Joseph Prever’s Talk at the “Accompanying and Welcoming Conference”: A Reply to Deacon Jim Russell

The conference “Accompanying and Welcoming Our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction,” jointly sponsored by the Archdiocese of Detroit and Courage International, with generous funding from the Our Sunday Visitor, featured 30 speakers. It would be a shame if the unease of some with a few speakers derailed the reception of the whole of the conference. I am very eager to have the talks available online so that those unable to come to the conference will be able to see the scope of the conference and learn from the talks. A significant number of those talks, in fuller form — along with some additional excellent essays — are available in the book Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same Sex Issues, published by Ignatius Press. That volume includes some excellent essays by authors who were not able to be at the conference, such as “Restoring Wholeness in Christ” by Bob Schuchts. “Finding the Water in the Desert: The Conversational Use of Natural Law in the Context of Same-Sex Attraction” by J. Budziszewski, “Homosexual Inclination as an “objective’” by Msgr. Livio Melina, and “Do No Harm: Considerations in Supporting Youth with Same-Sex Attraction” by Janelle Hallman. We expect the remaining talks delivered at the conference to appear in another volume within the year.

It should be noted that the conference was designed for professionals (though others were welcome), for those within the Church who work with those who experience same-sex attractions (SSA) and are more than a little acquainted with the issues. We were trying to identify good pastoral approaches to same-sex issues and to lay a foundation for discovery of other approaches. That requires that many different issues be addressed and that many different people be consulted and heard. We were setting forth the foundational Christian anthropology that undergirds Catholic teaching on sexual issues. We were reporting on what we know about good pastoral practices and trying to advance our collective knowledge so that we can do even better in the future. Very importantly we were listening and learning from those who experience SSA, surely an indispensable element for developing pastoral approaches. Endorsing speakers was not the purpose of the conference. We were not trying to showcase the skills of presenters so that they could be invited elsewhere. I announced at the outset and repeated during the conference that different and even contradictory views would be set forth at the conference. What united the speakers was a commitment to the Catholic faith; where we differ is in matters of prudence and in manner of expression.

Several of those involved in the planning process objected strenuously to the invitations extended to Joseph Prever and Eve Tushnet, both participants in what has become known as the “spiritual friendship project,” a project that some portray as a rival or critic of Courage. Some elements of their work raise some important concerns and other elements are very promising. Since the contributors to the spiritual friendship project are committed to living chaste lives, to seeking holiness and to being faithful to their faith communities (in the case of Prever and Tushnet, that is Catholicism), we wanted to be in friendly dialogue with them. We thought those who attended the conference would benefit from hearing Prever and Tushnet and that they (like the rest of us) would benefit from hearing other speakers at the conference. We knew there was a risk of some confusion arising, but we thought the risk worth it. We were not trying to lay out some uniform, fixed template for pastoral approaches. Again, we wanted to establish the nonnegotiable foundational principles of Christian anthropology, to report on some successful pastoral approaches and materials, and to listen to those whose voices we absolutely must hear if we are going to be truly pastoral.

Being pastoral means many things, among them, listening carefully and charitably to those with whom we dialogue. While correcting false views is surely a pastoral exercise, and one engaged in throughout the conference, winning trust and careful listening must precede the honing in on errors of the thinking or speech of individuals. Vigorously refuting errors — the “take no prisoners” approach — is more of an academic exercise. If we cannot dialogue with and welcome and accompany those who are committed to chastity, to seeking holiness and to the Catholic faith, are we really willing to walk with others who are still on a journey to these commitments?

I am afraid I think Deacon Jim Russell, whose interaction with others on the Internet has on occasion been admirably irenic, did not exhibit the pastoral touch in his critique of Joseph Prever in his post “Does Being 'Gay' Make You an 'Expert' on Homosexuality?" that I was hoping would emerge from the conference. Certainly, it is fair for people to express their criticisms of others’ positions and also of our conference. But I believe there is more than a little bit of misrepresentation of Prever’s talk and views in Russell’s piece and a harshness toward Prever’s person that is not warranted. It seems Russell heard nothing valuable in Prever’s talk, whereas I heard a lot. I am very grateful for Prever’s presence at the conference, and I believe he gave those who had ears to hear a lot to think about. He provided insight that should be immensely valuable to those who want to understand better our brothers and sisters who experience SSA.

It seems that Russell and I heard a very different talk, or we “took away” different things from Prever’s talk. For starters, Russell accuses Prever of presenting himself as an expert. I didn’t get that sense at all. Prever opened his talk by thanking the organizers and participants for being concerned to be loving to those with same-sex attraction and then remarked that he felt people might be expecting him as a “gay” person to tell people how to take better care of gays. Prever said he did not feel up to that task; all he could do was share his experience.

