Recently Sr. Vassa Larin (famous for her “Coffee with Sr. Vassa” podcast) has attracted much and varied attention from a correspondence she published in which she replied to a question from a woman of a fourteen year old boy about how to handle her son’s “coming out”. (The mother’s question and Sr. Vassa’s response may be accessed here.) Her advice, prefaced by a disclaimer of sorts that it was but her “personal opinion…not in line with some official pronouncements of my Church” (i.e. ROCOR) has drawn lots of admiration and praise from the gay community and lots of criticism from Orthodox clergy.
I have always been and will I trust continue to be a fan of Sr. Vassa’s work, though I think this current episode represents a serious mis-step for her. Clergy such as Fr. John Whiteford have replied at length to her piece with his customary candour, scholarship, and common sense, and there is no reason for me to weigh in as well and respond to her advice directly. I have nothing to add by way of critique, and am happy to simply say “Amen” to what Fr. John has written. But I would like to respond directly to what the mother asked Sr. Vassa, since Sr. Vassa has kindly given me the opportunity to read her mail. What follows would be my own response to the mother’s query if she had asked me. Though it is of course my own opinion, I will not offer much by way of disclaimer, since I hope that it also represents the teaching of the Church. I say this not because I am trying to play it safe, but because I genuinely believe what my Church teaches about this, and because I feel that no one wearing their church’s cassock with integrity has any business publicly dissenting from that teaching.
One difficulty in responding to a pastoral issue by way of blog post is that a blog post must be made at one remove at least from the situation. In real life a pastor could sit down with the parents and the young man and talk about what is really going on. Is the boy really gay? Is he bi-sexual? Is it a matter of gender dysphoria? Is he confusing feelings of admiration and love for an older adult as evidence of homosexual orientation, and thus interpreting strong emotion for eroticism? In our over-heated debates about homosexuality and transgender, all feelings of love are increasingly sexualized, and delight in physical contact with persons of the same gender is almost always now read as evidence of homosexuality. It was otherwise in previous eras, when men could express love for other men in open and physical ways and not be considered homosexual. Given the fact that sexual feelings always exist on a kind of continuum and with some fluidity, the issues of homosexuality and gender are far from clear, whatever the gay community may say. All the more reason to sit down first and talk. It could be that the young man has always had a strong sexual attraction to males and none whatsoever for females, living in a kind of sexual inversion to the norm. The point is, we cannot tell from the little the mother writes.
A blog post may address the issue of what to do with a young man genuinely experiencing what used to be called sexual inversion, but a pastor working in real life must take nothing for granted. He is not dealing with abstract issues, but with people’s actual lives, with all their complexity, brokenness, heartbreak, and potential. If someone sent me an email asking for advice about this situation, I would not give much of a reply because I am at too great a distance to offer a sensible one. Instead I would send the parents back to their pastor. They might say that they are “not comfortable revealing this information about my son” to their parish priest, but the priest will find out sooner or later, and anyway it is his job to talk to them and offer love and guidance. And such guidance must be based on real communication and counselling, not on a 288 word email query.
In this real life situation, I would tell the mother (and the boy) that God loves him regardless of his sexual orientation, his sexual confusion, and his sexual choices. In that sense, God’s love is unconditional. But love is not the same as approval—God loves me, but He does not approve of all of my choices, and because He loves me He calls me to repent of the sinful ones. God knows that certain choices lead to stability, health, happiness, and life, while other choices lead to instability, sickness, misery, and death. In His love He insists that I choose the former, and avoid sin. Sin is not simply a no-no, and God hates it not because He is irritable, unreasonable, mean, or feisty, but because He sees that embracing sin is never in one’s best interests.
One form of sin is unchastity—i.e. any sexual activity before marriage. Sexual activity is a fire, which can only be safely contained in something strong, hard, and permanent—like a fire-place. If a fire is lit in the fire-place, then the house and its occupants will be warmed by it. If it is lit in the living room outside the fire-place, it will burn the house down. And here a miss is as good as a mile—lighting the fire very close to the fire-place but not actually in it is no better than lighting it across the room from the fire-place, for the resultant fire will still burn the place down. In the same way, sexual activity can only safely fulfil its function when contained in the strong, hard, and permanent vows of a marriage commitment—and for Christians, marriage involves the union of two opposites with the potential for personal and numerical growth—i.e. a family.
This means that any fourteen year old, whether boy or girl, homosexual or straight, should be dissuaded from sexual activity outside of marriage. In the case of heterosexual Christian singles, this will involve self-control and celibacy for years, and possibly permanently. In the case of homosexual Christian singles, it will involve self-control and celibacy permanently, assuming that their homosexuality cannot be overcome. (Some people have reported that it has been overcome in their lives, and their experience, though perhaps rare, should not be discounted simply because it flies in the face of current gay dogma.) This commitment to chastity is unpopular advice, but the teaching of Christ allows for no other course of action.
The main issue here is not homosexuality, but obedience to Christ, who simply disallows His disciples to be sexually active outside of marriage, and who defines marriage as the union of man and woman. Our own culture has for a generation considered Christ’s expectation of chastity an impossible demand, but our generation is both historically myopic and lacking in courage. Previous eras assumed that life-long chastity, though difficult, was not impossible. We have been trained to regard all our desires as “natural” (i.e. legitimate) by definition, and also as irresistible. In fact they are neither, and so part of our parental counsel to our adolescent children must teach them that. Our culture gives everything a sexual tinge and declares that sexual abstinence is unhealthy, psychologically morbid, all but impossible, and more than a bit pathetic. We must teach all our fourteen year olds that in this instance our culture is insane.
As the fourteen year old boy continues to mature, his parents should refuse to offer any counsel or encouragement but the ones Christ would give. They will always love their son, of course, whatever he chooses to do, but their actions and approvals, whether explicit or implicit, must conform to the demands of Christian discipleship. This means remaining in His Church and continuing to grow in a life of prayer, Eucharist, and sexual self-control. This will reveal that true intimacy need not be equated with sexual activity, but that it is possible to live a full and emotionally-satisfying life even as a celibate. It will be a difficult path for the young man, and one that will receive its commensurate reward from Christ at its end. This is all the more reason for the parents to strengthen their son’s hands and encourage him to remain faithful. One cannot make a treaty with sin and accept it because rejecting it proves ascetically difficult. Deciding to accept sin in our lives because we are “only human” is not an option for any disciple of Jesus. We may fail time and again, but our constant striving must be for righteousness, and the path we tread the path of repentance. To tacitly accept a homosexual lifestyle is to throw in the towel of discipleship and forsake that way. Now is not the time for acquiescence to the world’s way, but for courage to follow Christ.