Friday, July 1, 2011

Particular Friendships

I had to address the concept of "particular friendships" earlier today and clarify some things for someone who was under the impression that "particular friendship" was simply a euphemism for sexual relationships in seminaries or convents or monasteries. In reality, it's more complicated than that.

First, "particular friendships" were never discouraged for lay Catholics, just for those in the seminary or religious life.

Originally, the term had no connotations of lust or exclusivity or the passion we'd now call romance. The term meant just what it sounds like: a specific friendship, a friendly relationship with particular people (singled out from all others).

And the initial concern with "particular friendships" was simply partiality within the community. Monks were all supposed to be brothers equally, and were not to single out any person or clique within the monastery as their "friends" above and beyond the entire community. Everyone was supposed to be equally friend and brother. Having particular confidantes or allies was feared to cause factionalism.

Much later, talk of "particular friendships" came to (especially in the diocesan seminaries) be feared because of suspicion of sexual relationships, and the emphasis in forbidding it came to carry the insinuation of funny business going on. The fear became no longer factionalism, but the danger of homoerotic temptations (which I suppose tells us something about what the atmosphere in seminaries was like).

Of course, as some like St. Aelred of Rievaulx recognized, expecting people to have no specific friends within a monastery was simply unrealistic and opressive. Among dozens (or, in the middle ages, hundreds) of men in an institution, you were
bound to have some people whom were more your friend and confidante than the others unless you just never interacted privately with anyone one-on-one and only interacted in the context of public duties (which may, in fact, have been the ideal they had in mind actually; cenobitic life evolved from eremitic life, after all).

But of course, an equal relationship with "everyone" just becomes relationship with
nobody, as one cannot get to know and confide in so many people equally. So the whole attitude, while well-intentioned in theory along the lines of avoiding factionalism, really probably led to a lot of emotionally and socially stunted priests and religious, isolated and alienated even while living so close with each other, and a lot of repression when this paranoia about sexual temptation got thrown in the mix.

Nevertheless, "particular friendship" never
necessarily implied romantic or sexual involvement as if merely a euphemism for that (even if panic about that developing came to be one of the main reasons they were discouraged or forbidden.) Rather it meant simply a private friendship with any individual in a setting where the ideal they tried to enforce (unhealthily) was only relating to the community-as-a-whole publicly, not to any individuals as such one-on-one.

And while I doubt you'd hear this attitude about not having any specific friends within a community held up as ideal many places in the modern Church anymore, I fear its pathological echoes still deeply affect the institutionalization of seminary life and the clergy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If they ever put a bullet in your brain, I'll complain.