Newsletter #30: the failure of "Side B"
In today's newsletter: how the "Side B" project failed, Spiritual Friendship and Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life, and how McGrew brought to mind abuse in Christian communities.
This newsletter will primarily focus on a piece that appeared recently in First Things, a critique of the “Side B” movement by Bethel McGrew. It will also look at some responses, including a follow-up by McGrew on Patheos. Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
How the Side B project failed
Side B and the holding of tensions
Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life, Courage, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia
What type of thing was Spiritual Friendship?
Some weird self-congratulatory stuff in McGrew’s writing
On linear development, the truly shocking stuff, and heavy burdens
How the Side B project failed
First Things recently published a piece by “essayist and social critic” Bethel McGrew critiquing “the Side B project,” which she takes to mean Spiritual Friendship, the Revoice conference, and other initiatives that have been dedicated to honoring a “traditional sexual ethic” while providing spaces to explore the positive vocations of LGB people. McGrew repeats past critiques of the “Side B movement”: how it took on “sexual identitarianism,” how it characterized “homosexual temptation” as similar in gravity to its heterosexual counterparts and sought positive accounts of same-sex desire, and how it expressed sympathy and identification with the broader LGB community. McGrew especially takes issue with apparent “departures from orthodoxy” and openness to “preferred pronouns,” pride flags, and the like.
“The promised ‘vocation of yes’ was always bound up with things to which the sincerely struggling same-sex attracted believer must say ‘no.’ No to the embrace of gay identity language and the accompanying normalization of same-sex desire. No to elevating the same-sex attracted or gender-dysphoric as ‘prophets’ who will dictate new church policy, including policy that will affect fragile struggling children. No to all kinds of ‘romantic’ same-sex relationships, whether or not they omit the physical act of intercourse.”
While McGrew’s piece didn’t add anything new to criticisms of Side B initiatives, she does provide a helpful opportunity to return to some core questions for this project, to look on why it hasn’t had more success in certain spaces, and to take an account of where the “movement” is now.
McGrew alleges that the project “failed,” but it’s hard to know what precisely she means by that. New Side B initiatives continue to emerge, with focus moving away from theological defense to ministry, podcasting, and community building. It seems that for McGrew, the project “failed” because it said “yes” to her list of “no’s.” But, if that is the case, then the chronology she lays out lends nothing to her assessment. She could have written, “The Side B project was doomed to fail because it embraced gay identity language which is against Christian orthodoxy and then it failed because it kept doing that.” What she writes is tautology disguised as “social critique.” Her argument could be summarized as: “They did the bad things, and then they did them more.”
There are some interesting arguments to be made about why or whether various Side B projects failed. She just doesn’t make them. In this newsletter, I’ll provide some of my own thoughts. You can also check out my past post on the question: “Is it time to leave behind ‘side a’ and ‘side b’?”
Side B and the holding of tensions
Side B projects have tended to have tenuous relationships with various Christian communities. I suspect one reason is because they tend to rely on the holding of difficult tensions, whereas Christian communities (like all communities) tend towards the easy dissolution or rejection of tension. For example, the Side B communion has often involved holding together communities across divides. The most obvious divide is the common one between the Christian community and the LGB community. But there were others as well.
While doing Side B speaking, I was always aware of a beneath-the-surface divide between Calvinism and Catholicism. McGrew seems to align with the former in her First Things piece, and where I suspected it would go. I’d probably agree with McGrew, if I wasn’t Catholic.
My concern with the Calvinist members of Side B projects often came from the question of how far one could push positive accounts of same-sex desire, especially with Calvinism’s emphasis on total depravity. (In her follow up blog post, McGrew disagrees with Al Mohler’s claim that Catholic views of concupiscence were causing damage in the Side B space, but she may be betraying herself in her other arguments about same-sex desire. If I were Mohler or McGrew, I’d raise concerns about how Catholic saints tend to basically brag about how they’re worse sinners than everyone else, and what this means for those who, like me, want to model our lives after them.) There is a reason why PCA churches have not cultivated the understanding of chastity-as-integration which is prevalent in the Catholic Church today. The latter’s shifts to more positive accounts of heterosexual desire and to more “personalist” accounts of marriage over the last century lend themselves to openings for renewed positive accounts of other types of desire, including same-sex desire. And Catholicism’s medieval tradition has lots of space for positive accounts of homoeros. It’s important to note how the parts of the Side B movement interested in theological work are often interested in the medieval Church. I’ve at times thought that the better critique of non-Catholic Side B institutions is not that they tend too much towards modernism, but that they tend towards Catholicism. McGrew’s simplistic critique of the Side B movement, like most critiques of it, fails to capture this.
