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Is the Catholic approach to homosexuality a pyramid scheme?
It’s likely that the ability of Anatrella and other Church leaders to abuse arose, in part, because of the ex-gay narrative that they furthered.
In 2004, Christopher West published Good News about Sex and Marriage. One of his most popular books, Good News has been required by dozens of Catholic dioceses in the United States as part of the marriage preparation program Joy-Filled Marriage. West has sold millions of copies of books, DVDs, and lecture recordings, and he has trained thousands of priests and dozens of bishops on Catholicism and sexuality, including homosexuality. Most take West to be promoting a thoroughly and distinctly Catholic view of sex, sexuality, and marriage. Almost no one realizes that, as part of his media package, he sells pseudo-Freudian pseudoscience.
The most distinct presentation of this pseudoscience comes in a section of Good News where West discusses his adolescent attractions to other men. He writes about “experimenting” with a friend during childhood, his teenage years where he was “questioning” his “masculine identity,” and being afraid in his youth that he would one day “discover I was ‘gay.’” But in his twenties, West found hope. He writes:
“Listening to tapes of a conference on gender issues and personal healing finally helped me to make sense out of this troubling inner dynamic. Several of the talks were given by a man who had lived as an active homosexual for many years. Although I can’t say my attractions were ever fully eroticized as his were, as he very candidly shared his struggles and his healings, his story resonated with me.”
West identifies that speaker as Mario Bergner, who shared his own story in Setting Love in Order. According to Bergner, he had lived the “gay lifestyle” until he ended up in a hospital in 1983. Tests revealed a low T-cell count, indicating AIDS. Bergner laid in the hospital that evening, until he experienced a vision where “the Spirit of the Lord” told him: “I want to heal your whole person, not just your body. Choose.” Bergner says that he chose the Lord, and he was miraculously healed both of his physical illness and of his homosexuality. He said the Lord thereafter gave him a dream of marrying a woman he knew from college. Bergner writes: “Months later, when Jesus began healing me of the homosexual neurosis, the dream often came to mind. I interpreted it as a promise from God, meaning that one day I would desire a woman and desire to marry her.” Bergner did marry that woman, and he started Redeemed Lives Ministries, which was dedicated to “healing” men like him. Bergner became a prominent “ex-gay” speaker.
This is the story which West internalized for himself, and which he proposes for the Church. The problem, however, is that the story wasn’t really true. In 2018, the same year that West expanded and republished Good News, Bergner shared publicly that he was stepping away from ministry. By that time, Begner and his wife had divorced, and he had suffered an emotional break, entertained being with a male partner, used gay pornography and engaged in same-sex sexual activity, and been removed from his ministry. Nonetheless, Bergner’s story continues to provide the key frame of reference for West’s experience of his attractions to other men, and for West’s teachings about same-sex attraction for the Catholic Church more broadly. This is not likely to change. And West is just one small part of the Catholic Church’s commitment to the ex-gay narrative.
The ex-gay narrative
The ex-gay narrative begins roughly with the development of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. As Jonathan Lear describes it, psychoanalysis discovered “that there is something internal to the free flow of self-consciousness that opposes it.” Psychoanalysis gives access to this internal conflict and can enable the patient to overcome problems that inhibit full development of the person. Some of Freud’s students, including Wilhelm Stekel and Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) expanded upon the principles of psychoanalysis to hold that homosexuality arises as a neurosis because of such a failure of development and, therefore, the homosexual could be cured of his pathology through psychoanalytic treatment.
In its earlier years, this approach to homosexuality was largely held by secular psychologists who were inclined to also view religious belief as a kind of neurosis. But over time, Christians began to adopt these pathological theories to explain homosexuality, and the theories became part and parcel of Christian belief concerning homosexuality. Christian institutions, including many Catholic institutions, committed themselves to holding that homosexuality was a neurosis which could be cured with the tools of modern psychology, paving the way for the establishment of the ex-gay movement and the proliferation of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), including various forms of “conversion therapy.”
These views were enshrined and developed throughout the Catholic Church through a number of writers, including the British theorist Elizabeth Moberly, the Dutch Catholic conversion therapist Gerard van den Aardweg, the American Catholic psychologist (and “father of conversion therapy”) Joseph Nicolosi, and the American evangelical “spiritual healer” Leanne Payne. The first three of these figures held roughly that during childhood, a “core wound” can be established when a boy does not sufficiently bond with his father or when he suffers a trauma such as sexual abuse or rejection by his same-sex peers. The boy cannot accept his own masculine identity, and he copes with this through attraction to the masculinity in other boys. Over time, these attractions can become “eroticized” and develop into sexual desires, culminating into the neurosis of homosexuality and the homosexual identity. However, these figures held, through therapy or spiritual healing one can find healing for that core wound, meet that unmet need, and eventually move beyond the pathology of homosexuality. Indeed, “homosexuality” was not a real state or identity, as they believed it was characterized more by a lack tending towards a form of narcissism. When that lack was fulfilled, one could proceed with true human development. Similarly, Payne held that homosexuality arose because of a spiritual lack or demonic attachment and could be cured through spiritual healing. I have called this theory, inclusive of the views of these four figures, the “ex-gay narrative.”
