Malta Bans Conversion Therapy for LGBT People; Catholic Church Should Do Likewise

The heavily Catholic island nation of Malta has become the first European country to outlaw conversion therapy designed to attempt to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This news reminds us that it is about time that the Vatican should also issue a statement opposing these practices which cause untold pain to people and which disrespect God’s creation.

The Times of Malta reported:

“The Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Bill imposes fines and jail terms for anyone advertising, offering, performing or referring an individual to another person which performs any form of conversion practice.

“In addition, the Bill affirms that no sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression constitutes a disorder, disease or shortcoming of any sort.”

Archbishop Charles Scicluna

Initially, Malta’s Catholic Church leadership opposed the bill, issuing an 8-page position paper against the proposal. The paper claimed that the bill would privilege homosexuality and linked homosexual orientation to pedophilia.  But Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the head of Malta’s hierarchy, acknowledged that the paper was mistaken, stating in an interview:

“I want to reassure [the gay community] that we are dead set against conversion therapy because we believe, as they do, as government does, that it goes against human dignity.

“We do not subscribe to beliefs that describe gay people as sick.

“These are labels that demean them. And certainly we are not going to associate gay people with paedophilia.”

Scicluna is the only Catholic leader that I know who has spoken so forcefully and officially against conversion therapy.  Yet, most mental health professionals and many pastoral leaders recognize that such therapy is dangerous and misleading.  In 1997, the U.S. bishops gave faint disapproval to conversion therapy in their pastoral letter, Always Our Childrennoting that people should respect:

“. . . a person’s freedom to choose or refuse therapy directed toward changing a homosexual orientation. Given the present state of medical and psychological knowledge, there is no guarantee that such therapy will succeed. Thus, there may be no obligation to undertake it, though some may find it helpful.”

Not an endorsement, but not a strong enough condemnation, either.

Key to the opposition of the hierarchy’s initial position were the groups Drachma and Drachma Parents, which are, respectively, Malta’s associations of LGBT Catholics and   Catholic parents of LGBT people.  In a statement at the time, they said, in part:

“We expected this group of experts commissioned to write this Paper to include LGBTIQ people who are living this reality. It would have been appropriate for the Church to dialogue with us about this delicate subject. . . .

“We expected that the Church would sympathise with all LGBTIQ persons who had to go through conversion therapies and ask for forgiveness in the name of members within the Institution, amongst which priests, who recommended or practised conversion therapy. At no point was there any indication of concern towards the pain of such people or of their families. . . .

“We expected the Paper to clearly state that no sexual orientation is a disorder or an illness, and hence, does not require the person to seek any form of healing. . . .

“It is sad to see that this Position Paper did not seek to build bridges with LGBTIQ persons and with their families in Malta. On the contrary, the Church tended to erect walls.”

Evidence that they had an effect on Scicluna’s retraction of the paper’s position can be found in his echoing much of the language that Drachma used in their statement, as well as his affirmation of the group.  Scicluna stated:

“I feel I have to build bridges with the gay community who felt our language was too technical, too cold and too distant. . . .

“It would have helped immensely to include people from Drachma in the preparation of the position paper because they have contributed in other papers and their contribution has been precious.”

The Huffington Post report about the bill’s passage noted that “Catholicism is the official religion of Malta and the religion plays a major role in the passage of the country’s laws. For instance, the country didn’t legalize divorce until 2011.”  Yet, Malta passed marriage equality and adoption laws which recognize lesbian and gay couples, as well as laws which allow transgender people to have the description of their gender changed on official documents.

In a news report on Slate.comMark Joseph Stern came to an insightful conclusion:

“Malta, of course, retains its proud Catholic heritage and continues to celebrate church traditions that help to define the country’s identity. A majority of its citizens (and legislators) have simply decided that the government has no business enforcing discriminatory beliefs using the heavy hand of the law. In that sense, the country is really an inspiration, simultaneously a haven for LGBTQ rights and a nation of deep Catholic faith. Liberal Western values may be on the decline elsewhere in Europe. But Malta today is proving that a country can adhere to key traditional values, promote its own religious heritage, andrecognize the dignity of every citizen—all at the same time.”