Not that contemporary Catholicism is conducive towards flourishing Side B communities. Just before I came across McGrew’s piece, I wrote about my ongoing changes to how I relate to my Catholicism. In response, a friend asked for my thoughts on the Spiritual Friendship project (a Side B blog started in 2012 which has since fizzled out), and I gave a bit of a post-mortem. This is just my opinion, and the true story is more complex. But here’s what I had to say:
“In general, I don't think I take issue with the Spiritual Friendship project. I think I still believe in it, in a way. But I just don't think that the Church is really invested in it at this time, and I think that investment is really needed to make it a liveable reality. To the extent the project failed, I don't necessarily think it's because the project was wrong. I think it's because the Church lacked the ecosystem to make it a reality, and wasn't sufficiently invested in creating it. I've sort of had a sense of that with a lot of my writing, that I'm writing for a future time that will be ready for it. And in the meantime, I'm going to do my best to live a flourishing life.”
That is, I think the project was right, in a way, but untenable today.
Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life, Courage, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Part of the untenability is due to current structures of money, power, and politics in the Church today. Here's one example of why Spiritual Friendship didn't take off, how there's all kinds of weird gatekeeping when it comes to LGBTQ+ support and ministry in the Church.
In the mid-2010s, the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame invited a group of SF writers, including myself, to be part of a project looking at how to support LGBTQ+ Catholics in ways that were in line with Catholic teaching.
In 2014, a prominent Catholic writer and Courage supporter asked the Institute for Church Life to include Dan Mattson as a contributor. Some in our group had had interactions with Mattson that made them concerned and strongly opposed. (I won't share the details of that here; this was before allegations arose that Mattson had maintained a secret sexual relationship with a 13-year-old while in his thirties. Mattson will return further down in this newsletter, as part of the follow-up by McGrew.)
We held a conference later that year, and began working on a possible book based on the papers presented.
In 2015, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia invited us out to advise them ahead of the World Meeting of Families. But we were told to keep that meeting a secret. It was explained to me by some involved that this was partly because, if Courage found out we had this meeting that they weren't invited to, they may attempt to derail it.
After the World Meeting of Families, there began to be more pressure from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to include Courage voices in the project. One Spiritual Friendship leader, who had learned that Fr. Harvey had played a significant role in returning sexually abusive priests to ministry, sent a 7-page memorandum documenting Fr. Harvey’s role in the abuse scandal to the Archdiocese. Courage tried to downplay this, though the evidence that Fr. Harvey had pushed for returning abusive priests to ministry was fairly damning.
In the aftermath of this, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia backed away from Spiritual Friendship and the Institute for Church Life dropped the project. No one said explicitly, “You have to cover up Fr. Harvey’s sins in order to be a player in the Catholic conversation about homosexuality.” But there was clear pressure on Spiritual Friendship writers to support Courage as a condition of getting institutional support, and after it became clear that we wouldn’t, the institutional support dried up.
None of this is meant to detract from the good work that the Institute for Church Life does, or the possibility that Courage may one day take accountability for the theological and pastoral failures of its founder and subsequent leaders. But it is important to note the dynamics that make Catholicism institutionally hostile to the types of projects it purports to support.
What type of thing was Spiritual Friendship?
In her piece, McGrew made a key mistake that tends to be made in critiques of various Side B initiatives. She wrote: “Wesley Hill and Ron Belgau co-founded the group blog Spiritual Friendship in 2012, where they developed their new philosophy together with an ecumenical group of contributors.”
What she and others don’t seem to understand is that the Spiritual Friendship blog, like many other Side B initiatives, was not intended to develop “a philosophy.” There was no monolithic view to which we subscribed and to which we hoped to convert others. We weren’t setting out to write a treatise of our new theology. Rather, there were a number of core positions and dispositions shared among a network of people who became friends and wanted to reflect on life in the Church for those with certain experiences.
