In 2015, Ignatius Press published Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same Sex Attraction. The book is an important addition to the American Catholic discussion on sexuality, partly because of its influence among many Catholics and partly because its ideas are representative of those held by a significant portion of the American Church. It includes chapters by a number of thoughtful Catholic leaders and scholars, and it is worthy of consideration for those who want to enter into today’s debates on Catholicism and homosexuality.
The first chapter, in the “theoretical” section of the book, is written by Dr. Rachel Lu. It explores “Eros Divided: Is There Such a Thing as Healthy Homoerotic Love?” After reviewing her chapter, I believe it merits significant discussion, partly because of its imprecision in both approach and language and partly because of its departures from and misrepresentations of the historic treatments of eros, truth, and friendship in the Christian tradition. As a personal matter, I was initially interested in her chapter because it critiques some of the views of sexuality presented by the Spiritual Friendship blog, of which I had been a regular contributor.
As an initial matter, however, one should take careful account of Dr. Lu’s posture towards what she calls “the secular world.” The chapter is framed partially in a contrast between “the Church” and—as Dr. Lu presents them—the seemingly culturally and doctrinally homogenous “secular world,” “secular left,” “progressive left,” “modern,” and “modern society.” This grouping of terms is significant for a number of reasons.
First, it suggests that secularism, progressivism, and modernity can be used as philosophical synonyms that require a single philosophical response. Second, it sets Dr. Lu’s opposition partly within political and historical frameworks, with an implication that her perspective finds its place among those she does not criticize by name—medievals, ancients, conservatives, traditionalists, and “the right.” Third, it at least partly founds the correctness of her position not in terms of particular, localized, and personal practices, doctrines, and institutions, but in terms of broad identifications. Finally, it presupposes a lack of overlap between the opposed identifications and her own. All this, unfortunately, risks making for caricatured and disengaged philosophy which is not so much dialectical as condescending.
This approach may simply be occasioned by the book’s audience, presumably Catholics who already agree with her and are not looking to be challenged themselves. For example, many “orthodox Christians” would read Dr. Lu’s vague account of how individuals’ sexualities are exploited by progressives/the left/modernity/secularism—an account with which I don’t entirely disagree— and be persuaded simply by virtue of the claim. And though she criticizes some Christians’ lack of compassion towards those who are “same sex attracted” (SSA), she moves the reader to sympathy for this lack. By blaming this lack of compassion ultimately on others, she enables the sort of scapegoating self-righteousness found among many prominent culture warriors.
Dr. Lu attempts to explain these Christians’ lack of compassion towards SSA individuals by identifying “homosexual activist groups” that use SSA experiences in “crusades on behalf of ‘sexual liberty.'” She argues that the resulting hostility towards SSA individuals by “orthodox Christians,” though not acceptable, is thus understandable. To her credit, she then emphasizes the need for compassion by asserting that SSA men and women are being used. She asserts that their sexualities are “exploited by the secular left” to push its own uncaring agenda.
Of course, this exploitation works in the other direction as well. We’re all familiar with the sexual exploitation of the clergy abuse crisis. But I also know at least two friends who have been seduced or received sexual proposals from clergy. Their experiences have shown me how exploitation by priests of “of-age” men, especially those in seminary, is frequently dismissed and handled with expectations of privacy that encourage shame and secrecy on the part of the victim.
While “the Church” might criticize an “aggressive secular agenda” resulting in sexual exploitation, we frequently lose credibility by failing to take responsibility for hidden agendas of our own members which also result in sexual exploitation. We spill much ink on the corruptions on the “outside” while giving caricatured and cursory responses to corruptions on the “inside,” especially the inside of ourselves. I can certainly apply this critique to myself as much as to any other member of the Church.
Dr. Lu’s article in some ways can be said to be a critique of the “inside.” She is, after all, analyzing the ideas of members of the Church seeking an “orthodox” response to the question of sexuality. To characterize it as an “inside” critique would not be entirely fair, however, given how much of her response to the Spiritual Friendship group works by identifying it with groups and movements on the “outside,” such as modernity.
Dr. Lu’s approach in this way utilizes a classic move by cultural commentators. First, identify a “bad” group (moderns), and then work to identify your opponent (the “Spiritual Friendship movement”) with that group. This identification occurs most potently when she calls the writers at Spiritual Friendship “would-be orthodox ‘gay Christians.’”
Such an approach is rhetorically powerful, because the people who already agree with you (critics of that project) want to see those identifications and enjoy being armed with easy critiques, even critiques they don’t fully understand. At the same time, this approach garners impassioned responses from those “opponents” (the “Spiritual Friendship movement”) who feel that they have been demonized or dismissed by the condescending identification. It then elicits arguments by those opponents which psychologically no longer merit consideration because they have already been summarily dismissed with an identity that transcends whatever arguments they might give.
It actually doesn’t matter how these “opponents” respond, as this framework provides for a self-righteous dismissiveness that craftily interprets responses to affirm one’s own position. If “opponents” change their minds and agree with you, your position is affirmed by their agreement. But if they maintain their “opposition,” you still find your position affirmed, because your position is largely defined by the fact of their opposition, rather than their particular perspectives. Whatever might be claimed about not adopting this approach, frequently this is the rhetorical structure of those arguments.
Viewing ourselves—Christians—in contrast to our secular/progressive/modern peers when promoting a Christian life can lead to deep problems in theological and philosophical inquiry. This can hide hypocrisies and encourage condescension rather than engagement, and I believe this is one of the weaknesses of Dr. Lu’s essay.
To be fair, this rhetorical approach is not the only thrust of the essay. But I do believe that this is why her essay is so effective with both her opponents and her advocates. This is not my only concern, however. There is another danger: the danger, in the process of combating our “opponents,” of becoming them. More will follow in the three subsequent posts in this series.
More in this series:
You can find this post and others like it in my collection of writings, “I Desired You: Volume 2.” Available here.