Stern is right, of course, but he doesn’t go far enough.  The Catholic hierarchy should follow Malta’s example by issuing a similar statement opposing conversion therapy,  a practice which is damaging and ineffective.   Pope Francis has called time and again for pastoral ministers to “accompany” LGBT people on their faith journey.  He can make this recommendation much clearer by stating that “conversion therapy” should never be part of that accompaniment.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 15, 2016

 

 

 

Top Catechist Calls Teaching on Homosexuality “Nonsensical”

 

fr_rene_camilleriweb
Fr. Rene Camilleri

Malta’s top catechist has questioned Catholic teachings on homosexuality and criticized a position paper about reparative therapy released by that nation’s bishops last week.

Fr. Rene Camilleri, who heads Malta’s Secretariat for Catechesis and is the Archbishop’s Delegate for Evangelization, called church doctrine on homosexuality “nonsensical,” reported Malta Today. He said:

” ‘The Catholic Church’s doctrine still refers to homosexuality in terms of it being an illness or a disorder. . .Speaking like that in today’s society is simply nonsensical.’ “

Camilleri was responding to a position paper from the Maltese bishops opposing the criminalization of reparative therapy, a proposal currently under consideration by the island nation’s legislature. The paper linked homosexuality to pedophilia and to mental illness, prompting strong criticism and even an acknowledgement from Archbishop Charles Scicluna that the paper was a mistake. Camilleri added his own critiques, saying:

” ‘My objection to this position paper is that it seems as though the Church still believes that it is possible to convert homosexuals, which is unacceptable to me. . .we cannot accept the presence of gay conversion therapy on the market in this day and age.’ . . .

” ‘I have my doubts as to the paper’s intended target audience, but if it was addressed to the general public, then mentioning paedophilia in such a delicate topic was always going to leave room for misinterpretation.’ “

This is not Fr. Camilleri’s first time speaking positively about LGBT issues. Last year, he weighed in about a Maltese priest’s decision to bless the engagement rings of a same-sex couple in The Independent. Uncertain whether he would bless such rings, Camilleri still affirmed the other priest’s decision and said ministers “cannot deprive [same-gender couples] of the blessing for which they ask.” He continued:

” ‘Priests are going to face this kind of situation and others that are similar during our pastoral work in new emerging situations that need our utmost pastoral sensibility. The Church should always keep the person at the centre of her existence because her main concern is not to safeguard the law. If a person decides to change his or her way of life and does not conform to Church teachings, the Church itself cannot just slam the decision and use condemnatory language in their regard. . .We are there to accompany people, wherever they are and whatever they choose to do.’ “

Camilleri said that, faced with emerging realities like same-gender civil unions and gender identity protections, the church “cannot afford to keep repeating old teachings because these realities are here to stay.” Informed by new contexts and understandings, the church must “do a lot of rethinking” and “take bold choices,” ever mindful that “the only reason the Church exists are people themselves.”

In 2012, the catechist said church leaders were wrong to oppose adoption by lesbian and gay people and that “the suitability of a person cannot be determined by sexual orientation or marital status.” It should be the children’s interests, not stereotypes, which dictate adoption policies, reported Times of Malta.

Malta’s top catechist has spoken, too, about reforming the church towards what Pope Francis envisions, stating in a January interview with Malta Today:

” ‘[Pope Francis] seems no longer to be there as Pope to safeguard doctrine, but to safeguard mainly the freedom and dignity of people to decide on their own. In all this the role of the church is not seen mainly as that of teaching and guarding right doctrine, but of being there to accompany people in their own journeys.’ “

 

In recent years, people living in highly-Catholic Malta have increasingly decided that LGBT civil rights are supported by their faith and acted freely to advance them. The island nation hosts Drachma, a group for LGBT Catholics, and the Drachma Parents’ Group, which favorably influenced last year’s Synod on the Family. The Maltese government passed a transgender protections law in 2015 that is now considered the gold standard in Europe and legalized civil unions in 2013. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has now announced his support for marriage equality, saying the country is ready to debate the issue.

