February 19, 2022

Article at Robert on Authory

Should Catholic Bishops Encourage Conversion Therapy?

Photo from CanvaPro
Photo from CanvaPro

A man walked into a bar. The year was 2000 in Washington, DC. Married and with two children, he was in the US Capital city to kick off a Christian rally tour. Staying for about an hour and making small talk with another patron, he came to realize he needed to leave. His visit left powerful political rumblings that would change his life, be the beginning of the end of an umbrella organization and almost end a form of Christian-based therapy. He eventually would leave his position and be divorced from his wife. The reason because he walked into a bar.

This man was no ordinary man and that was no ordinary bar. He was John Paulk, one of the most famous husbands at the time because he appeared on venues ranging from the Jerry Springer show to 60 Minutes claiming he and his wife were healed of homosexuality and lesbianism and were now a full-fledged heterosexual couple. He was at the time the head of Focus on the Family’s ministry to those who were seeking to leave homosexuality behind. He visited one of Washington, DC’s most established gay bars. Proof of him being there was confirmation he was living a lie but so was his teaching that homosexuals can be healed of same-sex attraction. Obviously, he did not go unnoticed. Wayne Besen describes the incident in his book: Anything But Straight Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, John Paulk describes it from his perspective in the movie Pray Away. 

Today, John Paulk is living in a same-sex relationship. He admits that he was lying when he claimed to be healed of homosexuality.

Regardless of claims to the contrary, many took his presence in that bar proof one could not “pray away the gay.”

Pray away the gay

“Pray away the gay” is the belief that homosexuals can encounter a cure through prayer. Using it in combination with other forms of therapy — including psychological talk therapy and Christian fellowship with prayer — forms a practice labeled various names including reparative therapy or conversion therapy. They promise to change someone from homosexual orientation into heterosexuality permanently.

For many Christians, homosexuality is an abomination God condemned in Leviticus chapter twenty and other parts of the Bible. The therapy runs on the presumption that Jesus wants to heal homosexuals of their inclinations. They enter it so that they can be free, saved and live as they believe God originally intended.

Many label the practice a pseudoscience that does not work although it still appears from time to time in various venues including in Catholic circles. Others seem to question whether the faith-based practice has any theological foundation.

Doctor Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist who once supported reparative therapy and published a survey in 2001 encouraging it, apologized for his work in 2012 calling it and its pro-conversion therapy conclusions fatally flawed. 

In a video he explained that not only was the study flawed, but he explained that he did not verify the claims of those who stated they were converted to heterosexuality from homosexuality.

Rooted in a movement labeled ex-gay in the 1970s and extending into the third decade of the third millennium and beyond, the process has a lack of long-term results and even suicidal manifestations.

Others claim conversion therapy is effective in their individual cases and, therefore, they claim some can change their orientation. Many former clients and leaders of the ex-gay movement, however, call it a failure that never had the power to put forth a heterosexual lifestyle free of homosexual orientation.

Some past leaders today live in same-sex relationships leaving behind a history of failed heterosexual marriages. They now distance themselves from their former teaching. Several movies highlight the faults of this movement including the drama Boy Erased starring Lucas Hedges as Garrad Conley a man whom his father forced into Love In Action, a conversion therapy residential program. The movie based on his autobiographical book is one of the many tools Conley uses to bring an end to this practice.

The film’s director Joel Edgerton played Victor Sykes a pseudonym for the director of Love in Action. John Smid the actual real-life facilitator of the program is now in a same-sex marriage in Texas.

The documentary Pray Away released in the summer of 2021 features other leaders of the ex-gay movement who likewise today are in same-sex relationships. This includes John Paulk. According to his own witness in the movie, he, despite public claims to the contrary, never stopped having homosexual temptations and feelings and eventually fell back into the lifestyle. Wayne Besen, a gay activist and author of the book Anything but Straight, an exposé on ex-gay ministries, took the picture that publicly outed Paulk in the gay bar.

Likewise, Alan Chambers former head of Exodus International in 2013 announced the end of the umbrella group for many of these ex-gay ministries. He admitted that he never stopped having same-sex temptations and attractions.

