July Editorial: Interview with Dr. Janet Smith of the Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit

Fr. Meconi: It is an honor to be with you. Your reflections on the beauty of Humanae Vitae, and the Church’s incessant teaching on the divine will for married love, have helped many come to see what Christian marriage really means. Recently, it was announced that you are involved in sponsoring a conference “Welcoming and Accompanying: Pastoral Approaches to Same Sex Issues.”  When is  this event and who can be a part of it?

Dr. Smith:  Yes, it will happen on August 10-12 at the St. John Inn in Plymouth, MI. It is being co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Detroit, and Courage International, with the help of a very generous grant from the Our Sunday Visitor. The Catholic Medical Association is also a sponsor. We have over thirty speakers, some very well-known, and others who should be well-known, and soon will be. Cardinal Collins from Toronto, Archbishop Vigneron from Detroit, and Bishop Byrnes, auxiliary from Detroit, will be celebrants and homilists at the Masses. Among the speakers are: Ralph Martin, Mary Healy, Peter Herbeck, Teresa Tomeo, Jennifer Roback Morse, Fr. John Riccardo, Bob Schuchts, Dr. Tim Flanigan, Dan Mattson, and many more who have prepared very thoughtful and timely talks. We are providing as comprehensive a treatment as we can; we have talks laying out a strong Christian anthropology; we have philosophical approaches both from a natural law and a personalist perspective. We will hear the inspiring and touching testimonies of some who have been active in same sex sexual relationships, but now are devotedly seeking holiness. We will hear from spiritual and psychological counselors who help persons living with SSA deal with some of the wounds connected to their attractions.  We will learn about the strategies used by those who have been promoting acceptance of same-sex sexual behavior, and about strategies which dioceses can use to educate the faithful.

Those interested in attending will find all the information they need at couragerc.org.  Information is also available there for those who would like to fully, or partially, fund a scholarship for priests, seminarians, or any interested party.

Fr. Meconi:  Will those who can’t attend be able to have access to the talks?  How can those reading this now get access to what you wish for them to know?

Dr. Smith: Yes, in at least two different media:
1) In a book, Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same Sex Issues, including essays by half of the speakers, and a few extras, which is being published by Ignatius Press. The other essays will likely soon be published, as well.
2) We also intend to tape the talks both in audio and video format, and they will be available online through the Courage website. 

Fr. Meconi: The title of your conference, “Welcoming and Accompanying: Pastoral Approaches to Same Sex Issues” is quite provocative.  Could you explain what you want to convey here?

Dr. Smith: We hope people will pick up the echoes of talks that Pope Francis has given.  He wants us to be in relationship, especially with those on the periphery. While advocacy of same-sex sexual relations has dominated the culture in recent years, virtually every person who lives with SSA will testify to times in their lives, usually long and painful times, where they have felt marginalized and rejected.   

I recently spoke to a group of college students on these issues, and explained that it is wrong to think that “conservative” Catholics don’t love, or want to love, those with SSA.  Just like everyone else, they have family members and friends who live with SSA, and want to show their love for them. Nonetheless, they often will keep at an uncomfortable distance from those they love because they don’t know how to behave. Some are afraid that any love or affection they show will be misinterpreted as approval of same-sex behavior, and as a failure to witness to the truth.  We hope that this conference will help people who want to show their love for those living with SSA more readily, and appropriately do so.

Parishes are often thought not to be “welcoming” places to those living with SSA.  Part of the reason for that, of course, is that parishes are made up of people, and, as I just noted, a lot of people with love in their hearts don’t know how to act on that love. As people learn more about same sex issues, they will begin to feel more comfortable with loving those who live with SSA. The testimonies of those who live with SSA will be particularly helpful in this regard, as well as the talks of those who counsel those with SSA. The movies that will be shown: “The Desire of the Everlasting Hills” and “The Third Way” also are very revealing about the struggles endured by those with SSA, and how the message the Church has about SSA is ultimately one that makes sense to them. And it is very exciting that Courage will be unveiling a new series to be used in parishes for teaching about same sex issues.

Fr. Meconi: And what about the title of the book, Living the Truth in Love? What do you want this to capture? 

