Sunday, December 13, 2009

Courage and Priests

This is an article I wrote about two years ago after reading a couple of very shocking pamphlets that were given to me by my parish priest. I am afraid it is not very objective as I was outraged at the time.

Last summer the woman in charge of our parish PREP program asked me if I would be willing to be a catechist. The woman knew me from our bible study class, where I often volunteered responses and opinions. I was flattered to be asked, but as a recently returned Catholic whose views on dogma hover near the left end of the faith spectrum and as a member of a very conservative parish, my first impulse was to refuse. The woman immediately enlisted the aid of our parish priest to persuade me, and under this gentle onslaught I agreed to take on the task. I reviewed the material that was to be used in class and was getting ready to attend the training session, which was to be held in mid-August, a few weeks before the program was scheduled to begin, when I began to wonder if my being a gay catechist (and one who strongly disagrees with the teaching of the Church on homosexuality) might be a problem. I approached our priest-in-residence, who knew about my orientation, and asked him. He felt that it would not be a problem. We agreed, however, that I should run it by the pastor.

The next day I met with the pastor in his office and told him that I was gay. We had a brief but lively discussion on homosexuality (his first comment was, “Don’t you think it’s unnatural?”), after which he “suggested” that for my sake and his it would be better if I did not teach in the PREP program. He told me that he would find me other things to do in the parish.

In no way do I blame my pastor for making the decision that he did. First, I blindsided him with the sudden announcement that I was gay (judging by his reaction, I am sure I was the first person ever to have done that), and given the closeness of the date of the catechist training, he had to make a quick decision. There is no doubt that images of phone calls from outraged parents and from a concerned chancery flooded into his brain during the few minutes of our encounter; he made the decision that he felt was best for the parish as a whole. Second, if there is any blame to be assigned in this rejection of an enthusiastic if untrained catechist, it must be laid upon the Church for its institutionalized homophobia. Our pastor is East Asian and straight; there is little likelihood that he has ever been presented with the opportunity to explore the issue of sexual orientation beyond what he was taught by his culture and by his seminary professors.

It just so happens that during the Study Meeting for priests held by the archdiocese that fall (November of 2007), one of the guest speakers was Father John Harvey of Courage, the “spiritual support system for individuals with same-sex attraction.” When our pastor returned from the Study Week, he told me that the Courage session was “very good” and that he had some materials to give me that I would find useful. Some time later he presented me with two pamphlets. One of these, produced by the Catholic Medical Association, is entitled Homosexuality and Hope. The other is Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice, written by Father Harvey. While I knew of the basic teaching of the Church on homosexuality, I was shocked by the content of these publications.

The cover of Homosexuality & Hope contains this statement: “The major causes of homosexuality (same-sex attraction) are summarized in this question-and-answer pamphlet, as well as approaches to prevention and healing.” The phrase “approaches to prevention and healing” and certain of the questions and answers (Q&A) in the body of the pamphlet clearly indicate that the author(s) consider homosexuality to be a pathological condition. In fact, the pamphlet claims that it is one among a number of “addictive or chronic disorders, such as depression, substance abuse, or smoking.” Other Q&A in the pamphlet demonstrate the belief of the author(s) that any counseling or therapy provided for the purpose of dealing with the pathology of same-sex attraction must be carried out by individuals “who unequivocally support [Catholic] Church teachings on homosexuality and all aspects of sexual morality.”

Homosexuality & Hope cites a number of emotional, psychological, social and biological factors that lead to same-sex attraction and behavior. Among these are included: “In males, a weak masculine identity and loneliness resulting from a lack of male peer acceptance due to an inability to play team sports requiring eye-hand coordination, such as baseball, soccer, and basketball,” and “Narcissism or profound selfishness.” The document does not cite the scientific studies or academic research on which this information is based. Homosexuality & Hope recommends that individuals with same-sex attraction “seek out mental-health professionals who are experienced in the treatment of same-sex attractions” and that they undergo therapy, preferably with “a spiritual component…as in the treatment of substance abuse disorders.”

The phrase “the Church’s teaching on homosexuality” appears several times in Homosexuality & Hope. Details of these teachings are provided through quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The essence of the teachings is that homosexuality is “objectively disordered” and that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “[u]nder no circumstance can they be approved.” The pamphlet also states that homosexuals must be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Homosexuals “can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” Christian perfection includes the virtue of chastity. Finally, Homosexuality & Hope contains the following admonition: “Catholic mental health professionals, educators, physicians, priests and religious should recognize that medical science supports the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.”

