PLYMOUTH, Mich. — “The distinguishing characteristics of human intimacy — love and life — are not just protections from harm, but they mark out the path to fulfillment,” said Father Paul Check. “This is the way the human heart is designed by God.”
The executive director of Courage International spoke to the Register last week, laying out the rationale for his apostolate’s first international conference. “We want to be of service to the Church,” he explained, “in her reflections on Christian anthropology and her reflections on pastoral care.”
More than 400 clergy and lay professionals gathered in Plymouth, Mich., Aug. 10-12 to consider ways to welcome and accompany brothers and sisters in the Church who experience same-sex attraction. They included one cardinal, one archbishop and three other bishops, as well as 101 priests and 25 deacons.
The conference, “Welcoming and Accompanying Our Brothers and Sisters With Same-Sex Attraction,” attracted participants from 78 dioceses in 34 states and four Canadian provinces, and from as far away as Malta, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. Participants looked at the challenge from many different perspectives, in trying to determine ways that would help all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, to come to know God in their lives.
The specific objective of the gathering was to assist the 2015 Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in its deliberations regarding pastoral outreach to families that include persons with homosexual tendencies.
Among the faculty who delivered plenary addresses at the Inn at St. John’s were Catholic psychotherapist Timothy Lock, who talked about same-sex attractions as a symptom of a broken heart; Doug Mainwaring, co-founder of the National Capitol Tea Party Patriots and a participant at the Vatican’s November 2014 Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman, who recounted how he had divorced his wife and then for 10 years lived a homosexual lifestyle before returning to his family and finding healing within the marriage; and Andrew Comiskey, founder of Desert Stream/Living Waters Ministries, who spoke on “Beauty and Brokenness.” Joseph Prever, a celibate Catholic writer, blogger and filmmaker, who, until two years ago wrote under the pseudonym “Steve Gershom,” spoke about finding fulfillment in friendship.
Also attending were lay leaders, including seminary professors, diocesan pastoral team leaders, youth and young adult leaders, counselors and others engaged in ministries that are dedicated to caring for men and women with same-sex attraction.
The Courage Approach
Participants also heard the moving testimonies of men and women who experience same-sex attraction but who have been helped by the Church and by chaste friendships as they journeyed toward greater chastity and sanctity. Conference faculty also included experts on Christian anthropology, natural law, the psychology of homosexuality, Scripture and chastity.
In breakout sessions and small groups, the conferees discussed how pastors, family and friends can best love those who experience same-sex attraction; and they heard practical recommendations on and tools for communicating the Church’s teaching on homosexuality to schools, parishes and students as an integral part of the New Evangelization.
Courage, and its companion apostolate Encourage, helps its members and their families and friends to move beyond the confines of the homosexual label to remain chaste, living a more complete identity in Christ. That viewpoint was explained by Daniel Mattson, a member of Courage who was featured in the apostolate’s documentary Desire of the Everlasting Hills.
Mattson discussed the problem of loneliness in the life of the homosexual person, but considered his own loneliness as a single man to be part of God’s permissive will for his life.
“If it is God’s will that we don’t share in the particular form of love or intimacy that is proper in marriage, we do well to accept this lack as a gift from him,” he said. “Even if we are sexually continent, trying to find a semblance of the intimacy of marriage through a ‘chaste, celibate gay relationship’ is running away from that which God has deemed as good for our souls.
“But, most importantly, by attempting to run from the pains of loneliness through such a relationship, we cheat ourselves from the great storehouse of riches that God in his divine Providence desires to give us through the loneliness he permits us to feel. We are settling for far too little love from God if we choose a path away from the scalpel he desires to use to shape us into the image of his Son.”
But Mattson’s view that the same-sex-attracted man or woman should not self-identify as “gay” — which is shared by members of the Courage apostolate — is not a view that is common to all Catholics who strive to live chastely with same-sex attractions. Another viewpoint, articulated at the conference by author Eve Tushnet, is that “gayness” is a part of self-identity.
Tushnet explained this earlier in her book Gay and Catholic and in a freewheeling dialogue with moral theologian Janet Smith on the conference stage. Tushnet was raised in a secular Jewish family, and her parents were accepting when, at age 13, she told them that she was sexually attracted to women.
Tushnet’s journey led her through feminism and punk rock, through homosexual-rights activism as part of the fishnet-stockings-clad activist group Riot Girl and the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, yet ultimately toward the Catholic faith.
Tushnet explained the need that propelled her into the Catholic Church during college: “When I entered the Church,” she explained, “I did so without feeling that I understood or could defend Catholic teaching on homosexuality in a debate. What I knew was that I needed the Eucharist. I needed the Body and Blood of Jesus. And since Jesus is the Way, I trusted the Church who gave me Jesus in the Eucharist to also hand on to me a way of life: an ethic, including a sexual ethic.”
Although she still self-identifies as a “gay” Catholic, she remains celibate.
