I’ve just broken Josh Gonnerman’s first law of staying sane on the internet: I went and read some of the comments on Chris Damian’s Crisis article. I probably had the same reaction as most other Spiritual Friendship readers who made the same mistake. It seemed like the responses had nothing to do with the article. I rankled at the too-familiar accusations of “relativism” “spreading confusion” and “pride.” Damian’s article seemed to so clear, so lucid, so charitable and full of good will that I couldn’t understand how it provoked that kind of response.
Then my husband suggested that instead of getting angry I should try to think about the Crisis readers the same way that I think about people on Truth Wins Out. When an ex-ex-gay says something that I really disagree with, or calls the pope emeritus Pope Palpatine XVI, I very quickly and easily forgive them. I understand where they’re coming from, I see their hurt and I don’t feel inclined to blame them if they say something insensitive about my faith. So my husband suggested that I try to find a way of relating to and understanding the way that Crisis readers feel when they post the kind of comments that make my blood boil.
Now I don’t think that there’s one brush that can be used to paint all Crisis readers any more than there is one brush that can be used to paint all homosexuals. I’m going to offer one possible narrative. I want to stress that I don’t necessarily think that this is the dominant cause: I’m only giving it my attention because it’s the psychology that I am most able to personally empathize with. I’m sure that there are other psychologies and motivations that I don’t get, and I’m not qualified to talk about those. This I know from the inside.
I think most readers are likely familiar with Dostoyevski’s dictum “All are responsible for all.” This is a profound and beautiful sentiment—but like any profound and beautiful sentiment it is capable of perversion. One of the difficulties that I’ve often faced since converting to Catholicism is a fear that I am responsible for other people’s sins, not in the sense that I take responsibility for my brothers and sisters in Christ but in the sense that I feel unreasonably guilty for things that I have no power to change. Part of this is pride: an exaggerated sense of my own importance and of my capacity to be the saviour of others. But part of it is a completely involuntary disorder: my natural desire to have solicitude and care for others becomes distorted into a visceral sense of fear, dread and guilt when I find that I am powerless to help. If someone who I feel responsible for commits a sin I often literally feel as if it is my fault. Even if I’m able to show myself that this isn’t true I still doubt my own arguments: maybe I’m just making excuses. Maybe I’ve scandalized that person without knowing it. Maybe I wasn’t sufficiently courageous and clear in telling them that what they were doing was wrong, or if I was really clear then maybe I was too harsh and I hardened their heart. Maybe what they’re doing is a response to some fault in my own behaviour that is enabling them, or maybe instead of enabling I’m provoking them and causing an occasion for their sin.
These thoughts aren’t really any more voluntary than my feelings about gender, or my sexual attractions. The pain that they cause can be terrific, and if they get out of hand they really do have the capacity to control a lot of my behaviour. There have also been periods in my life where I didn’t recognize that these feelings were disordered at all: where I thought that my feelings of guilt were the legitimate prickings of conscience and I felt that my need to apply fraternal correction was the fruit of humility, solicitude, responsibility, and zeal for the Kingdom. I’m now able to recognize that it’s a form of scrupulosity, but that doesn’t make the feelings go away.
I think this sort of thing is a part of what motivates some people on the extreme “right”—and although its outward manifestations often make us hurt and angry it’s really important to try to understand it with compassion. For someone who is in this kind of headspace the things that we say here on Spiritual Friendship can be deeply threatening. When I was really suffering from scruples it was very unnerving for me to have to deal with any kind of uncertainty in my beliefs. Having a clear set of absolute truths that could completely rely on helped to take a lot of the edge off of the anxieties. In a lot of cases I craved guidelines that were even more clear and I became really upset whenever I found a grey area in Church teaching where the Vatican hadn’t pronounced on exactly what I was supposed to do or believe. I wanted the feelings of guilt and inadequacy to go away, and there was always this implied promise that if I behaved perfectly and read enough Vatican documents and prayed enough rosaries I would be at peace.
For me, when I realized that the Catholic answers that I had received about homosexuality didn’t adequately explain my experience it was really unsettling. I was depressed and anxious about it for months. The first time that I used the word “queer” in public I was literally sick with fear. I felt like I was throwing myself off of a precipice. I had prayed about it, discerned it, wrestled with it rationally, read (and reread) all of the relevant documents and talked it over with people whose judgement I trusted but none of that took away the feeling that I was somehow doing something horribly dangerous. Looking back that seems absurd, but at the time it really felt like the entire foundation of my identity was being shattered. Obviously part of that is because I was dealing with something that effected me personally—but I’ve also felt that to a lesser extent with issues that are much less personal. Besides, when I read a comment from a Crisis reader I have no idea what’s going on in their private life. I do know that in a lot of cases when I’ve followed an emotionally charged but superficially abstract rational argument to the end I’ve discovered that the person I’ve been arguing with is actually just as invested as I am, and for equally personal reasons.
I can’t be sure, but I suspect that for at least some commentators when they talk about “spreading confusion,” “relativism,” and “pride” what they really mean is “What you’re saying frightens me. It destabilizes my faith. It erodes my certainty. And I need that certainty or my entire world will fall apart.” Or “I don’t want to listen because you’ve touched a sore spot. It hurts. I’m trying to forgive, but it’s a long process and I’m not ready to take this step.” Maybe underneath the invective and the accusations there is a vulnerable, hurting person who needs from me the same love and compassion that I ask of them.
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.