The pamphlet Same-Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice treats the subject of homosexuality more extensively than Homosexuality & Hope. The author discusses the psychological and moral aspects of same-sex attraction (SSA) and offers guidelines to pastors dealing with individuals with SSA.

The overriding principle that governs the content of Father Harvey’s pamphlet is that homosexuality is psychologically and morally disordered. In citing what he believes to be “the four principal factors which individually or collectively contribute to SSA,” he makes clear his conviction that homosexuality is a pathological condition. Father Harvey claims that “[i]t is the experience of counselors that people generally deny SSA and, on a deep level, desire to be heterosexual.” He further states that “that there are millions of people with SSA in the country who are searching for more creative help than they have received in the past.” Every gay man who acknowledges his homosexuality “harbors self-hatred. He hates himself profoundly, often drowning himself in alcohol or contemplating suicide….In turn, this mood of self-condemnation begets bitterness toward society and toward God….” Furthermore, according to Father Harvey, gay people fear intimacy and are “usually proficient” at self-deception.

Father Harvey believes that “the pursuit of growth toward heterosexuality, though difficult and not always successful, remains a probability” for persons with SSA. In the chapter entitled "Pastoral Approaches," the priest/counselor is advised to encourage the person with SSA to seek therapy and to encourage him to “move toward heterosexual inclinations by chaste friendships with heterosexual persons.”

The Courage Apostolate was founded by Father Harvey in 1980, so one can reasonably assume that he is familiar with the scientific data on homosexuality collected in the past fifty years. Surely he has heard of the study carried out by Evelyn Hooker in the 1950s in which three separate psychological tests were administered to 30 heterosexual males and 30 homosexual males, all of similar age, IQ and levels of education. The individuals conducting the tests were unaware of the sexual orientation of the subjects. The results of the tests clearly indicated that there was no psychological difference between the two groups. This study, among others, led to the decision in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This decision was supported by the American Psychological Association in 1976. These two organizations alone represent nearly 200,000 health professionals. The organization known as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which considers homosexuality to be a disorder and which promotes so-called conversion therapy or reparative therapy, consists of less than 1500 health professionals. Nevertheless, in his pamphlet Father Harvey has chosen to recommend a book – Healing Homosexuality: Case Stories of Reparative Therapy – by the founder of NARTH, Joseph Nicolosi. In fact, in the Recommended Reading list that appears at the end of the pamphlet, there are listed no works by reputable authorities on homosexuality from either the American Psychiatric Association or the American Psychological Association. Nearly twenty-five percent of the items on the list are by Father Harvey himself although nowhere in the pamphlet does the author state his qualifications as an expert in psychology or human sexuality. Nor does Father Harvey attribute to any recognized authority the statements he makes about homosexual psychology in the text of the pamphlet.

Father Harvey also presents the Church’s moral position on homosexual acts. He claims that both the Old and New Testaments teach that marriage is the only relationship in which sexual intimacy is acceptable and quotes from an essay by the theologian Roger Shinn: “the Christian tradition over the centuries has affirmed the heterosexual, monogamous, faithful marital union as normative for the divinely given meaning of the intimate sexual relationship.” One must wonder, then, why such revered figures of the Old Testament as Abraham, Esau, and Jacob are not condemned for having more than one wife or for taking concubines. Father Harvey also notes that in the Bible “there are at least five clear condemnations of male homosexual actions and one of female.” There are also numerous references to slavery in the Bible, including several in the parables of Jesus, but where in any of them do we find a condemnation of this practice? Finally, Father Harvey writes that the story of the sin of Sodom was indeed a condemnation of homosexuality and not of inhospitality as many current interpretations claim. He quotes Dr. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, author of Homosexuality: A Symbolic Confusion (1977): “If the men of Sodom had no sexual intentions toward Lot’s visitors, why would Lot have replied, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do no such wicked thing. Listen, I have two daughters who are virgins. I am ready to send them out to you to treat as it pleases you. But as to the men, do nothing to them, for they have come under the shadow of my roof.’” Indeed the intentions of the crowd may have been sexual, but is it not also possible that the condemnation is against the intention to commit rape, a violent sexual act? And is it not interesting that there is no sanction against Lot – then or now – for offering his daughters to be raped by the crowd? Is it not possible that the culture of the day treated the sexual violation of males as a serious offence but that the same act against women was treated lightly? One cannot help but suspect that Father Harvey and others might be reading this passage “selectively” in order to buttress opinions already held, just as they ignore the overwhelming majority of medical opinion that homosexuality is not a sickness and that gay people therefore have no need to be cured.

