Josh Gonnerman has already written a fine response to Austin Ruse’s Crisis Magazine article. There is one point that I wanted to address that I didn’t think he covered, which is the belief within a lot of conservative Catholic circles that any kind of intimate friendship between men and women is “playing with fire.”
I suppose that I should begin by pointing out that I am a convert—that’s true of most of the people here on Spiritual Friendship, but many of my friends and colleagues here are converts from Protestant churches that share this kind of suspicion when it comes to mixed-sex friendship. I’m a convert from liberal Anglicanism via atheism so I was never raised with any of these ideas. It was always just normal for me to have male friends, and it was normal for my male friends to have female friends.
The first time, outside of Victorian literature, that I even encountered the idea that men and women being friends is somehow spiritually dangerous was when an older woman in my church came up to me after Mass and reprimanded me for causing scandal. The scandal was that I was seen to come to daily Mass with two different men: sometimes with my husband and other times with our housemate Neil. Also, I had been seen out at coffee shops with Neil. The way that this woman talked about it, it was clear that she not only felt that I was setting a scandalous example but also suspected that I was actually committing adultery. Her tone was scathing and very uncharitable—especially since, as I said, I had no idea that anyone still believed that intimate opposite-sex friendships were abnormal.
I’ve since encountered this belief several more times, usually from Catholics of the older generation though there do seem to be some parts of the US where this idea remains in currency. I never know what to do with it. I try to think of what the world would look like to me if I believed that hanging out with Dave until two in the morning was an occasion of adultery. Or if I got frightened, jealous and suspicious whenever my husband spent time alone with one of our female friends. Spending time, intimate, emotionally vulnerable time with close friends of the opposite-sex just is a normal part of life for a lot of people in my generation. It’s not really that different from what Josh described with regards to same-sex friends for gay people: if you have opposite-sex friends from the time that you’re young you learn in high-school how to tell the difference between a relationship where you’re playing with fire and a relationship where you’re playing with wet matches. Sexual tension is not hard to recognize (even I can spot it, and I’m pretty socially oblivious), and there are plenty of opposite-sex relationships out there where it is completely absent.
I’ve found, however, that when I try to explain this to people who believe in the dangers of opposite-sex friendship they become very uncomfortable. I had one correspondent tell me that I was very naive indeed if I would let my husband spend several days on vacation with a female friend. I was just asking for trouble. It was a weird situation because I realized that anything that I could say would sound like I was, in fact, being naive. There are plenty of women out there who say things like “Oh, my husband would never do that to me. My best friend would never do that to me…” and in fact they’re kidding themselves. It’s very hard to express the difference between gullibility and mutual trust.
I suspect that it’s the same difficulty that underlies the “playing with fire” narrative. How do you tell the difference between situations where you can trust yourself to behave and situations where you’re trying to hoodwink your conscience? The answer is fairly straightforward: you know by experience. But this answer sounds extremely dangerous from a particular point of view. There’s a kind of head-space that you can get into where you imagine that God is looming over you with a great big hammer and that if you mess up, especially if there was any possibility of foreseeing the mess up, He’s going to smack you down. After all, it’s possible that you’ll take that risk, and then you’ll be overcome by your own weakness, you’ll commit that mortal sin and then on the way to the confessional you’ll get hit by a bus. Instantaneous death. Final impenitence. Hell.
I know what it’s like to live with that kind of spiritual fear. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that when I was in that frame of mind it was very difficult for me to trust myself to risk mistakes, and equally difficult to trust others (who took those risks all the time) because fundamentally I didn’t believe in the goodness of God. I believed in His omniscience. I believed in His power. But I didn’t trust in Him enough to believe that He would see and understand my weaknesses, that He would allow me to make mistakes, that He would give me the opportunities that I needed to grow through experience. I worried that He was a “hard man” so I wanted to keep my talents safe rather than risking them out there in the world, where I might lose them. (cf. Matt 25:14-30)
I suspect that it’s a similar kind of fearfulness that places undue limitations on the intimacy of friendship. Yes, we should avoid relationships that are likely to lead to sin—but not every relationship with someone of the gender that you happen to find attractive automatically falls into that category. Nor is intimacy, properly understood, a doorway to sexual congress. If anything the male friends with whom I am most intimate are the ones who I am most sure will never make a pass at me. Genuine intimacy entails a deep, spiritual concern for the good of the other: that’s what the virtue of chastity is about. It’s not about avoiding sex. It’s about learning to make a sincere and intimate gift of self to others through self-mastery. When chastity becomes nothing more than a barrier against sin it loses sight of its own purpose: it ceases to be an expression of love and becomes instead a kind of spiritual narcissism that traps the person and isolates them from occasions of grace.
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.