FATHER PAVEL FLORENSKY ON SAME-SEX LOVE: A RESPONSE TO PAUL LADOUCEUR AND RICHARD RENÉ by Giacomo Sanfilippo

Pavel Florensky and Sergei Troitsky, Moscow Theological Academy, 1906, age 24 and 25

Public Orthodoxy was the first to bring my doctoral work on Father Pavel Florensky’s theology of same-sex love to public attention with my Conjugal Friendship of May 2, 2017. I remain grateful to the editors not only for their decision to publish it, but also their patient guidance in helping me make it as perfect as I humanly could.

I’m also grateful to the editors for bringing the conversation back to the pages of Public Orthodoxy with the publication of Paul Ladouceur’s and Father Richard René’s Father Pavel Florensky, Philia, and Same-Sex Love of February 26, 2021, and to the authors for considering my work worthy of their consternation.

With that being said, Ladouceur’s and René’s response to my total immersion—through eight long years of MA and PhD research—in Father Florensky, his writings, his life, and his social/historical/cultural context raises questions at every turn.

(Since the authors neither name me nor link to my work extensively available online, I refer my readers to the following, among many: the chapter on Florensky in my MA thesis, A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love (which must be read in tandem with my A Bed Undefiled: A Partial Retraction); the brief introduction to my doctoral thesis published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of The Wheel, Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love; and most important, because most detailed and annotated, my Doctoral Thesis Proposal: “Conjugal Friendship and the Sacrament of Love: Father Pavel Florensky’s Orthodox Theology of Same-Sex Love.” )

The first question arises in the byline. It’s unclear whether the intention was to give Father René some questionably merited name recognition in an area of scholarly inquiry where he has no qualifications, or to give the article an aura of authority by having it “co-authored” by a priest. By his own admission in an email to me some weeks ago, he can offer no more than a book report after reading Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth just once—for Father Allan Smith’s course, “Russian Theologians,” at St. Michael’s College. Father René may be interested to know that I took the same course in the first year of my PhD. Father Smith heartily approved of my oral presentation and final paper on Florensky’s “Friendship.”

The second question concerns Paul Ladouceur’s competence to debate a heavily researched doctoral project in which he has no more than a generalist’s knowledge. As an example of this, in his MDiv-level course in modern Orthodox theology which I audited in May 2016 before beginning my PhD, he argued bitterly with me that Florensky was not part of Russia’s “returning intelligentsia” at the turn of the last century, even though Avril Pyman plainly states in her biography of Florensky—which was included in the reading list for Ladouceur’s course—that Florensky was raised in a borderline atheistic home and committed himself to Orthodoxy only in his very early 20s, far from home. His parents were not pleased, especially when he turned down a promising academic career in mathematics to enrol in theological studies.

The third question involves Ladouceur’s and René’s decision to devote almost half of their word count to selective biographical details known by everyone and disputed by no one—while omitting even a cursory mention of the love between Florensky and Sergei Troitsky, whom Florensky credits tearfully in his dedication of Pillar and Ground as the inspiration behind his intellectual and theological work. The two young men planned a marriage-like life together after the completion of their studies, until fate took a different turn. The nature of their relationship becomes hardly contestable when we read “Two Knights,” a shockingly homoerotic love poem that Florensky wrote to Troitsky while they were roommates and seminarians at the Moscow Theological Academy, or Florensky’s threats of suicide when Troitsky entered into an apparently unconsummated marriage with Florensky’s sister.

The fourth question has to do with Ladouceur’s and René’s acceptance of a canonization reputedly performed by the then schismatic Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and their prayer to Florensky as to a saint at the close of their article. This is all the more confusing on a few counts. First, ROCOR itself has denied canonizing Florensky. Second, at the time of reunion between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate in May 2007, Moscow explicitly rejected a number of ROCOR’s canonizations—and continues not to canonize Florensky, despite the best efforts of his grandson and main biographer, Archimandrite Andronik (Trubachev). Third, over lunch before jetting off to San Diego for the AAR convention in November 2019, Ladouceur conveyed to me, not his disagreement with my interpretation of Florensky’s “Friendship” or my reading of his life (Pyman herself refers to Florensky’s “homosexuality”), but his teary-eyed resentment that I had already, singlehandedly, wrecked Florensky’s chances of ever being canonized. Suddenly, Ladouceur and René treat Florensky as canonized? To be clear, I pray for his canonization as much as anyone, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And here we come to the crux of the matter: Ladouceur and René have put their names to a decidedly unscholarly response to a scholarly project, evincing no engagement with any sources outside their own minds, and motivated by their horror that Orthodox bishops, priests, deacons, theologians, monastics, and laypeople—especially gay laypeople and those who love them dearly—could see in Florensky’s life and writings a way out of the impasse in today’s theological consideration of same-sex love and the possibilities for its sanctification in the Church’s sacramental economy; or worse, that anyone might see Florensky as gay.

This strikes one as all the more baffling when Father René tried to come out of the Bridging Voices conference as the champion of transgender people. After adducing St. Maximus the Confessor in his appeal for a more pastoral approach to transgender persons, René—in his aforementioned email to me—characterizes my aforementioned thesis proposal as “reducing [Florensky’s “Friendship”] to yet another proof text bomb to be expended in the cultural war over sex and sexuality.” He goes on to warn me that, because of my thesis, “Florensky will be roped into being the Orthodox theological poster boy for the cultural war on sexuality.” Ladouceur and René reprise this objection when they call my work “an opportunistic attempt to enlist this creative and powerful thinker [Florensky] into a cultural war….”

Ladouceur and René should be embarrassed by their amateurish attempt at a coherent response to a profoundly serious theological, spiritual, and pastoral matter. They have both read my work. They have both spoken to me about it in person, René more than Ladouceur. René has sat through many verbal iterations of my doctoral project at the dinner table where we lived during the first year of his PhD program, when our fellow diners would often ask for a summary of my thesis. René has also witnessed me giving pastoral support to a tearful young theology student who wondered if he, being gay, could ever have a home in his church (not Orthodox) and with God. Nothing I have ever said or written could ever be construed by an honest person as fodder for the culture wars—in which I have no interest anyway—and Ladouceur and René both know it. If they thought to humiliate and discredit me by branding me a culture warrior, they have only humiliated and discredited themselves.

(Incidentally, how does Father René’s pro-transgender presentation at Bridging Voices not make him a culture warrior?)

Although certainly less inflammatory, Ladouceur’s and René’s article hardly rates better than something a Father Whiteford, a Father Jacobse, a Father Parker, a Father Farley, or a David Ford might have written.

They can all rest assured that no LGBTQ Orthodox Christians will come to them “by night” for pastoral care.   

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD candidate in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He holds an Honours BA in Sexuality Studies (2013) from York University and an MA in Theology (2015) from St. Michael’s College/Regis College. He is also an alumnus (2014) of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for the MDiv (1989) at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.

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