Sexuality is always a controversial topic to discuss in the Church, and even more so when dealing with homosexuality.
As same-sex marriage is becoming legal in more and more countries – Catholic-majority Malta recently legalized it – more and more people find it difficult to understand the Church’s objection to gay relationships.
In his new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, Jesuit Father James Martin argues the Church should do more to reach out to gay Catholics, including using the words gays use to self-identify, including LGBT and LGBTQ, as well as “seeing them in their complexity, and sensitivity is being sensitive to their life experiences.”
Martin has drawn criticism from some Catholics for not speaking about chastity in his book, and his friendship with organizations such as New Ways Ministry, which has advocated for same-sex marriage.
The Courage apostolate, which has been holding its annual conference from July 27-30, has been ministering to Catholics with same-sex attraction, and their families, for over 30 years.
What is unique about their mission is a strong emphasis on following official Church teaching on sexual relations.
Father Philip Bochanski, executive director of Courage International, said the group has five goals: Living chastity; developing a life of prayer and dedication; helping one another by sharing experiences; forming chaste friendships; and giving good examples to others.
He told Crux that living a chaste life living the Gospel call to chastity “leads to freedom, peace and joy in authentic relationships.
“The world thinks that a life without sexual intimacy is a life without love; that every strong feeling must ultimately be a sexual feeling, and that a person has to follow every strong feeling; that friendship is, at best, a consolation prize for those who can’t find a lasting sexual relationship,” Bochanski said. “Our members know that these presuppositions are false, and that the way for people to be truly happy and fulfilled is to embrace the call to chaste friendships.”
When asked about Martin’s new book, Bochanski said the goal of every priest should be to ‘speak the truth in love,’ and that the “particular love” of ‘eros’ is not appropriate for every relationship.
“For two people of the same sex to pursue this kind of relationship, which by its nature is lacking the complementarity and procreativity that give eros its meaning and context, threatens the charity and friendship that would otherwise make their relationship a blessing,” he said. “The Gospel call to chastity challenges these men and women to sacrifice sexual intimacy for the sake of fostering deep chaste friendships.”
Bochanski said priests ministering to gay Catholics must listen to their personal stories, understand the teachings of the Church – including the meaning of the terminology used in the catechism – and be aware of the psychological and health issues that can come up when in this kind of ministry.
The conference even began with a special Clergy Day to discuss these issues.
“Our program included discussion with professionals in the fields of psychology and medicine, to understand better the nature of same sex attraction and gender dysphoria, and to develop a better appreciation for the particular emotional and relational needs of people who are living these experiences,” he said.
Bochanski spoke to Crux via email from the Courage national conference in Mundelein, Illinois. The following are excerpts from this conversation.
Crux: What is the Courage ministry?
Bochanski: Courage was founded in 1980 by Father John Harvey, OSFS, in the Archdiocese of New York. Courage chapters, which are present in about two-thirds of U.S. dioceses, and in 14 countries overseas, gather men and women who experience same sex attractions to support them in their choice to live a chaste life. Courage chapters meet regularly (weekly or once or twice a month) with their chaplains to pursue the Five Goals of Courage that were established by the first Courage group: living chastity; developing a life of prayer and dedication; helping one another by sharing experiences; forming chaste friendships; and giving good examples to others.
Our ministry also includes EnCourage chapters, which serve parents, family members and friends of people who identify as LGBT (many of whom have stopped practicing the faith). Our EnCourage chapters and their chaplains help the members to stay strong in the faith and in their trust in God’s plan, while maintaining good relationships, communication and mutual understanding with their loved ones who identify as LGBT.
At this year’s conference, we are commemorating the anniversary of the first EnCourage group, which was formed in Toronto in 1987.
What is the purpose of this conference?
The annual Courage and EnCourage Conference combines a workshop and retreat with a “family reunion” atmosphere, as members of our apostolate gather from across the country and around the world. This year’s participants come from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, as well as Central and South America, and Europe. Our conference speakers will cover a variety of topics related to the virtuous life, vocation, friendship, chastity, and sharing the faith. Some of them are well-known authors and lecturers (Father Paul Scalia, Matt Fradd, Kathryn Jean Lopez, among others), while many of our talks and workshops are given by Courage and EnCourage members themselves. Particularly moving are the personal testimonies which several members of our apostolate will give on the last evening of the conference.
