A Few Clarifying Words

A Few Clarifying Words March 21, 2023

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On his Substack, former Spiritual Friendship contributor Chris Damian has added his own commentary on my recent writing around gay Christianity/Spiritual Friendship/”Side B”/etc. It’s a long Stack, so I don’t really have time to hit every point, but one point in particular needs to be addressed upfront, and that’s an accusation Chris makes around my recent very brief mention of the Catholic writer Daniel Mattson. Mattson was an early Catholic critic of Side B work, and I mentioned his name in the course of trying (and mostly failing) to think of Catholics who had critiqued it in a sustained way. I then said it was a great and tragic pity that his own guilty past had caught up with him and forced him to exit the public square. It was a brief aside in a brief section, so I didn’t expand on the specifics of that exit. The short version is that a young man came forward to claim he and Mattson had engaged in virtual sex chat when Mattson was in his 30s and the young man was only a 13-year-old boy. This took place before Mattson’s repentance, conversion, and involvement in Catholic speaking ministry. He shared his testimony in his memoir Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay and appeared along with two other Catholic adult converts in the well-made documentary Desire of the Everlasting Hills . Mattson’s colleagues were stunned when the accusation came out. No charges were ever pressed, but he subsequently lost his platform in short order.

In hindsight, I should have predicted that my very minimal comment on this case was going to be seized on by someone like Chris and summarily used to assume completely false things about what I think, not just about Mattson but about all cases like his. Specifically, Chris accuses me of thinking the greatest tragedy in Mattson’s case is not that a child was allegedly initiated into virtual sex, but that Mattson got caught and lost a speaking ministry. He even speculates that I probably think it would have been ideal if this past never came out at all. He concludes that it’s people like me who enable abuse culture in the Church, by caring more about political ass-covering and wagon-circling than abuse victims. No, really, we’re not making this up, here are his exact words:

One might wonder whether Mattson’s preoccupation with questions of identity served to reduce any felt need to take account for his actions. (Christians are very good about misdiagnosing sexual sins.) He might argue (as I understood he has), “I might engage in sexual sins, but at least I don’t identify as gay.” McGrew makes this argument herself. For her, the tragedy is not what he did to this child but the fact that we found out about it. She implicitly argues: “He may have a pitiable past, but at least he’s not Side B.” When, it comes to sexual predation of a child, this isn’t just wrong. It’s horrifying. Excuse my French, but… what the actual fuck?

Well, golly gee, Chris, I could ask you the same question. That’s an awful lot of mind-reading you’ve got there, based on an awful lot of things I never said. I didn’t say much in that specific blog post, because I wasn’t writing that specific blog post about Daniel Mattson. But as a matter of fact, whenever I have specifically focused on his work in my writing or social media, I’ve ringed it round with many explicit caveats about the circumstances of his ministry exit and the fact that I don’t think he should have been in ministry in the first place if the allegation is true. Since Chris didn’t ask, that happens to be what I think in Mattson’s case, and what I think about anyone in a similar position. It should go without saying that nobody who has sexual contact with a 13-year-old in his adult past should be joining a ministry, attempting to sell books, or accepting speaking engagements. At the barest bare minimum, he should bury himself in obscurity somewhere while working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, if he doesn’t simply turn himself in to the authorities. If Mattson is guilty, then the fact that he instead entered the public square, keeping this part of his past hidden from colleagues and audiences who trusted him, was an unconscionable betrayal of trust. By saying it was a tragic pity that his guilty past brought him down, I was obviously intending to say that the whole damned thing was a damned shame—that he appears to have done this and subsequently hid it, and that its subsequent reveal left a permanent stain on both individual and joint work that had merit. On the occasions when I’ve linked to Mattson’s article on why men like him shouldn’t be priests, I’ve always framed it with the bitterly grim irony it deserves.

But you see, Chris sort of had to build up this fantasy version of me who thinks child abuse is no big deal and people should totally memory-hole their pasts so they can have a speaking ministry, because it was important in his broader goal of brushing aside my criticisms of Side B thinking. He needed to set up this great “contrast” between my opinion of Daniel Mattson and my opinion of Wesley Hill—that I’m “gentle” with the former and “harsh” with the latter, because Mattson was on “my team,” while Hill isn’t. And how horrific is that, when all Hill has done is use the word “gay” for himself, while it would seem Mattson literally groomed a child and then hid it for decades?

