Getting to the root of conversion therapy

A look at the reparative therapist for the Archdiocese of New York.

First of all, I want to apologize to my readers. I don't think you signed up to read The Conversion Therapy Newsletter. I promised to give you a newsletter focused on a variety of questions related to Catholicism, culture, sexuality, race, creativity, etc. That variety still comes through the bi-weekly newsletter. But recently my essays, as well as the "preview" content, have focused on the role of conversion therapy in the Church. The more I dig into the ex-gay movement, the more I’ve uncovered its influence in Catholicism, from popular misrepresentations of Theology of the Body to the clergy abuse crisis. There's much more to cover, so you'll continue to see conversion therapy as a key topic in the near future. But I promise that eventually I'll focus on other questions. In the meantime, I hope you find the conversion therapy discussions interesting and helpful.

This week I'll be exploring the role of reparative therapists in two dioceses: the Archdiocese of New York and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. While many believe that reparative therapy is a niche field that is going out of fashion, the role that the theories behind it plays in Catholicism suggests that it is here to stay. Indeed, the central role that reparative therapy and the ex-gay narrative have played in our seminaries should have us very concerned about the Church's future. Today's piece will explore the difference between "conversion therapy" and "reparative therapy," and a failure to understand this difference allows SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts) to continue. Be sure to check the site Wednesday morning, when I’ll post an essay exploring the work of Bob Schuchts, a reparative therapist who runs the John Paul II Healing Center and has subjected hundreds of seminarians in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to the ex-gay theory and modified forms of reparative therapy.

And with that, here’s today’s essay…

States are issuing bans on therapies aimed at changing an individual from gay to straight. For example, an Executive Order from July in the state of Minnesota targets therapies which "claim to change a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression." The problem with this Order is that it misunderstands the perspective of SOCE advocates. (Indeed, even the acronym "SOCE" doesn't really communicate what they're trying to do.) "Conversion therapy" bans won't end conversion therapy.

"Conversion therapy" vs "reparative therapy"

The issue is one of psychological understanding. For Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, and others who oppose "conversion therapy," sexual orientation (and gender identity) is a characteristic which is discovered as a normal part of human development. As one matures, one realizes that one's desires have arrived naturally (in the sense of being a typical development of biology and socialization) to fix on persons of one sex or another (or both, somewhere along a spectrum). The development of sexual orientation, whether gay, straight, bi, or otherwise, is just something that happens, and we don't really know how or why. What we do know is that persons can live happy, healthy, and full lives, whatever their sexual orientations, and any orientation along this spectrum is not inherently a sign of a deficiency or problems. Further, when one "changes" a self-identifier in relation to sexual orientation, it's not so much a "change" in orientation as it is a discovery of a nuance in one's experience or a reframing of perspective.

For those who oppose these bans, however, there is a fundamentally different anthropological and psychological approach. The ex-gay narrative (largely developed by Elizabeth Moberly, Joseph Nicolosi, and other psychologists in the late twentieth century) holds that normal human development will result in heterosexual attractions. When those attractions do not develop, it is because of an issue with one of the stages of development, probably a childhood trauma or attachment issue, which prevented the child from having a proper relationship to his/her masculine or feminine identity. This is often referred to as a "core wound." Because of that wound and identity issue, the child develops feelings to try to cope, and those feelings become a pathology identified as homosexuality. Thus, SOCE defenders argue, the homosexual is inherently in need of healing. They believe that, if proper healing can be achieved, then normal sexual development may be able to proceed towards heterosexual attractions. There are some variations on this theory, which I often refer to as "the ex-gay narrative," but the above holds true in broad form for most of them.

Minnesota's ban on "conversion therapy" won't apply to the practices which develop out of the ex-gay narrative, because that narrative’s advocates don’t seek to "change" a sexual orientation (or gender identity). Instead, the ex-gay narrative holds that homosexuality isn't a real identity or orientation. It's a pathology arising out of a lack, an inner child whose needs have not been met. This is why Nicolosi referred to his work as “reparative therapy.” He saw homosexual attractions as a “reparative drive,” an “attempt to fulfill the normal male-bonding needs that were unmet during childhood.” He didn’t see himself as “converting” his clients, but engaging a “repairing” process. If the homosexual is "healed" and those needs met, then one can potentially proceed with normal development.

