let me say that Christianity never makes more sense to me than when I am witnessing or participating in a Christian community that is unified toward imitating and proclaiming Jesus’ liberative gospel.


It continues to amaze me how hard celibate lgbt+ people have to work to find space in churches that claim a more traditional sexual ethic. The social burdens experienced by sexual minorities in these communities vary widely, but usually include increased scrutiny and suspicion, painful comments from congregants who may or may not know about one’s sexuality, reduced ministry possibilities (e.g. I was once stripped of an internship and prevented from helping with a youth group because I wasn’t trying hard enough to be straight), insanely exhausting language policing,**** and at times, the general ache of being single in a culture that over-valorizes marriage and romance to the detriment of thechurch’s calling to be family.

I’m not sure how churches decided that the best ‘defense’ of the traditional sexual ethic is to place excessive burdens on those trying to abide by it and then fail to provide the support structures that would make such an ethic intelligible and healthy . . . but, well, here we are.

I believe the traditional sexual ethic is beautiful and good — I try to live according to it for a reason! — but I also believe that the way churches have approached the topic of human sexuality has largely failed to do any justice to the scope and nuance of the doctrine and has, in fact, done injustice to countless people who should have found a home and family within the church, and this requires sincere repentance.

Read the Whole Article at FaithStreet.