Dr. Smith: I hope, to some extent, that it is self-explanatory. There are many situations in this world where it is tempting to think that truth and love are incompatible. Christians, however, know that it is never loving to compromise on the truth. We are concerned not only with people’s “happiness” in this world, but with their eternal happiness.  Christ made it very clear that we will not attain eternal happiness unless we live in accord with the truth. His life made it clear that confronting those who are living lives incompatible with the truth is not easy: people easily dismiss the truth-teller, and can actually hate the truth teller, because those living lives incompatible with the truth often don’t want to know the truth, for they would then have to change their ways.

Two common responses to the difficulty of appearing loving, and also of being faithful to the truth, is that some people dispense with truth-telling altogether, and try to appease those who seem miserable at hearing the truth. They then fail to speak the truth to those who desperately want to do things we know to be bad for them.  Parents who take their daughters to Planned Parenthood are a good examples of that tendency.  I suspect there was a significant amount of this motivation in the decision of the Supreme Court that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

Another response can be to put forth argumentswith varying degrees of aggressionthat we think should persuade any reasonable person.  This approach rarely does any good, either for the person who needs to know the truth, or for the person who delivers it. Those of us who would speak the truth effectively need to take great care to develop and employ the proper methods.  Building a strong trusting relationship with a person is nearly always a necessary precursor to an honest sharing of delicate views, especially when one person is likely to feel condemned by the views of the other.  And no matter how sensitively, and lovingly, one may present the truth, there is always the danger that the recipient will react negatively. We need to be prepared for that, and be prepared to work on continuing to be in relationship.

Fr. Meconi: Is this conference going to be able to teach us how to meet all the challenges of dealing with same-sex issues?

Dr. Smith: Oh, how I wish! But that is too lofty a goal now, and, perhaps, an inherently impossible goal. I don’t think anyone really knows how to do it in every respect.  To some extent, I think we may be just at the beginning of knowing how to accompany and welcome those who live with SSA. Again, listening to the experiences of those who live with SSA, and those who have successfully pastored them, is indispensable, and we will provide some of that. Establishing an accurate understanding of Christian anthropology, and Catholic terminology, is also indispensable.

We hope to draw a large crowd of people with diverse experiences who will converse with each other, share with each other, challenge each other, and learn from each other. I don’t know if many young people will attend, but I wish they would. I think older generations may have a lot to learn from the younger generation, who in the course of things, have become close friends with individuals who make no secret of their SSA.  Many in the older generation have never really achieved a comfort level of dealing with SSA, because people with SSA have previously tried to hide it—for good reason.

I do think that those who attend the conference, listen to the talks, or read the books, will learn a great deal, and will be much better equipped to welcome and accompany those with SSA. But there will be no formulas given.  Achieving a deeper understanding of an authentic Christian anthropology, and of SSA, will assist, in itself, those who want to be good friends to those with SSA, to do so with love, and in the truth.

Fr. Meconi: Does the recent Supreme Court decision that concludes that same sex marriage is a constitutional right present any special challenges for those who would provide pastoral care for individuals who live with same-sex attraction?

Dr. Smith: It is telling that one of the chief reasons given for finding that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right is the concern that people who don’t marry are likely to live lonely lives. Justice Kennedy in the closing paragraph of Obergefell v. Hodgesstated that:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

It is true that God designed marriage to help with what Saint John Paul II called the “original solitude” that marked Adam’s early existence. Saint John Paul II introduced the term “spousal” meaning of the body which conveys the concept that our very bodies indicate that we are meant to be in relationship with others. Indeed, he taught that it is of the human essence that we are to love, and to be loved. But he did not think that those who remain unmarried are condemned to a life of loneliness. He did not think that earthly marriage is a complete answer, or the only answer to the human need for a lasting, loving, intimate relationship. In fact, he spoke of marriage as “easing a person’s existential loneliness”—“easing” not “erasing.” Even spouses in very happy marriages will not find that marriage, or any combination of relationships, eliminates loneliness from their lives. As Augustine so famously stated “{Our} hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

The truth that we are all meant to find our ultimate happiness in a “spousal” relationship with God is a Christian truth that too few Christians grasp, even in a minimal way. It is a fantastic, astonishing, preposterous truth. The Supreme Court decision advances the falsehood that human happiness is something to be sought in this world, and that marriage must be a part of that. While the incredible incidence of divorce in our culture indicates that marriage is no sure path to happiness, the number of people who remarry, and even the demand for recognition of marriage for same-sex couples, indicates that there is a strong cultural conviction that a sure path to happiness is marriage. 