These figures are extremely influential throughout the Church, even today. Moberly provided the intellectual foundation for Courage International and the work of its founder Father John Harvey. Gerard van den Aardweg’s self-guide for sexual orientation change is recommended in Father Mike Schmitz’s book on same-sex attraction “Made for Love.” Nicolosi’s work continues to be cited by Catholic leaders, and one of his essays was posthumously included in Speaking the Truth in Love (2021), a book set to be published by Ignatius Press and featuring a number of Catholic leaders on "how best to minister to individuals experiencing same sex attraction while being sensitive to their needs, and also being faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church on God's plan for sexuality." (The book’s release has been delayed.) Payne is cited throughout the work of Dr. Bob Schuchts, the founder of the John Paul II Healing Center who has subjected seminarians in my diocese to modified forms of conversion therapy. Conversion therapy and ex-gay narratives proliferate throughout contemporary Catholicism.
Contrary to popular belief, conversion therapy and the theories behind it are not limited to American Evangelicalism. Rather, Catholic therapists and theorists have been key legitimators of the ex-gay movement. They have exercised significant influence on the Church’s approach to homosexuality over the last several decades through half-truths and unfinished stories such as West’s presentation of Bergner. But though Evangelicalism has had to reckon with the destructive lies of these theories and practices in recent years through documentaries such as Pray Away and numerous studies documenting the significant harm of sexual orientation change efforts, Catholics have largely been able to resist addressing these problems, for a number of reasons.
A history of “Catholic teaching”
Before I address those reasons, I should address a key critique. Some might argue: “Perhaps conversion therapists have been running around with pseudo-Freudian theories in the Church. Perhaps they have been involved in developing ministries. But that doesn’t mean the Church’s unchanging teaching on homosexuality should be suspect. It’s the truth.”
One should note, however, that the Catechism’s current articulation of “Church teaching” on homosexuality was established in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the same time period during which the four conversion therapists above and others were gaining prominence. In addition, two points are key. First, the present 1997 text of the Catechism is actually a revision of the originally-released 1994 text. In 1994, paragraph 2358 of the Catechism taught that homosexual persons “do not choose their homosexual condition” and did not teach that homosexual inclinations are “intrinsically disordered.” In 1997, the Catechism removed the former and added the latter. Second, the three paragraphs in the Catechism on homosexuality cite only a handful of Bible passages (a text in which neither the word nor the concept of “homosexuality” exist) and the Pontifical Council for the Family’s 1975 document Persona Humana.
This is where the problems begin. Persona Humana seems to be relying on a pathological treatment of homosexuality associated with the ex-gay narrative. It says:
A distinction is drawn, and it seems with some reason, between homosexuals whose tendency comes from a false education, from a lack of normal sexual development, from habit, from bad example, or from other similar causes, and is transitory or at least not incurable; and homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable.
To put it simply: the conception of homosexuality on which the Catechism relies comes from a 1975 Declaration which treats homosexuality as a pathology framed within the ex-gay narrative. It provided the opening for a global Catholic conception of “homosexuality,” a conception which we should now consider suspect and likely to lead to harm.
To my knowledge, only one official document from the Holy See uses the term “homosexual” prior to Persona Humana. The year prior, the Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) published “A Guide on Formation in Priestly Celibacy.” It promotes the ex-gay narrative, in arguing that a homosexual person is simply an immature heterosexual. The CCE writes:
“In order to talk about a person as mature, his sexual instinct must have overcome two immature tendencies, narcissism and homosexuality, and must have arrived at heterosexuality. This is the first step in sexual development.”
According to the CCE, a homosexual was simply an emotionally underdeveloped heterosexual. Homosexuality and its attendant narcissism, argues the CCE, must be overcome so that one can achieve his heterosexual potential.
The Pontifical Council of the Family further promoted an ex-gay conception of homosexuality in its 1995 guidelines on “the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.” In that document, the Council again seemed to treat homosexuality as a sort of pathology, a contagion spreading in developed nations:
“A particular problem that can appear during the process of sexual maturation is homosexuality, which is also spreading more and more in urbanized societies. This phenomenon must be presented with balanced judgement, in the light of the documents of the Church… Especially when the practice of homosexual acts has not become a habit, many cases can benefit from appropriate therapy… If parents notice the appearance of this tendency or of related behaviour in their children, during childhood or adolescence, they should seek help from expert qualified persons in order to obtain all possible assistance.”
