Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Dr Esolen's Disastrous Advice

It’s easy to focus on the thing that feeds your neurosis, and pretend the other aspect of our relationship with God doesn’t exist, or focus solely on the aspect which comforts and corrects you, and look away from the part that too-easily sharpens in your hands. A lot of people’s spiritual journey within the Church is about realizing that the kind of spirituality that feeds their self-destructive tendencies isn’t the only kind there is—and what’s striking to me is that so many kinds of Christian spirituality can be so destructive, depending on what you yourself fear and what you tend to misunderstand.

—Eve Tushnet, Catholic Horror and the Two Theologies of ‘The Witch’

The room is on fire as she’s fixing her hair …

—Julian Casablancas, ‘Reptilia’
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Trigger warning: this post deals with, and includes footage of, violent parental abuse.

Last time I posted on Dr Anthony Esolen’s post at Crisis titled Open Your Eyes, Father Martin. Today I am writing about his follow-up piece, Talk to Your Father, which is apparently meant to be the first in a series. I doubt I will remark on the others. Going over this one is a dismaying exercise. But there are people who will either take Esolen’s word as gospel or at the least be influenced by it, and I’ve dealt with the aftermath of his kind of advice.

Now, to his credit, I believe Dr Esolen’s advice is given out of a sincere desire to offer hope and comfort to any sexually confused young men who may happen across it. His words have the ring of kindness; that is not the problem. The problem is that they’re bad advice.

Let me now reassure any boy or young man who may read these words. Talk to your father. Do not talk to a gay man or to your school counselor. If the counselor is a woman, she will know as much about your feelings as I know about being pregnant. If the counselor is a man, he likely has stock in the whole sexual breakdown of our time. Do not talk to your friends, whom you cannot trust to keep your words to themselves. They are, after all, young, as you are, and prone to give way to the impulse of the moment. Talk to your father. … Be assured. You are the same. You are one of us. And your sexual feelings? Your arousal? Meaningless, and transitory, unless you put them into action. Don’t do that. Think: ‘This feeling is stupid.’ Do not take it too seriously. … If you have done something dumb, something you are ashamed of, by all means go to your father. You may be astounded by the old man’s wisdom. He will have seen a lot more than you will believe. Go to him. Do not go to the school counselor; do not go to any adult who has a vested interest in your failing. Talk to your father.

Urging an adolescent who’s having same-sex thoughts and feelings to talk to his father about them is not necessarily bad advice; reassuring him that he truly is part of the brotherhood of males, regardless of his feelings, is excellent.1 What isn’t, is the presumption that only fathers, and all fathers, will have anything worthwhile to contribute here.

Take the alternatives Dr Esolen categorically rejects. Whether a gay man would be worth talking to about sexual uncertainty depends entirely on the character and intelligence of the gay man in question, not on whether he happens to be gay.2 If he is hostile to Catholicism or Christianity, or considers chastity intrinsically unhealthy, or is eager to ‘claim’ people as exemplars of queerness, or doesn’t understand people very well—then yes, talking to him about same-sex feelings and thoughts is probably going to be a fruitless, and possibly be a demoralizing, exercise. Indeed, this holds true of any person and any subject. But if the gay man in question happens to be a devout, orthodox, chaste, and perceptive person, as sometimes happens, then he may be an ideal source of insight for these experiences. Dr Esolen himself might be astounded by the queer man’s wisdom.

The same criteria apply to school counselors: some are bad, some good, others yet indifferent. Lumping them all into a single category is not so much unfair (though it is certainly that) as unhelpful. I would also venture to point out that, while I personally have always preferred to talk with other men about sexual matters, my experience isn’t universal; and, as Simcha Fisher points out in her own response, we may surely suppose that a female school counselor might be able to grasp attraction to men at least as well as a male confessor could grasp the spiritual and personal state of a female penitent.

I would tend to agree with Esolen’s counsel against asking friends’ advice—teenagers are not, as a rule, fountains of wisdom, sexual or otherwise—but with two important, and related, caveats. One is that this must be treated as a rule of thumb. Depending on circumstances, a given teen may have peers who really are trustworthy, or (God have mercy) are at any rate less untrustworthy than anybody else available. And the other is that, while teenagers are rarely good sources of advice, everyone needs friends to confide in, not for direction but simply for company. And while they don’t have to be, friends are usually peers. The fact that they should be chosen carefully doesn’t mean they can go unchosen with no ill effects.

There are a few unintentionally hilarious moments in Dr Esolen’s piece, as when—continuing to push the ex-gay explanation of homosexual attractions, stating that all such feelings are really just about the need for male affirmation—he writes the following:

But your feelings are powerful. Well, flimsy bonds do not move mountains. Of course they are powerful. The football player you admire, he has those feelings too. But in his case, the feelings are satisfied by a powerful and normal and healthy object. He has his football squad, and that both affirms him as a man and clears up his confusions.

