PASTORAL PRACTICE IN THE 21st CENTURY: SOME THOUGHTS ON PREMARITAL COUNSELING by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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The Orthodox Church in North America lags decades behind other faith communities in creating structured programs of preparation for couples planning to marry. From the time of my own marriage in 1981 to my studies at St. Vladimir’s Seminary from 1986 to 1989, and then my active years as a priest from 1988 to 1995, I was neither offered—as half of a couple engaged to be married—nor made aware of—as a seminarian and parish priest—any Orthodox resources equivalent to the Catholic Church’s Pre-Cana programs. To the best of my knowledge these programs date back to the 1960s. Now in the digital age Catholic marriage preparation can even be completed through online programs approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It’s not clear that this deficit in Orthodox pastoral practice has been fully remedied, whether at the level of the dioceses, jurisdictions, or the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. I suspect that most priests wing it—if they make any attempt at substantive premarital counseling at all. The tendency in some reactionary Orthodox circles to elevate narcissistic priests to the status of “starets” (see Father Isaac Skidmore on this), or to fabricate a “theology” of marriage which harks back to an imaginary golden past when women knew their place (e.g., the “writings” of Father Joseph Gleason), or even—at the extreme limits—to extol the “Orthodoxy” of wife-beating, underscores the pastoral urgency of delivering a consistent standard of premarital preparation across parishes, dioceses, and jurisdictions. The best from pre-culture wars modern Orthodox theology (Paul Evdokimov, Philip Sherrard, et al.), in conversation with the best from the field of marriage, family, and child counseling, can produce the best possible programs to prepare Orthodox couples for, and support them in, their marriages. This is the proper way to “defend” marriage.

Premarital counseling adequate to the 21st century must address the question of same-sex orientation and its impact on opposite-sex marriage. Let me explain.

The existence of gay fathers support groups in major cities across North America attests to the not uncommon phenomenon of men who marry women despite their erotic, emotional, affectional, and spiritual orientation toward other men. Although bisexual functionally, they come to these meetings self-identifying as gay, not bi.

The motives that compel gay men to marry women—even young gay men, in spite of the growing social acceptance of same-sex relationships—vary along an intersectional spectrum of societal, religious, parental, and internalized pressures to conform to a rigidly heterosexist paradigm of human love. Often the man has a genuine desire to father and raise biological children. Very few marry with the intention of cheating on their wives or leaving their families. All of them love their wives and children to the best of their ability. Yet few think to ask themselves about the possible effects on a woman when her husband’s desires and fantasies lie secretly and diametrically elsewhere. Undoubtedly many Orthodox priests fit this profile.

Some of these men come to the support group still closeted and married (some faithful to their wives, others having sex with a man or men on the side); others “out” to their wives (and sometimes to their children), but still married; others navigating their separation and divorce from their wives; and yet others openly gay and divorced for many years. The majority do not envision a life of bed-hopping for themselves, but wish to form—or have already formed—a stable, monogamous same-sex bond.

While their individual circumstances vary, the men who attend these meetings all have this in common: the realization that attempting to repress their same-sex desire over a lifetime of monogamous opposite-sex marriage hasn’t worked. Unfulfilled desire only intensifies over the years and decades. Being a man of faith does not dispel it. For many men, unfulfilled same-sex desire comes eventually to border on the obsessive. Sooner or later, the initiation and completion of marital coitus occurs only through vivid fantasies, undisclosed to the unsuspecting wife, that “something else” is happening in the presumably undefiled marriage bed. Adultery occurs repeatedly in the man’s imagination, no matter how earnestly he prays that it were otherwise, no matter how much he loves his wife. This is how his children are brought into the world.

In the end, life turns upside down for too many women and children when their beloved husband and father announces that he just can’t do it anymore. The trauma for the men in these situations also cannot be overstated.

In a recent exchange of emails, a 20-something Orthodox man in the US divulged to me that he had considered dating men before he met his fiancée. I have known him for years, so his admission came as no suprise to me. While the fact that my young friend registers strongly on my gaydar hardly “disqualifies” him from marrying a woman, I question how thoroughly and adequately he has examined this aspect of himself. I wonder (but I’m sure that I know the answer) whether his priest has raised the question privately with him. As his wedding date draws closer, I can only hope and pray—for the young lady’s sake as well as his—that his marriage doesn’t become shipwrecked one day on the far shore of unfulfilled same-sex desire.

Father Thomas Hopko’s notoriously ill-conceived Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction reaches its nadir of bad pastoral theology when he counsels gay men who are capable of opposite-sex intercourse (and how would they know, unless they experimented with premarital sex?) to marry an “understanding” woman. In classroom remarks some thirty years ago, he asserted that married men sneaking off now and then to the local park for anonymous late night sex with other men, and crawling back to confession yet again in abject self-loathing, comprised a more authentically Christian way of life than following their hearts into a committed same-sex relationship in the first place. He seemed not to know that even same-sex oriented husbands who do not duck behind the bushes in the park at 2:00 a.m. still have sex with men—in their fantasies, in the persons and bodies of their wives. Is this Christian marriage? 

More than half of Orthodox Christian Americans now support same-sex marriage. Might this not represent the whispering of the Holy Spirit? Might same-sex oriented Orthodox Christians avoid opposite-sex marriage if the Church offered them a lifelong, monogamous alternative such as the conjugal friendship that Father Pavel Florensky envisioned a hundred years ago?

Surely we can do better—must do better—in the 21st-century Orthodox Church.

See the extensive Sexuality and Gender section in our Archives by Author.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and contributor of religious commentary at the Kyiv Post. He holds an Honours BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College with a thesis on same-sex love, and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto with a paper entitled Queering Queer: Hitting the Reset Button (Queer Theory and Orthodox Theology). Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He was a priest from 1988 to 2002.     

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2 thoughts on “PASTORAL PRACTICE IN THE 21st CENTURY: SOME THOUGHTS ON PREMARITAL COUNSELING by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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