Eight key documents from the Holy See address homosexuality and how the Church ought to approach it:
The CCE “A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy” (1974);
Persona Humana (1975);
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (1986);
The Catechism (1997);
The above guidelines from the CCE and the Pontifical Council of the Family (1995);
The CCE “Instructions Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders” (2005); and
The recent responsum from the CDF concerning same-sex unions (2021).
The 2005 instructions which seek to bar homosexual persons from seminary were allegedly prepared in part by Father Anthony Anatrella, a Pontifical Council for the Family consultant who himself practiced conversion therapy. The L’Osservatore Romano published an official commentary by Anatrella following the release of the instructions in which Anatrella spoke of homosexuality as “a problem in the psychic constituency” which manifests “a necessary primary identification of the child with the persons of the same sex to consolidate his own sexual identity.” Anatrella wrote that homosexuality results from a refusal to “accede to a global vision of the proper masculine or feminine identity” and from “a lack of plenitude and an immaturity of human sexuality.”
Anatrella has been referred to in France as “the Church’s shrink.” The scope of Anatrella's influence on the Church is hard to precisely identify. In 2016, Anatrella was criticized for his contributions to a formation course for bishops organized by the Congregation for Bishops, which had stated, “It is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds.” Last week, the Archdiocese of Paris announced that Anatrella was barred from priestly ministry, after allegations that he had abused his clients and young men, including a 14-year-old child. But when Fr. Philippe Lefebvre tried to address Anatrella's abuse in the early 2000's, he was told “to be careful and not to criticize Tony Anatrella because he was somebody important in the Vatican.”
The ex-gay narrative and abuse
It’s likely that the ability of Anatrella and other Church leaders to abuse arose, in part, because of the ex-gay narrative that they furthered, both psychologically and practically. On a psychological level, Trujillo, Anatrella, and others saw “homosexuality” as a sort of mirage to overcome, and not truly a “sexuality,” a pathology that could be blamed on others. Similarly, in Good News West provides a view of same-sex genital contact as non-sexual, because any such contact outside of a heterosexual relationship involves a lack of “true” sexuality. West also writes:
“[I]t's simply impossible for two people of the same sex to have sex. Whatever homosexual behavior may consist of, it is not and cannot be sexual union… A man's genitals cannot unite with another man's genitals, nor a woman's with another woman's. It's simply impossible.”
What this means is that gay priests can engage in genital contact with others while believing they have not violated their vow of celibacy. Such contact isn’t actually “sex” under this view. It is entirely possible that a priest or bishop might be so disassociated from his sexuality that he did indeed seek out sexual encounters with other men, but that he has since rewritten or reframed those encounters in his memory to preserve his self-image as a “celibate heterosexual man.” For such a priest or bishop, “homosexuality” does not exist, and “homosexual sexual contact” isn't actual “sexual” contact. He may have habituated himself to view his history in a way so as to protect his image of himself, an image that relies on the ex-gay narrative for its legitimacy. And while there may be some context for understanding sexuality this way in the writings of pre-papacy Karol Wojtyla and Cormac Burke, this position provides protection for abusers operating within the ex-gay narrative and should thus be examined critically.
In some circumstances, such abusive contact can be blamed on “the pathology,” and in this way the perpetrator of these acts can avoid culpability. For example, the 2020 McCarrick report outlines conversion therapist Richard Fitzgibbon's assessment of a priest who had abused two teenage boys. (That priest had previously been abused by McCarrick.) Fitzgibbons argues that, because of the priest’s struggles, the priest “has been victimized and is not the victimizer.” Following Fitzgibbons's assessment, that priest was assigned to work at other Catholic parishes.
The persistent pathologizing of clerical abuse did significant harm to the Church’s ability to address it. Quite often, (conversion) therapists like Fitzgibbons were unable to evaluate objective moral actions and insisted on interpreting sexual abuse primarily or solely through the lens of pathology, an interpretation which took focus off of the actual victims and perpetuated the clergy abuse crisis. (It’s worth noting that Fitzgibbons had been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to serve as a consultant to the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy, and thus has been in a position to influence at the highest levels the Church’s approach to both homosexuality and clerical abuse.)
“The choice of dioceses and leaders to bring in psychologists, rather than criminologists (or law enforcement), is significant. What mattered for Church leaders was not the objective actions and impacts suffered by the victims, but the state of mind of the victimizer. We can’t just blame psychologists for the crisis. We have to blame the type of professionals that the Church chose to hire, and the fact that the Church hired these professionals for the abusers. And it was this hiring choice, and focus of these professionals, which made the victimizing of the victimizer disappear. Often, the roles of victim and victimizer were reversed.”