There were times when members of the blog engaged in public debates. But participation in such debates should not function to obscure the diversity of views with which the Spiritual Friendship writers were engaging. We did not all agree on the prudence of same-sex romantic relationships. (Ron and I had ongoing disagreements, reflective of our differing temperaments and dispositions generally; he did a lot to charitably temper my naive enthusiasm.) We also had divergent approaches to questions of gender and identity. (I’ll come back to this later.) The various writers focused on topics of most interest to them. And then there was the Calvinism-Catholicism divide that I mentioned earlier. Given our diversity, it was simply not possible for Spiritual Friendship to develop a “new philosophy together.” Rather, we wrote in ways that were complementary to one another, disagreeing at times, but coalescing into a community. Not a community of identical automatons simply unfolding from established coding, but a complex human community with curiosity, disagreement, debate, love, and affection.
People came in and out of the core community of the blog and were given space to grow and change and depart, as needed. I am so grateful that they made it easy for me to depart from the blog so I could explore greater integrity, rather than pressuring me to make assurances and stay on.
The failure of McGrew and others to comprehend this may speak to another divergence between Catholic and non-Catholic Christian communions. As I had written in a previous piece on Side B communities:
“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.”
As one friend noted, this is also partly because Catholic orthodoxy is a much broader umbrella than orthodoxy in many other Christian churches. The Catholic theological tradition has tended to be characterized just as much (if not more) by debate as consensus. Accordingly, and partly because of certain Catholic dispositions, Spiritual Friendship was a space that could accommodate divergent views while still holding a commitment to orthodoxy. Clear doctrinal positions could be clear, and open questions could be taken in various directions.
None of this is meant to serve as a critique of non-Catholic Christianity. But it is to say that McGrew and other critics like her seem to misunderstand Spiritual Friendship because they fail to see the nuances of ecclesial and theological life across Christian denominations.
Some weird self-congratulatory stuff in McGrew’s writing
Eve picked up on an interesting feature of McGrew’s writing on gay people in her response:
“I’ve read some of McGrew’s other writing about gay people. She is comfortable talking about the emptiness of gay promiscuity. She understands the kind of conversion caused by a revolt against that emptiness–Christ as the path out of the gay abyss. This kind of conversion is real; it’s also the kind most comfortable for the straight majority. It’s all about the bad stuff you, the gay person, did. McGrew glances at the idea that even promiscuity can be the result of damage from a homophobic society, but rejects it, so that only openly gay people are ever in the wrong.”
This is sort of dynamic is characteristic of abusive relationships. The person harmed is always in the wrong, and the other party (especially “the good Christian”) cannot be blamed. The person harmed can’t not be in the wrong, and the person telling them this can’t not be in the right. This is the dynamic of an abusive relationship. I don’t say this jokingly.
Contrast this with the way that McGrew writes about herself:
“I guess there’s a sense in which I take pride in having been right this whole time… It’s just depressing to be right, sometimes… I’m pretty impressed with just how spot-on I already was”
“the right people are mad about it”
“I’m not the first critic to get this kind of dismissal. But I do think, if I can say so, that I’m among the most effective, for a few reasons. One reason is that I just have a lot of accumulated knowledge here. The fact that my brain functions like a small encyclopedia for stuff I’m interested in is a mixed blessing, but it does have its uses. I think I’ve also developed a skill for taking way more information than people want to read, synthesizing it into a coherent whole, and packaging it up in a way they will want to read.”
Those bits did not make their way into the First Things piece. My guess is the editor’s feedback would be: “You don’t need to tell them how smart you think you are. They’ll already get that.” (More on abuse concerns below.)
On tribalism, the truly shocking stuff, and heavy burdens
Another key problem for McGrew is that she presents a simplistic view of theological development, one in which orthodoxy and heterodoxy are necessarily unidirectional, with the latter holding more power than the former. Consider the following critique of Wesley Hill’s work in McGrew’s Patheos post:
“I was joined by several of them, including three priests, on a Stand Firm podcast where I previewed some of the ideas I was developing for my First Things piece. All of them remembered really liking Wesley Hill’s memoir Washed and Waiting when it came out way back in 2010, a book which avoided signaling too obviously that it was a harbinger of unorthodoxy (though you could see signs, even then). At least two of them were ex-Episcopalian, so to them, anyone who wasn’t sprinting through the sanctuary with a rainbow flag came as a relief. ‘Oh thank goodness, a smart Christian with same-sex attraction who’s not peddling outright revisionist heresy! Yes! Co-sign!’ I sympathize with this, but I just note it as part of the explanation for why a comprehensive ecumenical rejection of the project has been such a long time coming. And now, ironically, Wesley Hill has become a priest…in the Episcopal Church. (Granted, his stated intentions are to be a moderating conservative presence. LOL. I’m sorry, I have nothing to add there.)”