The Church that tortured and put “heretics” to death in the Middle Ages now condemns the death penalty. The Church that condoned slavery until the nineteenth century now condemns this practice. The Church that claimed it was the moral obligation of wives to subject themselves to the will of their husbands now affirms the equality of women (unless of course women aspire to ordination to the priesthood). Yet homosexuality is still “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” Does the inconsistency of the Church on these moral issues not reflect the very “moral relativism” condemned by Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election to the Chair of St. Peter?

It is curious that despite the number of sex-related sins listed by the Catholic Church, there are no continent-wide Church-sponsored organizations to assist people who commit adultery, who engage in sexual relations before marriage or who masturbate. And why are there no support organizations for the parents of these people as there is for parents of children with SSA?

Father Harvey has been involved with Courage Apostolate for nearly thirty years. If he is so convinced of the disordered nature of homosexuality, both psychologically and morally, one can reasonably assume that he has come to this conclusion as a result of considerable study and research and is thus able to put forth a logical and consistent argument that convincingly states his case. Instead, Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice is a poisonous document filled with misinformation, rhetoric, contradictory arguments, and unsubstantiated statements. In the chapter entitled Freedom and Compulsion, the author makes the following statement: “Not many homosexual acts may be called compulsive when we consider the squalid circumstances (like a public lavatory) and the high risk in which they take place.” Of all the homosexual acts that take place at any given time, how many of these does Father Harvey think occur in public lavatories? From what reliable source did he obtain the information that most gay sex is enacted in squalid circumstances? Why is this source not cited? Why are the millions of gay men and lesbians who are in loving, committed, long-term relationships not mentioned so that priests may receive an accurate picture of gay life? Why, in fact, does Father Harvey not acknowledge the fact that sex between two men or two women can be as much an act of love as it is in a heterosexual marriage?

In fact, the author does not use the word “love” anywhere in the pamphlet when he discusses gay relationships. Instead he says: “Homosexual activity lacks the same level of self-gift manifested in heterosexual activity. This lack leads to homosexual activity being primarily a selfish and self-gratifying act.” Has he not heard of the heterosexual men who jump on their wives, satisfy their own needs and then roll over and fall asleep without once considering the needs of the woman? Has he not heard of the “gift” of an HIV-positive condition given to their wives by millions of men in certain parts of the world? Surely he knows about the many gay relationships that have endured for twenty, thirty, even fifty years? Does he think that the couples in these relationships stay together simply for the convenience of the occasional self-gratifying act for which they use each other?

Father Harvey speaks disparagingly of pro-gay “propaganda,” yet his booklet is full of rhetoric that is clearly anti-gay propaganda. Consider the following statements:

  • “…as if no decent person could possibly see anything wrong with homosexual acts or anything distorted in the phenomenon of same-sex attraction.”
  • “Finally, the term orientation should not be used in reference to SSA, since the only genuinely sexual orientation is heterosexual. As Joseph Nicolosi says, there are no homosexuals, but only heterosexuals with a homosexual problem.”
  • “The gay agenda has promoted the idea that ‘gay is good’ and that the homosexual way of life is simply an ‘alternative lifestyle.’”
  • “In its sad and easily verifiable reality, the often-embraced ‘gay’ lifestyle is one of gay bars and bathhouses, a promiscuous subculture spread across the country.”
  • “Persons with SSA…readily regard themselves as a minority struggling for civil rights. The mainstream media, unfortunately, has become complicit in this political maneuvering….”
The author makes the following statement at the beginning of the pamphlet: “A person, after all, is more than a bundle of sexual inclinations, and our thinking about same-sex attraction is clouded when we start to think of ‘homosexuals’ as a separate kind of human being.” Most of the language and the arguments that follow, however, especially where they involve the “gay lifestyle” belie the author’s claim that gay people are other than “a bundle of sexual inclinations.” In fact, the author makes no reference to the millions of gay people who lead “normal” and healthy lives, making contributions to society as doctors, professors, artists – and Catholic priests!

Finally, a number of statements are made that cry out for citation. One wonders where Father Harvey gets this information from: “It is the experience of counselors that people generally deny SSA and, on a deep level, desire to be heterosexual.” To which counselors does he refer? What percentage of counselors have this “experience”? Or the following: “…it is sufficient to know that there are millions of people with SSA in the country who are searching for more creative help than they have received in the past.” What objective study produced this information? Why not cite the source? “The child knows that the style of life he or she has been living is not in accord with sound moral teaching….” How many children were surveyed in order to obtain this information? What organization conducted the survey and how was objectivity preserved?