If one examines the writings of ex-gay advocates and theorists through the early 2000’s, one finds that many of them also focus on rehabilitation of abuser-priests. For example, in 1992 Courage founder John Harvey (whose views on homosexuality derive largely from the work of Moberly and Nicolosi) wrote on the need to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment for priests who abuse children. In Crisis Magazine, Harvey wrote:
“Rather than concentrating on rehabilitating troubled priests, authorities too often merely ‘shelve’ them, permitting them only the ministry of private Mass and/or pushing hard for their immediate laicization…
With love comes responsibility, especially for those in need, as we all are, of the healing of Christ. The new pattern of neglect for clerical child abusers, I believe, is at least as dangerous for the Church as the old one, and it is just as negligent in its handling of the offenders.”
Harvey analogized the situation of the abuser-priest to the situation of the alcoholic, just as he does for the situation of the “homosexual person.” (Courage uses Alcoholics Anonymous as a foundational model for its ministry.) Harvey argued for “a more hopeful view” of abuser-priests. And one sees him making distinctions similar to that of Persona Humana, which argued for varied treatment of persons who experienced “transitory” homosexuality, as opposed to those with an “innate instinct” or “pathological constitution”:
“If the clinical judgment is that the person is a fixated pedophile or ephebophile, then he should not be restored to any pastoral ministry. And of course, if the clinical judgment is that the person should not be given any restricted ministry because of other psychological difficulties, authorities will be bound in conscience to follow the advice of the clinicians in the rehabilitation center. If, however, the clinical judgment indicates that it is very probable that the individual will be able to function well in restricted ministry under carefully qualified conditions, then it seems that his bishop or provincial ought to give him the opportunity to do so.”
Whether a priest can return to ministry, according to Harvey, has less to do with what he has done and more to do with his potential for psychological conversion. Harvey’s approach to abuser-priests and his approach to homosexuality are similar to such a degree that one may wonder whether they are the same. And while the Church has allegedly rejected the position Harvey holds for the former, we have not sufficiently questioned whether a rejection ought to be accordingly placed for the latter. Harvey’s approach to abuser-priests supports his approach to homosexuality. To the extent that Harvey presents “the Catholic view” of homosexuality, the Church’s approach to homosexuals mirrors its appalling approach to abuser-priests. This should concern us.
Harvey is right, in a way. Healing and forgiveness should be sought for all people. Abuser-priests likely have suffered in ways that contributed to their decision to abuse. But Harvey fails in outsizing the role and potential of psychological conversion, missing the need to real accountability, and driving focus away from the key victims in these situations. He has succumbed to tendencies to over-pathologize, in ways that harm everyone.
Like Fitzgibbons, in his eagerness to probe the psychological condition of the priest, Harvey loses sight of the fact that the priest is, indeed, a victimizer. Harvey does write, “I assure the reader I have also worked with the victims, helping them to receive both therapy and spiritual direction, and I can empathize with their trauma.” But this reads as some version of: “I have black friends.” It’s a passing comment where those friends are used to justify whatever the person will say next, where the friend is a tool rather than the key point of reference. This approach, the “rehabilitative” approach to abuser-priests and homosexuals (via ex-gay narratives and conversion therapy), compounds hurt for the abuser-priest, the victim of abuse, and the homosexual. The Church would do well to move away from psychobabble in these areas and focus instead upon the objective actions of various parties and their impacts, leaving the complex work of individual psychological integration to the professionals.
Perhaps most horrifyingly, the ex-gay narrative provided practical opportunities for Anatrella and others to abuse, because it directed vulnerable men to them. Many Catholic dioceses sent seminarians and other young men to Anatrella to “cure” them of their homosexuality. Anatrella then convinced them that their “homosexuality” was not real, but was instead a form of “narcissism.” Part of what this narrative creates is a situation where Anatrella can abuse, while limiting the ability of the abused person to talk about the abuse, because he must hide his “homosexuality” (which, again, is not real). Anatrella would tell his clients, “You’re not gay, you just think you are.” And if one accepts West's view, then one can say that what Anatrella did to them wasn't even “sexual.” Under West's view, same-sex “sexual” abuse is not possible. The problem is not the contact; the problem is “identifying with one’s homosexuality.”
Harmful pseudo-Freudian theories are embedded in the Church’s “official” approach to same-sex love and desire. They have been used to abuse vulnerable men by Catholics who invented, promoted, and inserted them into magisterial documents. This raises serious concerns about those documents.
But what’s so wrong with these theories?