So, the main purpose of our Conference is to give our members an opportunity to practice the Five Goals together, especially the goals of mutual support and friendship. There are opportunities to grow in prayer and dedication, particularly through celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation, and the Mass celebrated each day by bishops who support the apostolate and many of our priest chaplains. The conference also provides a chance for clergy, religious and others in ministry to meet our Courage and EnCourage members, to share meals and fellowship with them, and to learn from their experiences how best to provide pastoral care to this part of the Church community.
Society has become more accepting of homosexuality, and more open to a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to sexual issues. How does this affect your ministry?
The prevailing attitudes in secular society make our ministry, and the message that we have to share, both more challenging and more urgent. Welcoming and accompanying every person who asks to share the life of the Church and to know more about Christ has always been the mission of the Church, and a demand of the Gospel – there’s nothing new about that. But secular society wants the Church to say that loving a person means never questioning or challenging that person’s decisions when they contradict the Gospel. That kind of silence is not charity. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith observed, writing in 1986 about ministry to people with homosexual inclinations, “only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.”
Our Courage and EnCourage members have a message to share with the world: Through their personal experience, they can testify that accepting and living the Gospel call to chastity leads to freedom, peace and joy in authentic relationships. Secular society rejects this message without even trying it out, or seeking to understand it from their perspective, for several reasons. The world thinks that a life without sexual intimacy is a life without love; that every strong feeling must ultimately be a sexual feeling, and that a person has to follow every strong feeling; that friendship is, at best, a consolation prize for those who can’t find a lasting sexual relationship. Our members know that these presuppositions are false, and that the way for people to be truly happy and fulfilled is to embrace the call to chaste friendships.
A good deal of our ministry in a situation like this involves encouraging and supporting our members in their decision to be chaste, which is becoming increasingly counter-cultural. We also are looking for opportunities for our members to share their testimony with the Church and with the world. An increasingly important part of our ministry is also providing continuing formation to clergy and others in ministry to help them to hear our members’ stories and to discuss how to conduct pastoral ministry according to the mind of the Church.
One of the items on the agenda is an entire day dedicated to clergy formation. What is it that clergy need to know about ministry to those with homosexual inclinations?
Whether we’re speaking of someone who is working full-time in this ministry, or someone who occasionally encounters this topic in confession, it is important for priests to have a comprehensive understanding of persons with this experience. This involves listening to the personal stories of men and women who experience same-sex attraction, understanding the Church’s teaching (including the reasons behind Her terminology), and being aware of psychological and health considerations.
The Clergy Day, which was part of our Annual Conference, is a good example of what a good formation program for clergy looks like. We began with the personal testimony of a Courage member, a young man in his early twenties who spoke very frankly about his experience of same sex attraction, the homosexual relationships in his past, and the help and grace he found in the Church and in the sacraments which enable him to embrace chastity. This kind of testimony is the most important thing we want to communicate to clergy, so that they can imagine what a person experiencing same sex attractions might be facing in his or her life, and can respond with compassion and sensitivity to the particular needs and situation of each person.
We next considered the teaching of the Church, which distinguishes between the person, whose identity is always found in his or her status as a son or daughter created in God’s image and likeness; the homosexual inclination, which is not a sin in itself, but is not a gift or a good thing, insofar as it is a desire for intimacy outside of God’s plan for sexuality; and homosexual intimate actions, which are morally wrong because they lack the complementarity and openness to procreation which are fundamental to the purpose and goodness of sex. We discussed the terminology that the Church uses to teach these truths, and discussed how to present that teaching in a charitable and clear way.
Our program included discussion with professionals in the fields of psychology and medicine, to understand better the nature of same sex attraction and gender dysphoria, and to develop a better appreciation for the particular emotional and relational needs of people who are living these experiences. We concluded with a discussion of pastoral care, both in terms of preaching and leading a parish, and the one on one encounters that priests and deacons have with people day by day.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about ministry to gay people, and issues surrounding this ministry. Jesuit Father James Martin came out with “Building a Bridge” this year, a book about the Church and gays. One point he makes is that the Church has been hurtful to gay people with the language it uses – such as “disordered” – and by not acknowledging the good that exists in gay relationships. What do you think about his arguments?