Of course, the distinction between "conversion" and "reparative" is one without much meaning in practice. The move from “conversion” to “reparative” strikes me as primarily an effort of rebranding. (In another effort of rebranding, Joseph Nicolosi, Jr. now refers to his work as "reintegrative therapy.") Whatever you call them, these practices generally don't believe you are "changing" from homosexual to heterosexual; they believe that you are "healing" and becoming the heterosexual that you would have always been if you hadn't been hindered in your development. So if we want to target SOCE, we shouldn't just target false promises of change. We also need to target the unsupported false diagnosis: the harmful imposition, often through manipulation, of an under-supported origin story upon a client's attractions to the same sex.

One consequence of the failure to recognize what ex-gay theorists actually believe is that the ex-gay narrative, and the pseudo-psychological practices which arise out of it, can hide beneath the surface, taking new forms as particular SOCE practices are discredited or banned. Christian organizations can say, "We don't do conversion therapy. We help homosexuals find healing." Or they can say, "We don't 'pray the gay away.' We just help people develop a proper masculine/feminine identity." They can say, "We don't promise change or even say it's likely." But that misses the point. The point is the parent-blaming, the insistence on finding abuse or trauma in support of an a priori supposition, the insistence upon a pathological approach as soon as the client sits in the chair. Here, "healing" and "develop a proper masculine/feminine identity" are euphemisms for ex-gay practices and perspectives that are just as harming as what we might consider "conversion therapy." But they are able to hide because we haven't gotten to the root of the problem. The problem is not the "therapy." The problem is the theory behind it.

The work of Timothy Lock

Consider, for example, the work of Dr. Timothy Lock. Lock currently serves as the Director of Psychological Services at the major seminary for the Archdiocese of New York. Previously, Lock was a member of NARTH, the ex-gay organization which referred for and promoted conversion/reparative therapy before it was shut down due to mismanagement. Lock recommends to clients books by Nicolosi (whose former patients said he pressured them into false narratives) and Richard Cohen (who was banned from presenting at ex-gay Exodus conferences due to disturbing practices).

At a 2009 presentation for a Courage group, Lock argued that sexual orientation can change, either "without intervention" or "with active intervention" in spiritual healing and psychotherapy. (To back up this claim, he cites a 2003 study by Robert Spitzer which was criticized for its methodological problems and eventually retracted by its author.) Lock closed his presentation with "positive guidelines for pastoral support," including encouraging "individuals with SSA" to "find healing intimacy with God as father" and through support groups. He recommended that friends and family of those with SSA "above all" be "a father to the fatherless" (presumably because persons have SSA because of their daddy issues). And he recommended "psychological help from Catholic practitioners specializing in unwanted SSA," including Nicolosi and through NARTH.

Lock's explicit endorsement of sexual orientation change efforts continued at least through 2015. In a list of resources posted on the Courage website, he recommended Journey Into Manhood (JIM) retreats, saying of them, "Very powerful weekends!" These retreats have been publicly criticized for troubling practices. In a 2015 false claims lawsuit which eventually led to the closing of an ex-gay organization, JIM retreat participants testified that the retreats involved fetishized group activities where the participants are required to be naked together. In one activity, they engage in "sensory" experiences running naked in the woods together. According to the testimony, "other naked activities including rebirthing exercises, food fights, blindfolded dancing, swimming and group showers with staff; 'guts work,' which often involves reenacting traumas in the lives of clients; and 'healthy touch' holding therapy, in which men hold each other for long periods of time in supposedly nonsexual ways in order to get the nonerotic male affection that they are theoretically starved of." Richard Cohen, who developed the holding therapy and whose work Lock recommends, was banned from presenting at Exodus Conferences after he demonstrated the therapy and then told attendees, “This might cause some stimulation. However, what goes up must come down, I always say.” Testimony also included a story of a retreat leader who eventually developed a sexual relationship with a participant.

Since that time, however, Lock seems to have taken a different approach, perhaps in response to those consumer fraud lawsuits against therapists promising orientation change. He seems to have quietly backed off of his explicit endorsement of more controversial SOCE practices. But he continues to promote the theories which lead to them. This change in approach provides cover against consumer fraud legal liability. If we look at Lock's more recent work, it's easy to see how he also might consider his approach and proposed therapies to be an exemption to the Minnesota ban. He is not seeking to "change" a sexual orientation. He is seeking to offer "healing" to those with "unwanted SSA." Though he does not openly endorse "conversion therapy," his underlying approach to homosexuality is the same. In his contribution to the 2015 book Living the Truth in Love, Lock recommends treating “same-sex attractions as a symptom of a broken heart." (The book and subsequent conference celebrating it have been endorsed by many Catholic institutions and individuals, including Courage International, Ignatius Press, the Napa Institute, Robert George, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, and Sean Cardinal O'Malley.)

