Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

An Open Letter to Archbishop Aquila

Then Fear said: I am Pity that was dead.
And Shame said: I am Sorrow comforted.
And Lust said: I am Love.

—Algernon Charles Swinburne, A Ballad of Life

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To the Most Reverend Samuel Aquila, Archbishop of Denver;
from Gabriel Blanchard, a layman of the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter.

I trust Your Excellency will excuse my boldness in writing to you, despite the fact that we have no personal acquaintance, and that I am no one in particular ecclesiastically speaking. Yet I write nevertheless, hoping against hope that Your Excellency may read it and consider what I have to say; and, additionally, with the more ordinary hope that others may read it and get some good out of it.

Last month’s event ‘Gender Matters,’ as Your Excellency doubtless knows, drew criticism from gay activists and sympathizers, not least because of its prominent featuring of Andrew Comiskey and his ministry Desert Stream, generally classified as an ex-gay organization promoting reparative therapy. The opening remarks that ‘the power and authority of Jesus Christ can heal any wound, forgive any sin, heal any disorder, if we truly put our faith in him,’ especially taken together with the caution that ‘the healing may not be immediate,’ certainly suggest SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts) to anyone familiar with the literature of the ex-gay movement.

I am familiar, since I was involved in the ex-gay movement in my teens, trying to rid myself of a persistent and almost exclusive attraction to other men that (I was told and believed firmly) was inconsistent with a Christian life. Though they seemed productive at the time, and though I most certainly needed counseling for a host of reasons and profited by it accordingly, my attractions finally proved intractable. Nonetheless, this did not alter my beliefs about Scripture; and when I was received into the Catholic Church a few years later, I embraced the whole of her teaching, including her teachings about chastity and marriage and homosexual sex. Without feigning any degree of heterosexuality, I confessed, and confess, the Catholic belief that God made marriage for one man and one woman to unite as one flesh, and that no other kind of union can licitly include sexual intimacy.

I offer this apologia, because I want to establish my complete orthodoxy as the ground of the following. I affirm the whole of the Catholic faith, including §§2357-2359 of the Catechism. Speaking thus as a son of the Church, and as a sheep to a shepherd, I implore Your Excellency to reëxamine SOCE and to disassociate the Archdiocese of Denver from it.

There are many reasons to do so. My own fruitless experience of SOCE says something; given my familial relationships and some experiences of abuse (even though my same-sex feelings predated the abuse, not the other way around), I should have been an ideal candidate for change, since I fit their mold so perfectly, but no change was effected. Even so, the primary negative of my experience was that it wasted so much time. There are those who have been involved in ex-gay ministries for years, decades even, and come away with stories that alternate between the ludicrous and the nightmarish; there are deep scientific and theological flaws in the whole ex-gay substructure; and SOCE is, after all, entirely unnecessary for any person to lead a virtuous life animated by the Spirit of God.

Samuel Brinton, the son of Baptist missionaries, attempted SOCE for two years, beginning at ten years old when he realized he was attracted to other boys rather than to girls and confided in his parents. The counselor to whom he was taken tried such techniques as aversion therapy: specifically, freezing or burning the child’s hands while displaying pictures of men touching. Twenty years later, he remained sexually attracted to men, but so terrified of physical contact with them that he could barely contemplate a friendly hug. He was also plagued by ongoing psychological issues such as thoughts of suicide, which, according to a 2009 study released by the APA, is almost nine times more common among people who have been through conversion therapy.

