When Courage Fails

January 5, 2012

A recent news report that the Archdiocese of Hartford will be instituting a “Courage” support group for lesbian and gay people has me reflecting on the approach that Courage takes to LGBT ministry.

Courage is a national organization with local chapters.  It was founded in 1980 by Fr. John Harvey, OSFS; its main purpose is to help lesbian and gay people maintain a celibate life, in accordance with magisterial teaching.

There are many reasons why people have objected to Courage groups.  Some say that the ministry’s approach treats homosexuality as a psychological defect.  Others object that Courage often uses a 12-step spirituality approach to homosexuality, thus treating it as something akin to an addiction.  Some point out that Courage groups have often veered off into the areas of reparative therapy or conversion ministry (i.e., trying to change one’s orientation to heterosexual) even though this approach was never sanctioned by Fr. Harvey. Still others observe that Courage does not take a positive attitude toward committed, loving sexual relationships.

The main problem I see with the Courage ministry is that it primarily views lesbian/gay people in terms of sexual activity.  This approach does not consider lesbian/gay people as whole people, but narrowly defines them in terms of sex.

Lesbian/Gay people are so much more than their sexuality, and ministry with them should address the totality of their lives.  For example, lesbian/gay people  have often suffered alienation, marginalization, and oppression, and these factors need to be addressed, too.  They are also people who have come to a remarkable and wondrous discovery about themselves that is very different from the majority of the population–a difference which should be celebrated.  Lesbian/Gay people may have experienced harsh messages from church authorities which may have affected their relationship with God which may need healing.  Most importantly, lesbian/Gay people have spiritual gifts which they long to bring to the church community, so ministry with them could focus on opportunities for them to share these gifts.

In short, a ministry which primarily focuses on the possibility of sexual activity is a very stunted ministry.    It is a model of ministry which ignores a great deal about the human person and how they can be integrated into a community.

Because of their emphasis on celibacy, Courage’s leaders often claim that they are fully in accord with magisterial teaching.  Not so.  In the Vatican’s “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” pastoral ministers are reminded

“The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.”

Courage’s emphasis on sexual behavior violates this principle by reducing people not only to their sexual orientation, but reducing them even further to consider them in terms of possible sexual activity.  This kind of thinking violates another important pastoral principle, articulated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in their letter, Always Our Children:

“Do not presume that all homosexual persons are sexually active.”

Many parishes and faith communities have adopted a more integrated approach to lesbian/gay ministry than Courage does.  New Ways Ministry maintains  lists of  these gay-friendly parishes and gay-friendly Catholic college campuses which follow this healthy and holy path of outreach. Models of ministry which consider the totality of  the life of  lesbian/gay people offer a better, more effective invitation to life in the Christian community than the Courage model offers.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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