Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Fisking of Dr Anthony Esolen's 'Open Your Eyes, Father Martin'

There had to be a new self to go on the new way. This was the difficulty of the Church then as it is now, as it always is after any kind of conversion. There are always three degrees of consciousness, all infinitely divisible: (i) the old self on the old way; (ii) the old self on the new way; (iii) the new self on the new way. The second group is the largest, at all times and in all places. This self often applies itself unselfishly. It transfers its activities from itself as its center to its belief as its center. It uses its angers on behalf of its religion or its morals, and its greed, and its fear, and its pride. It operates on behalf of its notion of God as it originally operated on behalf of itself. It aims honestly at better behavior, but it does not usually aim at change; and perhaps it was in relation to that passionate and false devotion that Messias asked, ‘Think ye when the Son of Man cometh he shall find faith upon the earth?’

—Charles Williams, He Came Down From Heaven

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Trigger warning: this post deals indirectly with at least one story of sexual abuse.

In response to … actually I am not at all clear what, though I think it has something to do with homosexuality, Dr Anthony Esolen has written a couple of pieces for Crisis magazine. The quotations I read from other authors, notably the delightful Mary Pezzulo of Steel Magnificat, were such a weird blend of the debatable, the vile, and the baffling that I was exceedingly reluctant to read them or link to them; but I have done so, partly out of morbid curiosity and partly for the sake of knowing what I’m talking about before talking about it. (The articles in question are Open Your Eyes, Father Martin and Talk to Your Father.) I’d like1 to go through these damaging pieces and analyze them, beginning with the first.

Father James G. Martin, S.J., is either a cruel or a foolish man. It does not seem to be the first. But if it is not that, it must be the second, because that alone can explain how a Catholic priest can live in the midst of massive and unprecedented family breakdown, and the chaos, loneliness, and alienation consequent upon it, and still wave the banner for the latest innovation in sexual confusion.

A bold opening. Its boldness is, as the piece goes on, the less satisfying, in that Dr Esolen doesn’t go on at any point to specify what the latest innovation in sexual confusion is, or what Fr Martin’s putative banner-waving consists in. The closest he comes—and the only point in the article at which he alludes to anything that Fr Martin has said or done—is in the nineteenth of twenty-two paragraphs, and even this has no direct quotation or cited reference. I gather, from the array of (unsourced, but all wholly plausible) stories that follow, that Dr Esolen’s complaint is that Fr Martin does not adequately oppose the Sexual Revolution and advocate heterosexuality.

I won’t go through the stories one by one; like Mrs Pezzulo, I don’t see what any of them have to do with Fr Martin. I will certainly go on record as agreeing with Dr Esolen that the price tag of the Sexual Revolution is written in blood, most especially the blood of those children who were aborted or abandoned in the name of personal freedom.2 However, there is one story that I must respond to.

I know of a parish whose priest was a homosexual abuser. … He had portrayed himself as a manly fellow, interested in coaching the teenage boys at wrestling and boxing. One day a friend of mine, a teenage boy, called on the rectory and the priest answered, his arms slicked with oil up to the elbows. My friend recalled that detail years later, saying that at the time he had no idea what it might mean. It was clear that those boys were not coerced, but enticed, seduced. After all, they outnumbered the priest, and they were big. The abuser had won their consent.

No, Dr Esolen. Consent is not won. It is given, or else it is not given. What you are describing is rape. Raping someone through manipulating them and raping them through violence are both forms of rape; what differs is the means, not the crime. The inordinate difficulty a teenage boy would have, regardless of his stature or even his company, in saying No to someone that he has been taught to hold in the highest regard as a Catholic, someone that he very probably viewed as a mentor and a friend, is immense—especially in the midst of the hormonal madness of puberty. In any case, I’m at a loss as to what any of this has to do with Fr Martin.

What follows is a paragraph that, frankly, I can’t even parse enough to know whether I would agree with it.

Catholic rainbows have no desire to enter into the mind and heart of a young man who has been so enticed. What so gnaws upon him later, if not the warping of his natural manhood, is being led to engage in a deed against which the gorge rises. Yet they would leave young men by the millions beset by such offers, such enticement, ever more frequent, persistent, and shameless, and all that separates the lonely or fatherless boy who manages to grow straight and tall, and one who is led into the depravity of manhood abused, is the chance presence of someone on the lookout at a solitary place or a dangerous time.

Who or what on earth are Catholic rainbows? Does it mean LGBT-identifying Catholics? Those who sympathize with them? Is he alluding to the Jud├Žo-Christian symbolism of the rainbow as a sign of mercy, and lamenting its absence from the souls of abuse victims? Or, if he means one or both of the first two possibilities, does he mean that those people evince no empathy for abuse victims (which, speaking as one such victim, I can assure Dr Esolen is quite false)? And who is the they of the third sentence? I think he means that Catholics who sympathize with LGBT people are ipso facto indifferent to the agony of those who were molested as children, which is not only slanderous, but ludicrous and hysterical; but I’m sincerely unclear about the correct interpretation here.

I pass to a clearer and more telling portion of the essay—and one with which, I’m glad to say, I have a real if limited sympathy.

Consider the intense loneliness of young men and women who are invisible to the sexual innovators, because they do not parade down Fifth Avenue in orange sequins and jockstraps. They are trying to follow the commandments and the natural law. They get no confirmation, no praise, no accompaniment; at best a sniff of condescension. Some will give up on faith and morality, feeling that they have been played for chumps, because the leaders of their former Church evidently do not really believe that sodomy, let alone natural fornication, is wrong. … Father Martin will ‘accompany’ them if they fall into a certain form of perversion, accompaniment that costs nothing, a pat on the back after the harm has been done. Who walks with them when the danger first threatens?

Not Crisis magazine. But let that be; they have Daniel Mattson to represent everyone who prefers not to identify with Side B,3 so they don’t have to know or even know about any others. In any case, I actually do have some small understanding of this trial. When I deal with fellow Christians (Catholic or Protestant) who reject the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, there is often a faint note of discouragement in my mind, for a number of reasons, one of them being the division of Christendom that that rejection both manifests and entails.

But in my experience, the thing that has driven me and most of the LGBT folks I know away from Christianity, whether we left it or not, has been exactly those habits that Crisis and the Catholics who resemble it so readily display: idolizing social and sexual normality (as if those were virtues), criticizing and punishing any hint of being open about what we struggle with, fulminating in lurid terms against others’ sexual depravity, and leaping to condemn anyone who shows sensitivity and compassion to LGBT people. It isn’t the lack of a moral stand that’s made me feel alone in the Catholic Church, Dr Esolen; it’s fellow believers who can’t stand to listen to me explain my experiences, and can’t say in so many words that they care whether people like me live or die. One of the things that sets Fr Martin apart, I am sorry to say, is that he does both.4

Possibly the most bewildering passage in a fairly bewildering piece is this:

The western world is dying, literally dying. No one is getting married. Hedonism has led to its own demise; Eros has slain himself on his own altar. Do you wonder, Father Martin, why you do not see boys and girls holding hands?

Um, what? Maybe circumstances really are that different where Dr Esolen lives, but both marriage and hand-holding remain normal in my part of the country; and I’m sufficiently well-traveled to advance the theory that my experience is, in this one respect, more normal than his.

They dare not do so; it will be a sign that they are in bed with one another, and embarrassment, if not moral qualms, will keep them from making that sign in public. I could go farther. They do not hold hands, because they do not do much at all with each other any more …

I mean … huh? Is there seriously a place in this or any country where these statements are true? I’m seriously asking. Put it in the comments.

What applies to boys and girls applies in a different way to boys and boys. Many young men are lonely and long for masculine affection, expressed in a healthy way, but they cannot find it, because the visibility of the homosexual life has rendered those longings suspect. … No sympathy for you.

Or: the determination of several generations in the west to inculcate disgust with homosexuality, as a means of preventing its development or exercise, has been so successful that any physical gesture of same-sex affection has been tarred with the brush of revulsion. Even from a strictly Catholic perspective, we might ask ourselves whether it was wise thus to erect a fence around the law. And once again, I can hardly speak for Dr Esolen’s circumstances, but in the social circles I travel in, acceptance of homosexuality has resulted in more openness to non-erotic male affection, not less, including touch—because there’s no longer such an urgent need to dissociate oneself from gayness. And then there is the abundance of non-erotic touch between gay men that I’ve observed, since, being gay and all, we have nothing to prove anyway.

Or for the father whose teenage son announced, on Thanksgiving, that he was ‘gay,’ causing Father Martin to give glory to God for the boy’s honesty. Such callousness takes the breath away. He does not consider that any decent and responsible father would be devastated by the news. It would be the darkest day of his life. He would know that he and his son had failed, and that his son had already acted upon his confusion—

Okay, wow, hold it. The boy’s father would know nothing of the kind. Polemics aside, what most people mean by the word ‘gay’ is simply and solely ‘attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite.’ I promise.5 The father may quite easily and wrongfully assume, but in no way knows, that his son has had any sexual contact with anyone, of either sex. As for the idea that a good father ought to believe that he and his son have both failed, because he raised a son that was man enough to admit a frightening truth to his father, I can’t make head or tail of a worldview that seriously involves that proposition.

And as for that being the darkest day of his life, what importance are you giving to raising a son who enjoys the good fortune of being heterosexual, Dr Esolen? Attraction per se is not under our control—note the passive construction ‘I am attracted to so-and-so’—and heterosexuality is not among the commandments. Chastity is; and courage; and telling the truth; and love of God and neighbor.

At the end of this first essay comes the root from which, I believe, the rest has sprung.

The single pragmatic question that should guide our course of action is simply this. What customs, and the laws that promote and protect them, give boys and girls the best chance to grow up with a married mother and father committed to one another for life, and to learn the feelings and ways that are natural and normal for their sex, so that they will be attracted and attractive each to the other, and determined to have lifelong marriages of their own in turn? Answer that question first, and then we can figure out what to do for those who fall afoul of nature or the moral law or both. That would be mercy indeed, and not indifference (or complicity) with a grin.

And that is exactly and absolutely and irrevocably the wrong place from which to start. Not because there is something wrong with caring about the family. But because neither family nor law nor custom nor anything else mentioned in this paragraph is God.

That omission shows in every line of Dr Esolen’s writing. The pulse of fear and anxiety and blame is palpable throughout. That isn’t the spirit of the gospel, nor the counsel of our Lord Jesus:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I saw unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.6

To make anything other than God one’s first principle is, precisely, idolatry; and good things are not exempt from being idols. We can worship anything that isn’t God. And the better the good thing we idolize, the more plausible the idolatry, the subtler the deceit, and the more disastrous the effects. Caiaphas idolized the Torah; and killed the God who gave it.

The single pragmatic question that must guide all our actions is, rather, this: How can I best love Christ in the person of my neighbor? And that could certainly mean working to strengthen and encourage families in general. Or it could mean reaching out to LGBT people who have been threatened, hurt, or abandoned by Christians. Or any number of other things. But it is only in the light of Christ as the sun and center of our universe that we can deal intelligently with LGBT people or families or laws or anything else.

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1For lack of a better term.
2Not necessarily the personal freedom of the mother, I would add. The ease with which fathers can desert their children, especially unborn children, may well put their mothers in what seems to be an impossible position.
3This is by no means a criticism of Mattson himself. I have my disagreements with him, but they aren’t pertinent to this piece.
4Not that I consider him above criticism; but again, those criticisms aren’t germane to the subject.
5The only, and I do mean only, group of people that I’ve found to persistently understand the word gay to mean ‘sexually active with the same sex’ are the authors at Crisis. I have occasionally found this tendency in other sources, all of them conservative Christians unacquainted with LGBT culture and its general outlook on orientation.
6Matthew 6.28-30, 33-34.

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