Moreover, it was very clear at the conference that those giving testimonials were not considered “experts” on being “gay,” either by the organizers or by themselves. They were there as brave and good human beings who were willing to be vulnerable and to share their very personal experiences with us. We saw a true gift of self in action. Again, it was made clear that the organizers did not endorse everything that everyone said and that speakers would be disagreeing with each other. I heard legitimate criticisms of each of those who gave their testimonies. I was neither surprised nor disappointed.

We asked Prever to give his testimony and to speak about how friendship had figured into his journey and that he did, beautifully and touchingly. Prever was invited because he is willing to be so transparent about himself and what he feels. I received his tweets in that spirit. I welcome criticism of the conference, both that of Prever (which was about minor matters) and that of Russell (which was about major matters). Some things said at the conference troubled Prever — some he found insensitive or offensive and some he found personally challenging. Is this tweet not revealing of someone who is honestly sifting things: “Can’t tell if I’m upset because this is true or because it’s false or because it’s too personal.” In fact, Prever emailed me and Father Check after the conference to ask if his tweets were out of line. I told him I didn’t find them so.

Why not, you ask. I don’t know Prever apart from his writings but he seems to me the kind of guy who immediately registers his impressions. I have a nephew like that, who, without hesitation lets people know how he feels about things, and that can vary from moment to moment. Some people find that annoying; I find it refreshing and not just because he is my nephew. I am glad to know how Prever responded to things said at the conference. If he finds certain words, jokes, etc., offensive or tedious, I would like to know that. Were his remarks snarky? Yes. In general, I think the Internet would be a better place with much less snark. But Twitter is a snarky place: don’t read tweets if you don’t want to encounter snark.

Russell acknowledges that Prever has expressed his deep gratitude for Father Harvey’s work and for Courage but thinks those expressions are negated by his tweets. Really? How can that be? A few tweets written out of momentary discomfort trump a person’s well-considered remarks?

Russell finds Prever to be “unsettled, unseasoned, and uncertain” “regarding certain aspects of same-sex attraction” (not usual characteristics of someone presenting himself as an “expert”). I am not sure that is true, but if so, I don’t have a problem with it, because there is a lot to learn both from those who are settled, seasoned and certain and from those who are unsettled, unseasoned and uncertain. Everybody brings something to the table.

What particularly upsets Russell (and others) is that Prever (and Tushnet and others) in some contexts choose to refer to themselves as “gay”. This is a neuralgic point for Russell and others. He is greatly troubled by Prever’s statement: "Well-meaning straight folks who say that Catholics should never come out: may God forgive you for the heavy burdens of shame that you help to bind on your brothers and sisters."

I think Prever is entitled to that view. He is not saying that everyone should come out. He is saying that it is wrong to say that people with SSA should never come out. Prever has found it valuable to make it freely known that he is gay and that he is a chaste, celibate, whole-hog Catholic. I can see benefits to that and see no reason to think he is advancing something insidious or in conflict with Christian anthropology. He certainly made it clear that the male and female union cemented by lasting love and directed toward building a family is what is natural. He acknowledged that he experiences the “unnatural” as natural.

Russell objects: “Yet it was our own U.S. bishops who said in 2006 that general public self-disclosures in a parish setting are not helpful and should not be encouraged.” Why does Russell insist on treating a prudential judgment by the U.S. bishops as a dogmatic truth to which all must adhere? We are free to disagree with the bishops on such matters.

Throughout the conference the question was asked of Father Check about an apparent contradiction: his and Father Harvey’s claim that those with SSA are the best ambassadors of Courage and their advice that people shouldn’t “come out” except to a few trusted individuals. The answer is generally that it is necessary for a few people to make the sacrifice of “coming out” to help others understand SSA but that most shouldn’t. The wisdom and experience of Harvey and Check deserves great respect, but, again, times are changing.

I personally think the advisability of coming out as gay varies from person to person, place to place and time to time. It is amazing what has happened in the last eight years, but the situation regarding all matters homosexual is quite radically different now than it was even in 2006 and certainly than it was 20 years ago or so. Young people now speak of their sexual “orientation” from a very young age, but consider their sexual identity to be malleable or in flux. When I grew up many of us didn’t even know what homosexuality was until our college years or beyond. For someone to “come out” was to be defiant and marked forever; that’s why so few did. That generally is not so now.

Eve Tushnet mentioned her frustration that alcoholics are encouraged to “name it and claim it” as part of their healing process but that those who have SSA are not supposed to acknowledge this part of their being publicly. This is territory Deacon Russell has covered in a multitude of previous Internet postings. He finds the analogy wanting; I find it challenging to the position that very few should speak of themselves as gay.

