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.

Deacon Russell’s first concern is that I supposedly present chastity as a “selfish pursuit.”

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.

I don’t think Deacon Russell understood what I meant by obsessing over sexual temptation. When I am struggling with a temptation, it is more helpful to turn to God in prayer, or to do something to serve others, than it is to focus on the temptation. Focusing on the temptation itself usually only gives it greater power.

When I talked about obsessing over sexual temptation, I was thinking particularly of something that bothered me during the years I was involved in a Church-sponsored support group for same-sex attracted men (an experience I wrote about a couple of years ago). When I first joined the group in my twenties, I had zero experience with the gay “hook up” culture; even if I had wanted to have casual or anonymous sexual encounters, I wouldn’t have had a clear idea of how to go about it. In the group, however, at the beginning of each meeting, members went around the table confessing their struggles with chastity over the past week. Within a few weeks of joining the group, I had learned of about half a dozen specific locations in the Seattle area where I could have anonymous sex, and also learned a little bit about how to recognize who was looking for sex. No one in the group was trying to offer a how-to guide, of course. Over the course of many confessions, however, specific locations were named, and from discussion of how the person confessing tried to resist or gave in, I learned quite a bit about the dynamics of identifying and seducing possible hook-ups in these locations.

I never fell for that temptation. But it was certainly no aid to chastity to learn exactly where I could go to have sex and how to pick out and seduce potential partners if I went there. And hearing about others’ sins week in and week out tended to desensitize me to the seriousness of sexual sin. “Hooking up” began to seem like something that some people did on Tuesday, confessed on Friday, and moved on.

When I say that it is unhelpful to obsess over struggles with chastity, this is what I mean. And since this issue came up in Q&A at a conference where I spoke and Deacon Russell was in attendance, he’s heard some of my concerns with this before. This clarification is not coming out of left field for him.

Regarding “volunteer work” (also known as “the corporal works of mercy”), I think this is an important part of putting Christ at the center of my life (and so does Courage, the main Catholic support ministry for men and women with same-sex attraction: “To dedicate our entire lives to Christ through service to others” is part of the Five Goals). When I volunteer at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen or with people who are sick and need support, I do so out of love for Christ, and doing so helps to properly order my love of neighbor.

Disordered desire always involves being focused on the wrong thing in our relationship with others. With the homeless, we are tempted to focus on their dirty clothes, or their unkempt hair or beard, or their smell, or their struggles with substance abuse, rather than seeing a brother or sister of Christ, created in His image, whose need makes him or her especially precious in His sight (see Matthew 25).

Of course, through these ministries I have learned that some of these people are beautiful human beings under the unattractive exterior, and I have learned a lot about God’s love from some of the people I have ministered to. But I wasn’t there because I expected to get something from it, I was there because I love Christ and was striving to obey His command to love others.

Stepping out of my comfort zone to love people out of love for Christ has taught me a lot about love and about the true value and dignity of the human person. Learning to see the image of God in someone who is not attractive as the world defines attractiveness (and I’m not just talking about sexual attraction here) is very helpful for learning to love people as Christ calls us to love.

Lust focuses our attention on others’ bodies, or body parts. But the essential disorder in lust is failing to see the image of Christ in the person, and seeing them, instead, primarily as a potential source of sexual pleasure. And what I have found is that giving my time, talent, and treasure to help those who the world casts off, and learning to see the image of God in them, makes me more attentive to the image of God in those who are attractive by the world’s standards and could be potential objects of lust.

This is what disinterested friendship is essentially about: not being drawn to or ignoring a person because of what they can or can’t do for me, but loving them as a son or daughter of God. To recognize another person as a brother or sister in Christ is, in truth, to recognize the possibility of a much deeper, more truthful, and more fruitful love than the love the world offers. But this recognition only comes through sacrifice for others, and loving the least of these is certainly an important part of the sacrifice Christ calls us to.

And this training in seeing the image of Christ in others is much more helpful for growing in chastity than obsessing over my sexual temptations.

Deacon Russell also says this about my critique with obsessing over sexual sin:

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.

