The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently featured an interview with Fr. Philip Bochanski, the new director of Courage, a ministry which promotes celibacy as the only path for gay and lesbian Catholics. The article states that the priest reported that “the organization feels supported by Pope Francis’ encouragement to accompany those ‘with same-sex attraction’ on their spiritual journeys.” Bochanski is quoted as saying that Francis’ language of accompaniment, “is very useful for us. It recognizes the approach we take.”
It is noteworthy that Courage is taking direction in their pastoral work from Pope Francis, who is seen by many as having initiated on new openness on LGBT issues in the Church. But, as the NCR article points out, the leadership of Courage does not follow Pope Francis when it comes to language about LGBT issues. The reporter stated:
“[The Courage] approach includes using a language that some might consider arcane. Unlike Francis, Courage does not use the term ‘gay, preferring the phrase ‘same-sex attraction.’ Still, the pope’s Amoris Laetitia apostolic exhortation on the family also uses the more formal same-sex attraction language.”
The language difference is not insignificant. First of all, for many gay and lesbian people, the term “same-sex attraction” is offensive because it does not adequately describe themselves or their personal experiences. To call someone “a person with same-sex attraction” sounds very much like referring to someone who has a disease or condition which is different than the natural way that things should be. Gay and lesbian people, however, do not experience their sexual identities as something irregular, but as something natural to themselves.
When Jesuit Father James Martin received New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award last autumn, he noted in his acceptance speech that the Catechism calls people to treat lesbian and gay people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. He noted that it is a sign of respect to address people in the way in which they identify themselves. Fr. Martin elaborated:
“. . . [R]espect means calling a group what it asks to be called. On a personal level, if someone says, ‘I prefer to be called Jim instead of James,’ you naturally listen. It’s common courtesy. And it’s the same on a group level. We don’t say ‘Negroes’ any longer. Why? Because that group feels more comfortable with other names: ‘African-Americans’ or ‘blacks.’ . . . Everyone has the right to tell you their name.
“Names are important. Thus, church leaders are invited to be attentive to how they name the L.G.B.T. community and lay to rest phrases like “afflicted with same-sex attraction,” which no L.G.B.T. person I know uses, and even “homosexual person,” which seems overly clinical to many. . . .And if Pope Francis can use the word gay, so can the rest of the church.”
In the NCR article, Bochanski is quoted as saying “A person is not defined by a sexual orientation.” But referring to oneself as gay or lesbian does not mean that one defines oneself by that designation. It is merely descriptive of one feature of person’s constitution. If a man describes himself as “a tall guy,” it doesn’t mean that he defines himself by his height.
Another problem with the use of the “same-sex attraction” language is that for many people it actually seems to emphasize sexual activity more than “gay” or “lesbian” do. Many gay and lesbian people view their identities as being about so much more than their attractions, which is only one part of their sexuality. Their sexual identities are also about their relationships, emotions, and personal interactions. Their sexual identities also have a social dimension, by which I mean that lesbian and gay people have often been made to feel different or stigmatized in mainstream culture which is predominantly heterosexual.
For the NCR article, I was asked about the difference between New Ways Ministry and Courage:
” ‘The difference in approach has less to do with celibacy and more to do with the understanding of sexual orientation,’ he said. New Ways Ministry sees gay orientation as a gift from God, not a problem that needs to be overcome, said DeBernardo.
” ‘Courage has often taken a 12-step approach to sexual orientation, seeing it as a defect in a person. We don’t believe that is an authentically helpful response.’ “
In one respect that difference is encapsulated in the difference between the terms “a person with same-sex attraction” and “a gay or lesbian person.”
The good news from this article is that Courage has officially separated itself from reparative therapy. The reporter stated:
“Courage has evolved, taking a different position on what some call reparative therapy, through which gays are encouraged to become heterosexual. In the 1990s, Courage literature was encouraging, stating, ‘for those who really want it, reparative growth is a possibility and happens regularly.’ “
“Courage is now officially neutral on reparative therapy which, while popular in some evangelical Christian circles, is controversial in the wider counseling community.”
Even better than remaining neutral on the topic would be for Courage to condemn it outright since it has proven to be pastorally and psychologically harmful for so many people.
The article also noted another development in Courage’s policy:
“Bochanski said he is open to discussion with other ministries to Catholic gays, including New Ways Ministry, an organization which holds that gays can be sexually active and still maintain their Catholic faith. But the difference in approach makes such dialogue difficult, he said.”
It is good to know that Courage is open to dialogue. We here at New Ways Ministry would welcome such an opportunity. We do not see that our differences would make dialogue difficult. Dialogue is, after all, precisely about differences. We believe dialogue would help us understand one another better, and help our organizations minister more effectively to LGBT people.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 11, 2017