The goal of every priest, who is ordained and commissioned to proclaim the Gospel, should be to “speak the truth in love,” as Saint Paul advises. Of course this means treating every person with “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” as the Catechism insists. It also means being honest about the demands of the Gospel, even when they challenge a person’s desires and decisions. The Church is a mother, and she knows what every mother instinctively knows: that it’s possible, and often necessary, to say, “I love you very much, and I think you’re making a bad decision.”
Insofar as relationships between two people of the same sex are based on charity and friendship, of course there is a lot of good to be found there. But the particular love that the ancient Greeks called eros – the love that wants to possess and be possessed by the beloved, body and soul, and so wants an exclusive romantic and sexual connection – is not appropriate for every relationship. For two people of the same sex to pursue this kind of relationship, which by its nature is lacking the complementarity and procreativity that give eros its meaning and context, threatens the charity and friendship that would otherwise make their relationship a blessing. The Gospel call to chastity challenges these men and women to sacrifice sexual intimacy for the sake of fostering deep chaste friendships.
The Church uses the word “disordered” to refer to same sex attractions (which it calls “objectively disordered”) and to same sex intimate acts (which it calls “intrinsically disordered”). It’s important to understand first of all that this term is not referring to a mental “disorder,” nor is it meant to imply that the whole person is somehow “disordered.” Moreover, the Church uses this term frequently in the Catechism to refer to things other than sexuality: for example, it calls sins like lying and calumny “intrinsically disordered” because they are always wrong, regardless of the circumstances. In short, the Church uses the term because it says what we need to say: that homosexual intimate acts are wrong because they are lacking essential elements that are part of the “order” of creation, the plan by which God creates the world, human beings and their bodies. We say “no” to things that are “disordered” so that we can say “yes” to the moral “order,” to the path that God has marked out for our happiness and fulfillment.
Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago recently said “the terms gay and lesbian, L.G.B.T., all of those names that people appropriate to themselves, should be respected.” Is this important, or can these be loaded terms?
The Church asks us not to call a person by a label, because in doing so we run the risk of reducing our understanding of the person to the limits of that label. In regard to people who experience same sex attractions, this is particularly important because of how central sexuality is to the human experience, and because secular society tends to overemphasize sexual “identity” as the most important, or sometimes the only important, part of a person’s life. We are sexual beings, but our identity is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness and our adoption as God’s sons and daughters.
However an individual uses terms like “gay” or “LGBT,” that individual is not in complete control over how another person will hear it, or what secular society means by it. We have to acknowledge that when most people say “gay” or “LGBT” they do not simply mean that a person experiences attractions to the same sex; they presume that that person is open to homosexual intimate acts and relationships, and that that person rejects the teaching of the Church about the immorality of those actions. So it is dangerous to promote ministries in the Church that employ labels that most people, at least outside the Church, take to imply a rejection of the teaching of the Church.
If a person feels strongly that the appropriate way to refer to his or her experience is with a term like “gay” or “LGBT,” the appropriate response is dialogue: What do they mean when they choose such a label? If they’ve chosen it in order to signal that they don’t accept the Church’s teaching, our response should be a charitable invitation to discuss that teaching more deeply, in hopes of leading that person to understand and embrace chastity. If they mean something different, then we ought to discuss whether that label is the most appropriate way to convey what they believe. In either case, simply taking the label at face value, because the person claims it for himself or herself, means shortchanging them of an opportunity to grow in holiness, conversion and discipleship.
How difficult is it to preach a chaste lifestyle in today’s world? How difficult is it to live a chaste lifestyle in today’s world?
As I mentioned earlier, the fact that secular society over-values sexual intimacy and undervalues friendship makes the message of chastity a difficult one to hear. It can also be difficult to live out, when one feels like he or she is the only person who thinks it’s important. Misunderstanding from friends and family can leave a person feeling very lonely and isolated, and there are plenty of enticements to soothe that loneliness with things that are unchaste.
Our Courage model responds to this difficulty by providing a place where people who are striving to live chastely in the midst of the world can come together to share experiences, pray and laugh with one another, and build the strong friendships that are essential to living a happy chaste life. The spiritual fatherhood of our priest chaplains is also a big help, as they testify by their own celibate commitment that chastity is not only possible, but life-giving. I often tell my brother priests that the biggest obstacle to convincing someone else to embrace chastity is to be a grumpy celibate oneself – why would anyone want to try something that seems to make us unhappy? But the cheerful, persevering witness of Courage members and chaplains alike are an impetus for others to try living the virtue of chastity themselves.