First of all, there is a difference between healthy self-examination and obsession; obsession is almost always a bad thing. I didn’t say that people shouldn’t examine impulses or attractions to discern whether or not they are in accord with authentic purity of heart. What I said is that it’s not helpful to obsess over sexual temptation. The distinction between healthy and obsessive behaviors is found in many other settings. It’s healthy to wash your hands before meals and after using the restroom. But obsessive hand washing is not healthy. If a doctor criticizes obsessive hand-washing, that doesn’t mean he is opposed to healthy hand-washing. As another example, if someone were to say, “Deacon Russell obsesses over his critique of Spiritual Friendship,” they would not be complimenting him for discernment or theological insight; they would be suggesting that his voluminous writing on the subject springs out of an unhealthy psychological imbalance.

Secondly, I wholeheartedly agree with the kind of self-examination John Paul II recommends. However, it is precisely that kind of self-examination that helped me to see that obsessing over sexual struggles actually makes them worse. It does not aid my pursuit of purity of heart to hear about other people’s sexual sins on a regular basis, especially when doing so opens up new possibilities of temptation for myself. This occurs indirectly through greater knowledge of gay sexual culture and the opportunities to be found there, and more directly through knowledge of the specific vulnerabilities of other members of the group.

And while this sharing of sexual sin is not healthy in the context of a group with a priest supervising, it can be much more dangerous online or in 1:1 settings. Knowing that a friend is currently struggling a lot with sexual temptation, or knowing something about the particular kinds of sexual situations he finds most tempting, potentially creates near occasions of sin. I have learned that it is healthier to deal with these struggles in confession to a priest or occasionally in conversation with a trusted friend. And, in any case, it’s much more healthy to focus on what is good than on what is bad. The Apostle Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

I believe it is best to exercise interior discernment of my own impulses, consult with a spiritual director, and sometimes with trustworthy friends, and bring my failures to the sacrament of confession. I do not find that sharing these struggles with support group members—who are sometimes virtual strangers—or hearing about others’ sins on a regular basis, is helpful. When hearing confessions, priests have been instructed not to question the penitent in ways that might suggest new ways of sin, especially with regard to sexual sin. That principle—which reflects sound moral and pastoral theology—should apply also to support group discussions.

I have never seen any evidence that the pastoral approach to chastity embraced by John Paul II involved the kind of unhealthy sharing I described, nor is this a common approach to chastity for most Catholics. This kind of confessional approach is, however, a common practice in groups that support those struggling with same-sex attraction. The remark Deacon Russell objects to was intended to steer people away from this approach, which I believe is not in accord with authentic purity of heart.

Deacon Russell also objects to my talking about friendship. In one of the videos he was critiquing, I said:

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.

Deacon Russell comments:

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.

Here, all I can say is that nothing in my quote assumes that spiritual friendship provides the same kind of support and intimacy that marriage provides. Unless Deacon Russell denies that unmarried persons need support and intimacy at all, it’s hard to see how he can object to talking about the kind of support and intimacy that is appropriate to those who are not called to marriage, especially when the recommendation of friendship comes straight out of magisterial teaching.

Just last week, I published a post tracing out the way that recommendations of friendship can be found in the Catholic Church’s magisterial teaching and pastoral practice for homosexual persons, dating back as far as the 1970s.

Although Deacon Russell rightly highlights the Catechism’s teaching on “disinterested friendship” (a term that I have spent more effort on understanding in context than he has), this is not the only term the Church uses. She more often just speaks of “friendship”; the Five Goals of Courage speak of “chaste friendship.” (See my post from last week for detailed citations.)

Moreover, as I noted in that post, Love Is Our Mission, the preparatory catechesis for the World Meeting of Families, teaches:

136. True friendship is an ancient and honorable vocation. Saint Aelred of Rievaulx observed that the desire for a friend arises from deep within the soul. True friends produce a “fruit” and a “sweetness” as they help each other respond to God, encouraging one another in living the Gospel. “Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.”

A footnote (Deacon Russell is fond of footnotes) points to St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s treatise De Spirituali Amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship), which has served as the inspiration of this blog.

I have also been invited to speak at the World Meeting of Families. While I don’t think this counts as an endorsement of everything I’ve ever said or written, it suggests that those involved in planning the World Meeting see the “spiritual friendship” I have spoken and written about, drawing on the work of St. Aelred of Rievaulx, as at the very least compatible with the ideas of friendship recommended in Church teaching, and in the preparatory catechism in particular.

One of the things I find puzzling about Deacon Russell is his willingness to shift his own ground in order to find any stick to beat the writers at Spiritual Friendship with. In the early part of his essay, he complained that I mentioned service of neighbor instead of focusing on love of God as the primary motive for chastity. But then, he objects to the term “spiritual friendship,” even though the point of talking about spiritual friendship, rather than just friendship, is to emphasize that it is friendship centered in Christ. As I explained a couple of years ago, in a gloss on Aelred of Rievaulx’s teachings on friendship:

In true friendship, the friends are jointly responding to God’s call by loving Him and loving their neighbor. These are, to them, the highest goods of human life, and they encourage and sustain each other in answering God’s call by pursuing and attaining these goods. Aelred describes friendship based on encouraging each other to love God and neighbor spiritual friendship.

If it is good to focus on the motive of love of God when discussing chastity, surely it is also good to do so when discussing friendship? Yet within a few paragraphs, Deacon Russell shifts from criticizing me for not talking enough about God’s love, to criticizing me for emphasizing the spiritual motive of friendship, instead of emphasizing its disinterestedness (though, again, I have written a lengthy exposition of what the Catechism actually means by “disinterested friendship”).

There are reasonable discussions to be had about how to apply the Church’s teaching on friendship, and it’s important to acknowledge that different people will need different approaches. I have written about how I found the group confession of the support group I was involved in unhelpful for chastity; Joseph Sciambra has written about how his efforts to pursue a “spiritual friendship” led him into sexual sin. That’s obviously a legitimate danger that needs to be guarded against (though readers might also reflect on how the confessional culture that Sciambra describes in the support group where he met his friend may have contributed to the overconfidence that led to his fall).

But while there is a need for constructive criticism in addressing and correcting problems, that’s not what I see in Deacon Russell’s post. He reads what I say through a hermeneutic of suspicion. As a result, he is not offering constructive criticism of my ideas. He’s twisting those ideas in order to criticize them. To engage with him, then, primarily involves an endless effort to untie the knots of his misrepresentations. It doesn’t reach the point of constructive engagement with the ideas I actually defend, from which I might learn something about how to refine those ideas so as to present the Church’s teaching more effectively.

I’ve taken a lot of time to explain precisely what I was trying to say in the passages Deacon Russell objects to; but a charitable reader could easily recognize the orthodoxy of “obsessing over sexual temptation is unhelpful,” “service to others is a good way of overcoming temptation,” and “friendship is an important avenue of support and intimacy” without needing this much explanation.

This is not an easy area to do ministry. I strive to be gentle with those who are struggling to be chaste, clear in my defense of chastity, and circumspect in my criticism of those who see things differently, even if they have been quick to criticize me. We live in a culture which sees the Church’s teachings on chastity as an unjust burden, imposed by “sour old men in the Vatican.” Challenging that assumption is not easy, though Pope Francis has been a good and beautiful example of this. Particularly in the hostile environment we live in, our defense of our faith must exude the joy of the Gospel, and the love with which Christ has loved us and called us to share with the whole world.

Given Deacon Russell’s long history of unfair criticism (of which this post is only the most recent example), I respond directly to him with some trepidation. It would not surprise me if it invites further attacks. I spent some time reflecting and praying about whether the potential for conflict was worthwhile, or if it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie. In the end, it came down to this: there are millions of faithful Catholics asking how best to love their gay or lesbian friends and family members, and thousands of faithful Catholics striving to follow Church teaching. Deacon Russell is a stumbling block for many of them: I have had to talk people out of leaving the Church because they felt pushed out by his attacks on even those Catholics who are striving to follow Church teaching. Those friends and family members, those gay and lesbian Catholics striving to be faithful, need to know what the Magisterium actually teaches. And they need to know that Deacon Russell is distorting not only my own ministry, but the teaching of the Church, as well.