I hope I’ve established that, needless to say, I don’t think child abuse is no big deal, and I’m not a fan of political ass-covering here, or indeed anywhere. Good friends of mine have either suffered clerical abuse or paid a price for attempting to investigate it. I’m not Catholic myself, but I applaud those Catholics who’ve stuck their necks out against the “lavender mafia,” and I regard the systemic corruption at the Church’s highest levels to be one of the more compelling arguments against Catholicism writ large (though there are many). Mattson’s case is not even the worst by half, as many abusers have been sheltered while ongoingly preying on new victims, and all while holding the office of a spiritual father. If Chris thinks I’m indifferent to all this, or haven’t been paying attention, then I’m sorry to disappoint, I guess. Better mind-reading luck next time. And better guessing about my theology, while he’s at it. (He seems to labor under the misimpression that I’m a Calvinist. In fact, my theology of concupiscence is basically Catholic. But bless his heart, he’s trying.)

Now, having said that, I have to confess I’m not really interested in whether Chris agrees with me that the errors of Side B have been all that erroneous from an orthodox conservative perspective. It won’t work for him to pull the old motte and bailey that this just boils down to petty semantic quibbling around the word “gay,” when more than enough people have been around this mulberry bush more than enough times to prove that we are obviously not just quibbling over semantics. And, by his own admission, he is not personally “doing the Side B thing” anymore, by which he means he no longer even considers himself bound to celibacy. So if he now wants to pop his head back in to declare loudly that I’m making theological mountains out of molehills, molehills he tells me, then he’ll have to forgive me if I don’t put too much stock in his declarations.

The only thing on which he’s sort of right (though sort of for the wrong reason) is that the First Things editors’ choice of the word “failed” for the title is a less than ideal summation of my thesis, which is that the project has actually been one long progression in the same bad direction from the beginning. I didn’t write that title—indeed, I generally don’t write titles, as that’s generally a thing editors do. I chose to let it go, as the editing process had already been very long, and I wasn’t feeling inspired enough to come up with a more accurate pithy substitute. But I’m not sure Chris is actually interested in the sense of “failure” I’m thinking about, i.e., that it failed to keep playing the motte and bailey game well enough to retain an initial cautiously hopeful conservative audience. This even included big names like D. A. Carson (who I hope by now is properly embarrassed that he was ever led down this garden path). I think Hill and others saw themselves as courting that audience, and indeed that’s what made certain internal splits so painful and acrimonious—the sense on the part of those who exited stage right (so to speak) that they had been complicit in propping up a sustained sham. It’s ironic that Chris seems to think I’m unaware that there were any internal disagreements or splits. Indeed, I am. Quite aware.

Meanwhile, Chris’s attempt to make much of “ecclesial differences” between someone like Hill and someone like Grant Hartley rings hollow, when their points of substantive public agreement obviously transcend whatever other denominational differences might separate them. I never said Hartley “speaks for” Hill, as Chris claims, I simply noted that Hill had endorsed Hartley’s work (at some length), and I’ve subsequently noted that Hill and Hartley’s evaluations of my writing are in sync. I used the word “protege” loosely to mean Hartley was younger than and inspired by Hill, and Hill had very clearly signaled special approval of his work. Again, this is the main point, which Chris for some reason is trying to pretend isn’t the main point.

But, again, I find it difficult to muster much interest in the opinions of someone who, while writing about the history of Side B/A terminology, has seriously proposed that “underlying ideologies in Catholicism have cleaner alignment with side a positions, which are open to, for example, dynamic positive accounts of erotic desire, theological diversity, and gender fluidity.” This deserves to be taken about as seriously as Eve Tushnet’s proposal that Catholic theology may allow for sex-change surgery as the best resolution for gender dysphoria—that is, not remotely. Chris himself cheerfully notes:

Catholicism in recent years has been more comfortable dealing with disagreements and suspicions of heterodoxy within itself. Disagreements within Catholicism rarely lead to formal divides or excommunications. Many Protestant denominations, on the other hand, have resolved controversial issues through denominational splits. To put it simply, Catholicism in recent years has been much more tolerant of heterodoxy, which creates spaces for theological conversations that can’t occur in the open in other denominations.

Right. In other words, as I’ve said for years, Catholicism in theory is a unity but in practice has just as many denominational divisions as Protestantism. To say that “Catholicism” has become tolerant of heterodoxy is simply to say that increasingly more churches have killed Catholicism and continue to walk about in its skin. Which proves about as much about Catholic theology as the evolution of the Church of England proves about Anglican theology.

Anyway, that will do for now, I think. I haven’t much more to say here, except that it would seem, at this point in time, I am more Catholic than Chris Damian.

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