Setting aside the clear contempt McGrew expresses towards Hill, it’s important to note her view of theological development. For McGrew, Hill had the seeds of heterodoxy in his first book and, because he was given space to continue his work, those seeds were necessarily what took on dominance, with the necessary fruit of Hill’s endeavors being heterodoxy.
I ascribe more to a Newmanian view of development, especially the development of doctrine, where certain key principles provide the roots for growth and, to the extent the idea is living, it will continue to grow and change. To the extent an idea (such as Christian doctrine) stops changing, it has died. When it comes to life on earth, I find it helpful to integrate this view of development with Matthew 13. We are all bearers both of the Good News and of our fallen natures. Whenever we bear the seeds of the Good News, our life in this fallen world tends to combine it with the seeds of chaff. And then we have to let all this grow, and separate it out over time. Whereas McGrew might see herself as the wheat and Side B people as the chaff—a tribalist reading of Matthew 13—, I tend to focus more on how we have both within each of us, and it is our Christian duty to sort through this over the course of our lives. It’s an iterative process through the various seasons of our lives, trying to do better planting, caring, and sorting as we learn more about the fields we have been given to cultivate. No person is just one thing, and the same can be said for each “movement.” McGrew refuses to see this for Hill, or for the Side B movement generally.
Oddly, however, she does see this for her allies, again suggesting she is writing out of a form of tribalism. In the same piece, consider what she has to say of Dan Mattson, a regular critic of Spiritual Friendship and occasional contributor to First Things:
“Indeed, the Catholic writer Daniel Mattson did engage critically, making many good points. It’s a great and tragic pity that his own guilty past caught up with him and forced him to exit the public square.”
What she is referring to is how allegations had arisen that, when Mattson was in his thirties, he started a multi-year online sexual relationship with a thirteen-year-old boy, that included buying the child a pre-paid cell phone to keep the relationship from his parents. It’s important to note how McGrew places fatal consequences in Hill’s use of the word “gay,” delegitimizing any subsequent work, while she writes of Mattson’s sexual predation of a child: “a great and tragic pity that his own guilty past caught up with him and forced him to exit the public square.” The phrasing suggests that McGrew wishes the “guilty past” would have stayed out of the public light so that Mattson could continue contributing to her own movement.
Her affection for the work of Mattson and the nuance with which she treats the various aspects of his life and writing can be sharply contrasted with the simplistic guilt by association that she places with various Side B initiatives. She indiscriminately chronicles the sins of Spiritual Friendship, Revoice, and various individuals, making all of them guilty for the failures of each. She fails to comprehend that, though they shared some leaders, Spiritual Friendship and Revoice were distinct initiatives, with divergent approaches to and perspectives on issues of faith and sexuality. For example, she criticizes various Side B initiatives and individuals for their approaches to gender identity, while failing to notice that Spiritual Friendship tended to avoid such questions (they were beyond the purview of most of the writers at the time, and also were worthy of their own dedicated spaces) and thus could only be guilty by association. But in Eve’s response to McGrew, Eve writes: “In what follows I’m speaking solely for myself, not for Revoice or anybody else.” And contrary to what McGrew would like to believe, Grant Hartley neither speaks for Wesley Hill nor is his “protege.” (Their ecclesial differences, as Catholic and Episcopalian, should be noted.)
McGrew and others like her might argue that there’s an important distinction to be made between Mattson and Hill (as well as other Side B Christians): Mattson (hopefully) had repented of his sin and amended his life (even if he has not taken accountability for his actions, or even acknowledged them), whereas Hill continues to hold onto an identity McGrew deems problematic. This is a really important argument, because of the way in which it can enable sexual abusers, especially in Christian communities. They can say, “I repented, and I’ve changed, and thus I am good to go.” And then they abuse again and repent again and feel redeemed again. And they are better than those others who hold onto heresy, because at least they repented and don’t hold heretical views. Or they do believe they’ve repented and changed, and then the victim comes forward, and the victim is vilified for speaking against this “changed” and “good man.” This extends the harm to the victim, furthering a cycle of abuse.
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?