Which is why nobody has ever heard of an insecure high school football player, and why Wade Davis, Kwame Harris, David Kopay, Ryan O’Callaghan, and Roy Simmons never amounted to anything. But he goes further.

And your sexual feelings? Your arousal? Meaningless, and transitory, unless you put the feelings into action. Don’t do that. Think: ‘This feeling is stupid.’ Do not take it too seriously. … Your sexual feelings during the teenage years are on overdrive. A picture of Michelangelo’s David will set you off. Big deal. … Your real need is for masculine affirmation, so often expressed in a broadly physical way—think of a big bunch of coal miners showering after a day under the earth.

Which does afford us convincing if indirect proof that Dr Esolen has, to his credit, never watched porn.

Under the circumstances, the less said about Michelangelo the better ...

The fact that Don’t do it is the most obvious, and therefore the most useless, advice to give someone struggling with a desire they’re conflicted about, apparently goes for nothing. The fact that for some people, homosexual thoughts and feelings never go away regardless of whether they’re acted upon, is either unknown to or ignored by this essay. The facts that the whole psychogenic theory of homosexuality has a legion of problems,3 that there is some evidence that biology plays at least some role in sexual orientation, and that attempts to deliberately change orientation have failed so dramatically that many of the organizations and individuals who had the most stock in it have publicly renounced it, are not so much as hinted at.

None of this is a counsel of despair on my part. It is a counsel not to decide too hastily what your orientation is (since after all, people do pass through phases, especially in their teens); and also a counsel that, if it turns out that your same-sex feelings stick and opposite-sex ones fade or never take shape, that’s fine. Difficult, if you want to live according to the Church’s teaching, not that there’s any easy version of living according to the Church’s teaching; and, yes, the decision between living in transgression of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, attempting life as a celibate in a disconnected society, and embarking on the dangerous and surprising experiment of Christian marriage without one of the normal ingredients of such a marriage, is an unenviable trilemma. I haven’t solved it myself.

But being gay is not a moral or personal failure. It’s just there. What to do with it is something we have to discern over time, and that process of discernment will be by turns scary, exciting, dismal, humdrum, infuriating, lovely, and weird; but, in my opinion, it will rarely if ever be solved by simply dismissing the problem.

But the most terrible flaw in this essay is the one that Esolen betrays no inkling of: sometimes, tragically, it is a really awful idea to talk to your father. Because your father might be irrationally afraid of or hateful toward gay people, and being his flesh and blood might be no protection. This is why I so often harp on the need to preach against the sin of homophobia just as much as we preach on Catholic sexual mores: because this sin has victims, and they are not infrequently the victims of Christian parents. This is horrible enough in itself; but it also calls to mind the frightening text, The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. A Church so wary of scandal can afford to have a little more wariness about this scandal.

Here is what happened to nineteen-year-old Daniel Ashley Pierce when he spoke honestly with his father, mother, and grandmother in 2014. (For those who can’t play the video at that link or don’t want to, I’ve included a partial transcript of about the first four minutes—partial, because I can’t face transcribing the fifth.)