Fr. Camilleri’s comments about the “nonsensical” underpinnings to the church’s teaching on homosexuality are wonderfully honest. His willingness to criticize his own superiors and, even more so, their willingness to hear such criticism and respond accordingly are signs of progress, too. This freedom to converse more openly now about the problems in the church which many have identified for decades is refreshing. Catholic theology and pastoral practices can and will only improve under such conditions, particularly on issues of sexuality, gender, and relationships. I hope Maltese church leaders’ actions these past few weeks will be an example that spreads globally.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Archbishop Admits Church’s Mistake in Supporting Reparative Therapy

scicluna
Archbishop Charles Scicluna

Malta’s top bishop acknowledged church leaders were mistaken when they released a controversial position paper designed to oppose a bill which seeks to make reparative therapy outlawed in the island nation.

Speaking to the Times of Malta, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta said he “would not have simply released a position paper” about the reparative therapy bill knowing what he knows now.

The bill, entitled the Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression Act, seeks a “ban on professional conversion therapy” and an “outright ban on conversion therapy on vulnerable persons,” such as minors and those with disabilities. Professionals, such as therapists and ministers, and nonprofessionals, too, would face fines and jail time for engaging in or advertising reparative therapy if the bill is approved.

The Maltese bishops’ position paper stated, among a number of claims to draw heavy criticism, that the bill would privilege homosexuality and linked homosexual orientation to pedophilia. LGBT advocates and government officials were quick to condemn the eight-page document.

Drachma LGBTI and Drachma Parents Group, Malta’s leading LGBTI Christian organizations, said this position paper was a missed opportunity to build bridges, reported The Independent. The groups said in a statement that “LGBTIQ people who are living this reality” should have been included among the experts commissioned for the paper, adding:

“It would have been appropriate for the Church to dialogue with us about this delicate subject, especially after the significant gesture done by the Church when a few months ago it requested a member of Drachma to form part of the panel that prepared the Position Paper on the Embryo Act and to give a talk about LGBTIQ matters to the College of Parish Priests.

“We expected the Church not to miss out on an opportunity to build bridges with the LGBTIQ community by stating clearly that it is against conversion therapy, even though there might be certain elements in the bill that may require further clarification.”

The groups said the church should seek forgiveness from those subjected to reparative therapy, and  it should acknowledge the intense damage done to such victims, including spiritual damages.

Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he opposed “the fundamental concept that equates homosexuality to illness or pedophilia,” reported Gay Star News. Helena Dalli, the Minister of Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties and sponsor of the bill, agreed and said the church’s position paper is “based on false premises,” reported Malta Today.

Mark Josef Rapa of We Are, a youth LGBTQQI organization, said the church’s position paper was unexpected and added that the position shows church leaders still believe “one can be cured from homosexuality,” , according to The Independent

The Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) said, in a statement reported by the Times of Malta, the bill “simply seeks to ensure that all persons, whatever their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression are valued equally.” MGRM noted the “serious prejudice towards bisexual persons” in the position paper, which suggested that such persons have difficulties being monogamous.

Among the other problems with the church’s position paper is that it described the bill as suffering “from a most basic and manifest discrimination,” as it would ostensibly allow conversion therapy for heterosexual people who would seek to become gay or bisexual. The paper, composed by Maltese academics in theology and law, claimed the bill ignores “grey areas of complex sexual orientations” and would bar those who seek to “curb his or her homosexual inclinations” because of a desire to be celibate or support a mixed-gender marriage. It attempted, too, a subtle critique of Malta’s Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act, which became law in 2014 and is considered the gold standard for transgender protections in Europe.

Facing such sustained criticism from so many quarters, Archbishop Scicluna’s interview is a noteworthy admission that the church should have handled the reparative therapy legislation differently. He clarified:

“Any conversion therapy which forces someone to go against their decisions or their life choices is just a no go – a no go – and I want this to be absolutely clear.”

Pressed on this position, Scicluna said if experts say such therapies are “totally harmful then we should avoid it.” He said further that, given how pastorally sensitive this legislation is, the approach should have been “less technical and more pastoral.” In retrospect, he said, the church should “not have simply released a position paper,” and he added:

“The experience has taught me it is not enough, when discussing a Bill, to contribute to the debate only with the help of experts. You also need to factor in the impact on people’s emotions and the perception the document may create.”