The irony is that after embracing the role of inquisitor with respect to my writings, he overtly challenges Church teaching when it is convenient for him to do so. He pretends that he is only “clarifying” Church teaching. However, there are at least three important aspects of that teaching which, in arguing that we can safely set aside the Catechism‘s teaching about lying, he ignores. First, in discussing Laudato Si’, he neglects the obedience due even to the Pope’s prudential judgments (found in Catechism 892 and Lumen Gentium 25). In arguing against  the authority of the Catechism in certain matters, he ignores that John Paul II declared that it is a “sure norm for teaching the faith” (Fidei Depositum). Finally, he ignores the proper procedures for raising theological problems with magisterial authorities (defined in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, 23-31; in particular, he has violated the instruction not to address this kind of disagreement about the proper interpretation and application of Church teaching in the “mass media” found in paragraph 30).

In the present cultural circumstances, speaking on controversial topics, we need to carefully discern, with regard to every blog post, or social media comment, whether we are building up the Church by sharing the joy of the Gospel and witnessing the truth without compromise, or if our words spring from unmerited suspicion, promote division, confuse Church teaching, or undermine the Church’s mission. Failure to engage in this self-examination and discernment will mean unnecessarily pushing souls away from God.

11 thoughts on “Deacon Jim Russell and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

  1. This is beautifully written and charitably explained. However, Dcn. Russell and friends will still not be amused. You see, there are those who are “testaduros” or “hard headed”, they need constant explaining and hand holding to understand things. Eventually they understand, albeit not thoroughly.

    Russell and friends are not hard headed. They’re quite capable individuals. Instead, they have an ideology and sense of the world from which any deviation is an existential threat. They can, but choose not to, understand what it is that you all talk about here. Their narrow Victorian world is tumbling. The Susie and Jimmy white suburban paradigm that they grew up in is constantly under attack. For the first time different voices are being heard and different life experiences explained. They can’t stand it.

    Their true allegiance is not so much Christ or the Church but rather an antiquated world which they see represented in their outdated vision of the Church. This is their refuge. And those of us who are comfortable being Catholics and comfortable being LGBT (whether we follow Church teaching or not doesn’t really matter to them, we’re all the same in their eyes) are a threat to them.

    Us talking about our experiences without shame or constant self-pity is problematic to them because in their narrow vision there is only space for the ideal of macho men and pretty girls and anyone who deviates ought to be ashamed. They don’t want ministries to our community in the Church because our existence and visibility is frightening to them.

    Also, they cannot stand nuance and theological debate. They live in a black and white world. Let me tell you, these “perfectest Catholics evur” could not survive a day in the Middle Ages or basically in any period before Vatican I. Even then they probably wouldn’t survive the very nuanced moral world of traditionally Catholic societies. They’d be appalled and become Protestants in a heart beat. In essence, they are Puritan papists (depending on who the pope is).

    • You got it in one. I have said before of guys like Jim Russel and Austin Ruse that they are enemies of the LGBT community and I meant it (and still do). I suspect much of it is equal parts pining for the days when we could be killed with impunity and had to hide in the closet with the other half being their love of creating discord and emotional distress in LGBT people.

      In a way I suppose I should thank people like them. When I realized I was gay years back and went to the people of my church with it, I was met with derision, insults, and insinuations. Without that I never would have researched my faith, renounced my Confirmation, nor would I have been filled with the righteous fury to act against the Church in these regards.

      I use screen shots and posts from men like these, successfully, in deconverting Catholic youth who come to our shelters distraught due to family and church rejection. I wouldn’t be in a position nor have the drive to fight for the innocent if not for men like Ruse and Russell reminding me that the Church is an empty place filled with liars and enemies.

  2. I offer a thorough, point-by-point “redline” response to Ron Belgau’s rather accusatory post about my work at the link below. A HUGE thanks to Joseph Sciambra for allowing me to guest-post on his apostolate’s blog site. Won’t you say a prayer of gratitude for Joseph and his important work? His story–and his dedication and faith–give me so much encouragement.

    • The difficulty with promoting someone like Joseph Sciambra as a role model for gay men and women who are Christian (in my case, Catholic) and orthodox, is that—except for the fact he and I are both men who find some other men erotically attractive—we have little else in common.