Matthew Shurka and Michael Ferguson, two other men who went into SOCE programs, report other toxic techniques. Shurka was forbidden to interact or even speak with his mother and sister for three years, on the ground that they were ‘feminizing influences,’ and was prescribed Viagra at the age of 18 to facilitate sexual intercourse with women—which, far from diminishing his same-sex impulses and despite his achieved popularity with other men, left him depressed, gaining weight, reluctant to leave the house, and abusing drugs. Ferguson was encouraged to cultivate rage against his parents, whose flawed upbringing methods (he was told) were responsible for his homosexual attractions; the notion here was that a sufficient degree of anger would allow him to break his attachment to his parents, and realize the heterosexuality they had effectively suppressed in him. And these are normal practices and narratives in the ex-gay world—the late Dr Joseph Nicolosi, head of NARTH (which Desert Stream recommends), told his male patients that their sexual desires came from flawed family dynamics, and that healing involved socializing with other men and trying to cultivate interest in typically masculine pursuits like sports, and to avoid the interests and company of women except for intercourse.

Love In Action (a ministry which no longer exists—solely because it has adopted the name Restoration Path) was founded in 1973, three years before Exodus International. However, one of LIA’s founders, John Evans—who is conspicuous by his absence from the ‘History’ section of Restoration Path’s current website; such omissions will become a theme—dropped out of the organization after his close friend and fellow member, Jack McIntyre, committed suicide when he could not change his orientation. John Smid, who ran LIA from 1986 to 2008, eventually dropped out of the ministry as well; in 2011 he stated publicly that he did not know of a single case in which someone had experienced a change from homosexuality to heterosexuality. 

Similarly, Exodus, which had been the biggest ex-gay organization in the world (serving largely as an umbrella group), was shuttered in 2013 by its head, Alan Chambers, a self-professed ex-gay man. In the apology that he issued upon closing down the ministry, Chambers too stated that he did not know of any successful cases of SOCE. This was a man who left an active gay lifestyle behind for the sake of Christ, married a woman, and devoted his career and his whole reputation to Exodus. He was not a man uninformed, prejudiced against ex-gay efforts and groups, or merely flowing with the times. He was personally, professionally, and theologically invested in SOCE. He wrote:
Our ministry has been public and therefore any acknowledgment of wrong must also be public. … It is strange to be someone who has both been hurt by the church’s treatment of the LGBT community, and also to be someone who must apologize for being part of the very system of ignorance that perpetuated that hurt. … 
I have heard many firsthand stories from people called ex-gay survivors. Stories of people who went to Exodus affiliated ministries or ministers for help only to experience more trauma. I have heard stories of shame, sexual misconduct, and false hope. … And then there is the trauma that I have caused. There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions. I was afraid … They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes that they would go away. … The good that we have done at Exodus is overshadowed by all of this. 
Friends and critics alike have said that it’s not enough to simply change our message or website. I agree. … I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly ‘on my side’ who called you names like sodomite—or worse. … I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine. 
More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.
These examples are not exceptional, Your Excellency. They are not statements that no person experiences some fluidity in their attractions, nor that a same-sex attracted person could never sacramentally marry someone of the opposite sex and lead a happy, holy life. These things are rare, the latter particularly so, but they do happen. But the history of these groups—including Desert Stream specifically—is not one of changed sexual orientations. It is a history of fruitless efforts culminating in resentment and despair, of psychological and physical torments, of promises broken, of double lives and clandestine abuse, and of perhaps the second-grossest scandal to the world that Christianity has produced in our age.

Turning from the sorry long-term results of most ex-gay ministry to its theoretical basis in theology and medical science, we may look to NARTH, which as noted before is suggested on Desert Stream’s website as an additional, specifically psychotherapeutic, resource. In addition to criticisms from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Psychological Association, and the revocations in 2011 and 2012 of its right to provide continuing education credits to therapists and of its tax-exempt nonprofit status, NARTH’s theory of the development of sexuality is not accepted by the broader medical, psychological, or psychiatric communities (in this country or abroad). Furthermore, the APA has declared that the practice of SOCE—the entire purpose for which NARTH exists—has shown no sound experimental evidence of working, and notes that some patients have later claimed to have been harmed by NARTH and its therapies. According to this APA document, studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s (when SOCE were still fairly mainstream) showed a high correspondence between these efforts and such negative effects as anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide.

