Solving the “Spiritual Friendship” Dilemma

It seems the “Spiritual Friendship” thinktank cannot catch a break among fellow Christians. Militant homosexualist Catholics say they don’t go far enough, and magisterially faithful Catholics think they go too far. And now Protestants from various backgrounds are challenging and criticizing their plan to hold a summer conference. Can’t we all just be spiritual friends? Why the pushback?

Crisis readers may recall other writers taking on this group, which seeks to avoid the “doing” associated with homosexuality but embraces the “being” associated with our culture’s subhuman taxonomy of identifying certain individuals as part of the “LGBTQ community.” “Spiritual Friendship” writers also seek to make room for forms of so-called “same-sex friendship” that are raising legitimate concerns among lots of fellow Christians.

My engagement of the dilemma this all posses—and the following attempt to resolve it—arises from the June 24 article from its Catholic co-founder, Ron Belgau, in Public Discourse, in which he strives to defend his views and those of fellow friends like Wesley Hill (Christian co-founder of the Spiritual Friendship blog) and Catholic author Eve Tushnet.

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Without digging deeply into the complex, convoluted, and often-sophistical landscape of years of written output from this group, I think Belgau’s most recent attempted defense reveals several major errors at the very heart of their endeavor.

Is Homosexuality a “Perversion of Friendship”?
Belgau correctly mentions evil as a “perversion of good,” but states that “people tend to think of homosexuality as a perversion of marriage, and this is, in many respects, true.” Then he adds: “Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, and I argue that homosexuality is also a perversion of friendship. The normative form of same-sex love between those who are not blood relations is friendship.”

Setting aside for the moment the troubling qualification that there exists a category we should call “same-sex love,” the more profound problem here is that homosexuality is not intrinsically a perversion of either marriage or friendship.

Rather, homosexuality is intrinsically (though not only) a perversion of the natural, God-created, human sexual inclination. This should be the first and most fundamental truth, acknowledged long before considering the effect of this disordered inclination upon marriage or friendship.

To an extent, Belgau does imply this when he quotes Eve Tushnet:

Eve Tushnet recently observed: We’re constantly being told that same-sex sexual desire is disordered, which I accept, as I accept all that is taught by Holy Mother Church. But when people … try to tell you how to order your desires, they always try to get you to keep the expression of desire the same, but change the object. This is the “become straight” option, if “option” is the word I want. There is another way for desire to become ordered: same object, different expression. People who long for same-sex love and intimacy should maybe be encouraged to learn how to do that, since it is good, and holy, and beautiful.

Yet, Tushnet’s quote contains problems. First, there is a fundamental sleight-of-hand happening in the concept of keeping the “same object” of a disordered desire while “differently” expressing that desire. It’s slightly impossible. One cannot simply express a disordered desire in a different way and like magic end up with something good, holy, or beautiful. Also, there’s that “same-sex love” thing again—why aren’t we talking about love in general? Love (and intimacy) that is good, holy, and beautiful is not dependent on the sex of the recipient of that love. Well, except when we are dealing with eros or “other-sex love.” This deserves its own category—but “philia” and “agape” are equal-opportunity loves that don’t need “same-sex” restrictions.

The “love” wires in the “Spiritual Friendship” perspective are getting crossed. When someone experiences a homosexual inclination for another person, there is literally no way to order that desire toward the good. It’s dead on arrival. A person needs to just say no to it.

Imagine a wall with three light switches on three separate circuits. One is labelled “eros,” one “philia,” and one “agape.” Each controls a different lamp. But the “eros” lamp has a short in it. The person with a homosexual inclination wants that object—that lamp—to light up. But each time he flips that switch, he gets shocked.

So, he tries flipping the “philia” switch—even the “agape” switch. Those objects—those lamps—go on, but those objects are not the ones he wants to light up. The lamp that is the object of the “eros” switch stays dark.

Similarly, in human nature, the “friendship” circuit is wholly different from the “eros” circuit—friendships don’t arise from a short-circuited homosexual inclination. If someone wants a friend, he needs to flip the “friend” switch and stop wasting time with the dysfunctional “eros” switch.

Does a Unique “Vocation” Arise from Homosexuality?
Belgau quotes C.S. Lewis, saying he regarded homosexuality as a disability that “conceals a vocation.” Belgau says, “The Spiritual Friendship blog is an attempt to understand what that vocation might be.”