You might be wondering: what’s wrong with promoting the belief that homosexuality arises from a child's unmet needs from their same-sex parent? Who does this really hurt? The problems have been well-documented, but, in addition to providing opportunities to abuse as discussed above, I will outline just a few of them here.
First, they shame parents of same-sex attracted children who are conditioned to believe that they caused their child’s homosexuality. Even when parents have not heard these theories explicitly, their subtle communication throughout the Church still conditions parents to have this reaction when a child “comes out” as gay. Catholics at all levels encourage this. Popular Catholic speaker Jason Evert, in his 2017 book If You Really Loved Me, lists “four issues related to the onset of homosexual attractions” based on his “research and ministry”: the emotional or physical absence of a same-sex parent; sexual abuse by a parent; an overbearing opposite-sex parent; or a confusion with regards to masculinity. The “research” cited for this claim consists exclusively of a 1983 book written by Moberly and a 1986 publication by Aardweg. (It’s worth noting that Aardweg’s research demonstrates a lack of scholarly awareness and relies on self-published books and retracted articles.)
In one presentation Timothy Lock, former NARTH member and Director of Psychological Sciences at the major seminary for the Archdiocese of New York, argued that the development of same-sex attractions begin when a mother “holds back” her son and the father “does not rescue” him. The only work he cites to support his view of homosexual development is a 1991 book titled, Homosexual No More: Practical Strategies for Christians Overcoming Homosexuality. Lock recommends treating “same-sex attraction as a symptom of a broken heart.” Lock has also recommended ex-gay retreats where group nudity was required of participants for various activities. Gay Catholics and our parents should be appalled. (Lock is a featured speaker at the 2022 Courage Conference.)
Second, this approach results in extreme shame for gay Catholics, pushing us to resist having a relationship to our sexuality, and thus preventing true growth in chastity. Catholicism understands chastity as the successful integration of sexuality within the person. However, if a “homosexual” person cannot have a relationship to their sexuality because they are unable to achieve “sexual maturation” (as Moberly, Nicolosi, Aardweg, and others argue), then real integration is not possible. Ironically, this approach to homosexuality precludes actual growth in chastity. Under this view, insofar as one is “homosexual,” one cannot achieve true chastity. Instead, one is trapped in a state of psycho-sexual immaturity. This flies in the face of the Catechism's claim that “homosexual persons are called to chastity.”
Third, the ex-gay narrative has an inherent tendency to develop into “conversion therapy.” The theory acts like a virus, with conversion therapy arising as a symptom. The virus can go dormant for a time, but if it is allowed to continue existing within the body of the Church without treatment, it can eventually awaken its symptom of conversion therapy, or a rebranded version of it. From there, conversion therapy can develop into a deadly cycle. If one believes homosexuality results from unmet needs, then an inclination to endlessly seek the satisfaction of those needs arises. Once the pursuit of a cure to homosexuality begins, it can go on endlessly, until it ends in death, at times by suicide. Rather than recognizing that conversion therapy or related efforts do not work, the gay person committed to “change” can endlessly be told that he is simply not trying hard enough, or that he just hasn't figured out the right cure yet.
Psychiatrist Jack Drescher, who has seen a number of Nicolosi' former clients, shared in the New York Times what occurred in the conversion therapist's sessions. Nicolosi trained clients to accept a story that had no basis in fact and didn't actually lead to change. Drescher said, “The setup is always that ‘if change is going to happen, you the patient are going to make it happen,’ which leads to patient-blaming when the treatment doesn't work.” Given this, one can easily see why individuals who undergo conversion therapy are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide.
Fourth, these theories are made up. Their approach to homosexuality does not actually arise from the Catholic tradition. Lefebvre wrote of Anatrella's approach to homosexuality: “He introduces this scientific understanding into the religious domain… but to make it the only basis for a theological reflection and the beginning of an ecclesial practice—and this becomes problematic.” (“[I]l introduit cette appréhension scientifique dans le domaine religieux... mais pour en faire l'unique socle d'une réflexion à portée théologique et l'amorce d'une pratique ecclésiale —et cela devient problématique.”) In his 2006 article “Les dérapages de Mgr Anatrella,” Lefebvre praises the study of Freud. But Lefebvre does not agree that Freud (or Anatrella's interpretation of Freud) “be transferred without any scrutiny to legitimize an ecclesial practice” (“qu'il soit transféré sans coup férir pour légitimer une pratique ecclésiale”).
