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ToB Catholics primed me to reject the Church’s approach to homosexuality
They help challenge the Church’s current stance towards homosexuality.
“Augustine says that there’s some sin involved in all sex, even sex inside of marriage,” I said.
Stan looked at me incredulously. He said, “Well, Augustine had such a negative view of sex because of his background, with all of his sexual sins. But we know better. We have the Theology of the Body.”
I’ve thought a lot about that conversation with Stan. He had studied theology and read Augustine, John Paul II, and all the other authors you’d expect for a devoted Catholic. Stan loved the Theology of the Body (ToB). He had put a significant spiritual, emotional, and intellectual investment in the embrace of open loving erotic desire to be emphasized within the married sexual relationship. He couldn’t wait to get married.
I came from a very different place. I was a gay Catholic and trying to make sense of my own desires. Catholics kept telling me (and I kept telling myself) that there was something disordered about them. But when I reflected on straight sexuality while studying Augustine, I thought, “Surely we are all in the same boat, right?”
Stan suggested perhaps not. He argued that John Paul II had moved us beyond Augustine’s negative views of sexuality. Stan said that Augustine’s negative experiences of his own sexuality had damaged his ability to see the beauty of sexuality generally, perhaps with some lingering Manicheanism mixed in. John Paul II gave us the lens to move beyond Augustine’s negative views. The modern age, through John Paul II, can embrace sexuality in ways that we weren’t able to before (so argued Stan).
This line of thought is encouraged by popularizers of the Theology of the Body. Christopher West, in his Good News About Sex & Marriage, writes:
“It’s a myth that the Church teaches sex is only for babies, or that the only justifiable reason to have sex is when you want a baby. Some thinkers within the Church (such as St. Augustine) did mistakenly give this impression.”
West writes in Theology of the Body Explained that John Paul II has inaugurated a new era for the Church:
“Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the Pope’s theology of the body will leave the Church reeling in self-discovery for centuries to come… John Paul II’s insights… inaugurate a new era in the history of Christian thinking and set a new standard for theological inquiry.”
West refers to the Theology of the Body as John Paul II’s “sexual revolution.”
Augustine and the queer Catholic narrative
Stan’s perspective, one held by many ToB millennials, should push us to question other narratives when it comes to sex and sexuality. For example, a common narrative for Catholic homosexual celebrity speakers goes something like this:
“I lived the promiscuous homosexual lifestyle. I identified with it. I was unhappy and didn’t realize it. Then I rejected the lifestyle and identity and accepted that my desires are disordered. Now I am a Catholic who embraces the Church and suffers from same-sex attraction.”
Stan suggests we should be wary of this story. As with Stan’s interpretation of Augustine, we might worry that the celebrity speaker’s negative presentation of “the homosexual lifestyle” and gay sexuality is over-conditioned by the speaker’s own negative experiences. Like Stan’s Augustine, the homosexual celebrity speaker may be partly blinded by his own experiences. Like Stan’s Augustine, he will need a future thinker to liberate his sexuality.
So LGBTQ+ Catholics may be waiting for our own (re-)theologizing of the body. We may be waiting for someone like John Paul II, who will liberate us from our pseudo-Augustinian negative approach to sexuality and desire, and who will establish a compelling framework for us to embrace and celebrate our erotic-sexual selves in relationship. If straight Catholics get to celebrate “a new era in the history of Christian thinking” through the Theology of the Body, why can’t LGBTQ+ Christians get our own new era? Maybe we’re just waiting for someone to inaugurate it? If straight Christians get to paint over the views of those early “negative” theologians when it came to sexuality and desire, then don’t LGBTQ+ Christians get to do this as well?
That is, ToB Catholics, in their use of narrative and experience, don’t combat the move in favor of same-sex relationships and sexuality. Rather, they provide the dispositional and narrative support for this move. They help challenge the Church’s “official” stance towards homosexuality.
Another ToB issue
Another issue that arises in ToB circles is that their popular approaches to homosexuality were inventions of modern psychology that have been shown to actively harm LGBTQ+ persons. Conversion therapists and the theories behind them are foundational to the approach to homosexuality presented by West, Evert, and others. ToB popularizers lose their credibility in addressing homosexuality through their allegiance to farcical sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE).
