In the culture wars it is all too easy for some Catholics to react against the gay culture by rejecting all people who experience same sex attraction. The difficulties that people with same sex attraction experience are complex and the Catechism of the Catholic Church says they should be treated with “compassion, respect and sensitivity.”
If people who experience same sex attraction are not bullied and rejected by Catholics they are often ignored. A culture of “don’t ask don’t tell” exists in which people with same sex attraction are accepted but expected to keep their sexual orientation under wraps. Instead of this, there are calls for Catholics to “build bridges” and welcome homosexual people.
One of the challenges in this conversation is the definition of terms. For the vast majority of people the term “gay” indicates a homosexual person who is sexually active. The word “gay” began to be associated with homosexuality and the gay liberation movement in the mid 1960s. “Gay” then became the chosen terminology of homosexual activists.
It is certainly correct therefore, to use the word “gay” for active homosexuals and homosexual campaigners, but it would not be accurate to use the term for all people who experience same sex attraction. In other words, there are many people who experience same sex attraction who are not “gay.”
Therefore to use the term “gay” for them puts them into a category or social group they do not wish to belong to. Some people might choose the word “gay” as an identifier, but many would not. Saying all people with same sex attraction are “gay” is to put them into a cultural ghetto.
This is often accompanied by the usual stereotyping. Thus we hear sympathetic Catholics say things like, “Gay people bring many gifts to the church. So many of them are wonderful musicians…” Really? That sounds like the person who says, “Gay men are so talented. My friend Randy is just marvelous when it comes to choosing wallpaper and curtains.” Such stereotyping is one of the unconscious habits of the prejudiced and contributes to the misunderstanding of people with SSA.
To use the term “gay” is degrading to people who experience same sex attraction but who are not actively gay. It is degrading because it defines them only by their sexual urges, and all of us are more fascinating, complex and expansive than our sexual inclinations.
Those who would demand that we use the word “gay” for all people with same sex attraction ignore and marginalize the many Catholics who pursue chastity and reject the gay subculture and gay activism.
Happily, the true Catholic approach is not to marginalize and create a ghetto for a “gay community” but to welcome and integrate individuals with same sex attraction. All of us are created in God’s image and, although that image is wounded by sin, God looks on all his children and says, “That’s good!” This is why, as long ago as 1980, Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York established a ministry that built bridges of compassion, respect and sensitivity to people who are attracted to the same sex.
He called on Father John Harvey, a priest who was already working in this field of ministry. With the help of Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., and others, Harvey began the Courage Apostolate with its first meeting in September, 1980 at the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in New York City.
For nearly forty years the Courage Apostolate has reached out to people with same sex attraction and their families. Endorsed by the Vatican as an authentic apostolate, Courage now has more than a hundred chapters and personal contacts with over 1,500 people worldwide. In addition, hundreds of individuals receive assistance from the main office and website every week.
It is important to understand that Courage works one on one with individuals—not with a vaguely defined “gay community” or pressure group. Instead of stereotyping, they meet each man or woman and their families where they are—each with their own story and their own set of circumstances.
Courage is sometimes criticized for attempting to pressure people with same sex attraction to change. Former director of Courage, Father Paul Check denies that they use any kind of conversion therapy. Instead they offer counseling, fellowship and support based on the classic twelve step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.
Courage accepts and welcomes people with same sex attraction as they are, and describes its goals as “chastity, prayer and dedication, fellowship, support, good example.”
The dissident group New Ways Ministry, on the other hand, suggests that having a lesbian or gay identity is a blessing from God, and that Courage is being “anti-pastoral” in its work. New Ways Ministry calls for acceptance not only of people with same sex attraction, but for acceptance of those who campaign for gay identity and same sex marriage.
The leaders of New Ways Ministry do not recommend Courage, while the executive director of another dissident group — DignityUSA, said in 2014 that “Courage is really problematic and very dangerous to people’s spiritual health. And we have been very concerned about it for a lot of years.”
The Courage website outlines the resources the apostolate offers to individuals and their families. One of the dynamic things about the Courage apostolate is the diverse background of participants. The testimony of a man who took part in one of the apostolate’s sports camps, for example, reported the powerful experience of sharing the week’s activities with plenty of non-Catholic Christians, Jews, a Muslim and men from France, Israel, Haiti and every part of the U.S.
The website also connects readers to the resources for chaplains, parish priests and counselors as well as books, websites and an annual conference for support and fellowship. Meanwhile their subset EnCourage offers support and fellowship for family members of people who are attracted to the same sex.
It is easy to put our heads in the sand and ignore people with SSA, but following Jesus’ example, we are to welcome everyone to the narrow way of following Christ the Lord. We should recall the meeting Jesus had with the tax collector Zacchaeus. Jesus welcomed him, and Zacchaeus’s immediate humble response was not pride, but repentance and reparation.
Reaching out to individuals who experience same sex attraction may be difficult, but following Jesus’ example— with Courage it can be done.