The theory that ex-gay organizations usually advance of the etiology of homosexual attractions is that young men, growing up with an emotionally distant father and an overbearing mother, form an unmet need for male-male intimacy and an unduly feminine self-concept, usually exacerbated by peer rejection over ostensibly un-masculine traits. In puberty, this need becomes sexualized—a development that may be accompanied by same-sex sexual abuse and concomitant confusion—and attraction to men rather than women develops accordingly.

Now, there is no doubt that family and peer dynamics, and even a history of abuse, can influence a person’s sexual experience. But as a general account of the origin of homosexuality, this theory is quite useless. To begin with, plenty of heterosexual men share many or all of these experiences without developing any sexual interest in other men; conversely, there are many homosexual men who lack one or more of these supposedly key elements in the development of homosexual interest. Nor, to my knowledge, is there an explanation provided by any prominent SOCE advocate of why an unmet need for male intimacy should consistently be transformed into sexual attraction at puberty. After all, everyone experiences unmet needs and grave wounds in childhood, without necessarily looking to sex as a solution once we discover it. (This relates to the fact that many claims of ‘father wounds’ and the like in SOCE literature are phrased so generally that they amount to being Barnum statements: assertions that most people, on a casual reading, would tend to say were true of themselves.)

When we turn to female homosexuality, the argument becomes even muddier. Explanations of lesbianism from SOCE proponents include: a distant mother and an over-identifying father, mirroring the explanation for males; an abusive father and/or a timid, complacent, or complicit mother, leading to a loathing of men and a longing for authentic female intimacy; an experience of sexual assault from a man, causing fear and hatred of men and a compensatory turning to women; or an experience of sexual assault from a woman, prompting self-blame, curiosity, and experimentation. The explanations of lesbianism multiply to the point that almost anything seems apt to cause it. One begins to think that the explanations do not explain!

The point here is not to discredit, still less to embarass, individuals who personally report a change in their attractions; some people do experience natural fluidity, or find a single person who does not match their normal pattern of attraction but with whom they find a deep and lasting connection. The point is, these things cannot be compelled, cannot be reduced to a psychological technique, cannot be ‘prayed away.’ And organizations or individuals that claim to be able to deliver people from homosexual attractions are, at best, making a claim that hasn’t been demonstrated, and at worst is flatly false.

These therapeutic approaches are not only based in a theory of the origin of homosexuality that the professional mental health community does not endorse; the rhetoric that accompanies them is profoundly misleading, and frequently very damaging to young people. Take the banner saying that Satan delights in homosexuality. How many adolescent Catholics, perhaps just discovering same-sex feelings, saw that banner and thought, I am so disgusting I make Satan happy, or The Church doesn’t want me because I feel like this, or If I ever fail I’ll go to hell, or I can never tell anybody what a monster I am? Did Your Excellency stop to consider this? The shame, terror, and hurt that phrases like this—phrases practically never used of other sins at least equally grave—cause in young people is neither healthy nor holy. How many parents, frightened by the prospect of the devil getting his claws into their children, have pursued this line of thinking to the extreme, resorting to transgressions of privacy, threats, rejection, physical abuse, even expelling their children from their homes, in a desperate attempt to get them to ‘repent’ of something they never chose? These concerns are not alarmism; these things happen. I know young men and women who have been disowned or beaten, who have attempted suicide or cut into their own flesh. Hatred and violence directed at gay-identified people are not rare phenomena, nor harmless ones, as we learned all too bitterly in Orlando in 2016, and language like the language on this banner emboldens them.

Furthermore, the language of ‘healing’ and ‘victory,’ though rarely spelled out in so many words, all but invariably means ‘becoming heterosexual’ in the ears of those listening to this rhetoric. The speakers do not spell it out, because they know very well that homosexual desires do not simply go away—but rather than honestly acknowledging this, they continue to imply a radical change in attractions and ‘leaving homosexuality behind.’ Yet if challenged, they admit that a change in self-concept is what they really meant all along, and that there will still be ‘residual’ interest in the same sex. Which prompts two questions: first, what this ‘healing’ is of, if it is not of homosexual desire; and second, why they did not make themselves clear in the first place.

