CHICAGO — Courage, a Church apostolate ministering to people with same-sex attraction, held its 23rd annual conference this summer in Chicago. Members of Courage and EnCourage, the support group for their loved ones, were joined by Church leaders, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, the Holy See’s highest court; Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who helped to found Courage in 1981; and Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist with extensive experience counseling people with same-sex attraction.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey covered the conference, which featured daily Masses celebrated by Courage chaplains as well as the five bishops in attendance. Afterward, he had several in-depth conversations with Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage, about the apostolate and the assault on chastity in a “sex-saturated” culture.

What did you think about this year’s conference?

I wish that the people who attended the conference who are Courage members could answer that question because they are the true heart of Courage, and they can give the most effective testimony about the apostolate. It would seem that there’s not only one voice that speaks for people who have same-sex attraction. And, surely, we know that there is a very strong voice in the culture for “gay” rights.

But that voice does not speak for everyone who has same-sex attraction. And, it seems to me, that the experience of Courage members should not be diminished because their understanding of themselves and the teaching of the Church are very different from that voice in the culture, which lobbies on behalf of same-sex “marriage” and so on. The Courage apostolate begins with individual men and women and the lived reality of homosexuality in their lives, and it desires to help them understand themselves and their struggles without in any way coercing them or insisting against their will that they have to embrace the teaching of the Church.

I spoke with members who related life-changing truths they discovered through Courage, such as the meaning of true friendship; the desirability of the integrated personality, unburdened by repressed difficulties (“getting them out in the open was hard at first, but then it became just so freeing”); and the love of the Church that comes from truly knowing her (“Part of the reason why I left the Church was because I thought it was very parochial, that it basically told me what not to do. Not anymore.”) These were professional men, urbane and witty company, yet disarmingly humble in their love of Courage and what it has done for them. How do you respond to what they had to say?

A shared experience of Courage members that they find very helpful is the opportunity to express themselves peacefully and freely among others who share the same struggle and perspective and who also have a great love for and fidelity to the Church. And from that fraternity, they draw strength and hope.

In charity, it would be well not to presume that a group of men or women with same-sex attraction represents an occasion of sin. We should first consider it a place where men and women of like mind and heart can meet under the care of a priest to live lives in fidelity to Christ and his Church.

With regard to the last comment, I would say that the truth is luminous and has a power of its own to draw us and transform us. And it’s no surprise that when the truth of our nature and the truth of grace — when these things are preached and taught in an understandable way — that many will embrace them and find the peace and joy that only the truth can bring. That’s why in the Courage apostolate we promote a spirit of inquiry, peaceful conversation and thoughtful reflection.

What was it like without Father John Harvey, Courage’s founding executive director, who died last December?

Father Harvey is still with us, although he has entered a new chapter in his life. Certainly, there’s a poignancy and sadness at the loss of his physical presence. I also detected a confidence and trust in the people as Courage enters a new chapter, building upon what Father Harvey gave to us and their hope for the future.

Explain Courage’s approach to ministering to people with same-sex attraction.

There’s a distinction we always make among the person, the inclination and the action. The person is always good: a child of God, redeemed in Christ and invited to grace and glory. As for the inclination, the Church teaches that it’s disordered when put alongside our understanding of what it means to live and act in a way consistent with our human nature, in this case, in the realm of human intimacy and love.

It’s the ultimately procreative power of sexual activity that tells us why the world is divided into two sexes. Therefore, the same-sex inclination is described by the Church as disordered because it’s at variance with that design and order in nature. That inclination takes a person’s deepest aspirations and desires and confuses them by layering on top of them an erotic same-sex attraction. Underneath that layer, however, there is the fullness of human nature to include authentic desires relating to human intimacy. And although the inclination is disordered, we stress that this is absolutely no basis for a personal moral condemnation.

But the action — the deliberate choice to engage in homosexual activity — that action is gravely immoral.

