Courage and Freud: Are homosexuals just lesser men?

During my discussion group on Cardinal McCarrick, one question that arose was the fitness of gay persons for the priesthood. One argument goes as follows: God calls men to become priests who choose the Church as their bride; because they will be taking the Church as bride, they need to be fully mature men; and because “homosexuals” lack the requisite attractions for a full masculinity, they are not sufficient men, and they thus should not be ordained to the priesthood.

Most participants found the above argument strange, and even appalling. Nothing theologically or canonically prevents a gay man from becoming a priest. They couldn’t make sense of where such a view of homosexuality could begin. But it made sense to me.

Some (drastically oversimplified) history

A glance at the development of our understanding of homosexuality over the last 100 years may be instructive here. As the prevalence of men sexually attracted to other men became more recognized over the last several decades, many sought to understand these desires. Following the anthropology of homosexuality established by Freud in the early twentieth century, by the 1970’s much of the American psychology community considered homosexuality a pathology resulting from a distant relationship with a same-sex parent. Such distance led to a disassociation with one’s own sex and a need to respond to this dissociation by sexually pursuing those of the same sex.

The links from Freudian psychology to Catholic pastoral practices are cleanly laid out. The founder of Courage International, Father John Harvey, bases the majority of his anthropology concerning homosexuality on the Freudian psychologist Elizabeth Moberly. According to Moberly, a homosexual was more or less an incomplete heterosexual (or, rather, a person with unfulfilled needs which manifested themselves in homosexuality). Moberly and those who followed her posited that once these needs were met one could move beyond homosexuality (which according to them was never a real state—and thus not a real identity). Then you could, as some put it, “achieve your heterosexual potential.”

Responding to anthropological claims

The problem with this theory is at least threefold. First, though Moberly was not a professional psychologist herself, Christian psychologists in particular were eager to adopt her neo-Freudian anthropology and began practicing “conversion therapy,” which claimed to make one a heterosexual by addressing issues of parentage and attachment. Over the last couple of decades, such therapy has been proven to be unsuccessful [1]. And almost every large organization promoting such therapy has disbanded, sometimes with court testimony revealing bizarre practices and even former leaders admitting false claims.

Second, the goal of such a change typically was not actually chastity. Rather, the goal was typically to achieve heterosexuality, meaning that it would lead me to want to fornicate with my opposite-sex counterparts. Rather than working within a Thomistic framework, which would regard a desire for sex with anyone who is not your spouse as “objectively disordered,” it aims for the creation of lustful desire. It posits that a significant part of what is lacking in homosexuals is a properly “ordered” desire to fornicate with members of the opposite sex [2].

Third, these Freudian views lend themselves to an “itch” understanding of sexuality. Many Catholics follow Freud in treating sexuality as an itch and chastity as finding the right place to scratch it. This is why they implicitly conclude “homosexuals” can’t be chaste; because there’s no “properly ordered” place to scratch. The argument goes on to say that if the itch isn’t scratched, one will abuse. (This partly explains the claims that clerical abuse are about the celibacy requirement or “homosexual” priests; the two groups holding these views actually agree in their underlying principles.) Such views run in sharp opposition to the understanding of sexuality presented in both the Catechism and in the writings of John Paul II. Freudian accounts reduce persons to “occasions of itches,” rather than as integral beings who we are called to grow to love and serve, and they reduce sexuality to an urge in search of dominance rather than an aspiration in search of charity (hence also the claims that the clerical sexual abuses have been primarily about sexuality and not about abuse, authority, and accountability).

At the very least, conversion therapy has had its day and been found lacking. But it still persists in some circles and is practiced by a number of individuals, including Richard Cohen, who was featured in The Third Way: Homosexuality and the Catholic Church (produced by Blackstone Films). This film also featured at least one prominent speaker from Courage International.

The philosophical roots of Courage

Courage itself finds its philosophical foundations in Freud. Many of the books and “research” promoted by Courage attribute homosexuality to and identify it with narcissism, poor parenting, and underdeveloped masculinity. Certainly such Freudian causalities were the foundations for the anthropological views of Courage’s founder.