Others stand by their ministry to lead people out of the homosexual lifestyle and identify as LGBT. These organizations refute the teaching that conversion therapy is a failure and claim it is a success for them either by living a heterosexual married life or a chaste lifestyle as singles. One 2009 study they still cite claims a success rate of up to 53%. However, It includes co-operation with Exodus which shut down and disavowed its mission four years later. Today, that one study is still cited.

What is the theology behind Conversion Therapy?

Conversion therapy although put forth by some licensed psychologists had leaders often unlicensed and uneducated in the field who blamed homosexual orientation on a number of sociological factors the gay or lesbian person endured growing up. One major cause for example they say was a distant same-sex parent. For example, gay men’s homosexuality was through seeking to compensate with other men for their allegedly lacking paternal support. The way therefore to become straight was to repair the effects of that relationship.

Spiritually, many believed that since, according to their interpretation of the Bible, homosexuality is an abomination to God then Jesus clearly chose to heal them of these desires.

The part of this belief was that sometime in the life of the gay man or lesbian there was some form of choice to pursue same-sex relationships and therefore, it is within their control to choose heterosexuality with God’s help.

This, however, is not supported by a large body of testimony and evidence outside of a smaller group of cases. In fact, in some countries, homosexuality is punished by death and usually a violent form of it, this still does not stop many from pursuing same-sex relationships and dying violent executions after they are caught.

Sola scriptura vs scripture and tradition

Part of the theology of conversion therapy comes from its roots in Martin Luther’s sola scriptura. Christians take the Bible as the source of revelation and as literally the word of God written in stone. They try to obey or risk eternal damnation.

Catholicism believes in scripture and tradition and therefore has a larger range of material than just the scripture as the source of revelation. This includes the writings of saints who though not in sexual relationships were in intense Christ-centered same-sex relationships. St. Aelred of Riveaulx a thirteenth-century abbot wrote in Spiritual Friendship that this was the greatest form of love. He taught that true friends lead themselves mutually to Christ. He called it the covenant of the sweetest love in which “our very spirits are united.”

St. John Newman lived with his best friend Ambrose St. John and described grieving his death worse than what a married couple would encounter. They owned a house together and are buried together.

Neither St. Thomas Aquinas nor St. Augustine would have supported the sola scriptura doctrine. Citing the last line of the Gospel of John which explains Jesus did and said so many things that there would not be enough books in the world to hold all those accounts, Aquinas basing his words on Augustine’s theology of that passage teaches:

if Christ had committed His doctrine to writing, men would have had no deeper thought of His doctrine than that which appears on the surface of the writing.

(STh., III q.42 a.4: “I answer that . . .”)

Christian teaching as something written in stone can create great damage to those struggling to reconcile their faith in Jesus with their same-sex feelings and attractions.

Another science needs to investigate

Many consider conversion therapy to be pseudo-science rooted in some forms of psychology but another science may be more informative on the viability of the practice — anthropology. There is a lack of anthropological investigation into historic situations of homosexuality in other cultures especially those that are indigenous with no contact with Christianity.

If the root of homosexuality is a poor relationship with one’s father in a Christian world, how does that equate with its existence in pre-Christian indigenous environments? Native Americans referred to homosexuals as having two spirits and some of them embraced the female cultural roles while maintaining their male gender. They often received respect in their indigenous cultures.

The Atlantic magazine published an article that not only found a culture with no homosexuality or even masturbation among its people, the tribe did not even have a word for them. The culture sees sexual activity solely as a means for pro-creation and furthering the biological future of the tribe. Their sexual activity would happen long hours into the night often.

This intense focus on one purpose of sexuality is rare in most civilized cultures for millennia. Even Catholicism which sees sexual activity primarily for pro-creation also recognizes the secondary goal of spousal unity.

The reason for the proscription against homosexuality in Leviticus is God called the Hebrews to a different form of culture. He created an egalitarian nation separate from all the practices common in the pagan nations including that from which He just rescued them in Egypt. They were to worship the one God, the great I Am.

