I just finished reading for review The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality, edited by Donald L. Boisvert and Carly Daniel-Hughes. Targeting an undergraduate audience, the text explores ways that religion, gender, and sexuality intersect and interact in a variety of religious traditions.
The book’s essays traverse a wide sampling of religious inheritance including indigenous traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and various Asian religions. The topics examined range from the culture of male love in Japanese Buddhism to various themes of love in Haitian Voodoo, from sexual desire in Beguine communities to Gandhi’s experiments in sexual chastity, and from the passion of St. Pelagius to the transgender performance characteristic of the Hijra identity in India. Among other things, the book offers a wide array of interpretations regarding how sexuality emerges in particular traditions and contexts. One is left with a feeling that nearly anything goes depending on which set of rules or religious mores a particular group of people follow. The variations presented in each chapter related to the interpretation of sexuality’s embeddedness in spiritual expression problematize the notion of the “normal” emerging in sexual desire and expression.
My reading then inspired a reflection on how I envision a relationship between sexuality and spirituality, provoking a deeper consideration of both how sexual desire and spiritual practice converge and the ways in which organized religion, along with affiliated institutions, have attempted to diminish the value of desire while upholding a spirituality that (even if seemingly embodied) elevates us from the radically physical, sexual world we inhabit.
In thinking about how to hold sexuality – including sexual desire and expression – in constructive tension with spiritual practice, I decided to go to Catholic Mass with this rumination in the fore of my imagination.
A quick aside, because I think sexual energy can be interpreted as creative energy, accessed in situations where the act of creation is in full force – related to nature and art for instance: Spiritual scenes in my life where I think sexual desire and spirituality/spiritual praxis collided quite easily include participating in Shoshone Sweat Lodges in Wyoming, Indian Ashrams in South Florida, and in Buddhist meditation groups, and I think we could discuss endlessly what this actually means. The elements that promoted the intersection of desire and spiritual practice in these environments could be, and deserve to be, thoroughly explored.
But I am here primarily interested in the possibility of convergence of sexual desire and spiritual practice within my own tradition – Roman Catholic – not only textually as in Augustine’s Confessions (see more on this here) but also in the context of the Catholic Mass. My question then relates to whether the convergence of desire and spiritual practice can happen within the tradition and the institutional structures to which I feel most attached. Even as I write this, I imagine a skeptical, analytical raise of an eyebrow from Julia Kristeva, a self-avowed atheist interested in This Incredible Need to Believe.
In my experiment, I intentionally selected a church that was aesthetically pleasing. Saint Mary’s of Stamford, Connecticut, is a beautiful church built in the French gothic style and stylized with the requisite rose window. I was actually excited to go to Mass. I arrived about 15 minutes early and so decided to scout the internet on my phone for what the parish promoted. What I discovered left me in horror.
Saint Mary’s is one of three churches in Connecticut that serve as a chapter for Courage, an international apostolate of the Catholic Church. Courage, and the corresponding EnCourage (a ministry within Courage), which “ministers to persons with same-sex attraction.” The apostolate professes to help members of the Catholic Church, “move beyond the confines of the homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ.” Under the guise of support and love, the site labels “homosexuals” as obsessively disordered and in need of compassion. The more I read, the more angered I became.
The “About” tab claims the following:
Persons with homosexual desires have always been with us; however, until recent times, there has been little, if any, formal outreach from the Church in the way of support groups or information for such persons. Most were left to work out their path on their own. As a result, they found themselves listening to and accepting the secular society’s perspective and opting to act on their same-sex desires.
I thought I would be sick. Attending mass was not an option. I drove out from the parking lot, more than disappointed. I know that the Catholic Church is a conservative body, but I have been to churches, St. Cecelia’s in Boston, for instance (incidentally, no church in Massachusetts hosts a chapter of Courage), that were more liberal. But to claim and label particular desire as a disease with which “Same sexual attraction” or “SSA” persons are afflicted is confusing and also abusive.
My project came to a halt, and so I write this to bring to your awareness the existence of a problematic organization. The effort of such religiously supported consortiums, which spend money on projects to eradicate desire of any kind (this group hosts conferences and summer camps for kids!), in the guise of care and compassion are at the least manipulative. The language on the website attests to this fact. Such organizations, conceptualized in their patriarchal, heteronormative, imperial contexts, expunge sexual expression and desire from their repertoires, producing physical rigidity, tension, and even fear in bodies. And at once, they interfere with spiritual praxis if, and for which history accounts, any tendency for the link between sexual desire and spirituality exists.
The kind of intrusion that Saint Mary’s and Courage support inhibits the convergence of our most basic selves. Sexuality and spirituality become radially opposed. Regardless of our sexual preference, spirituality becomes disembodied, framed by law, and alienated from our innermost, essential selves: that self is a sexual self.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).