NEW YORK — A New York City Catholic high school recently postponed an address on homosexuality, responding to critics who turned to Facebook and local media to accuse the speaker of fostering intolerance toward students with same-sex attraction.
The furor was sparked by news that Father Donald Timone, a retired priest in the New York Archdiocese, who has been affiliated with the Courage apostolate, which helps people with same-sex attraction live chaste lives according to Church teaching, had been invited to speak to parents at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.
And while the school’s president described the canceled address as a postponement, the news underscored the difficulty of transmitting hard truths in a shifting, often hostile culture, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York noted.
“It seems that no one can talk of virtue anymore without, at the very least, being labeled out of touch with reality, and in this case, accused of far worse — spreading hatred,” Cardinal Dolan observed in a Nov. 25 op-ed in the New York Daily News that addressed the attacks against Father Timone and Courage, which was founded by Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York in 1980.
“But didn’t Jesus promise, ‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5:8). A pure heart is a chaste heart, a heart that loves others for who they are and not simply for what they can do or how they can satisfy me,” Cardinal Dolan added.
The New York archbishop argued that the protestors, not the Church, were being intolerant. And it was striking that protestors used social media to influence the internal poclies of a Catholic school, just as political activists now employ Facebook to bombard their opponents and shore up grassroots support in legislative battles.
“For individuals and groups to bully, to threaten, to protest, when a priest seeks to explain this timeless and timely message to parents who invited him to do so, is a scary precedent. We have gone from the days when the plea from some activists was ‘All we want is to live our lives in peace’ to ‘You shall not have the right to present your teaching,’” stated Cardinal Dolan.
Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register that Cardinal Spellman High School, like other secondary schools that once had been formally administered by the archdiocese, is now independent, with its own board and governance structure.
Cardinal Spellman’s board of trustees is expected to review the incident at its upcoming meeting, and Zwilling said there were no archdiocesan plans to intervene in the controversy.
But he added, “Our education department here at the archdiocese, and in fact the whole chancery, is available to any school seeking guidance … in scheduling” future presentations on the work of Courage.
As the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, Cardinal Dolan has grown used to publicly defending Catholic teaching on homosexual relations and resisting efforts to change the nation’s marriage laws. But opinion polls suggest young Catholics are increasingly likely to view moral norms as hurtful and unrealistic.
Divided School Community
Further, media coverage of the battle to prevent Father Timone’s address exposed fissures within the school community, suggesting that acceptance of Catholic sexual ethics was shaky among students and some of their elders as well.
The president of Cardinal Spellman High School, Father Trevor Nicholls, insisted that the school has not rescinded its invitation to Father Timone.
“The board of trustees was approached by critics of the idea of having this talk, and some members expressed concerns about Courage and also the advisability of having a presentation on a ‘controversial issue,’” Father Nicholls told the Register.
“I thought their fears were misplaced, but there wasn’t time to allay those concerns, so I thought it best to wait until the next board meeting to deal with the issues.”
In a public statement released after the furor erupted, Father Nicholls strongly supported both Father Timone and the work of Courage.
“Father Timone is a priest ordained well over 50 years, now retired, who spent most of his priestly ministry in Catholic education at both [the] high school and college level,” said Father Nichols.
“His work with adolescents and young adults has brought blessings to many lives, since his approach, like that of the Courage organization, is spiritual, supportive and affirming.”
According to the Daily News, word of Father Timone’s scheduled address before the school’s parent group prompted “Bronx gay-rights groups and one out-and-proud graduate of Spellman” to target the priest and Courage, describing its message as “pray away the gay.”
One alumnus, Clinton Leupp, 48, told the Daily News, “They are trying to shame these kids!” The Daily News reported that “Leupp — better known as Miss Coco Peru — graduated from Spellman in 1983 and has performed cabaret shows in drag for more than 20 years.”
After the event was postponed, Tym Moss of the Bronx LGBTQ Center issued a statement calling for “a constructive dialogue with the school to talk about LGBTQ issues in ways that won’t cause harm.”
The Courage Approach
Courage members reject any suggestion that they seek to “pray away the gay” or focus on “conversion therapy” that seeks to overcome unwanted same-sex attraction, though members are free to seek out such assistance.
The Courage website describes the apostolate as an international “spiritual support” group, with more than 100 chapters that receive some financial assistance from the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.
“In helping individuals gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the Church’s teachings, especially in the area of chastity, Courage extends the Church’s invitation to a life of peace and grace. In chaste living, one finds the peace and grace to grow in Christian maturity,” states a message describing the mission of Courage.
Reflecting on the resistance to Church teaching on homosexuality in the culture, Father Paul Check, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport who leads the Courage apostolate, told the Register, “It is not controversial to address the virtues of truthfulness or mercy or justice, while the virtue of chastity is different. It is not welcomed as part of the Good News.
“But the Church cannot change her teaching, because human nature cannot change. She says that if you live a chaste life, you will live a peaceful life, even if the struggle of chastity is demanding. If we live a life of un-chastity it will be in some way to the detriment of our physical, emotional and psychological well-being.”
“The Church says that with the wisdom of a mother,” he added, “and she is trying to protect people from suffering, sadness, disappointment and misery.”
Members of Courage, he said, “bear that out in their own testimonials, which confirm that chastity is the only road to peace and fulfillment for every person, according to their state in life.”
Dan Mattson’s Testimony
As Catholic high schools address the issue of students self-identifying as “gay” at younger ages, Courage members like Dan Mattson are often asked to share their own stories in classroom settings.
Mattson is a professional musician in west Michigan who told the Register that he “came back to the Catholic Church because of its teachings on homosexuality.”
When Mattson meets with students, his testimony touches on his own struggle to understand and address his attraction to men. And he celebrates Church teaching on homosexuality and chastity “as good news — not onerous. This is the way we would choose to live if we truly knew who we were as men and women made in the image and likeness of God.”
During the question-and-answer segment of his talks, Mattson said, he is often bombarded with remarks that register students’ doubts, frustration and ignorance.
“There are a lot of teens who are very angry at the Church and think it’s behind the times,” said Mattson, who blogs about same-sex attraction and the Church at LetterstoChristopher.wordpress.com.
“Kids who love the Catholic Church don’t feel adequately prepared to propose the teaching as good news or respond to friends who have ‘come out’ in a loving manner.”
Father Dan Kogut, the chaplain of Powers Catholic High School in the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., confirmed that Mattson has helped students at the school be “more open to Church teaching.”
Father Kogut suggested that Mattson’s testimonial also showed students that persons with same-sex attraction do “belong” in the Church and at Powers.
“While there are many voices strongly opposed to the Church’s teaching that easily find support and encouragement in the public sphere, there is a whole other group of people who recognize the teaching as liberating. Their voice is rarely heard,” said Father Check.
“Many more in Catholic high schools would come to see that what the Church proposes is helpful — if we could only put a face on the teaching.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.