In a 2020 presentation, which largely focuses on promoting Courage International, Lock nowhere mentions therapies oriented towards "healing" homosexuality and developing heterosexuality. But his approach to homosexuality, if examined closely, leads naturally to a pursuit of such "healing." The following two slides from his presentation are illustrative:

According to Lock, the development of same-sex attractions begins with a son's failure to sufficiently bond with his father, and the damage caused by an overbearing mother. A failure to "enter the male world" with a "strong and caring" father leads to low self-esteem and "gender emptiness." Because he does not feel like "one of the boys," in early puberty a "surge of hormones stimulates erotic interest toward that which be believes will fill his unmet emotional needs: same-sex integration and for gender identification." "Gender attraction" develops into sexual attraction to the same sex, which can eventually develop into a false "homosexual identity." It's worth noting that, while he cites studies (the majority of them 10-20 years old) about psychological disorders among gay persons, the only citation Lock provides in support of his developmental model is to a thirty-year old book by conversion therapist and Courage speaker William Consiglio (Homosexual No More: Pastoral Strategies for Christians Overcoming Homosexuality).

The key here is to recognize that, whether or not Lock explicitly promotes or practices "conversion therapy," he clearly views same-sex attractions as a sort of pathology that should be "healed" as far as possible. This approach is likely to cause guilt and shame for parents, who are identified as the first culprits in the development of a "homosexual identity." And it necessarily leads LGBTQ+ persons to believe, because their SSA arises from unmet emotional needs, that once those needs are met they can work on "healing" (reducing or eliminating) their SSA. For Lock, homosexuality exists in the middle of a pathology sandwich. Complexes and pathologies lead to homosexuality (which is a pathology) which results in pathologies.

This also has important pastoral implications. Because the last stage in the establishment of this pathology is the development of a "homosexual identity," pastors and therapists will view self-identified LGBTQ+ persons as pathological narcissists. (Moberly saw homosexuality as a kind of narcissism.) They will view an LGBTQ+ identity as inherently narcissistic, pathological, and dangerous. And they will respond to such an identity with something like, "What you need is to accept your true masculine/feminine identity" or, "You're not really gay, you just think you are." (The latter is a statement that Catholic conversion therapist and "the Church's shrink" Anthony Anatrella would tell his male clients before abusing them.) This helps to explain celebrity speakers who “suffer from same-sex attraction” and also in private say things like, “I may masturbate and look at pornography, but at least I don’t identify as gay.” This isn’t a view that comes out of nowhere. It’s a view that we’re taught to have by ex-gay advocates like Lock.

Where LGBTQ+ persons try to use language to describe our experiences, many Catholics respond by imposing a pathology on us (often without fully realizing it). These dynamics can be remarkably subtle, and with the onslaught of stories, lawsuits, and research findings related to the harms of SOCE, its advocates are working to rebrand and reframe. They may even explicitly say that they don't support "praying the gay away", that orientation change doesn't happen for everyone, or that they don't practice "conversion therapy." But this all misses the point. Conversion therapy was a symptom, not the disease. The root of the harm is the ex-gay narrative that sloppily became part of "the Christian tradition" in the last fifty years.

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An alternative view

So what is homosexuality, then? And how ought the Church to approach it?

For Catholics who want to uphold what the Catechism has to say about homosexuality, I would first recommend reframing the term "objectively disordered." When the Church uses the term "disordered" in moral theology, she is not speaking about a pathology. Rather, she is simply saying that a particular act or desire is not aligned with what God intended. The desire to have sex before marriage is "objectively disordered" according to Catholic teaching, but no one reads such a desire through the lens of pathology or asks what daddy issues might have caused the struggles of an engaged couple. Even though such a desire is "objectively disordered," it's also just a normal experience for most people and shouldn't be used to shame or pathologize those who experience it.

