The church has models of non-sexual homosexual love. Why don’t more gay Catholics know them?
In a recent episode of the Jesuit podcast, Eve Tushnet spoke with hosts Ashley McKinless and Zac Davis about conversion therapy and the detrimental effects this practice can have on the mental and spiritual well-being of gay and lesbian Catholics. Ms Tushnet spoke to nine people who had undergone this type of therapy for an article in the June issue of America, and in this conversation, she shares their stories and suggests ways the church could better support and guide gay Catholics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ashley McKinless: Can you first define for us what conversion therapy is?
Eve Tushnet: It is any form of therapy that aims to change direction. The goal of therapy is to straighten you out.
Zac Davis: What are some of the philosophical foundations behind this?
One of the things I realized when I started talking to people who had had this experience of formal therapy to change direction was how much it resonated with things that me and other gay Catholics who had never tried therapy or counseling of any kind have heard. . The underlying assumptions are quite common in Catholic circles. And they include things like the idea that people become gay because of negative experiences, especially in childhood. So if you didn’t get along with other boys or girls who might lead you away from them, and later on you become gay, or you have a bad relationship with your same-sex parent. There are a bunch of different theories that people put forward.
I think this idea of the origin story is one of the most important because it explains how therapy might help, how repair might work.
People who had had this experience of formal therapy for a change of focus were how much it resonated with things that I and other gay Catholics who had never tried therapy of any kind have heard.
But there is a deeper underlying assumption, which is that the experience of being gay is purely negative and that there is nothing that experience can teach you about yourself. There is no gift he can give to you or to the church. If you do therapy and it works for you, you will sort of dissolve into the right majority. And any gay feelings or experiences you’ve had before that can kind of be put aside, leaving no trace of what it means to you to be Catholic or your experience of God.
And I think everyone I spoke to for this article ultimately went through a process – no matter where they ended up, if they remained Catholic, if they still practiced the teachings of the church on sexual ethics, or if they were in another church in a different way of life – I think they all ended up working on that underlying belief and came to say, ‘No, there is. something valuable here. There is something that I have been told in the experience of being gay that I can be grateful for. And that I don’t need to regard as purely something to be rejected or shunned.
AM: When a Catholic homosexual undergoes conversion therapy, what is he told about himself and what are the dangerous effects that this can have on his self-esteem?
One of the things that several of my interviewees said was that part of the power of the conversion therapy story is that it often draws on real-life experiences that a lot of people have had. [But] not everybody. I wouldn’t say I felt particularly conflicted with the other girls. I have a good relationship with my parents, but it turns out that many people of all sexual orientations have difficult relationships with their parents or with their same-sex peers.
Part of the power of the conversion therapy story is that it often draws on the real experiences of many people.
People are told things that can often resonate because they are based on common experiences and one interviewee even pointed out that you can argue that for some people it’s the timeline that is behind. You have started to realize that you are different from other boys or that you are different from the role model your parents want for you, and this is what causes the conflict. But the conversion therapy model explains that conflict is what causes homosexuality. And so people hear that and they’re like, well, I’ve got these two things. It somehow reinforces a sense of themselves as essentially missing and the conflicts they have are unique to them because they are part of this stigmatized group, which they are often forced by their therapist to keep a secret. It becomes the source of a deep sense of inadequacy.
ZD: What happens then? So you’ve done all of these things and you’re still ‘broke’. Where does that leave a person?
Several people have said essentially the same thing, namely, “I have tried all of these things. I went to therapy. I dated someone of the opposite sex. I pursued a religious vocation. I tried to develop stronger bonds with people of the same sex, maybe that would help. And like, none of that made me different in my sexual orientation. I have tried everything.
And at this point people fall into total despair and often contemplate suicide, or they kind of give up the other way around. They’re like, well, whatever that’s good for me isn’t going to be what these people tell me.
Everyone I interviewed had to rebuild their spiritual lives pretty much from scratch, including those who were still practicing Catholics.
Everyone I interviewed had to rebuild their spiritual lives pretty much from scratch, including those who were still practicing Catholics. Because the thing that they had been told, that the Catholic faith demanded of them, had completely failed. And at that point, it’s either like, well, I’m not able to be obedient. And so I’m just cut off from God with no hope of going back.
Someone commented on your post: “You can’t call someone inherently messy and then expect nothing bad to happen. Then she said she was lucky, [since] it came out relatively intact. Do you think there is something that needs to fundamentally change in the way the church talks about homosexuality, both from official masterly sources but also on a more everyday level?
I would say there are really two things in particular that would be most helpful. One is the language of “disorder”. Catholic intellectuals will say, “Oh, this has a long and varied history, this word is actually about natural law and the ordering of your desires. But when people hear it, especially with homosexuality, which has been treated so much as a psychiatric disorder in the modern past, they hear psychiatric terms. We mainly use the word disorder now to refer to things like drug addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder, things that can be treated psychologically. And because this is true of the way Americans and many Westerners have treated homosexuality for a while, of course, it is interpreted in this context. And of course people hear it as, it’s a disorder to be corrected.
The second thing that I think would do a lot of good is to save models of homosexual love, to say that homosexual love is good. And the church has ways to guide you there.
The second thing that I think would do a lot of good is to save models of homosexual love, to say that homosexual love is good. And the church has ways to guide you there. The church isn’t just going to say, “Did you try to love someone of the opposite sex? But we’ll say we actually have some advice and wisdom to share with you on same-sex love.
I am thinking of biblical models like David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and all the disciples but especially his intimacy with John, the beloved disciple. These are images deeply rooted in the history of salvation. They are incredibly rich in theological resonance, and it is love between two adults of the same sex. They are not conjugal; they are not sexual. This is another thing. There is something beautiful, holy, open to all. It was kind of revealing when I was like, wait, this stuff is already there.
What do you say to people who would be happy for the language to change but who feel deeply called to a relationship that involves sex with a person of the same sex?
I don’t claim to have any kind of argument as to why the teaching of the church is the way it is. Why are these things in the scriptures the way they are? I think at the end of the day it’s, for me at least, a matter of trust for so many gay people. Christians have deeply damaged the reliability of the church’s testimony here. And so I’m not going to blame anybody that’s like, “Well, I don’t trust the church like you do on that stuff, sorry. “
Christians have deeply damaged the reliability of the church’s testimony here. And so I’m not going to blame anybody that’s like, “Well, I don’t trust the church like you do on that stuff, sorry. “
I wonder if you have any constructive advice for someone who is gay and struggles with a lot of these things, or if there is someone who is a friend and notices that their friend is really struggling to figure out how to put all these puzzle pieces together.
Some of the most important things were just to find other people who had been through the same experiences, or who were just gay and Christian, I think, especially for the people I spoke to who were still trying to make it through. Catholic sexual ethics. or [were] open to that. One thing that was absolutely crucial for them was that they could find people who were not ashamed of being gay, who were practicing Catholics themselves.
I didn’t know anyone who was gay and Catholic who was going to actually try to do this stuff like they tell you. And I made a lot of mistakes because of it and I did a lot of things that I regret. And I think for a lot of my interviewees as well, finding a community is so crucial.
There will be a time in your life when you will be thankful for being gay and you might ask: what would that mean? What would it look like? What are some things in this experience that I can be grateful for? It doesn’t matter what happens to me, whether I find the things that I think I’m looking for, that my beliefs change, what are the things that I can look back on and say, “OK, there is something good here; this is something I can just be grateful for ”?
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