The frank, sorrowful renunciations of men like John Smid and Alan Chambers show that ex-gay ministers did not make themselves plain at first, because they have quietly moved the goal-posts: forsaking an orientation change that they realized they could not alter by effort, in favor of a new frame of mind that could be accomplished in an afternoon. Not that it would make anybody’s life easier if it were so accomplished. Call same-sex attractions what you will, the difficulty of living chastely with them will be much the same; save that, if one has to be secretive and dissemble and evade authentic discussion of one’s real feelings, that added burden may well break the proverbial camel’s back.

I beg Your Excellency: reconsider, investigate, and break off the archdiocesan connection to these so-called ministries. They will hurt your flock. I am speaking from my own experience; I am speaking from the experience of friends; I am speaking from the bulk of the psychological and psychiatric professions, who have rejected SOCE. The deliverance promised by these groups is a lie. The grace of chastity is possible, and the hope of glory, and strength to carry the crosses God gives us all. But that is not what these organizations have to offer; they are concealing a history of tears and even of blood, shed over a sexual orientation our Lord neither commanded nor promised. Please, Your Excellency, seek the truth and find it. Many hearts are depending upon you.

Of your charity, pray for me; I have prayed for you, and shall. The Lord be with you.

Gabriel I. M. Blanchard
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Saturday, January 26, 2019

Five Quick Takes

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It has been a bear of a week: five shifts at one job, two at another, plus ordinary housekeeping. In a way, though, the exhaustion was kind of a gift, because I also received some bitterly saddening news, and being tired helped keep my emotions from going totally haywire. (The physical medium of emotion is, mercifully, limited; bless the body.)

A dear friend of mine, who left the Catholic Church last year, has left the Side B community as well. I treasured (and treasure) her writing, which is brilliant and engaging and vulnerable, and I’m grieved that we’ve lost two of the things that brought us together as friends in the beginning. Of course, we wouldn’t have become friends if we had nothing else in common—vitally, we are the same type of weird. But it always hurts when somebody that you’ve been journeying with leaves the path you were sharing, whatever the reason.

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Work continues on my second novel, The Book of Salt, a sequel to Death’s Dream Kingdom. No spoilers, but I will share with fans that this second novel features Catholic vampire hunters, Francis Thompson, Enochian angelic magic, and just possibly Jack the Ripper.


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The Epiphany season is unusually long this year, since Easter is so late (21st April, which is nearly as late as it gets in the Gregorian computus). Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation, rounds out the Christmas cycle as oriented to the Nativity. The earliest part of the Paschal cycle begins on Septuagesima Sunday, about seventy days before Easter, which ushers in Shrovetide—a period of a bit less than three weeks during which people prepare for Lent, culminating in Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday. (Shrove comes from the archaic word shrive meaning ‘to hear confession, absolve,’ or by extension ‘to receive absolution’; hence the expression short shrift, which originally referred to a rushed administering of sacramental forgiveness before a condemned man was executed). But, about as often as not, there is a gap between Candlemas and Shrovetide, during which the Epiphany season continues.

I’ve long been inclined to think that there are no accidents in the Church’s liturgical cycle. Especially in its older and more complicated forms, since they were crafted when there was less to do, and making something with many layers of meaning would have been the more appealing as a way to stave off boredom while waiting for YouTube to be invented. The fact that Shrovetide sometimes begins before Candlemas and sometimes after, leading to an overlap between the Nativity and Paschal cycles or a breach between them, seems to me to harmonize with a truth about the Incarnation itself—a truth that, appropriately, is expressed in Candlemas itself, which serves as a sort of hinge between the two seasons.