As an Old Testament scholar, Lefebvre states that Anatrella's approach to homosexuality does not have a scriptural basis. Rather, the approach of Anatrella and other ex-gay theorists arises from a particular moment in western secular psychology, which was uncritically seized and preserved by Catholic leaders, even after the psychological community recognized the harmful folly of that moment. What many claim are “unchanging Church teachings” are actually sloppy developments of Freud that have not withstood the test of time. What LeFefebvre says of Anatrella can be said of many ex-gay advocates: “Is he speaking in the name of Freud or of Jesus Christ? The uncertainty shows that he is in fact speaking on his own behalf. Freud is his god and he gives himself as his prophet.” (“Parle-t-il au nom de Freud ou de Jésus-Christ ? L'incertitude témoigne qu'il parle en fait en son propre nom. Freud est son dieu et il se donne comme son prophète.”)
The psychological pyramid scheme
But the Church is not likely to be able to move beyond the theories which grew into conversion therapy. The ex-gay narrative is likely here to stay. This is largely because the Church has essentially developed a multi-level marketing scheme when it comes to homosexuality and Catholic “orthodoxy.” In this scheme, a certain kind of “orthodoxy” is created at the top. The ex-gay narrative has been established by key voices in the Church as part of “Catholic teaching.” At the next level, followers give their time and effort in spreading this message, and in exchange they receive the imprimatur of “orthodox.” At times, followers also receive “payment” for ex-gay evangelization, in the form of places of prominence and influence in the Church. The followers then, in turn, can bestow the title of “orthodoxy” on those they can get to buy into the scheme. They become lower-level leaders and gain their own followers.
At the top of the pyramid are a number of high-ranking Church leaders and the inventors of the ex-gay narrative. Some, such as Anatrella and Fitzgibbons, are conversion therapists who have worked as consultants to various Holy See congregations. Others have a personal investment: a handful of high-ranking officials in the Church have been attracted to men and, if current reports and investigations are to be believed, at the same time engaged in secret same-sex sexual behavior and abuse. Anatrella, Trujillo, and others were among these. And still others have experienced attractions to other men but have been able to make use of this narrative to legitimize their positions. These officials were involved in Holy See Councils and Congregations which have been central in establishing the Church’s approach to and conception of homosexuality from the 1970s to today.
These high-ranking officials may have grabbed on to the ex-gay narrative, because it allowed them to be attracted to and sexually engaged with other men but not actually identify as “homosexual” (since according to those accounts homosexual was not a meaningful state or identity). They then may have tied this approach to sexuality to “Church teaching” and Catholic “orthodoxy” (a) as a way to legitimate their own approach to sexuality, (b) to provide an incentive for those below them to accept this approach, (c) to legitimize their priesthood which they believe should be barred to homosexuals, or (d) to gain access to vulnerable men and continue their sexual activity and abuse. They partnered with organizations that spread the message and then started doing “healing” ministries and “therapies” to support it.
In the next level of the multi-level marketing scheme, bishops and key lay leaders in the Church want the approval of “the Vatican,” and also want to receive the title of “orthodox.” At times, they want to be invited to positions of influence by Catholic leaders. Or they may want the financial or political support of those engaged in various forms of culture wars, and who are also committed to these sorts of narratives. They want some stamp of approval. At times, they may also have wanted to be able to engage in the same-sex sexual activity and gain access to possible abuse victims. Or they may have been struggling with their sexual desires and identities and wanted a way to explain them away or escape them and be “good Catholics.” So they take the product offered to them, the ex-gay narrative, and they then sell it to their own followers. These bishops and key Catholic leaders then get affirmation from above by being seen as “good Catholics” for promoting “orthodox Catholic teaching,” and they get followers below, Catholics who are excited about this easy-to-understand pathology.
Examples abound of Catholic bishops and leaders accepting and promoting these theories. Andrew Comiskey, a prominent leader in the ex-gay movement, and his ministry Desert Stream/Living Waters (previously a ministry of ex-gay organization Exodus which shut down after its leaders admitted to falsehoods perpetuated and harms done by the organization), are both currently providing training on "healing" from "same-sex attraction" for Catholic dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of Denver and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. A “suggested reading list” from Father Paul Check (former Courage Director and current Executive Director of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe founded by Cardinal Raymond Burke) includes texts by Comiskey, Fitzgibbons, Nicolosi, and Aardweg. (The list is currently available on the Courage website.) Cardinal Burke himself actively promotes Courage and attributes his views on homosexuality to Father Harvey. In another part of Good News About Sex and Marriage, Christopher West argues that homosexuals can be come heterosexual: “As numerous ‘former homosexuals’ demonstrate, it is possible for a person with predominant same-sex attraction, if he or she is willing and receives the proper counseling, to experience rightly ordered sexual attraction.” Nicolosi is set to be a posthumous contributor in a book published by Ignatius Press that “focuses on how best to minister to individuals experiencing same sex attraction while being sensitive to their needs, and also being faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church on God's plan for sexuality.” (This book was set for a 2019 release and has since disappeared, but is supposedly planned for a delayed release.) Other contributors to the volume include Courage Director Father Philip Bochanski, former Catholic University of America professor Father Paul Sullins, and Catholic political theorist Ryan Anderson. Dr. Janet Smith is editing the volume. It’s likely that many of these mid-level contributors to the pyramid scheme are well-intentioned and naive about the dangers of their collaborations. But that's the case in most pyramid schemes.