For example, West relies on a “self-therapy” guide for orientation change by Dutch conversion therapist Gerald Van den Aardweg in Good News About Sex and Marriage. Aardweg believed that homosexuality is a “character neurosis” caused by childhood trauma (usually from parents) which can be healed. Evert relies on Aardweg and ex-gay theorist Elizabeth Moberly in If You Really Loved Me. Moberly believed that homosexuality is a pathology arising from poor parental relationships, resulting in “narcissistic” attractions that can be “healed” through conversion therapy. West’s and Evert’s views of and approaches to homosexuality are grounded in the theories and practices of SOCE advocates. Given this background, it’s easy to see why many of their writings and videos on LGBTQ+ issues come off as condescending and non-pastoral: because LGBTQ+ Catholics are not sheep to be pastored, but pathologies to be managed or fixed.
The way West and Evert have couched SOCE support is disturbing at times. In a 2016 talk on “homosexuality and the Catholic Church” for the Chastity Project, Jason Evert says that orientation change is not a guarantee. And yet the only story he gives of an actual homosexual person (that Evert never identifies as homosexual) is the story of a friend who sounds a bit like the Augustine that Stan rejected earlier. Evert says:
“A good friend of mine, he had lived a promiscuous gay lifestyle. And then he had a beautiful conversion and he decided, ‘Ok, I’m just going to practice abstinence. I’m going to put God first in my life, and I’m going to give this a shot.’… He said, ‘I wasn’t trying to, like, pray the gay away. You know, that is not the approach you advocate. I was just saying, ‘God, show me what you want in my life, and I’m going to obey you. And if I’m not doing the sexual stuff with other men, then I trust you.”
And so he just did this for a while. And just a few months ago, out of the blue, he felt a spark of attraction towards a woman for the first time. And he thought, ‘Wow, that’s really weird. Where’s that from?’ And the spark became a bit of a flame. It became a blaze. And he found himself in love with a woman. And he actually just went on his first date a few months ago. And he emailed me and he said, ‘I never thought that God will fulfill my desire for fatherhood in a natural way. And I thought when I was giving up my sexual activity, I thought I was giving up whatever hope I had of becoming a father.’
And, now, I cannot promise you that if you choose to practice chastity, your attractions are going to change. Who can promise that? That isn’t the ultimate hope. Our hope is ultimately in God. What I can promise you is that holiness is not measured by your ability to change your attractions. Our holiness is only measured by our willingness to conform our hearts and our will to the will of God, and to express His love in and through our bodies…”
Jason Evert’s use of this story should disturb us for a number of reasons. For one thing, we might reject this narrative of orientation change for reasons similar to Stan’s rejection of Augustine’s take on sexual desire. But even beyond this, what Evert does is highly manipulative (even if unintentionally). Stories matter. They are more impactful and more memorable than theories. So it’s extremely significant that, while Evert does not promise orientation change at a theoretical level, the only story of “homosexuality” that he gives is what he thinks is a story of “orientation change.”
Probably without realizing it, Evert coaches his listeners on how to gaslight their LGBTQ+ peers. Consider the line from his friend, “I wasn’t trying to, like, pray the gay away. You know, that is not the approach you advocate.” Then we get the story of devotion and orientation change. Evert (through the voice of the “former homosexual”) coaches his listeners by subtly communicating: “Don’t explicitly say ‘pray the gay away,’ or openly advocate conversion therapy. Just talk about ‘all the former homosexuals’ and the people who have changed.” The point will come across, without having to explicitly admit to it.
Evert’s short-sightedness (and probably his failure to really consult LGBTQ+ people) blinds him to the dangers of this story. I think about how I would have reacted as an 18-year-old hearing the story of a man in “the homosexual lifestyle” who gave his life over to God and then became attracted to a woman. I would have wanted to live this story (again, the only story given). I probably would have viewed failures of orientation change as failures of faith, no matter how Evert couched his story, because I was a vulnerable young person likely to get seduced by these sorts of narratives. Even if Evert has said orientation change is not necessary, he has seduced vulnerable young LGBTQ+ people with the allure of SOCE.
Likewise, West and Evert cite almost exclusively conversion therapists and ex-gay theorists in their writings on homosexuality. One might argue, “West and Evert aren’t really promoting conversion therapy. They just rely on those authors for research.” But this response would demonstrate a total lack of awareness about how young vulnerable LGBTQ+ Catholics work. There has been a dearth of good resources on understanding homosexuality in Catholicism. So when a young LGBTQ+ Catholic comes across a brief section in a book by West on sexuality, he’s going to read every text that West references and seek the miracle cure for his condition. I know this because I did it. Their nearly-exclusive citation of conversion therapists, combined with West’s recommendation of a guide to “self-therapy” for orientation change, is an endorsement of conversion therapy.
I’ve seen these dynamics play out. Most young people seduced by the sort of story shared by Evert end up rejecting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not rejecting the Church altogether. More mature LGBTQ+ people hear Evert’s above story and think, “That’s not a story of orientation change. It’s a story of a guy realizing he’s bisexual.”