Second, Catholics need to move beyond the preoccupation with developing a "masculine identity" or a "feminine identity." Such preoccupations have a tendency to devolve into stereotyping, which fails to respect the diverse roles and responsibilities men and women should have in the world. Instead, a theology professor once defined for me masculinity as “charity in a man” and femininity as "charity in a woman." Masculinity and femininity, in this view, are characteristics developed in the course of living out the call to love. Indeed, the men I know who are most insecure about their masculinity are those who have been conditioned by pastors to constantly scrutinize it in themselves; perhaps parroting what they have heard from Lock and ex-gay advocates, such pastors implant anxieties about masculinity and "sonship" in men who might have otherwise been perfectly happy living out masculinity without having to agonize over it. Further the desire for others of the same sex is not inherently a sign of a deficient or malformed masculinity or femininity. Such desires might even be cultivated or sublimated at times to enable one to more fully love same-sex others and thus live out masculinity and femininity in a way that is particularly fruitful.

Third, when people say we are LGBTQ+, Catholics should ask what we mean by it. Critics say that persons who identify in this way make it their whole identity, but we don't. It is a feature of our multifaceted identities, even if an important one. Critics sometimes say that we make homosexuality an ontological category, which I certainly don't do. Critics make all kinds of assumptions and misrepresentations, which in the end damage both their credibility and the credibility of the Church generally. Let us say what we mean when we identify as LGBTQ+, rather than repeating misrepresentations over and over again. After a certain point, the question moves from whether certain Catholics want to understand us, to whether they are committed to misunderstanding us.

LGBTQ+ in the Church

And what are LGBTQ+ Catholics to do in this situation? How can we know who to trust for advice? Given that so many of us would benefit from therapy, how do we make sure we don't accidentally land in rebranded conversion therapy, or get pressured into an ex-gay narrative? This stuff has a way of re-establishing itself.

In relationships with therapists, pastors, and mentors, some questions you can ask before seeking help might include:

  • What books or resources would you recommend for LGBTQ+ Catholics? If they recommend resources by Courage, that's a red flag. In books and resources that are recommended, always check the footnotes first. That's where a lot of the secrets are hidden.

    • It's a red flag if any of the following conversion therapists or ex-gay theorists or advocates are cited: Gerard van den Aardweg, Anthony Anatrella, Conrad Baars, Ruth Barnhouse, Richard Cohen, Andrew Comiskey, William Consiglio, Colin Cook, Richard Fitzgibbons, Christopher Gross, Janelle Hallman, Stephen Hopkins, Jeffrey Keefe, Peter Kleponis, Patrick Lappert, Timothy Lock, Alan Medinger, Elizabeth Moberly, Joseph Nicolosi, Joseph Nicolosi Jr., Dale O'Leary, Philip Mango, Leanne Payne, Carolyn Pela, David Prosen, Peter Rudegeair, Jeffrey Satinover, Bob Schuchts, Charles Socarides, Paul Sullins, Phil Sutton, Chad Thompson, Quentin Van Meter, and John Waiss.

    • Some organizations and publications you should be concerned about include: Desert Stream/Living Waters Ministries, Exodus International, NARTH, Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATCSI), the Linacre Quarterly, the Reintegrative Therapy Association, the Restored Hope Network, the Journal of Human Sexuality, the Catholic Medical Association, the American College of Pediatricians, the Chastity Project, the John Paul II Healing Center, the Theology of the Body Institute, and Courage International.

  • What is your view on sexual orientation change? If they say that they don't really think sexual orientation changes, then they're probably a safe person. If they say that some people might have a fluid sexuality, that's probably fine. If they say that they've heard of "former homosexuals" with interesting stories, that's a red flag. If they mention something about "developing your masculine/feminine identity" or "unwanted same-sex attractions," that's a red flag.

  • What do you think about people identifying as LGBTQ+? If they talk about how your "true identity is in Christ" or "your real sexual orientation is as a man/woman," that's a red flag.

  • What do you think the clergy abuse crisis is really about? If they focus on "gay networks" or emphasize how the majority of people abused were males, those are red flags.

It may take time to find people that you can trust when it comes to being an LGBTQ+ Catholic. But don't be afraid to establish boundaries. Random Catholics are not entitled to offer you unsolicited advice. Catholic communities are not entitled to your emotional ill-health, just because they have a toxic understanding of (homo)sexuality. Real friendships involve mutual love, care, concern, and understanding. It's your responsibility as a Catholic to go out in search of them.


Priests/Seminarians: I need your help!

I’m currently evaluating materials from the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF). If you’ve gone through their summer program in the last 1-5 years and have a copy of your “Christian Spirituality and Sexuality” student manual, I’d love it if you could send me screenshots of your table of contents! You can dm me on Twitter or reach out via my contact page. If your manual is from the last 3 years, I’m also willing to buy it from you and pay for shipping. Please also share this with anyone you know who may have a copy. Thanks so much!