Father Groeschel told me that when he helped found Courage in 1980 it encountered pushback because some falsely believed that it promoted tolerance of homosexuality, if not outright acceptance. That misunderstanding was swiftly corrected, he said, saying that the real pushback has come from those within the Church who disagree with Courage’s moral orthodoxy: the sort of pushback Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons said exists within the mainstream medical and academic establishment when it comes to considering homosexuality. Is Courage still running into brick walls?

Let me put it this way: The Church’s “no” to same-sex unions and “marriages” is very evident and firm, as it must be. We have a role to be a strong voice in furtherance of the truth, both in nature and grace, in the public square. But wherever there is a “No,” there must also be a “Yes,” because the “No” is one part of the much larger “Yes” of God’s invitation to man and man’s response.

Consider this analogy: When you and I get in a car to drive somewhere, our first thought is not to avoid an accident, but to reach our destination. We set out because we have a place to go. In the same way, when we sit down to table, we eat not to avoid getting sick, but because we want to live. These are simple analogies with regard to our purpose in life.

Why are we here? Our Church as mother has an important responsibility, a sacred obligation to protect her children from harm. The Church has to say “No” when an evident harm is present. But that maternal solicitude of the Church is expressed most fully in the “Yes” that she’s trying to inspire in the children of God.

Now the virtue of chastity is, like all the virtues, an expression and perfection of man’s nature. And it helps him not only to avoid harmful things, but it more fully helps to fulfill one’s purpose in life: the generous self-gift that will bring one joy and peace.

Whenever the Church encounters a particular social condition or vulnerability in man’s fallen human nature, it’s simply a matter of natural justice that she’d also provide the means for people to live out the teaching.

Consider the example of contraception — against conceiving new life, that’s what it means — presented to us in Humanae Vitae. Everyone knows that the Church says “No” to contraception. But perhaps we can all admit that, pastorally, the Church has not always done as good a job in teaching why contraception is contrary to the human good. In addition, it may be the case that we have not always provided people the means to live the teaching. With specific regard to homosexuality, it is clear to everyone that the Church says “No” to same-sex activity. But what is not well known is that the Church fully embraces men and women with same-sex attraction — embraces them as children of God — and that it desires to help them and provide them the means to live chastely.

As executive director of Courage, how do you take the continued pushback?

I admit, to some dismay, when Courage is not welcomed or promoted in various places, especially among my brother priests . It seems to me that, in our pastoral charity, we want to give the souls under our care the means to living the moral teaching of the Church. We want to express the joy of Christ. In John 15, when Our Lord said that I’ve told you these things that my joy in you and your joy may be complete, he had just finished speaking about the commandments, which, as St. Thomas tells us, express what it means to live and act in a manner consistent with our human nature.

How exactly does one live and act in a manner consistent with our human nature?

By recognizing that fidelity to our humanity is essential to the path to joy. Consider it from this angle: There are things that are contrary to a human way of acting, like lying or cheating or stealing. Even if we don’t initially recognize it, to act contrary to our humanity is to be in variance with our own desire for joy. This is ultimately why the Church rejects homosexual activity. Yes, she must defend the institution of marriage in both its natural and supernatural forms. But what she says with all pastoral charity to a man or woman with same-sex attraction is: If you act on your inclinations, your strong feelings of affection notwithstanding, then you’ll be at cross purposes with yourself.

How does Courage advance the Church’s pastoral charity?

The purpose of our apostolate from the Church is to help people to discover who they are as children of God and to be confident of the Church’s love for them. Men and women with same-sex attraction often feel as though they have two choices: one, isolation, which is something worse than loneliness … that sense of estrangement from Church and family and friends and even of one’s self that prompts a kind of fear that I can talk to no one about how I feel. There is a terrible vulnerability in enduring such isolation.

The other choice is the so-called “gay lifestyle,” which, for many, many people in this predicament, is not an attractive option. Those who are quite convinced that homosexuality is a normal variant of the human condition do not speak for everyone who has same-sex attraction. In fact, there’s a bit of a paradox that a group of people who within two generations wanted simply to be tolerated or accepted for who they understood themselves to be — the paradox is that this same voice now is resolutely intolerant itself of any other voices that would present a different viewpoint.