M. Scott Peck, in his book, The Road Less Travelled, begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” Those looking for an easy, guaranteed path to happiness, will not find it in marriage, or any where else. What makes marriage a possible source of happiness is that it requires people to become generous, sacrificing, patient, self-giving, and forgiving. As any semi-conscious human being knows, marriage is a very challenging way of life, and not any guarantee to happiness.

Moreover, we need to recognize that most people have a fairly serious cross to carry in this world, whether it be financial insecurity; abandonment by, or death, of loved ones; mental and physical disease; lack of self-confidence; persecution by enemies; estrangement; the burdens of caring for children, siblings, or parents who are very dependent, etc. In the midst of crosses, happiness is still to be found and, in fact, might only be found there.

Same-sex attraction is, in my view, an exceptionally difficult cross. But it is not an insuperable obstacle to happiness, nor a condemnation to a lonely life. Those who live with same-sex attraction are certainly lovable, and capable of radical self-love. Marriage is not required to enable them to love, or be loved. In many cultures, and certainly in our current culture, many people choose not to marry, or be in sexual relationships, many do not find a suitable person to love, many are abandoned, and live on without a partner. While those lives are often challenging, those who work to reach out to others, to build networks of support—both by giving and receiving support—find their lives are rich and rewarding and, in fact, can rightly be considered profoundly happy. They may never have expected to find happiness where they have, but they do find happiness there.

So, what does all that have to do with the Supreme Court decision? The Supreme Court decision perpetuates the lie that those who are not married, are not likely to find happiness, and are likely to be miserably lonely. Too many heterosexuals believe that lie, and enter into marriages that are doomed to fail. Those who live with SSA are likely to follow them down that dead end.

We need to find ways to help people see that their happiness lies not in any specific state in life, but in living lives of complete self-giving. Put the focus elsewhere rather than on meeting one’s own needs. We should not neglect ourselves, of course, but being fixated on the concept that there is only one path to happiness is a deadly enterprise.

And, of course, the Supreme Court decision is certainly going to lead to curtailment of religious liberties, of the freedom to speak, and even to act in accord with the Church. Christians who speak the truth about same-sex issues will surely be persecuted; some will become intimidated, and become silent. But others will speak boldly, and act boldly.  So we can expect an outpouring of God’s grace as Christians fearlessly defend God’s truth.

Fr. Meconi:Thank you, Dr. Smith.  With you, and so many other faithful friends of the Lord behind it, I know your conference in August will equip people with some of the fundamentals they need for being able to become worthy companions to those who live with SSA.  We all need friends on this journey, and to get to the home for which each of us has been created, we need company convicted of Catholic virtue, and friends who can help us all resist all of today’s attempts to bully and prevent Christians from following God’s way.

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Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is best known for her talk “Contraception: Why Not.” 

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Tom McGuire says:

    I read the Dr Smith interview with interest. Dr Smith expressed signs of mercy and compassion that I have not always found in her writing and in the one time when I heard her speak. She admits to not having all the answers. So many of us Catholics encounter others with an agenda. We have the answers and cannot understand when the other does not have the same answer as we. The unconditional love and acceptance of Jesus is demonstrated best when we encounter the other without an agenda and with a penetrating sensitivity that allows us to listen to the other heart to heart.

  2. Martin B. Drew says:

    From the book of Wisdom, Love justice, you who judge the earth ,think of the Lord in goodness ,and seek him in integrity of heart Because he is found by those who test him not, and he manifests himself to those who do not disbelieve him. For perverse counsels separate a man from God and his power, put to the proof rebukes the foolhardy. because into a soul that plots evil wisdom enters not nor dwells she in a body under debt of sin. For the spirit of discipline flees deceit and withdraws from senseless counsels and when injustice occurs it is rebuked. For wisdom is a kindly spirit….for justice is undying. The council of Trent teaches that all men should work out their own salvation to eternal life. This in regards to any state of life and Love being the form of the virtues must include oneself and others.

  3. J. E. Sigler J. E. Sigler says:

    Thank you, Dr. Smith, for all your work. I deeply admire what you do, and am extremely grateful for all your selfless service to Truth!