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).
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.