So there are two false choices. What is the right choice?

The alternative that the Church offers. She says, You’re not defined by homosexual inclinations. You as a human being are far more rich and complex than this. You are a child of God. You are redeemed in Christ. You are invited to grace in this life and glory in the life to come.

How does Courage approach people with same-sex attraction?

Courage doesn’t approach the question of homosexuality as a cultural challenge or as part of the cultural debate, even with regard to defending the institution of marriage. That’s done by other arms of the Church, and rightly so. Courage approaches the question of homosexuality as a lived reality in the lives of individual persons. And so, in that sense, to the extent we can, we want to avoid public controversy, though we know homosexuality poses real cultural problems.

Yet Courage still is not welcomed in some corners. Why?

There are different reasons why Courage is not welcomed. One, its goals are not known and understood. That seems easy enough to address. There are even within the Church certain anthropologies — ways of looking at the human condition — that are inconsistent with the Church’s anthropology. Unfortunately, the Church institutionally has given up so much ground regarding a fundamental issue: contraception. The Church’s position is not taught well or only taught as a concession, but without real conviction.

Why is the Church’s practical concession to contraception such a problem?

Because once we concede to [deliberately chosen] sterile sex within marriage, we’re left with little ground to stand on regarding the question of chastity. As one priest told me, we have to ask ourselves, Do we really believe chastity is a part of the Good News? We know that the culture is sex-saturated, but we can also see the effects of it: misery, sadness and confusion, especially among the young. If we don’t see the virtue of chastity just helping man live life to its fullest, then we’ll be ambivalent about contraception, homosexuality, etc. It’s not exactly a failure of our faith, but a question of who we understand ourselves to be: Who are we, and what does it mean to act in a human way?

How is Courage seeking to correct the chastity problem, especially as it relates to the manner in which homosexuality is addressed among Catholics?

Well, in general, there is resolute opposition to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Well-funded and strident groups in the media and culture are pitted against the Church on this issue. We all know that. But I think the greater problem is misplaced compassion, even among Catholics. I think that’s a more difficult challenge to overcome. Here again, we have to return to the question of our theological anthropology. Who is man in Jesus Christ? What has Jesus Christ revealed to us about ourselves? He spoke plainly about chastity in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 19 when he addressed marriage. So these things are clear and guide us to the truth. God comes into the world in the person of Jesus Christ to restore lost love and joy. And it’s possible for us to know with confidence the route to Christ and happiness through the Church.

What’s the primary work conducted from the headquarters of Courage?

The principal work of the main office is geared towards education, especially for the benefit of parish priests. The goal of Courage overall is the establishment of individual chapters for men and women with same-sex attraction, as well as chapters of EnCourage, the support group for the loved ones of those with same-sex attraction. But in order for those chapters to come into existence and be vital, we must have the support of local clergy. It’s the parish priest who hears confessions, preaches and provides outlets for information about Courage, like the literature racks at the back of church. If priests understand and trust that the work of Courage is consistent with the Gospel, then they will promote it among the souls entrusted to their care.

You also coordinate Courage presentations in dioceses, correct?

Yes. When a bishop invites us to give presentations about Courage in his diocese, our presenters consider the question of homosexuality from four angles.

First, we consider what the Church teaches about homosexuality and how that teaching is situated within the larger context of the Sixth Commandment and the Church’s teaching on chastity. Quite clearly, we, of necessity, have to address the question of contraception.

Second, we look at homosexuality from the viewpoint of the psychological sciences. So our team of presenters includes a psychologist or psychiatrist who shares the Church’s anthropology and has the clinical experience to be able to help priests understand something about the nature of the condition.