Christ is sometimes referred to as ‘the man born to die.’ This is, in one sense, perfectly true, and not just in the ordinary sense that everybody is born with the known fate of death ahead of them, but in the sense that he was born with a purpose that was wound up with death, as cords are wound up with each other to make rope. The overlap between Christmastide and Shrovetide thus makes sense, and we see it in Christmas imagery: the Baby laid in a trough like a lamb, the myrrh brought by the Magi, the tragedy of the Holy Innocents, the use of red in decorations both sacred and profane. Candlemas has this in spades in St Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin: Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also).

Yet there is reason to believe (pace St Anselm and his variegated successors, from St Thomas Aquinas to Jack Chick) that the Incarnation was, so to speak, Plan A for humanity. On this view, redeeming man by means of the Incarnation was God’s response to sin, but, even if man had never sinned, God would still have chosen to glorify humanity by personally taking on a human nature born of a woman. The image of God in man was not accidental, nor final in itself, but a foreshadowing of what man was made for: to be the point at which deity united Itself with creation and with matter.

Whatever God’s original purposes, it is certainly the case that the Incarnation has done more than save us from sin; it deifies us. Epiphany, the disclosure of the glory, is thus a Christian mystery almost independently of the Passion, and so the separation makes as much æsthetic sense as the overlap.
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I recently read that the Archbishop of Denver, one Samuel Aquila, is supporting not only Courage (which after all is a pontifically sanctioned organization), but Desert Stream Ministries, an ex-gay group. Andy Comiskey, a self-professed ex-homosexual and a convert to Catholicism, founded Desert Stream in 1980 and still runs it; Archbishop Aquila has, I gather, begun sending the priests of his archdiocese to be trained by Desert Stream.

I’m livid. Or I would be if I weren't exhausted. I do not know what it is going to take to get Catholics to quit falling for this bullshit. There is no revealed teaching that we have any obligation to become straight if we aren’t. There is no scientific evidence and no theological support for the idea that sexual orientation can be changed by psychotherapeutic means. There is plenty of scientific and anecdotal evidence that ex-gay groups and therapies do substantial harm, and that alone is an adequate theological reason to be deeply suspicious of them.

Maybe I’ll write more about this later, but not right now. I am so sick of this needless, stupid pattern of homophobic abuse.
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On a lighter note, while I already knew about Lindsay Ellis thanks to her magical ‘Thanks, I Hate It!’ video about 2017’s live action Beauty and the Beast (yuck), I more recently discovered a whole world of clever, engaging literary criticism on YouTube. Ellis herself has done more than one series (‘Loose Canon,’ a series discussing different versions of characters through history, may be my favorite); in addition, there’s The Dom, Overly Sarcastic Productions (which does summaries on historical as well as artistic subjects), Earthling Cinema, and Hello Future Me. I’ve linked some fun, exemplary videos here. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

An Image of the City, Part V: Introduction to Power

Servant of God has greater chance of sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.

—T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral

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Every man and woman has rights as an individual, yet every man and woman comes into existence through other individuals (their parents, grandparents, and so on), and is born into a society, that is, a web of preëxisting relationships. We are creatures with a context, a context that we cannot choose and can only partly influence; and, so much of that context being other people, it includes a substantial number of duties and obligations that, whether we like it or not, we were born into, as the child of a monarch is born into royalty.

Ikon of the Trinity, made at Clear Creek Abbey, OK

This is what we call society. But that word has to be fleshed out, because it has many different aspects: the family is a society, religions are societies, political parties, schools, ethnic groups, artistic movements, trades, municipalities are societies. Society is a vast web of intertwined worlds, and everybody belongs to many of them at once. A number of forces govern every society, and the one I want to examine—one that forms a major element in all Leftist political theory—is the structures of power.

I suspect that this, more than any other thing, certainly more than any ostensible Issue in politics, underlies the difference between the Right and Center on the one hand, and the Left on the other, in this country. The Right and the Center (which latter embraces much of the Democratic Party and most if not all relatively liberal Republicans) move very easily in the framework of rights, which considers every person as an individual; and there is a great deal to be said for that. Each one, the prophet Ezekiel said, shall die for his own sins. But what they tend to, and in some ways have to, leave out, is the context of the individual: the why behind the what of their needs, goals, and actions. And if the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that relationship is part of the essential fabric of existence, means anything, it means that context cannot be ignored. Context is, in fact, part of the text. Style is not overlaid upon substance, style is a part of substance. And it is the Left, not the Right or the Center, that grapples with this the most readily.

This is not to say that the Left is generally correct about … well, anything, technically (though I do in fact agree with the American Left about a good deal). It is only to say that they are addressing a question that most political discourse in this country has, whether ignorantly or cynically, mostly ignored since 1783.

This question of power structures is the motor behind a lot of contemporary progressivist movements and causes: Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, most queer rights groups, First Nations [1] advocacy, and so on. Now, I don’t claim to understand power structures very well—most of what I’ve learned about power has had less intersectionality and more safe words—but what I do grasp can be summed up thus:


1. Social power tends to be wielded by groups who share some kind of common social identity: wealth, ethnicity, religion, sex, and language are all popular social identity definers (e.g. the property requirements of the Roman Senate or the use of French by the English nobility in the Mediæval period).
2. Social power consists in the ability of a group to secure its interests and privileges. Most if not all groups tend to try to increase their privileges.
3. Although egalitarian power structures are possible, in which partnership is valued over dominance, both human selfishness and concerns about scarcity (real or imagined) tend to promote dominance hierarchies, in which power is distributed unequally among social groups.
4. Dominant social groups tend to appeal to theoretical justifications of their disproportionate share of power; these justifications frequently involve maligning other social groups in some way, making it their own fault (intrinsically or historically) that they are excluded from power.

Also known as the 'Should've Thought of That Before You Became Poor' Rule.

A few important addenda are worth noting: for instance, that social power is not intrinsically bad. Being able to secure your interests is a good thing; that’s why people want it. But of course we know very well from both history and daily life that people trying to get things they want don’t necessarily behave very well. It’s that tendency, not the fact of power, that’s bad.

Additionally, with regard to the fourth point about theoretical pretexts for inequalities of power, certain facts must be kept very firmly in mind. Firstly, the abstract truth of the pretext has little or nothing to do with its use by the powerful: typically they are not much interested in abstract truth (only scholars, artists, and sometimes judges normally have a taste for that), but are quite interested in effective tools for maintaining their social power. A justification might be entirely false, entirely unprovable, mixed and mangled, or even completely true: the socially powerful are still going to treat it as a tool, with all of the consequences that generally produces. These justifications are puppet monarchs, installed by foreign interests: the actual strength of the puppet’s claim to the throne is irrelevant; it could be a perfectly good claim, but the foreign interests will conduct themselves much the same way anyhow. I expect that any theoretical justification for inequality will tend to do more and more damage in the self-interested hands of the powerful, as the admixture of truth in the justification goes up. But any of them can do such a lot of damage anyway that this may not matter even if I’m right.

Another facet of the problem is that the origin of these justifications can be deceitfully centered on the disadvantaged. The totalitarian government of Stalin was rooted in Marxism, which was specifically formulated to liberate the oppressed. Christianity, which was a faith of slaves and women in the early centuries of the Roman Empire, became first the backbone of that civilization, and then its weapon and the weapon of its European descendants. The white identity politics of our own day revolve largely around the idea that whites are in some way endangered—culturally, economically, or racially. We might have expected that these puppet claims would always be crafted by the socially powerful post facto, as justifications for a state of affairs that was crowbarred in by explicit force; but, although that certainly happens, it is not nearly so universal as we might have assumed. The powerful and privileged will take any theory that comes to hand, even one snatched from a beggar.

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[1]First Nations is (I understand) the generally preferred term for what used to be called Native Americans. In European colonial history, native has often been a derogatory word; and of course American Indian was always nonsense ethnologically speaking, based on a mistake Columbus clung to throughout his life despite evidence to the contrary.