I won’t pretend to be immune to the trap of over-theologizing. I’ve been guilty of occupying myself with theological debates and positions instead of dealing with my own personal issues, hoping I could find integrity from without rather than within. I’ve been guilty of over-identifying with theological views and under-identifying with how I actually behave. These days, I spend much more time thinking about the parable of the two sons. And then I worry about people’s sons and daughters, about what Christian communities they’re growing up in and who will believe them if they come forward about abuse, about what it must be like for them to read that the tragedy was not that they were subjected to predation, but that people found out about it. I don’t think that McGrew means to harm them. But that’s the thing about these victims that gets looked over by the Church, resulting in continued harm… No one means to harm them. They just get harmed, and everyone looks away.
In this way, McGrew is representative of much of the American Church, including much of the American Catholic Church. We’re much more concerned with who holds what position than we are with how people are being treated, including people who are being abused. Then things go public. Many leaders (quietly) get upset, not that the abuse happened, but that other people found out. McGrew has said the quiet part out loud.
Because I am me and not McGrew, I will not say that she and Mattson are inseparably tied in an anti-Side B movement sewn inescapably with the seeds of sexual predation. McGrew is not guilty by movement association, though she is guilty of the appalling way in which she characterizes Mattson’s predation of a child. That’s a nasty seed with some poisonous fruit, if there ever was one. But I will not argue that their moral or theological developments are necessarily linear and that I am the true possessor of the narrative of their theological lives. They are responsible for their own lives. And if they fail to take responsibility, I cannot force them to do so. I’m too busy trying to figure out how to take responsibility for myself.
(It’s going… well, I think. On a related note, and something that it might be good for me to disclose… I am not prioritizing “the Side B thing” in my personal life, so I don’t really feel a personal stake in this debate except that I really respect Side B people and have many Side B friends that I love and admire. It still is shocking to me how invested many Christians are in making the already extremely difficult aspirations of Side B Christians even harder. Pieces like McGrews’ feel very validating for my own decisions. It’s also crazy to me that McGrew says that today’s Side B is “essentially Side A Lite.” What exactly is “lite” about trying to be celibate in a culture where you are attacked by both the left and the right, including by your own Christian communities? It really is a testament to Side B Christians that they keep trying at all.)
Ultimately, McGrew’s peice is an exercise in futility. Part of the reason why Side B has taken on such prominence among tradition-minded Christians with same-sex desires, in contrast to the thing McGrew promotes which doesn’t have a name (she might argue the name is “orthodoxy,” but Side B Christians claim that as well, so it doesn’t really work as a signifier for the group), is because McGrew and those aligned with her don’t really offer us anything. This is why she ends her Patheos piece on such a depressing note:
“It seems to me that this is where many find themselves today. I’m not here to say there’s a magic bullet for them. Life is tragic, and life is unfair. This is just one of many ways the tragedy of life can manifest itself in our bodies and minds. As I told one young friend, I have nothing to sell him here. In reply, he said there was no need for me to sell him anything. My prayers were enough. Please God, they will continue to be.”
What she has to offer is a longer-winded “thoughts and prayers.” And consider how she ends her First Things piece:
“This does not mean churches have no alternative but to return to older models of care that were themselves theologically and practically questionable. Rather, churches should take it upon themselves to befriend and compassionately encourage Christians with these struggles, just as they would befriend and encourage any Christian who carries a solitary sorrow. That struggle may, in its essence, bring with it the closing of certain doors, the dying of certain dreams. Yet there still remain many ways to give of oneself to the family of God. There remain many ways to fulfill the great task of saying ‘yes’ to life. It is the Church’s responsibility to enable every Christian to find them. ‘In such a way,’ as future pope Benedict XVI wrote in 1986, ‘the entire Christian community can come to recognize its own call to assist its brothers and sisters, without deluding them or isolating them.’”
The ending of the First Things piece is far worse, because it doesn’t even end with us. It ends with the question: Well, what are Christian communities to do with those people? It’s as if what McGrew wants is for us to sit around and wait for everyone else to figure out what to do with us. It’s hard for me to see what serious reading of the Bible ends with that conclusion.
Last week, I wrote that “love letter to illogical Catholicism,” on the illogical views prevalent throughout Catholic culture, and how seeing the lack of logic helped me move away from the burden of various Catholic perspectives. I’d really encourage my Side B friends to take a similar approach to McGrew. She clearly doesn’t get it. And seeing that should feel like validation. In demonstrating how much she doesn’t get it, she’s giving you a gift. A gift of not needing to be burdened by what she is placing in front of you. Leave her her heavy burdens. Accept the gift, that your yoke may be easy, your burden light.
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