Catholic Conversion Therapy: When Religion, Sexuality, And Gender Collide

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

By now, we are all aware of the wide-scale sex abuse and attempted cover-up scandal in the Catholic Church over revelations of priestly predatory behaviors perpetrated on young children. In the wake of the tragic suicide death of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen raised in a conservative Christian community whose parents sent her to a so-called “Christian therapist,” we are once again reminded of yet another form of abuse in the wide-ranging dangers and the cruel practices of religious-based so-called “conversion” schemes.

Many of the more extreme Christian Right groups and religious ministries push what they refer to as “Christian therapy” for the purpose of, as they phrase it, removing people from the “homosexual lifestyle.” These so-called “therapies” go by such names as the X-Gay religious ministries, Exodus International, Homosexual Anonymous (a cynical co-optation of 12-Step program method of recovery), PFOX (Parents, Families, and Friends of X-Gays and Lesbians (an obvious rip-off of the LGBT allies support network PFLAG—Parents, Families, and Friends of Gays and Lesbians), and so-called “conversion therapy” (a.k.a. “reparative” and “reorientation” therapy), which promise conversion to heterosexuality and gender conformity if the person has the requisite motivation to change.

In an attempt to understand the apparent motives and mindsets of some of these “therapists,” I contacted a number of them on their Facebook websites. One in particular, Catholic, agreed to engage in an online chat. On the site, it promotes its form of Catholic Therapy as “Sound Psychology, Solid Faith, Real Healing.” So I asked those who staff the site about their procedures on LGBT clients and whether they endorse so-called “conversion” strategies, which attempt to change the person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression.

I inquired whether they adhere to the Roman Catholic Church Catechism 2357 related to same-sex sexuality:

“Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are gravely disordered. They are contrary to natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of love [i.e., children]. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

Giving me the basic variation of the “hate the sin and love the sinner” speech, the site’s staff asserted that the accusation of “grave depravity” and being “gravely disordered” applies only to the behaviors and not to the persons engaging in same-sex sexuality.

For individuals within the Church who cannot or will not change to a heterosexual orientation, they are still welcomed into the Church community by following Roman Catholic Church Catechism 2325:

“Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

So I asked whether they advocate celibacy for their gay and lesbian clients. They invoked the teachings of a former Pope.

“The ‘Theology of the Body’ is St. John Paul II’s integrated vision of the human person. The human body has a specific meaning, making visible an invisible reality, and is capable of revealing answers regarding fundamental questions about us and our lives.…John Paul II encourages a true reverence for the gift of our sexuality and challenges us to live it in a way worthy of our great dignity as human persons. His theology is not only for young adults or married couples, but for all ages and vocations, since it sums up the true meaning of being a person.”

In January 2011, Pope Benedict XVI was much blunter. He delivered a New Year’s speech to diplomats from approximately 180 countries, declaring that marriage for same-sex couples “threatens human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” and in 2008, during Benedict’s end-of-the-year Vatican address, he asserted that humanity needs to:

“listen to the language of creation” to realize the intended roles of man and woman. He warned of the “blurring” of the natural distinctions between males and females, and called for humanity to protect itself from self-destruction. The Pope compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as “a destruction of God’s work.”

While Pope Francis has expressed a somewhat more welcoming tone, we still haven’t seen any real progressive advancements in Church policy or practice.

The site’s staff asserted throughout our discussion a “true reverence for the gift of our sexuality,” but they and the Church define sexuality very narrowly: heterosexuality within the confines of monogamous marriage, specifically for the purpose of procreation. In mostly all other ways, we must remain celibate. The staff of the site referenced an article titled “The Myth of the Gay Gene” by Dominican Brother Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, who elaborates on this theme:

“The Church teaches that as embodied spiritual creatures, human beings were created male and female so that in the complementarity of the sexes, they can reflect the inner unity of the Creator. This was recognized and confirmed by the Lord Jesus who instituted the sacrament of marriage to celebrate the divine plan of the loving and life-giving union of men and women.”

The staff rationalized their “therapeutic” practices of attempting to change or alter their “homosexual” clients’ sexual orientation by reverting to the over-used “nature v. nurture” argument. They again referenced Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriacos article, which attempts to refute scientists, such as John M. Bailey, Richard C. Pillard, Simon LeVay, Dean Hamer, and others who found a supposed genetic predisposition toward homosexuality. The article also cites very few studies showing alleged conversion from homosexuality to heterosexuality for participants who were highly motivated to change.

According to the Facebook site’s staff:

“The huge variety of sexual expressions in different cultures sharing essentially the same genes shows genetic influence is minimal. All ethnic groups share almost all their genes, so we can make two assumptions about any behaviour that is claimed to be genetically produced: It will be very predictable, very specific and similar all over the globe, and, it will be present at roughly the same percentage in all cultures. We also know that many genes, maybe hundreds, are involved in human behaviours, and that behaviours affected by many genes will change very slowly over very many generations. That is, they will be very stable for centuries, with only minimal changes from generation to generation. This is true not only in families, but also in cultures.”