Scicluna took responsibility for the position paper, saying that while it comes from Malta’s church leadership, he approved its publication. The paper also claimed the bill would violate a consenting adult’s “right to receive treatment,” reported the Times of Malta. Asked whether the bishops’ panel of experts who prepared the position paper should have included “somebody from the gay community,” the archbishop replied:

“It would have helped immensely to include people from Drachma in the preparation of the position paper because they have contributed in other papers and their contribution has been precious. When I asked Professor [Emanuel] Agius [who formed part of the panel of experts], he said that was something we could have done and we should have done, as was the case with another position paper we presented recently.”

Scicluna’s willingness to admit the bishops’ position paper was mishandled and misguided in its approach, if not in its substance, was complemented by his renewed commitment to dialogue with LGB people:

“But I feel I have to build bridges with the gay community who felt our language was too technical, too cold and too distant. . .I want to reassure them that we are dead set against conversion therapy because we believe, as they do, as government does, that it goes against human dignity.

“We do not subscribe to beliefs that describe gay people as sick. . .These are labels that demean them. And certainly we are not going to associate gay people with paedophilia.”

Commenting on the Jubilee Year of Mercy inaugurated by Pope Francis, Scicluna admitted, too, that in the church’s history “our actions and language have not been inclusive” at times, and this year bears a “message of compassion and inclusivity” to drive the church’s efforts.

The archbishop reaffirmed a desire for dialogue and for collaborative work in his ministry, describing his leadership style as “highly collegial. He said he prefers to consult advisors and host discussions before making decisions. More importantly, as is evident regarding the bishops’ position paper on reparative therapy, Scicluna reviews his decision and feels free to revise ineffective or incorrect ones.

Scicluna remarked, too, about the Catholic Church’s role in public life because of his outspoken leadership style in Malta. He said while people appreciate a church engaged in society, it must be a church “that accepts it is a voice among many others” because the church exists in “a pluralistic society.” Church leaders cannot pretend to have the last word on issues about which they speak, he concluded. Democratic environments requires that we “be able to discuss things with respect and not take matters personally.”

This interview in the Times of Malta, worth reading in full, adds to Archbishop Scicluna’s improving record on LGBT issues. He clearly opposes marriage equality. Before Malta approved civil unions, he joined other church leaders in opposing the law. But he apologized at the same time to lesbian and gay people whose lives had been made harder by the church. And Scicluna has defended the love which can exist between same-gender partners, saying in one interview that “Love is never a sin. God is love.” He refused to sanction a Dominican priest who blessed the rings of an engaged same-gender couple, exhorting the priest in a meeting to continue outreach to LGB people but to do so respectful of the church’s rites as they are presently understood.

Scicluna’s mixed but generally positive record led the Malta Gay Rights Movement to honor him at the LGBTI Community Awards in 2014, though the then-auxiliary bishop declined because he does not receive awards or honors for simply “doing his duty as Bishop.” He took part in events for the International Day Against Homophobia that same year.

The archbishop’s latest remarks about the reparative therapy bill and episcopal leadership help his record on LGBT issues to become even more positive. Malta’s church leaders submitted a position paper to the government and to the public which is not much different from other bishops’ statements on homosexuality. For this, they received sustained and intense criticism from many voices in the highly Catholic country. What is key here is the the deep humility which undergirds the type of “Francis Bishop” that Scicluna seems to be exemplifying. He is willing to listen and learn, to acknowledge his mistakes, to seek reconciliation, and to exist more comfortably than most bishops within life’s complexities.

One last regret expressed by Archbishop Scicluna in the interview was that he had not yet structured pastoral visits into his leadership. On Fridays, in his words, “the bishop has to be where suffering is and I have not managed to do that.” He seems to know there is much suffering at the church’s own margins, as well as at society’s margins. I hope Archbishop Scicluna will spend more Fridays cultivating relationships and building bridges with LGBT people and their loved ones so that pastorally harmful mistakes like the bishops’ position paper on reparative therapy will not happen in the future.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry