Remembering Father John Harvey

The founder of Courage has died at 92. He sought a gentle approach, yet always faithful to Church teaching, to addressing same-sex attraction.

Father John Harvey, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, died Dec. 27 at age 92 at Union Hospital in Elkton, Md. Father Harvey founded Courage, a support program for those with homosexual inclinations live chaste lives.
Father John Harvey, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, died Dec. 27 at age 92 at Union Hospital in Elkton, Md. Father Harvey founded Courage, a support program for those with homosexual inclinations live chaste lives. (photo: CNS photo/courtesy of Oblates of St. Francis de Sales)

ELKTON, Md. — A priest who exemplified the Church’s task of bringing both truth and love to those with same-sex attraction, Father John Harvey, has died at the age of 92.

Father Harvey died Dec. 27, the feast of St. John the Evangelist, at Union Hospital in Elkton, Md. A Philadelphia native, he was an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales for 73 years and a priest for 66.

Father Harvey in 1980 founded Courage, a ministry of the Archdiocese of New York that grew into an apostolate with support groups in 13 countries. He stepped down as executive director just two years ago.

Father Harvey, a moral theologian by training, became controversial in spite of himself by urging those with homosexual inclinations to live a life of chastity at a time when many in the Church wanted it to accept homosexuality, formally or informally.

“He was an extraordinary man and a gift from God to the Church at a time of great confusion over morality, especially sexual morality,” said his longtime friend and co-worker Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons. “He was a light in the darkness.”

Father Harvey had already been teaching moral theology for 30 years and providing spiritual guidance to seminarians and priests struggling with homosexual desires when, in 1980, Father Benedict Groeschel recommended him to New York Cardinal Terence Cooke to start a new ministry for homosexuals.

“He hadn’t gone looking for this,” reports Angelo, a 15-year member of Courage and a Courage staff member who asked that his last name not be used. “But he knew it was God calling him.”

Father Harvey started a support group in Manhattan with five members, and with them quickly hammered out goals: They sought to live lives that were chaste and Christ-like, in supportive and exemplary fellowship for others with same-sex attraction.

He later incorporated the 12-step approach developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. “The goal for us is to live chaste lives,” Angelo said. “It isn’t change us. It isn’t to get rid of our homosexuality. The 12 steps help us see our powerlessness over it. And they do help us to get rid of our obsessive-compulsive behaviors.”

Angelo added that many come to Courage in a spirit of rebellion: “We are like children when we come; we have arrested development; we see ourselves as victims and are very angry.”

Courage provides the support and encouragement of other members and the moral teachings of the Church on sexuality and chastity. “Father Harvey taught us that we needed to be faithful but not to be perfect, to pick ourselves up if we fell and not look back in shame. He was a very compassionate man.”


Father Paul Check, who knew Father Harvey since becoming chaplain for the local Courage fellowship in Bridgeport, Conn., in 2002, said, “The best adjectives to describe him were humble, gentle and cheerful. Though he served in a very demanding and very controversial area, he did so without any hardness of heart.”

Father Check has been director of Courage since 2008.

Courage never picked fights under Father Harvey’s leadership. “But he often met resistance both inside and outside the fold. Our Lord too didn’t seek controversy,” Father Check said. “But he was a source of contradiction. Those who present Gospel truths find themselves in controversy whether they want it or not.”

Father Harvey criticized the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1997 pastoral document on homosexuality, “Always Our Children.” He saw the document, which was addressed to parents of homosexuals, as strong on compassion but weak on doctrine. It accepted the premise of homosexual activists, that homosexuality was an “innate condition,” and, so claimed Father Harvey, mistranslated a Church document to provide evidence that this was a Church teaching.

Along the same lines, Father Harvey said the USCCB document equated heterosexual attraction with homosexual attraction as equally “deep seated” and with equal “relative stability.”

Father Harvey objected that “heterosexual attraction is natural to man and woman, while homosexual tendencies are unnatural, although psychologically understandable.”

He also argued that “Always Our Children” did not sufficiently promote the possibility that children’s experience of homosexual desires could be transitory, or adequately advise parents faced with children threatening to cut off relations unless their lifestyles were accepted. Courage offers a support group, EnCourage, for parents whose children have cut them off, but some U.S. parishes offer support groups named after “Always Our Children” to help parents accept their children’s homosexuality.

The USCCB declined comment Jan. 6.

Humanae Vitae Connection

In giving workshops for priests, Father Harvey found that those who were opposed to the Church on its teaching about contraception, explained in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, tended also to be opposed to the message that those with homosexual desires should and could live a chaste life. Conversely, those who could accept Humanae Vitae could accept Courage’s approach.

From Father Harvey’s perspective, Father Check related, the Church at the pastoral level can err in two ways in dealing with homosexuality: through “a misplaced compassion” or an equally injurious “severity.” Always, said Father Check, “the Church must act with the heart of the Good Shepherd.”

Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist and founder of the Institute for Marital Healing in Pennsylvania, participated in many priests workshops with Father Harvey. Given the sometimes “hateful” response Father Harvey’s message elicited, it was providential that the priest tried so hard to be gentle in all his dealings with others.

Father Harvey was also, according to Father Check, remarkable in “the amount of personal care he was willing to give people, who might have called him up on the phone expecting to talk for a minute or two. He would give them as much time as they needed. He would travel anywhere and speak to anyone who was interested.”

Though Father Harvey retired from the directorship of Courage two years ago, “he continued to work a full priestly day till the end of his life,” reported Father Check, and remained “remarkably clear of mind.”

A filmmaker who made a documentary on Father Harvey in 2006 called A Profile in Courage, Christine DiBiase, remembers being “awed at his faithfulness to his calling” and then being “shocked at how awed I was. He never got discouraged in the face of the Nos, the rejection, the ridicule. I see him as one of the giants of the 21st century for how he exercised his calling so obediently.”

DiBiase’s only “problem” with Father Harvey was his humility. “He really didn’t like attention being called to himself. We had to keep reminding him it was for Courage, to preserve a sense of who he was for future generations of members.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.