The wording of the proscription against homosexuality which was prolific in pagan cultures in the Leviticus era brings up a completely different understanding through the lens of cultural anthropology. In Leviticus, God commands that a man may not lay with another man as with a woman. These words do not just prohibit homosexual activity. In most cultures where men practiced homosexuality, the superior would penetrate the inferior. In Leviticus, what is forbidden in the wording of the demand was for a man to penetrate another man as he would a woman. This would make sense in that context because God freed the Hebrews from slavery to form a more egalitarian culture free of the vestiges of slavery they just fled. The role of superior and inferior became solidified in some forms of homosexuality in other cultures and runs counter to the egalitarianism of the Hebrews.

In Romans, St Paul cites homosexual activity as the result of the forbidden practice of idolatry. Again, since God is calling his people out of idolatry and its practices it would make sense that he would cite the same idolatry as leading into those practices.

The nature of homosexuality, clearly, is far more complicated than the leaders of the ex-gay movement were prepared to acknowledge. It seems their main source of text was nothing but the Bible and its various prohibitions against homosexuality.

Even today those ex-gay movements seem to focus on change to lead one more in accords with biblical teaching.

Catholic teaching and homosexuality

Catholics also have their issues with responses to homosexuality referring to the activity as intrinsically evil and objectively disordered. Despite the hatred of these terms by those in the LGBT community, they are theological terms and not psychological or sociological concepts. They say that it is against God’s will to practice them.

Others in the LGBT community believe that if the church calls what they do intrinsically evil then the Church by default labels them intrinsically evil. Theologians would disagree but what someone hears can have greater weight than what another actually says to them.

Catholics only recognize sexual activity open to life within a sacramental marriage so the church proscribes any other form of sexual activity hetero or homosexual.

The call of the Catholic is to focus on doing God’s will and through prayer and sacramental relationship to grow in holiness in the love of God and neighbor. All baptized Catholics heterosexual or homosexual, et al have a mission to witness to God’s love for all. Therefore, the Catholic church recognizes that the homosexual has the call to live a chaste life something that cannot be lived without the support of prayer, friends, devotion and ascetical practice. However, this is true of all Catholics not just those who have a homosexual orientation. She labels the chaste life as the fruit of an apprenticeship making it clear that it is not an overnight success, it does not become an instant permanent change. It needs to be fostered throughout one’s life with the proper tools.

Although some bishops and Catholic ministries do promote ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy, Catholic tradition holds a long history of same-sex friendships which the Church encourages as a necessary tool of chastity. The Church also acknowledges no one knows the genesis of homosexual inclination. This means that no formal process can cure it.

Any saint would be quite skeptical of the claim that one was free of those inclinations or, as they would understand it, temptations. In fact, they would even consider some claims dangerous. The spiritual life is a journey. Catholic tradition holds that no one can claim victory until they reach the end of the road. St. Teresa of Avila in fact looked forward to her death for that would mean would not be taken off the road by the temptations she still endured.

Unlike other forms of Christianity which seem to have one vocation — marriage, Catholicism maintains four vocations one of which is marriage. The church does not assume all people have a call to married life. In fact, marriage is a sacrament, freely chosen. Therefore, as Jesus teaches, many have no calling to embrace it.

The focus is not on your sexual orientation as much as living your life in a way that leads you and others closer to the fullness of life in Christ. Marriage is not mandatory.

John Paulk’s mistake may not have been that he walked into that bar that night, it may have been claiming all along that he was healed of homosexuality. He was married but still dealing with the inclinations. He also led a movement that became politically motivated.

True holiness recognizes one’s weaknesses and strengths, inclinations and struggles, victories and failures and lets God lead the person through them without telling Him how to do it.

Therefore, since conversion therapy comes from a sola scriptura understanding of homosexuality and the church calls all Catholics to chastity and conversion and Catholics do not understand a final victory over temptation until after death. Since Catholic theology and sacraments understand the need for the grace of God hence we have the Sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Sick. A theology that claims a final victory over temptation does not embrace Catholicism, the bishops should not recommend conversion therapy.

Bishops should instead encourage the call to holiness for all baptized Catholics. They should encourage them on their journey through a prayer experience, the sacraments and all the tools cited in the Catechism to strengthen the call to chastity and their witness of Christian love, not rigidity.

They should also encourage through Catholic university research full anthropological study(ies) of homosexuality as it appears historically and in indigenous cultures prior to Christianization to deepen their understanding of what the Church admits she does not fully comprehend. 


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