At the lowest level of the pyramid are the majority of the laity, and especially lay gay Catholics. For gay Catholics who come to these bishops and leaders, the ex-gay narrative, and related theories, feel like liberation: we too can reject “the gay identity” and be “good Catholics,” even if we “struggle” with same-sex sexual attraction and behavior ourselves. We are on the right path as long as we are seeking to “overcome” our homosexuality. Because the Holy See is believed to bar “homosexuals” from becoming priests, the ex-gay narrative opens up pathways to the priesthood. These are some of the many “benefits” we receive in the pyramid scheme. But we also support those above us in the scheme, by prematurely using our stories to promote their work. As one gay Catholic who was drawn in to conversion therapy in his early twenties told me: “I have so many regrets introducing conversion therapy to others because I so badly needed it to be true.” Others become themselves, usually unwittingly, payment to overtly predatory bishops and leaders in the pyramid scheme, who can use the ex-gay narrative to groom and take advantage of us.
The pyramid scheme is extremely difficult to challenge because, once established, it doesn't exist at one level. It exists at every level of the Church. Influencers establish these theories within Vatican Congregations, which issue Declarations grounded partly in ex-gay narratives. Catholic bishops and rebranded ex-gay ministries train priests and leaders. The most prominent popular speakers and writers likewise spread these narratives in the name of “orthodoxy.” And vulnerable gay Catholics who don't know any better accept these theories and start to order our lives around them. Addressing this problem means addressing it at every level of the Church. Each level is supported by and supports the others. And the more success one finds in identifying with and spreading the message, the more incentivized one becomes in maintaining the truth of it in some way, working our way up the pyramid if possible. Affirmation comes from those above who grant “orthodoxy” and places of prominence, and affirmation comes from below by those who naively accept with enthusiasm what they believe will be the remedy to the cultural struggle over same-sex love and desire.
Those who challenge the scheme are silenced or ignored in a number of ways. Sometimes, they are ostracized for their questions through tactics of spiritual manipulation. At other times, such as in the wake of the ex-gay scandals in the late 2010’s, challenges were “addressed” by removing some more of the offensive rhetoric and referrals, while maintaining the basic structure and positions of the scheme. This occurred, for example, in 2015 when Courage International quietly removed its website referrals to ex-gay organizations and camps (including camps such as Journey into Manhood, which involved group nudity and required intimate physical contact). But the removal of referrals doesn’t change the structure of the pyramid. And it doesn’t help those who have already been harmed. Courage is just like so much of the Church: responding to scandals by trying to not talk about them. (This also occurred in 2018, when Courage Executive Director Fr. Philip Bochanski addressed the sexual abuse by Fr. Donald Timone, and failed to acknowledge that Timone had been for Courage a key influence and regular keynote speaker, and had even served as its interim executive director.) A band-aid cannot fix a diseased heart.
Because of the incentive structure, no one should expect the pyramid scheme to go away any time soon. One central problem is that a large number of our current gay priests, and most of today’s prominent Catholic leaders in the world of Catholic “orthodoxy,” grew up under the auspices of this pyramid scheme. The gay members of the pyramid will be especially resistant to change in the scheme, because a change in the foundations of the pyramid would require a drastic change in their conceptions of themselves. Change would mean that they would have to conceive of themselves as the type of person that they were conditioned their whole lives to avoid. And not only this, but it would involve scrutinizing “the Catholic approach to homosexuality” by leaders from Vatican Congregations to our most prominent chastity speakers to many Catholic dioceses to Ignatius Press to the Catholic Medical Association (which published Aardweg's poorly-researched articles). We’d have to admit that what we claimed was “Catholic teaching” and treated as a test for “orthodoxy” was neither Catholic teaching nor orthodoxy. And not only this, but what was presented as “Catholic teaching” and “orthodoxy” were actually pseudo-Freudian pathological theories that actively harmed LGBTQ+ Catholics. This would shake the Catholic “orthodoxy” industry.
The majority of the people involved in the pyramid scheme are well-intentioned. Many of the gay Catholics in it want to believe what it says about them. It gives them a pathway to not have to accept something that can be very scary and difficult. These people are usually not malicious, but are more often naïve or afraid. And so this critique, while condemnatory, also comes out of a place of sadness and compassion. This is not unlike the clergy abuse crisis, where lay Catholics had been conditioned to encourage silence surrounding problems within the Church in the name of “protecting” the Church and, in this way, participated as contributors to the crisis. Indeed, the dynamics discussed in this essay are an important, and often unacknowledged, part of the crisis.