As I mentioned at the conference, when my generation hears “gay” we think of someone who is militantly pro-gay, one who approves of same-sex sexual relationships and is likely an advocate of same-sex marriages. But when Prever and Tushnet use the term “gay” they clearly do not mean that and quite negate those meanings by also regularly noting that they are chaste, celibate, Catholic and seeking holiness. Rather, when they refer to themselves as “gay” they seem to mean to convey that they experience same-sex attraction, that they know the experience from the inside out. They will be misunderstood when they speak of themselves as “gay,” but when they have made it perfectly clear that they want to be chaste, holy, followers of Christ, I think they may not be responsible for such misunderstandings. Nor could anyone paying attention think that the conference was in anyway endorsing the view that people ARE gay, that “gayness” is a defining feature of their personhood. From Father Check’s talk, the first of the conference, to Dan Mattson’s, to Prof. Rachel Lu’s, to Dr. Timothy Lock’s, to Andy Comiskey’s and many others, it was abundantly clear that the view of the conference, is the Catholic view, that God did not make people to have same-sex attractions.

Russell also thinks that Prever is uncertain whether or not homoerotic relationships with other males are advisable. But Prever stated explicitly that he does not think they are advisable and told of his own failed experience with such relationships. Prever worked hard to try to help us understand what individuals with SSA are looking for in a relationship. Prever wisely began his talk by telling us of a heterosexual friend of his who candidly admitted he just didn’t understand what Prever was looking for in same-sex relationships. One thing Prever was looking for was male emotional intimacy and he hoped that if he found that, he would then be free to be heterosexual. He acknowledged that that did not work and that he found that he was “using” other men to try to heal something in himself rather than seeking true friendship. Is not such information really helpful?

Russell quotes a passage from an earlier blog, where Prever had stated: “I don’t know. I tend strongly toward the latter theory: that eros between men is intrinsically, and not only accidentally, consummationless; unfulfillable in principle, and therefore wrongheaded from the start. But I’ve got good and wise friends … whose experience and conclusions are different. That’s okay.” I see no uncertainty on Prever’s part about the inadvisability of such relationships; I only see him unwilling to discount the testimonies of those who claim otherwise. When Prever says “that’s okay,” I think he simply means he is not going to challenge their experience but also is not going to let their claims make him abandon his own conclusions.

Prever also had some important things to say about maturity that Russell seems to have missed. Prever speaks of what an epiphany it was for him to realize that it wasn’t heterosexuality that confers maturity on a person. He said he labored under the false view for years that he couldn’t begin to achieve sexual maturity until he was basically heterosexual. But one day he thought of a heterosexual 14-year-old looking at Playboy and realized he had much more sexual maturity than the boy did. What a fantastic insight that is; certainly as we welcome those with SSA, we will encounter those who are more advanced in their sexual maturity than many heterosexuals. Seeing them for who they are can only be beneficial for our conversations.

A similar realization came to him when he was about to break off a very long friendship with a heterosexual male who had been married several times and had made a mess of his life. Prever thought the friendship no longer had anything to offer him. Prever’s spiritual director admonished him that he had something to offer to his friend and should be a friend to him. Prever closed his remarks with an admonition that we should all be seeking to be friends to others rather than to find friends who will be healers for us.

Lest my “mother bear” response to Russell’s criticism of Prever make it seem like I am an uncritical cheerleader for Prever, I will mention a sort of criticism (again, I was not listening to find flaws but to learn). I have listened to Prever’s talk several times and think I needed to, to fully understand what he was saying at some points. It is generally a fault for a talk delivered orally that it require several hearings. The chief problem was that Prever uses some words like “homophobia” in peculiar ways and so he is somewhat responsible for being misunderstood about some things (and he is working on a blog post to correct his ambiguity about homophobia). When a speaker uses words in somewhat uncustomary ways or has a different take on something, it is not easy to get people expecting one thing to hear another. He also made some remarks about the ineffectiveness of reparative therapy that in retrospect he says don’t really represent his views. (His more considered views on this are available online, here and here.)

All in all, I thought Prever’s was a really good talk. It was aesthetically pleasing, artistically rendered, humorous and profound. I think his talk exemplifies the “lived experience” that St. Pope John Paul II said had to be a part of all authentic ethical discourse. Prever reports both on his subjective experience (what he was experiencing interiorly) and on his discoveries of objective truths that needed to guide his behavior. Since he uses images and has insights that we don’t expect, it is all too easy to miss the important truths that he has to convey. I think those who listen carefully will be glad that they did. (In a few weeks, all the talks will be available on Relevant Recordings and WDEO.)

I am grateful that Joseph Prever and Eve Tushnet were willing to put themselves in front of a crowd in which there were many who were ready to dismiss them without a hearing. I know that not everyone will find the approaches of Prever and Tushnet to their liking nor will they find what they have to say to be useful. But I am glad they have been willing to accompany and welcome me on my journey to understand better what they are proposing out of their love for our Savior and his Church.

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.