Grandmother: Daniel, I want to tell you before I say anything else, that I love you. Now I know that you’re not gonna believe that, but it is true.
Daniel: Oh, I believe it.
Grandmother: So … and I have known that you were gay since you were a tiny little boy.
Daniel: Mhmm. Then, you would know at this point it’s not a choice.
Grandmother: And you have made a choice—
Daniel: I have not made a choice.
Grandmother: —evidently, from what you’ve told your daddy.
Daniel: I have not made a choice. I have not made a choice. I have been—from the moment I come out of my mother’s uterus, I have been that way. Probably long before I come out of her.
Grandmother: No.
Daniel: Yes. Mhmm.
Grandmother: No, you can deny it all you want to, but I believe in the word of God, and God creates nobody that way. It’s a path that you have chosen to choose.
Daniel: Mhmm.
Grandmother: Alright, you believe it the way you wanna believe it, ‘cause I cannot change that.
Daniel: This is the way I’ll put that part. I have taken basic biology, and psychology—
Grandmother: Uh huh.
Daniel: —and it’s determined, within the first six weeks of birth, what your personality’s gonna be, and that’s part of your personality, and you cannot change it, and it’s a scientific proof. Not—not based off of the Bible.
Grandmother [overlapping]: Well—well—you go with all the scientific stuff you want to, I’m going by the word of God.
Daniel: Well, scientific proof trumps the word of God.
Grandmother: No, it doesn’t in my opinion.
Daniel: Well, in my opinion it does, ‘cause there’s scientific proof. That’s why it’s called a scientific proof.
Grandmother [overlapping]: Well—you—okay, I’m not gonna argue that point with you. But I’m gonna tell you: since you have chosen that path, we will not support you any longer. You will need to move out, and find wherever you can to live, and do what you want to, because I will not let people believe that I condone what you do.
Daniel: Okay. Well, I’ll—I will be out by Thursday night at midnight. How about that?
Grandmother: Alright.
Daniel: I’ll be completely out and you’ll never, ever have to see me again.
Grandmother: If that’s the way you choose it, that’s fine.
Daniel: No, that’s not what I’m choosing, I’m doing what you’re telling me to do, and you’re disowning me. So that proves how much of a person you are. In fact, can I live in your basement, since it’s your house, and you’re my mother? [Pause] Really. So all of that support that you told me about …
Mother: Oh, I support you. I don’t support what you do—
Grandmother [overlapping]: And we don’t support your habit. No.
Mother: And I have a lot of friends that are gay. But they’re friends.
Daniel: See?
Mother: They’re not related to me.
Daniel: That’s not what you told me that day on the couch. That doesn’t seem very motherly to me.
Mother: And to summon your dad, and telling him that he’s a racist, and that your dad didn’t raise you—your dad’s gone to bat for you for the last twenty years of your life. That man’s put a roof over your head, he’s put food on your table—
Daniel [overlapping]: That’s diff—that’s not raising me.
Mother [overlapping]: He’s clothed you. Him.
Grandmother: Well, wait a minute, what—
Daniel: None of these people have raised me!
Mother [shouting]: You’re full of shit! And you told me on the phone that you made that choice! You know you wasn’t born that way, you know damn good and well you made that choice! You know, that this man has done everything he can to raise you, and you told me right on that damn phone that that was a choice you made, he didn’t need to blame himself! So don’t fill these people full of bullshit, Daniel!
Daniel [shouting]: You’re twisting my words!
Mother [shouting]: You twist everybody’s words!
Daniel [overlapping, shouting]: You are a completely different person!
Mother [shouting; camera swings erratically]: Let me tell you something, you little piece of shit!
Daniel [mixed with sounds of fighting]: No! No! No, you’re not gonna fucking hit me! [Indistinct cries and words]
Father: You son of a bitch!
Daniel: Get off me! Bitch! Get off me!
Father: Let me tell you something!
Daniel: No! [screaming]

You may be astonished by the old man’s wisdom.

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1One thing that fascinates me about male psychology is how important being masculine is to us, when I’ve never had the impression that being feminine was nearly as important or universal a concern to women (though obviously this could be my own myopic understanding of women at work). I have a half-baked theory that part of the reason St Paul directs wives to respect their husbands and husbands to love their wives, is that respect is a sort of currency among men, in a way that affection is a sort of currency among women; and that the apostle was thus directing each spouse to be careful to give the other the kind of love that that other would intuitively appreciate. All this is generalized and conjectural, but I tend to feel there’s something in it
2It should be unnecessary, but isn’t, to repeat here that the word gay as used by most people (LGBT people included) just means ‘erotically interested in the same sex.’ In the vernacular, it indicates nothing about a person’s beliefs, ethics, behavior, or socialization. Insistence that it does mean such things amounts to telling other people what they mean when they speak, which is insulting, ineffective, and rather silly.
3I’ve written on the subject before; here, I’ll content myself with an incomplete précis of its difficulties.
(1) If gayness is caused by an unmet need for male affirmation, what causes this unmet need to be interpreted sexually by the psyche? I have heard it asserted that this happens, many times. I have heard it explained zero times.
(2) Ought we to apply this consistently, and assume that heterosexuality is caused by an unmet need for female affirmation? Will a child who is adequately and appropriately loved by both parents become asexual? And in both cases, if not, why not?
(3) Given that many gay men have good relationships with their fathers, their peers, or both, and that many straight men have bad ones, what made the first group gay and kept the second straight? Or, looking to further development, is it reasonable to suppose that a gay man who comes to enjoy a better relationship with his father and/or other men will experience a correlated decrease in his attractions? I know from my own experience as well as others’ that this correlation is far from universal, if it exists at all.

(4) Where do lesbians fit into this? I’ve come across ex-gay sources that attribute homosexual attractions among women to: excessive identification with the father, masculinizing the psyche; a distant and/or abusive father, producing fear and distrust of men; a failure to bond with the mother, creating an unmet need, as with gay men; or a mother who was abused, leading to a desire to dissociate the self from femininity. That so many causes should have the same effect, and yet not necessarily have the same effect since there are also heterosexual women who meet these criteria, makes one wonder whether the causes and effects have been properly related to each other by the hypothesis.

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