The pyramid scheme and the theories behind it are also likely to persist, because there is some truth behind them. In these schemes and theories, gay men are asked to explore their childhood and see whether their parental relationships could have been better. When they realize that they have unmet needs from childhood, they feel that this is a vindication of these theories. What they fail to realize is that most men have unmet needs from childhood that they would benefit from processing. What American male has not at some point felt insecurities about his masculinity? These theories are constantly held up by confirmation bias.
If we are to move forward, my first recommendation would be to question the approach to homosexuality that has been presented throughout the Church. Even for Catholics who don't want to reject everything the Church has to say about homosexuality or sexuality generally, a significant deconstruction process will be required. Such Catholics might ask a number of questions. For example, even if the Catechism’s language of “objectively disordered” is meant to operate within a teleological, rather than pathological, framework, to what extent was that language co-opted to treat “homosexual persons” as persons with a pathological problem? The desire to masturbate is an “objectively disordered” desire in Catholic moral theology, but we don’t assume a pathology simply because one has this desire. Likewise, though the Church since Humanae Vita has considered sex with the use of artificial contraceptives to be “objectively disordered,” no one pathologizes opposite-sex couples for its use.
The particular pathologizing of homosexual desire and activity suggests that Catholicism really does have an issue with LGBTQ+ people: we are not sheep to be pastored, but pathologies to be managed or fixed. To step out of the pathologizing context, I would recommend exploring what the Church has had to say about love and desire prior to the twentieth century. For current magisterial texts, I would recommend discerning interpretations informed by an authentically human anthropology and the dialogical complexity of the Christian tradition.
LGBTQ+ Catholics will need to develop our own narratives. We’ll need to chart our own paths for health, happiness, and holiness. We will need to be unyielding in your commitment to pursuing the real truth, in the face of inevitable spiritual manipulation, misunderstandings, and pressures to conform to the expectations established by the scheme above. If we feel uncomfortable about the way in which homosexuality is often discussed in the Church, this is not a sign of heterodoxy. It's a sign of good instincts.
We will need to be aware of the dynamics of the pyramid scheme and the ways in which we can become prey to it. I myself was once one of the rising stars in the Church on the question of homosexuality. As a gay Catholic in my early twenties, I provided a charismatic voice in defense of “Church teaching.” I was invited to present at conferences at Notre Dame, participated in an advisory group for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in preparation of the World Meeting of Families, and spoke at Catholic parishes across the country. At the same time, I was living a double life and failing to live up to the image I was presenting. The incentive structure of this world said that if I lied and continued to present the clean “party line,” then I could continue increasing my influence and rise up as a voice in the Church. But when I finally opened up about that double life, and the invitations to speak stopped, I was able to find a sense of freedom I hadn't possessed before. That freedom was painful, but it was also more true. If you're caught up in the pyramid scheme, it's never too late to step out and to speak the truth.
LGBTQ+ Catholics should also feel freedom to share our stories. Even just coming out as LGBTQ+ can be in an act of defiance against the allegation of pathology. The pathological understanding of LGBTQ+ people was able to last for so long because LGBTQ+ people largely existed in the closet. Because our lives and relationships were hidden from the public, the public’s conception of us was entirely built on stereotype and innuendo. When we became a part of people's lives as LGBTQ+ people, friends and families had to face the fact that, when given space to live and to love, we could have happy, healthy, and loving lives as LGBTQ+. The pressure by many Church leaders to stay closeted arises often because, whether or not they acknowledge it or would say it explicitly, they see homosexuality largely as a pathology. They see it as a dirty thing. They see it as a misshapen thing. They see it as a thing for the darkness, rather than the light. The only way for light to come onto this situation would be for us to shine it.
Some change does seem to be occurring, as is suggested by this year's “Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex.” Much has been made of the responsum's refusal to grant blessings to such unions, but few have examined the monumental challenge that it presents to previous documents from the Holy See. Rather than condemning homosexual desire and same-sex relationships in their entirety, as arising from and totally conditioned by pathology, the responsum works to present them in a positive light. For the first time, the Holy See speaks of “positive elements” in “unions between persons of the same sex.” The CDF writes that these positive elements are “in themselves to be valued and appreciated.” This is a move away from pathology and towards a focus on a positive understanding of LGBTQ+ Catholics and our relationships. It is a challenge to the pyramid scheme, even if a small challenge conditioned by other issues in the responsum. LGBTQ+ Catholics should take this small victory and use it to build a new life of love in the Church.