Others hear that story and think, “Seriously? Evert heard this story of a guy who just went on his first date a few months ago, and that’s the success story he’s sharing?” Older LGBTQ+ persons know the long-term trajectories of such stories. I’ve seen them end in divorce, affairs, betrayal, heartbreak, and loss of faith. Evert seems to be totally unaware of this in his highly irresponsible use of narrative.
While an undergrad at Notre Dame, I was struggling to make sense of my sexuality. I came across the writings of Father John Harvey and others, and, through them, became aware of SOCE. This seemed like the way out of my homosexual agony. I thought I’d found the miracle cure. As I’ve heard from others who ended up in conversion therapy, this is where it often begins: one reads a conversion therapist’s book recommended by a Catholic writer, which leads to a self-study on the supposed benefits of SOCE, which leads to seeking out conversion therapy. Fortunately, I met with an older gay Catholic around that time and talked about it. That gay Catholic shared with me stories of many men he knew who had undergone orientation change efforts and no longer identified as Catholic. Hearing Evert’s story, and recalling West’s citations, infuriates me. I know what those stories and works have done. I’ve seen what they could have done to me, if I hadn’t had an older mentor to steer me clear of them.
LGB people who have undergone SOCE are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide. I know Catholics who have sought out or been referred to SOCE after hearing stories like the one shared by Evert. None of them successfully changed their orientation, and all of them have had to reckon with the damage the therapy caused. It created resentment towards their parents, who conversion therapists and theorists blamed for their homosexuality. And it induced enduring shame that they still have to process. I’ve heard Catholics who have gone through conversion therapy say things like, “It caused me to hurt myself. And it caused me to hurt others. And we’re all still suffering from that.” Both West and Evert seem totally unaware of all of this, which to me suggests they have no business teaching vulnerable young people about homosexuality. I believe a thoughtful person can read all this and respond, “Fuck that.” (My regular readers will know that I don’t regularly publish vulgarity. But the present discussion merits such language.)
I recently invited LGBTQ+ Catholics to share their own stories of how West and Evert have impacted them. Some had read West’s and Evert’s works, others received advice directly, and others went through Theology of the Body Institute courses and other programs. All shared stories of harm. Here’s what a few had to say:
“when I was in high school I talked to Jason evert personally about my experiences and he told me they were just a phase that many men go through and would likely pass. Kept me waiting for the phase to end for years. Lol. Oops” – Greg
“I grew up listening to Jason Evert on YouTube and reading TOB by Christopher West. They make marriage seem like it is the best possible outcome and the greatest intimacy. I believed them and I still do on that front. The happiest and most intimate and satisfying moments of my life have been in romantic relationships or relationships with blood family. Evert and West sort of convinced me of this by elevating marriage and sex above everything else. They are a HUGE reason that I am no longer trying to follow the church’s teachings on sexual ethics.” – Sarah
“The work of Jason Evert and his wife was held up as the ULTIMATE source on marriage, gender, relationships, etc at my youth group in high school. Cue university, realizing I was Definitely Not Straight and years of anguish and internalized homophobia preying on my already existing mental health issues. Jason Evert led me to believe for years that I would be painfully isolated for my entire life. His ideas about dysfunctional families ‘causing’ people to be gay also led to a lot of paranoia on my part. In general, his rhetoric (along with many other problems in the church’s treatment of LGBTQ folks) made it extremely difficult for me to love and practice my faith. It’s been near a decade and I’m still struggling, still hurt, still afraid to open up to other Catholics for fear of having his nonsense spewed back at me. I’m still catholic, but barely some days, and I practice my faith privately, all my friends are non-catholic because I’ve come to expect nothing but Evert’s brand of ex-gay rhetoric from other Catholics. I no longer see marriage as the be all and end all of human existence, but because of him it’s hard to see faith and church like that as well.” -Mary
While a graduate student, Christopher West spoke with the Washington Post about his experience in a Catholic cult during his teenage years. When reflecting on the psychological manipulation and control in the community, he said, “The best way to describe it is that I feel like I have been raped.” In a way, that’s how West, Evert, and their supporters have made many of us feel.
Is it ToB?