“But if we look at homosexuality,” they continued, “we find none of the characteristics of genetic properties: There is a huge variety of homosexual practices between cultures and even within them. The prevalence of homosexuality has varied considerably in different cultures. In some cultures, it has been unknown; in others, it has been obligatory for all males. There have been, and are, rapid changes in homosexual behaviour, even over a lifetime. Not only that, but entire types of homosexuality have disappeared over the course of just a few centuries. When anthropologists survey the evidence, they are, to a surprising degree, united in the belief that behaviours such as homosexuality and lesbianism are not produced genetically, but by social conditions.”

Fundamentally (pun intended), what the site’s staff and by implication many other “Christian counselors” assert is that homosexuality and gender non-conformity do not derive from any biological or genetic bases, but rather, develop after birth from some sort of social or cultural means or exposure. Therefore, as the theory goes, “therapy” can reverse this socialization by helping the client revert or convert back to the “natural” state of heterosexual and gender-conforming attractions and behaviors.

They asserted that their clients have the freedom to decide whether to seek therapy to change their orientation and behaviors. If their clients truly wish to remain within the Church and to maintain the sense of community it offers, I would ask the site’s staff how truly “free” are their clients growing up in a family and larger community that consider their sexuality or gender expression again God’s plan? How truly “free” are they hearing on Sunday mornings from their priests how “gravely disordered” their feelings and behaviors are? How “free” are they when others bully them at school for their differences? I would also ask how the Church’s teachings and preachings are killing people’s spirits and literally killing their physical bodies? I would ask how the Church’s teachings and preachings directly influence and condone the school bullying and bashings, and the suicides?

The staff answered by asserting:

“Warren: The Catholic Church’s teaching is that unjust discrimination toward human beings, including those who have deep seated homosexual inclinations, is never acceptable and must be decried wherever it occurs. Every human being should be treated with respect, his dignity honored, and his health and welfare protected and preserved. This is what the Catholic Church teaches to being ‘Christian love’.”

I find that the Catholic Church talks in doublespeak saying “we love you,” “we welcome you,” “we offer you ‘Christian love,’” and “we are here to help you change your unwanted attractions and gender behaviors,” which we, by the way, define as “gravely disordered.” Is this love? Or, rather, does this fall into the realm of cruelty, discrimination, and, yes, sexuality and gender abuse?

These manipulative, tyrannical, and bogus “Christian therapies” have been harshly condemned by reputable psychiatric organizations. For example, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution, August 14, 1997, which read in part:

“Whereas societal ignorance and prejudice about same-gender sexual orientation put some gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning individuals at risk for presenting for ‘conversion’ treatment due to family or social coercion and/or lack of information…. Whereas some mental health professionals advocate treatments of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people based on the premise that homosexuality is a mental disorder…. Therefore be it resolved that the American Psychological Association opposes portrayals of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth and adults as mentally ill due to their sexual orientation and supports the dissemination of accurate information about sexual orientation, and mental health, and appropriate interventions in order to counteract bias that is based in ignorance or unfounded beliefs about sexual orientation.”

In addition, the APA, in 2008, passed a resolution,

“Transgender, Gender Identity, & Gender Expression” opposing “all public and private discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity and expression and urges the repeal of discriminatory laws and policies.”

California in August 2012 became the first state, followed soon after by New Jersey, to outlaw the practice of “conversion therapies” for people under the age of 18 after reviewing reports of the destructive nature of these alleged therapies. A number of other states are currently considering similar legislation.

While his state was holding hearings on the issue, a young man testified in front of the New Jersey Senate Health Committee on March 18, 2013:

My name is Jacob Rudolph,

I am an LGBT teen.

I am not broken.

I am not confused.

I do not need to be fixed.

The Catholic Church and other conservative religious denominations force people to accept the definition of themselves and their identities that the Church dictates. In this way, these religious institutions attempt to deprive the individual a sense of their own subjectivity and agency. These denominations promote the process of heteronormativity—where heterosexual values and ideologies of gender expression and sexuality remain the norm.

I wrote the Facebook staff that:

“I have no doubt that within 100 or less years from now, your therapy ON people with same-sex attractions [and with people who gender non-conform] will be seen in a similar light as the blood-letting techniques of the apothecaries of earlier times.”

But how many more spirits and lives will the Church torment and extinguish needlessly in the meantime?

For a comprehensive investigation, see: Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights, edited by Adrienne B. Dessel and Rebecca M. Bolen, Council on Social Work Education, 2014.

This story first appeared at The Good Men Project. More from our partner:

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