The error here is the willingness to embrace the subhuman and false taxonomy used to label men and women as part of a particular group—L,G,B,T,Q,I,A, and more. Contrary to Lewis’s intention, Belgau seems to conclude that some form of common “vocation” arises from what he will later call the “gay experience.” Once one turns the corner to accept this concept of sexual-identity categories, it doesn’t matter if you claim—as Belgau does—that it’s really not at the core of who someone is. It remains an error in thinking.

It’s particularly self-contradictory for Belgau—or anyone—to suggest that “sexual orientation should not be the basis of an all-encompassing identity” while simultaneously stating that some sort of central calling or vocation arises from the “gay experience” that must be discerned because of that experience.

Seriously, if something is so central as to shape one’s vocation, does it not split a hair or two to also claim it’s not a big part of your identity?

Common threads of experience may or may not give rise to similar vocations, but that’s not what Lewis is really talking about. Rather, his view is that all people have different forms of “disability” and different measures of how it affects them and their calling.

I suspect Belgau seeks to emphasize the concept of vocation over identity because it leads more directly to the desired end result—the legitimized pursuit of friendships that remain bound up in the experience of a disordered homosexual inclination.

Mortification? Sanctification?
Belgau goes on to say that “Spiritual Friendship writers have repeatedly emphasized, however, that they are committed to mortifying all lust.” He adds that Spiritual Friendship co-founder Wesley Hill has “explicitly stated that same-sex sexual desire had to be mortified, and that [elsewhere] he was talking about sanctifying other, non-sexual aspects of gay experience.”

Trying to parse all this is not terribly easy. It appears that lust and “same-sex sexual desire” are made to die (mortification), while “non-sexual aspects of gay experience” are made holy (sanctification).

This kind of both/and regarding the making “dead” and the making “holy” is surely at the root of much of the controversy surrounding Spiritual Friendship. Precisely what dies and precisely what gets called holy? Belgau tries to explain:

The basic point here is that if gay relationships are, in part, a distortion of friendship, then there will be important points of contact between the sinful experience and what it can become, if sanctified. Rather than distance ourselves from the common experiences we share with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, we try to invite them to take the Gospel more seriously by showing them how the distorted goods they experience could be sanctified.

It seems like this is a major problem—Belgau, perhaps unwittingly, has revealed the core issue: Spiritual Friendship is not looking to end “gay relationships” in themselves, but to make such relationships holy by saying no to gay sex.

The “Adam & Steve” Moment
Time for a reality check. We’ve got to go back to Genesis. Using the “Adam & Steve” cliché is actually helpful in this case. As I view it, the Spiritual Friendship mentality has everything to do with allowing two men or two women to have the self-same “Aha!” moment described in Genesis when Adam meets Eve for the first time.

Recall that God seeks to give Adam his “ezer kenegdo” (Hebrew, effectively meaning a “suitable partner”), first, by introducing Adam to the animals. However, it’s Eve, taken from his side, who fits the bill. And Adam’s exclamation of awe on seeing Eve is a pure, unfallen, non-lustful expression of desire for his beloved. No lust, no sex, as of yet. All absolutely holy.

Imagine now—a modern-day “Adam & Steve” emerge from the local Pride Parade and stumble on Belgau’s latest article online. They are a “married” same-sex couple. They learn that if they kill off their lustful desires, and avoid sex acts, they can “sanctify” their existing distorted “friendship.” They can share a common life—live together, dine together, dance, date, etc., just as they always have. All of which can then be viewed as holy once the desire that first brought them together—the disordered homosexual inclination supposedly just for sex acts—is eliminated.

But wait—since when is the ordered and natural sexual inclination only about sex acts? Adam’s “Aha” on seeing Eve in Genesis related to everything about Eve herself and not sexual relations, which we’re told only occurred later on.

Do we really believe that Adam and Steve’s mutually disordered homosexual inclination is only about sex acts?

This is the huge mistake at the heart of the Spiritual Friendship mindset—that the only thing “disordered” about the inclination relates to sex acts. Homosexuality is the perversion of the entire “suitable partner” script—not just the sex part. We can’t pretend that such same-sex desires are merely about friendship at their core and therefore sanctifiable. They’re not. They are about looking to someone of the same sex to fulfill one’s deepest longing for a suitable partner, which isn’t about sex acts at all, and which is not part of God’s plan for us.

In my estimation, Catholics and Christians of all backgrounds are rightly concerned about this kind of thinking. The dilemma turns out not to be that difficult. How to solve it? Simple. Say no thanks.


  • Declan Carrick Lyons

    Declan Carrick Lyons is the pen name of a veteran Catholic writer and thinker, catechist, liturgist, and musician, with three decades of experience in parish ministry. He lives in Middle America. He can be reached at [email protected]. (Photo used with permission.)

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