Robin Beck is an author and recovery coach whose plenary-address presentation on “Why Maintaining Biblical Language Matters” revisited the issue of identity from another perspective.
“There are certain folks in our ranks,” said Beck, “who prefer to keep their gayness as part of their identity and consider their same-sex desire to be a source of giftedness. ... This position is profoundly strange to me, for it seems obvious to me that homosexuality is one of the sins that put the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet.”
Beck contrasted persons who make a case for homosexual attraction as a gift — pointing out that Scripture condemns homosexual behavior, whereas they are committed to sexual purity — with others who consider same-sex attraction a gift but accept it as a cross, as a disorder in their being that they are willing to live with.
“As for me,” she said, “I was a homosexual. I engaged in abominable behavior and sinful thoughts and desires. But that’s who I was; it’s no longer who I am.”
Feedback From Attendees
Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto and celebrant at the opening liturgy, praised the vision of Father Check and conference co-organizer Janet Smith, who is professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
“Under the skilled direction of Father Check and Dr. Smith,” the cardinal explained, “the attendees received a solid explanation of what the Church really teaches — which is love and truth, based upon the foundational reality of the human person.”
Auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes of Detroit assisted in bringing the conference to the archdiocese. Bishop Byrnes expressed appreciation for the role that Father Check and Smith played throughout the conference, setting the tone with their casual banter and conveying a sense of openness and acceptance, while inviting discussion of complex issues.
Mary Ann Jepsen, a Catholic therapist and radio host with a counseling practice in Columbus, Ohio, frequently works with clients who experience same-sex attraction or confusion regarding sexual identity. Jepsen has seen firsthand the depth of the wounds that most members of Courage and Encourage have carried through their lives. She has seen, too, how at some point these wounded people have chosen to unite their wounds with those of Christ on the cross.
Jepsen explained to the Register which treatment modalities have proven most effective in treating her clients who are same-sex attracted.
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ therapy for SSA or any other challenge,” Jepsen said. “Each individual presents with a narrative and goals unique to his or her situation. The first efforts of the therapist are to be fully present, nonjudgmental, willing to listen, and then help the client outline personal goals for therapy. Some who experience same-sex attractions have deep wounds from the past that have caused low self-worth. Some have to deal with recurrent anxieties from past sexual abuse. Others may have shame or grief to deal with. Others may have hope of changing their behaviors.”
“Through it all, a Catholic therapist must first put on the mantle of Christ, and with that comes unconditional love,” Jepsen emphasized. “Beyond that, the plan of care is specific to the client’s goals.”
‘An Amazing Gathering’
Father Sean Kilcawley is director of the Office of Family Life in the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., and one of the operators of IntegrityRestored.com, an outreach offering education, encouragement and resources to assist individuals, spouses and families who have been affected by pornography and pornography addiction. Father Kilcawley hoped to establish a Courage apostolate in his own diocese and found the speakers helpful as he planned his next steps.
He praised the Courage conference, calling it “an amazing gathering of people with different perspectives, all trying to find a solution.” He gleaned a lot of information from the talks, Father Kilcawley said, but perhaps even more from the people he encountered.
“For people experiencing sexual brokenness of any kind,” he said, “healing comes when we see ourselves as loving sons and loving daughters of a loving Father. The conference reinvigorated my motivation to return to my diocese and focus on teaching adults and young people about the beauty of the Church’s sexual ethic.”
Tina Nair is a celibate same-sex-attracted woman who once served as office manager for the late Father John Harvey, founder of Courage, and who appeared in Courage’s new five-part video series, Invited to Courageous Love. Nair reported that she found the conference helpful and that she especially appreciated the opportunity to talk with Tushnet, as another same-sex-attracted woman who has also embraced the challenge of living her Catholic faith.
Bryan Shen was perhaps the attendee who traveled the farthest to attend the conference. Shen, a professional counselor and independent lay missionary who lives in Singapore but works for the Catholic diocese in Thailand, has been asked to develop a Courage apostolate for the diocese.
“One challenge that I’ll face when I return home,” Shen said, “is how to confront the prejudice and discrimination shown in my culture toward persons who are same-sex-attracted.”
Before returning home, Shen planned to continue his inquiry into same-sex attraction in the United States, spending time with psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, whose specialty of reparative therapy is intended to help homosexual persons to diminish their same-sex attractions and develop their heterosexual potential.
In September, Courage will release Invited to Courageous Love, which is expected to receive wide distribution.
And just before the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that is scheduled for Oct. 4-25 at the Vatican, the Courage apostolate will conduct a one-day workshop in Rome. The workshop will take place at the Angelicum and will be hosted by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
In the weeks leading up to those events, Courage will continue to disseminate the Church’s anthropology and her teaching regarding same-sex relationships from several perspectives: empirical sciences, clinical experience, medical sciences and witness testimonies.
“These four,” said Father Check, “all bear witness to the truth of the human person.”
Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.