The third piece of the presentation is a witness talk or testimonial, typically given by a member of Courage who lived the “gay lifestyle.” This is a unique perspective: an inside look that few priests have encountered. He gives his talk not as something that applies to everyone else, because it’s a personal experience and testimonial that’s not intended to be the final word on how everyone’s lived that lifestyle. The point is to put a face on the real lived experience of the “gay lifestyle” so that priests might better understand it.

The last piece of our presentation is the Church’s pastoral response: explaining what the Courage apostolate is and how it assists men and women with same-sex attraction to live in chaste freedom according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

How else would you like to promote Courage?

In addition to these diocesan presentations, we have other plans and projects we hope will make the knowledge of Courage more widely available. One thing I’m very much in favor of is promoting the asking of questions, which is something we can do in spite of not having all the money and resources available to those on the other side of the homosexual issue. We want people to ask sincere and thoughtful questions about who they are and why they feel the way they do: what their particular struggles are and what can be done about them. And to inquire very thoughtfully, peacefully and calmly about the question of homosexuality. We promote the asking of questions with the conviction that answers are available.

Do some people with same-sex attraction take umbrage at Courage?

What we want to do as best we can is see the question of homosexuality from the viewpoint of men and women with same-sex attraction who are unaware of Church teaching or resist it strongly. I understand the resistance. How can you tell me who I am, and who are you to tell me what feelings I should have or whom I should love or be intimate with? How dare you intrude upon things so private and personal. I certainly understand why there can be such bridling.

What we present, however, is that the Church has no intention to coerce, to be combative. We’re only trying to hold up the light of truth so a person with same-sex attraction can know truly who he or she is. You know, there’s a wonderful teaching from the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes: “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

That is not a threat. But it may appear so to the “old man” or “natural man,” as St. Paul calls that portion of our fallen human nature that has not yet embraced Jesus Christ — that voice saying, No, I want things my way. But the Church holds up this light of truth as the path to joy and peace that Christ promised. That’s not a threat. It’s a fulfillment.

So we’re eager to engage people in thoughtful and calm discussion about homosexuality. And we begin this process by helping clergy to attain the confidence they need to engage people about a sensitive, complex and controversial topic.

What challenges does Courage face in promoting its vision, and how does Courage overcome them?

First, we have to begin from the supernatural perspective: that this is a battle involving principalities and powers. So, because Courage is an apostolate of the Roman Catholic Church, Christ is very much at the center of our work. Therefore, prayer and the sacramental life are also at the very heart of our way forward.

Please elaborate.

One of the goals of Courage is that deeper spiritual life, deeper union of hearts with Christ; and all of us engaged in this work pray for that divine assistance which helps us to make the apostolate more available to those in need. Many people are suffering and miserable because they feel so alone and isolated, particularly because they feel estranged from the Church they love and from whom they’d otherwise expect help. We want to use all the spiritual means and institutional means and means of communication we have to assist these souls who are much loved by Christ and the Church. I’m very edified by the piety and fidelity of the men and women in Courage. They are exemplary in the way they live their faith.

We’re reaching out to anyone who’d like to know more and have a thoughtful and calm discussion about a vexing and difficult topic. We don’t give easy answers. Quite the contrary. Precisely for that reason we believe that the Courage apostolate should be widely promoted so that the helps available through nature and grace can be made available through God’s providence — those helps necessary for what can be a long and difficult struggle to coming to terms with same-sex attraction.

It began in the U.S., but Courage has expanded overseas. Any updates?

Recently, we’ve had inquiries about Courage from southern Italy and Croatia. And just recently, the entire bishops’ conference of El Salvador agreed to host Courage chapters in all the dioceses in that country. We desire to be at the service of the universal Church.

Speaking of the universal Church, has the Holy Father said or written anything that particularly inspires your work with Courage?

Well, Pope Benedict, like Father Harvey, always teaches us that truth and charity can never be in conflict with each other. On the contrary. Back in 1986, when he was prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a letter entitled “Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” In that letter, he reminded us that “departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve.”

