TORONTO — Mental-health professionals should avoid telling same-sex-attracted clients that therapy can change their sexual orientation, the American Psychological Association advises.

The organization, which represents 150,000 psychologists nationwide, also issued a report during its annual meeting in early August saying the latest research on “change” or “reparative” therapy was inconclusive and therefore the APA could not recommend it.

No therapist should “promise outcomes they can’t deliver,” Judith Glassgold, the task force’s chairwoman, said. “We were concerned clients were being misled by promises of change. We don’t want clients’ expectations to be so high that they can’t reach their goals.”

There are two kinds of change here, Father John Harvey, a Catholic moral theologian and an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, clarified: “The first is a change from lust to virtue — overcoming the homosexual tendency by becoming chaste. This is the most important change because it demands God’s grace. The second change is coming out of the condition and learning to develop natural feelings toward the other sex.”

Father Harvey is a co-founder of Courage, a ministry for same-sex-attracted Catholics who seek to live according to Church moral teaching.

Many individuals who seek “change” therapy are religiously motivated. In the report, the APA encouraged psychologists to develop “an understanding of the client’s faith and the psychology of religion, especially issues such as religious coping, motivation and identity.”

Allowing for religious belief was a big shift for the APA, said Randy Thomas, executive vice president of Exodus International, an evangelical ministry for homosexuals.

“APA has had a track record of minimizing the experience of same-sex-attracted religious persons,” he said. “Before, we were told we were wrong” for refusing to engage in homosexual behaviors due to religious belief.

It is important for therapists “not to argue or debunk the client’s beliefs, but to explore the consequences of their beliefs,” Glassgold said. A client may choose “a variety of paths,” including celibacy, she said.

In its 2006 “Ministry to Persons With a Homosexual Inclination,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops advised same-sex-attracted Catholics who wish to explore sexual orientation “change” therapy to “seek out the counsel and assistance of a qualified professional who has preparation and competence in psychological counseling and who understands and supports the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.”


Questionable Research

The APA cites several “early studies” as evidence that “change” therapy may be ineffective and harmful. Yet, the relevance of these studies, the latest of which is from 1978, is questionable due to the therapeutic methods used (such as shock therapy) and the population of individuals who participated (men arrested for homosexual behavior and coerced into therapy to avoid jail time).

Recent studies, according to the APA, indicate individuals had both positive and negative experiences in “change” therapy.

The APA was selective in its review of the current research, according to a press release from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. The task force also did not include as members any psychologists who offer “reparative” therapy, the association said.


‘Sexual Orientation Identity’

According to the APA, the one thing recent research does show is that “sexual orientation identity” — versus sexual orientation — can “shift and evolve in some individuals’ lives.”

“Sexual orientation is underlying attractions and desires. You can’t choose who you fall in love with,” Glassgold said. “Sexual orientation identity — who you identify with publicly and in groups — can be controlled.”

NARTH disagrees that change is limited: “Some people can and do change, not just in terms of behavior and identity, but in core features of sexual orientation such as fantasy and attractions,” according to a press release.

Angelo S., a spokesman for Courage, agreed change in both sexual orientation and identity is possible. He cited programs such as “Journey into Manhood” retreats that have “helped men reduce feelings so that they’re not in the homosexual lifestyle anymore. Some say they don’t experience same-sex attraction at all anymore,” he said.

Persons with same-sex attraction are invited to unite “whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s cross,” according to “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” a 1986 pastoral letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In the letter, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pointed out that “homosexual activity prevents one’s own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God.”

Janneke Pieters writes from Asheville, North Carolina.