Synod Organizers Should Promote These Faithful Alternatives to New Ways Ministry
The Vatican’s Synod of Bishops shouldn’t promote a group that has been condemned by U.S. bishops — they should instead highlight faithful apostolates ministering to LGBTQ-identifying Catholics.
The organizers of the Catholic Church’s “synod on synodality” have restored a link to a controversial LGBTQ+ Catholic advocacy group to a website of synod-related resources only days after the link had been removed. The link leads to a video produced by New Ways Ministry, an organization that has run afoul of Church teaching and leadership over the decades, including for its long-standing push for marriage between people of the same sex and for its criticism of the Church’s call for same-sex attracted people to embrace celibate living (despite the fact that this is what the Church asks of anyone who is not validly married).
According to Thierry Bonaventure, communication manager at the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, the link was first removed after it was brought to the General Secretariat’s attention that New Ways Ministry is not recognized by the U.S. episcopacy as an approved Catholic organization.
In fact, in 2010, Cardinal Francis George, who was then president of the USCCB, said the group “cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.” Additionally, in 1999 the organization’s founders had already been prohibited from pastoral work with homosexual persons by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith — led then by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI — due to a promotion of “ambiguities and errors” and a refusal to assent to Church teaching on human sexuality.
But the video was restored after considerable outcry from progressive media and figures like Jesuit Father James Martin, who implied that removing a video from a problematic organization amounted to preventing the voices of same-sex attracted and transgender-identifying people from being part of the Synod consultation. This despite the fact that Bonaventura had previously stated that while a video from an organization like New Ways Ministry doesn’t belong on the synod resources website, the Synod is still intent on hearing from all baptized Catholics (and even others).
On Dec. 12, Bonaventura issued a letter that accompanied reposting the materials, saying, “I feel that I must apologize to all LGBTQ people and to the members of New Ways Ministry for the pain caused.” The restoration of the video demonstrates, he said, “the firm will — not only mine but of the entire general secretariat of the synod — not to exclude those who wish to carry out this synodal process with a sincere heart and a spirit of dialogue and real discernment.”
Father Martin said this was an instance of genuine “reconciliation.” What’s clear is that it was an instance of New Ways Ministry, Father Martin, and other supporters of its agenda successfully framing the conversation according to a cramped, rigid binary, presenting a false choice between ignoring the real concerns and needs of LGBTQ-identifying Catholics and promoting a resource from a discredited and dissenting organization. This is especially problematic when we consider the track record of New Ways Ministry and the purported solutions they’ve proposed — solutions that have fallen short of or even distorted anthropological realities and sexual ethics.
As then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in his 1999 statement on the organization’s founders, “The promotion of errors and ambiguities is not consistent with a Christian attitude of true respect and compassion: persons who are struggling with homosexuality no less than any others have the right to receive the authentic teaching of the Church from those who minister to them.”
Is a pastoral response guided by such a compromised organization really the most caring approach we can take?
Most definitely not. Which means that the Synod organizers should’ve taken this opportunity to promote Catholic groups and voices ministering to LGBTQ people in a way consistent with the Church’s teaching.
It’s important precisely because a significant number of people who identify as LGBTQ do, in fact, experience the Church as hostile and/or uncaring, and also because there are others who, for whatever reason, seem intent on reinforcing those feelings. Removing a problematic video isn’t enough if there also isn’t the promotion of something that can speak to the lived realities and needs of LGBTQ-identifying people from the heart of the Church.
[To that point: this piece was started Dec. 9, after the link was taken down, but well before it was restored. The Church needs to be proactive about walking with LGBTQ-identifying Catholics, and not merely speaking up when something harmful gets promoted.]
The synod organizers should be promoting faithful alternatives to New Ways Ministry. Here are some:
Founded more than 40 years ago, Courage International — usually just known as “Courage” — is perhaps the most well-established and widely-known Catholic apostolate “for men and women who experience same-sex attractions,” as the organization is described on its website. Courage offers its members pastoral support, spiritual guidance and community, largely in the form of local chapters. As its name suggests, Courage International has official chapters in 17 different countries — including more than 130 in the United States alone.
Courage’s “Five Goals”— which are read at the beginning of each meeting — include living chastely in accordance with the Church’s sexual ethics, dedication to Christ through service of others and an abundant spiritual and sacramental life, fostering a spirit of fellowship, emphasizing chaste friendships, and commitment to living “lives that may serve as good examples to others.” Courage also offers a plethora of resources, including a handbook for chaplains, member testimonies, and prayer and spirituality resources.