In the same letter, he warns against “studied ambiguity” with regard to Church teaching on the part of anyone or any group that’s engaged in ministry to those with same-sex attraction. In other words, the full and plain embrace of magisterial teaching establishes charity and guides good intentions, because our confidence rests in Christ and his Mystical Body — not in ourselves or the world — to show us the way to heaven.

In his talk to Catholic educators during his apostolic visit to the U.S. in 2008, the Holy Father also used the phrase “intellectual charity,” once again uniting truth and love. For you see, to love any of God’s children, no matter their particular struggles, means to gently and carefully lead them to the truth of their humanity. Only in this way will their deepest desires be fulfilled, will restless hearts find peace and joy. We trust that our Mother, the Church, knows us best because, after our Savior, she loves us most.

Much time at the conference was spent addressing same-sex attraction’s youthful origins. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, for example, identified “loneliness in male friendships” as one factor.

For a boy or a young man, earning the respect and enjoying the affection of his peers are very important steps to achieving manhood. When he is without the benefit of good male friendships, a boy or young man suffers a great loss. But his desire for friendship in this way does not go away. And it is possible that that desire for male affection and respect can become an erotic attraction to other men.

Courage seeks to address this challenge, in part, by providing a forum where men can form friendships with each other in a chaste and noble way.

What can be done to prevent young boys from developing same-sex attraction, if “developing” is the right word?

All boys and young men yearn for the love and affection of their father. Sometimes a boy’s interests will be different from those of his dad. The father should try very hard not to force his son to enjoy activities that he himself likes, but, rather, learn to enjoy and share those experiences that are valuable to his son.

Given the media’s positive portrayal of homosexuality — e.g., primetime sitcoms likeGlee, featuring a homosexual teenager — do you think this is making confused young people consider this lifestyle as a means to happiness? After all, the media make it look so ... well, gleeful. And has Courage seen an uptick in younger members, or is the age range pretty much across the board?

We had this conversation frequently at the conference: the need to provide assistance to the young in terms of education and fraternal charity. Strictly speaking, Courage is an apostolate chartered for adults. As a matter of prudence, we don’t mix adolescents and adults. But there’s another challenge to founding a Courage group for teens and young adults with feelings of same-sex attraction: We don’t want them to be identifying themselves this way. Part of the challenge to dealing with same-sex attraction is not carving out an identity based upon homosexuality in the first place. That’s why we don’t use the word homosexual as a noun, for instance.

That said, there is a dire need for education in middle school and high school about the virtue of chastity, about homosexuality, love and intimacy. There’s a greater need now than ever before, given the assault upon innocence and the purity of children at ever younger ages. They must realize that promiscuity of any kind only leads to sadness. This won’t be easy, though. There are all sorts of obstacles posed by the breakdown of the family and the widespread use of pornography and oral contraceptives: All these things have made people very vulnerable to things that hurt them — physically, morally, spiritually, and in their own desire for happiness in life.

What, if any, outreach can Courage provide to young people?

We’re ready to come to the aid of the Church by educating young people, and we’re always looking for ways to promote chastity.

One thing we can do now is give to young people the same kind of presentation we already give to priests, teachers, counselors and youth ministers — all those people engaged in religious education and pastoral outreach in a diocese. We welcome these opportunities because we can give young people a clear understanding of chastity in general, homosexuality in particular, so that they don’t fall into the trap of misplaced compassion, and so that they can address this question peacefully in the full understanding of what the Church teaches and why. We’d welcome any invitation. We have men and women in Courage who will share their testimonials with groups of young people. They’re already doing so. I’m so proud of them because this takes true courage. It’s hard standing up in a room in a quasi-public setting and saying you used to live the “gay lifestyle.”

Aside from helping you run the conference with military precision, what did serving as a Marine officer prior to the priesthood teach you?

In a way, moving from the Marine Corps to the priesthood was an understandable progression. My Marines were my sons. And the Marine Corps taught me a great deal about fatherhood. As a priest, I have learned to be a spiritual father, for which I am very grateful.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.