One could dismiss these two pamphlets – and Father Harvey’s apostolate – as harmless relics of hopelessly outdated Church teaching if it were not for the fact that the views of Father Harvey on homosexuality contained in these materials are being presented as truth to Catholic priests throughout North America. How many of these priests will accept such views as the last word on homosexuality? How many pastors have the time or the inclination to explore these issues further on their own initiative? How many young priests come from conservative cultures that condemn homosexuality? Will not Father Harvey’s perspective only serve to reinforce the “correctness” of this condemnation? My own pastor is a good man who works very long hours and scarcely takes a day off, let alone a decent vacation, and despite great fatigue and not always perfect health, constantly displays the virtues of patience, charity, and forgiveness. He is a loving shepherd to his flock. Yet he believes that what Father Harvey imparted to priests in the 2007 Study Week is useful and good. And how are gay priests who must sit through the sessions led by Father Harvey to feel about their sexuality and their ministries, not to mention their relationship with clergy who are not gay and who believe what Father Harvey is teaching?

There are other views on this issue besides those of Father Harvey. One hopes that more than a few priests have read The Changing Face of the Priesthood, by Father Donald Cozzens. Father Cozzens points to the difficulty priests face in preaching the truth of the word of God under “the force of the sustaining ecclesial and cultural structures that may compromise the radical character of God’s word.”

In every age the Spirit nudges the collective consciousness of the Church to see ever more clearly the radical new order of the gospel message. I thought of this point when I came across a letter, written over two hundred years ago, from Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore to the prioress of the Carmelite Sisters. The Carmelites had arrived in the Commonwealth of Maryland in 1790, settling in Port Tobacco. There the sisters maintained a small farm for over a generation before moving to Baltimore in 1831. The letter announced a gift from the bishop intended to ease the hardships of the sisters’ demanding life in the New World. The gift consisted of two slaves, a mother and her daughter. Bishop Carroll and the Carmelite Sisters were bright and good people. Yet they did not see what we see clearly today. Two hundred years from now, our descendants will be puzzled at the blind spots of our present Church. They were good and wise people, it will be reasoned, why couldn’t they see what we are able to see from this point in history?

Peter Steinfels, in his book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, has the following to say about the Church and homosexuality:

In many respects, the society’s anxieties surrounding homosexuality are really only a projection of issues surrounding heterosexuality—once the tight link between sex and procreation is broken. Homosexuality becomes the obvious battleground for addressing questions about nonprocreative heterosexuality. The relatively small gay and lesbian portion of the population bears the brunt of unresolved moral and cultural questions facing the more than 90 percent that is heterosexual….

For the church, then, speaking to questions posed by the movement for gay and lesbian rights and social acceptance is not distinct from the challenge of speaking to questions of heterosexual morality. As long as the church remains entrenched behind its prohibition of all deliberately nonprocreative sex, that certainly provides an unambiguous teaching on all same-sex sexual intimacy: it is sinful. But once that moral Maginot Line collapses or is outflanked by realities it ignores, as has been the case with marital sex between men and women, the church appears to have little coherent to say about another cultural development with major implications for human dignity and well-being.

Father Harvey tells the reader that it took him years to understand the nature of same sex attraction. A careful reading of Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice leads one to be convinced that he does not understand it at all. On the contrary, this document promotes among the Catholic clergy an egregious misunderstanding of homosexuality. The opportunity to truly understand homosexuality has been available to Father Harvey for the nearly thirty years during which he has been involved in the Courage Apostolate. One can only guess why he has chosen to ignore the wealth of information from the medical and social sciences that presents an accurate picture of homosexuality and of gay men and lesbians. Whatever the reason for this choice, the point must be made that an individual who employs rhetoric and misinformation for the purpose of supporting what he considers to be a moral truth is in fact committing an immoral act.

One can only hope that most Catholic priests possess enough intelligence and sufficient experience of the real world to recognize that these pamphlets do not reflect the reality of either the psychology or the morality of gay people and gay life. And one can only hope that pastors will see their gay and lesbian parishioners in the same way they look upon the straight ones: as human beings who are kind and talented, weak and sinful, and as deserving to love and to be loved by a life partner as their heterosexual counterparts.

1 comment:

  1. "The Church that put heretics to death in the middle ages.....".

    We share an interest in exploring church history. Part of that history which deserves to be better known is that many of those burned were accused not of heresy, but of sodomy.

    Although in recent years, the Vatican has made a series of (very welcome) apologies for many of its most horrifying excesses in the past, this is one which it never even mentions.