      As a former porn actor and prostitute, Sciambra’s life, career, everything, has been steeped in sexual promiscuity at every level. Homosexual attractions were the least of his problems: he has objectified his own body and organs, and that of others, sold his body for sex, and promoted lust, fornication, the “hook-up” culture, and morally disordered sexual activity in others (not just sodomy, but masturbation, oral sex, etc). He can state with confidence that he has “left the gay lifestyle”, and he mostly has. But what he has truly left is a shocking lifestyle of extreme, unrestrained sexual depravity.

      This is not a lifestyle I am familiar with. This is why, when I read articles like Sciambra’s, I am at a loss. I have never kissed a guy, let alone anything else. Never been to a Pride march, or draped myself in the rainbow flag, or frequented gay bars. I am sure his extensive posts about HIV rates, STDs, etc. are helpful for some readers, but I am stumped when I try to apply them to my own circumstances.

      This is why resources such as this website present such a compelling apostolate to Catholics (and other Christians) who already hold to the Church’s age-old doctrines on love, marriage, and sexual activity. Many of the contributions here speak with an orthodoxy that is sometimes challenging but always nourishing. Moreover, they speak with an honesty about what it is like for a gay Christian person to live out his or her faith while striving toward the Church’s challenging ideal of chaste celibacy.

  3. What Sciambra does is validate your own biases and suspicions with his extreme stories and experiences of the so-called “gay lifestyle”. It’s like taking Hugh Heffner’s life and extrapolating it to all or most straight men.

    SF has been instrumental in helping many men and women (that don’t fit in your box) find healing and purpose. For you this discussion is academic. For us this discussion is a matter of spiritual life or death and has kept us in the Church even though folks like you want us out or at least shameful and quiet in the back pew.

    The writers of SF have been very accommodating in responding to all your screeds. Their charity is overflowing. I frankly wish they’d stop responding to you so you guys can focus on other things. There’s very few of us. Most sensible people don’t remain in a place that demonizes them and is always suspect of them. God will surely have mercy on those souls. But for those that place stumbling blocks for his little ones…not so much.

  4. Hi, Ron–I remember our exchange on July 1 of this year and would be in favor of making public the *entirety* of it here in the combox or elsewhere, if you have no objection to doing so. Let me know. In brief, you had your mind set on requiring a third party as mediator in order to move forward with any additional conversation with me (hence the reference to our auxiliary bishop). You were requiring that I “repent” of past failings or you were going to complain about me to my clerical superiors, right?

    To which, I replied that same day: ” Then you are short-circuiting Mt. 18. I’m right here, Ron. Your brother in Christ. Ready to listen to your grievances. When have you asked me to ‘repent’–and what was the failing? ”

    Your response was that you were going to get back with me the next week about this, indicating you would follow through and respond to my question above. I replied, “Sounds good.”

    You never wrote back.

    But I’m still listening and waiting. God bless.

    • My statements about your need for repentance would only make sense in light of of our previous correspondence. While I think that a public discussion of that would favor me rather than you, I see no value continuing to air grievances in public: this is precisely why I thought the matter needed mediation and asked for you to meet with Bishop Rice.

      All that matters, in my view, is that you have said that “we can meet any time, face to face, to charitably address and correct things” and that you “will do so charitably and fairly in any number of formats.” I have reminded you that if the format is a meeting with Bishop Rice, then I am open to meeting, as I said on July 1. That meeting would be the appropriate venue for examining grievances that either of us has with prior private correspondence, including our correspondence of April 24, 2015.

      I do not think any further public discussion of this is either necessary or helpful. You have asked to meet to resolve this. I have renewed the offer to meet that I made July 1, 2015, to which you raised several objections. It is unnecessary to revisit any of the arguments around this publicly. All that is necessary is for you to say yes or no to that meeting proposal. We can “charitably address and correct” all of this under the guidance of Bishop Rice.

  5. Pingback: Spiritual Friendship and Courage: On the Need for Variety in Ministry | Spiritual Friendship

  6. I’d just like to tell you how much I appreciate and admire you and the work you do, along with Melinda, Eve, Joseph, Gabriel…all of you are gifts to the Church, and I am so grateful for your presence and your willingness to speak out, despite being consistently denigrated. Should my own children ever struggle with same-sex attraction, it is an inexpressible comfort to me to know that I can direct them here. Thank you for the courage to continue in the face of such bitter attacks from within the Church.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s