These problems may be specific to popularized versions of the Theology of the Body and, to my knowledge, are not an intrinsic part of John Paul II’s work. But just because they are not problems inherent in the former pope’s writings does not mean that they aren’t problems for the Church generally, and especially for the American Church. What is presented as the Theology of the Body in most Catholic settings today is a version established by West and Evert. West has sold millions of copies of books, DVDs, and lecture recordings, and he has trained thousands of priests and dozens of bishops. His extremely problematic book Good News about Sex & Marriage has been required by dozens of US dioceses as part of the marriage preparation program Joy-Filled Marriage. The approach of West and Evert is the dominant approach in the American Church. So it may be fair to say that the version of Theology of the Body created and promoted by the two is the version that is promoted by the American Church generally. That is, these are not problems for Christopher West and Jason Evert. They are problems for the Church.
It is worth repeating, however, that West’s and Evert’s approach to homosexuality does not come out of the John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Rather, it comes from the debunked theories of conversion therapists. West, Evert, and others do the Church a tremendous disservice by inserting these theories into books about the Theology of the Body, letting Catholics erroneously believe that they are part of the tradition of the Church and the patrimony of John Paul II. They also encourage confusions about the word “disorder” in the Catholic tradition, pushing Catholics to read the term through the lens of modern pathology, rather than through the lens of philosophical teleology. I suspect that the approach to homosexuality peddled by many Catholics is an unstable house of cards overdue for implosion, and I’m just trying to get out ahead of it. I don’t have the answer. But I know it’s not that.
Most likely, West and Evert won’t read this piece. Even if they did read it, I doubt it would change their minds or push them to reevaluate their approaches to homosexuality. In general, I have been unimpressed with West’s intellectual rigor and engagement with critics, including David Schindler, Alice von Hildebrand, Dawn Eden Goldstein, and others. I do believe that West’s critics are missing an important piece to the puzzle. One could argue that the concerns they have about West’s work generally are actually rooted in West’s early exposure and ongoing commitment to the theories behind and practices of SOCE. These include:
Promoting exposure to nudity as a way of healing attractions;
An insistence on the ability to overcome sinful desires through prayer and proper self-identification;
A preoccupation with “masculine/feminine identity”;
A commitment to developing a desire for unbridled “holy sex”;
A tendency to view concupiscence through the frameworks of pathology (which can be healed through therapy and identification); and
A tendency to read every interaction through the lens of sex.
One can start to see the divergence when one notices that, while John Paul II speaks of “human identity” or “personal identity,” he never mentions terms like “male/female identity” or “masculine/feminine identity.” For John Paul, the need for “identification” arises first and foremost out of our humanity, not out of our sex/gender, and it is the body (and not sexed desire or esoteric self-identification) which provides the foundation for masculinity/femininity. The ex-gay movement may be a central piece behind West’s problematic presentations of the Theology of the Body.
Evert presents himself as more popular speaker than intellectual, so I will not comment on the quality of his engagement with the Christian tradition on homoerotic desire here, other than to say that his reliance on debunked harmful theories on homosexuality is irresponsible for any Catholic today. It’s also worth noting that nearly one-quarter of the research on homosexuality promoted by his Chastity Project is by conversion therapists or sexual predators. My advice to both West and Evert would be to stop talking about homosexuality generally. I’m sure they mean well, but one does not need malice to cause harm, even grave harm. As an abuse survivor once told me, “You can wound with just incompetence.” But whether or not West or Evert would take what I have to say seriously, I don’t care. This piece isn’t for them. This piece is for my fellow LGBTQ+ Catholics.
The way forward
I’m not in a place where I’m personally ready to just wholesale reject what the Church has to teach about homosexuality. Ultimately, I’d argue for a more dynamic integration of Augustine and John Paul II and a general rejection of the theories peddled by West and Evert. But I won’t chastise any LGBTQ+ Catholics who have rejected the Church’s official teaching on homosexuality. So much of what has been presented to us is hypocritical nonsense that results in actual harm. Straight Catholicism is in a place where it can enjoy this so-called “new era” of love and sexual erotic expression. But queer Catholics are not allowed to participate in the benefits of this new era. While our straight peers are told that they can move beyond Augustine, we are still stuck in a negative space that’s imposed upon us. I won’t chastise any LGBTQ+ Catholic for breaking out of that space.
Ultimately, what I want for LGBTQ+ Catholics is what I also want for myself: freedom. I want freedom from false narratives, from closets, from hiding, from fear. I want the freedom to reject Satan and all his empty promises, including the empty promises that he circulates in the Church. This piece is for all you LGBTQ+ Catholics. You don’t need my permission to call these ToB narratives “bullshit.” But if you’re looking for someone to give permission: you have permission.
You can check out an overview of my research on Christopher West, Jason Evert, and conversion therapy, including sources for many of the claims in this piece, here.
I’d also like to thank Dawn Eden Goldstein for sharing some of her research with me, which you can find here.