The apostolate, which is currently led by Father Phillip Bochanski, has received consistent approval from ecclesial authorities. It was endorsed by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family in 1994, and the USCCB recommended it in the 2006 publication, Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclination. Today, Courage is promoted by many dioceses throughout the country as the go-to ministry for Catholics who identify as LGBTQ and/or experience same-sex attraction.
Something of a pioneer in a previously unaddressed area of ministry, Courage’s pastoral work has not been without bumps along the road. At its start, it faced resistance from those who didn’t believe the Church should have any sort of intentional support for Catholics who openly identified as gay or lesbian.
Today, criticism of Courage comes from other corners. Some of these voices simply have a problem with the Church’s established teaching on human sexuality, and see Courage only as an extension of this more fundamental disagreement.
But critics of Courage also include faithful Catholics who suggest the apostolate’s approach — in part inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous “12 Steps Program” — treats same-sex attraction as a wound to be healed from instead of an aspect of one’s life to be accepted and properly integrated with the Church’s teaching on sexuality and community. Courage has responded to these kinds of criticisms on its website.
Courage might not be for every Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction. But there’s also no denying that the ministry has been incredibly fruitful for many and has consistently received the widespread approval of the Church’s teaching authority — something New Ways Ministry certainly cannot claim.
If Courage International is the “old pro,” Eden Invitation is the new kid on the block. The apostolate, which strives to help others discover “original personhood beyond the LGBT+ paradigm,” was founded only a few years ago, and was a 2020 winner of the OSV Innovation Challenge, an initiative that aims to identify, encourage and support creative ideas for Church ministry.
Eden Invitation’s values and approach reflect the sensibilities of its millennial founders: fresh, welcoming and person-focused. The apostolate emphasizes that true self-acceptance of one’s sexuality can come only through integration with more original truths about our humanity and purpose.
Eden Invitation exists to create spaces to receive the whole person, grow systems of mutual support, and empower others to live as mature Christian disciples. The focus is all on community and interpersonal support: in-person retreats, book clubs and small groups are the beating heart of Eden Invitation’s ministry. They even started a story-telling initiative called “The Porch Series” as a way of highlighting the stories of those who’ve found growth and joy through reconciling their faith and sexuality.
Eden Invitation is explicit about its firm acceptance of “everything definitively proposed by the Catholic Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” As a newer organization, they might not yet have received the Holy See’s approbation, but co-founders Anna Carter and Shannon Ochoa — who are both personally familiar with same-sex desire — are increasingly sought after by Catholic dioceses, schools and organizations to present a compelling and faithful vision of Catholic teaching and ministry to people who identify as LGBTQ+, especially to younger audiences.
Falling for a False Choice
Beyond apostolates dedicated to LGBTQ-identifying Catholics like Courage International and Eden Invitation, there are a significant number of Catholic and other Christian speakers and authors on the topic, including Eve Tushnet, Hudson Byblow, Wesley Hill and Paul Darrow.
These speakers don’t agree about everything — for instance, Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic, while others encourage people with same-sex attractions not to identify as gay. At the heart of these disagreements seem to be different ways of understanding how same-sex attractions and gender identity do (or do not) constitute the God-given truth of who someone is.
But what these approaches have in common is an explicit, intentional and proven effort to explore these questions within the bounds of established Church teaching — not treating these teachings as obnoxious inconveniences to find workarounds for, but as the revealed truth of who human beings are and therefore the source of fruitfully and freely living out our sexuality.
The same cannot be said for New Ways Ministry, an organization that consistently shows it has little to no regard for what the Church teaches. New Ways Ministry and its supporters seem intent on using media strategies and lobbying tactics normally seen in partisan politics to advance their agenda — a key dimension of which is falsely framing the choice before the Church as, on the one hand, hating gay people, and, on the other, promoting their distorted version of sexual ethics and anthropology.
That the organizers of the Synod on Synodality were pressured into making a decision according to this false binary is incredibly sad — and, frankly, concerning about the Synod’s leadership and trajectory. It should be a call for the rest of us to take seriously the needs, concerns and good of LGBTQ-identifying Catholics, and to promote faithful LGBTQ Catholic apostolates and voices.