And Freud lives on today. I have Catholic friends who have been referred by those associated with Courage to the “Journey Into Manhood” retreats, which are meant to help “cure” homosexuality and have included practices so strange that I won’t list them here. (One friend referred by Courage said that this article lays out his experience at a Journey into Manhood retreat.) Courage advertised these retreats on its website until 2015, at which time the organization removed the links without comment, certainly after many Catholics had relied on Courage’s recommendation in attending them. Rather than addressing this significant change, perhaps the organization hoped it would go unnoticed.

The odd thing about the Christian persistence in these views is that, while the broader psychology community has rejected many of these neo-Freudian views of homosexuality it had invented, many Christians remain firmly committed to them [4]. Certainly John Paul II wrote forcefully against the distortions of Freud’s anthropology. But even so, the pastoral approaches to homosexuality presented by many prominent “orthodox” Catholics were and are distinctly Freudian.

Faith and Reason

Again, it is extremely important to note that these theories of homosexuality did not originate from Christian theological or philosophical sources. Rather, they emerged first from Freudian psychoanalytical approaches and were later adopted for use by Christian thinkers. So they weren’t anthropologies derived from biblical or theological sources and then confirmed by Freudian accounts and psychological studies. Rather, they originated with Freud, were attached (often awkwardly) to various biblical and theological accounts and wrapped in pious language, and then were discredited by psychological studies. Now these neo-Freudian theories go around masquerading as “historic Christian teaching,” and are adopted by many good Catholics who simply want to be faithful and don’t know any better but to accept the ideologies being peddled to them by those they trust (which they then peddle in a sort of psychological pyramid scheme).

I apologize if I am being overly forceful or antagonistic. Much is at stake here, including the lives of those who are forming themselves around pseudo-Christian ideologies. These ideologies are then used to shame, isolate, and un-vocation those who experience attractions to those of the same sex. This is a scandalous state of affairs in contradiction to how faith and reason are posited to relate in Catholic texts such as Fides et Ratio. I care deeply about the Church and feel that I must do what I can to promote the proper flourishing of Her members.

The prevalence of neo-Freudian psychology and associated “cures” within Catholicism no longer surprises me. During my time as a law student, I was able to meet with one of the national leaders of Courage. At the time, I was writing on Catholicism and being gay and was eager to help the Church navigate the question of doctrine and homosexuality from a standpoint of orthodoxy. (I still am.) During my meeting, I asked whether there was any way that I could assist with or get involved in Courage. I was pursuing a law degree and a Masters in Catholic Studies, so I (perhaps pridefully, and also naively) expected the priest to enthusiastically set forward ideas for my involvement. But instead, he mentioned how some of the publications with which I was associated were strongly against orientation change, to which Courage remained open [3]. He let the conversation end there, and we never interacted again.

That conversation helped me to clarify the sort of exclusivity involved in this area of pastoral ministry. I once considered these various approaches as a valuable diversity respecting the different experiences and needs of gay/homosexual/same-sex attracted persons in the Church. I now realize that this is something more. It’s a battle of anthropologies, in which there are more than two sides, various “enemies” in their articulated viewpoints are allies in their underlying principles, the “heroes” are those with authority and prestige, and the potential victims are people like me.

In Wednesday’s post, I will discuss why it’s nearly impossible to refute the neo-Freudian accounts of homosexuality.


More in this series on Courage and Freud:


Footnotes:

[1] Though studies have shown that therapy can occasionally result in a minor shift in attractions along a spectrum, claims that one could be changed from “gay” to “straight” have been largely disproven and never proven. Also see this book by Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones.

[2] In contrast to the narcissistic theory or “lesser man” theory of homosexuality, I believe that my lack of sexual attraction to the women in my life has been a great gift. Because I’m not distracted by or afraid of a possible desire to fornicate with them, I feel able to love them more fully and freely than many of my straight peers. And while those peers may be able to do so as they grow in the freedom of chastity, I’m thankful that my love and care for women is, in many ways, “ahead” of theirs. (For similar reasons, I have often had a special appreciation for my straight male friends.) 

See also this piece on why “orthodox” Catholics tend to treat homosexuality as a pathology, following Freud, rather than as an issue of teleology, following the Catechism.

[3] I should clarify that these publications were not so much opposed to orientation change at the time as they were opposed to the false anthropologies from which they derived, and the fact that the therapists promoting change therapies have been found time and again to falsely advertise change their “successes.” Certainly, if orientation efforts had actually been shown to lead to a healthy and integrated heterosexual orientation, I would have considered an openness to them. But they didn’t. So I’m not.

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