Courage and Freud: Why is Catholicism committed to a Freudian ministry for homosexuals?

In my previous three posts I laid out the ways in which the Catholic ministry Courage International seems founded on and committed to Freudian anthropologies, and possible dangers this presents. You may be wondering, if this is true, why Church leadership remains so committed to Courage as an institution. I can’t really know the answer to this question, but I’d like to put forward a few possibilities.

Four possibilities

First, the issue of Catholicism and homosexuality is extremely complicated, and most dioceses struggle to know what to do. But one way they could “respond” is by simply opening a Courage chapter. Doing so allows them to “check the box,” to say, “Look! We are doing something! We have this!” Then they can just let it go. (Even as recently as last month, I spoke with a Courage member who complained about his diocese doing this very thing.) Having Courage chapters enables priests, pastors, and bishops to be hands-off in this area of ministry while also claiming that they are doing something.

You could, of course, begin new ministries. But this would involve additional work for priests and bishops who are already overworked and understaffed. One solution would involve allowing the laity to lead, but this would involve giving up a significant amount of control, in terms of style and messaging. And many clergy simply don’t want to lose that.

Courage is comfortable for clergy because it dwells within a clerical culture. The national leadership are clergy. The leaders of the chapters are almost always clergy, as are the majority of the speakers at their national conference. Occasionally, lay persons write on Courage blogs or do speaking engagements, but they are always clearly within the “party line.” For example, to my knowledge no Courage speaker or writer has ever criticized the philosophy of Father Harvey, the commitment to “same-sex-attraction” as opposed to “gay,” or the Twelve Step model. Speakers and writers always require the permission of a clergyman. And, prior to the rise of speakers like Wesley Hill and Ron Belgau, such writers were not permitted to write under their actual names and required to use pseudonyms. Leadership in Courage involves a very specific adherence to certain clerical prerogatives, tone, and language. Many priests and bishops are simply more comfortable with that, and some even believe that this is the only way to work in this area of ministry.

Second, it is possible that many (self-proclaimed “orthodox”) bishops and Church leaders themselves remain beholden to the previously-discussed false anthropologies, sometimes as a way of making sense of themselves. They affirm the approach of Courage because it promotes their own worldviews and dispositions [1]. It may be that many bishops are currently “not gay” and “heterosexual” in a way similar to Monsignor Anatrella (even if they are not abusers like him). A commitment to Freudian ideologies is one way to protect their visions of themselves.

In my opinion, the vast majority of Catholics, liberal and conservative alike, are unconscious Freudians to some degree. Freud is stamped into the psychology and sexuality of the modern man, which may be why so many “orthodox” Catholics make strong assertions about sexuality that can’t be found in any official teachings (or anywhere at all prior to the last few decades). This may also explain the scapegoating techniques by many in Catholic leadership concerning the clergy abuse crisis. If you understand homosexuality as a Freudian pathology, it’s easy to attribute this crisis to that, rather than also looking at issues of leadership, accountability, and skewed views that we all share. I’ve argued before that those who blame the abuse crisis on the celibacy requirement and those who blame homosexuality actually share the same underlying (Freudian) principles. And it protects clergy and “good Catholics” as they respond to the present crises. Rather than treating this issue as their own issue, some Catholic clergy and bishops choose to blame the “lesser men” in their ranks. To be frank, I find that response self-righteous, evasive, and disgusting.

Certainly, the Courage founder Fr. Harvey was influential in the lives of many priests and bishops currently leading the American Church. He was most influential in two areas: establishing Courage as an “SSA” ministry, and advising bishops on how to handle priests accused of abuse in the 1990’s. No one has pursued yet at length the possible connections between the structures of Courage and the architecture of the clergy abuse crisis. This might be worth exploring, as the leadership handling these two issues are one and the same.

Third, even if some aspects of the underlying principles of Courage are theologically and pastorally problematic, many look to good work done in Courage chapters across the United States. That don’t want to lose that good work. They don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water (or, rather, the water with the Freudian psychoanalyst) [2]. Certainly, many have benefitted from having an opportunity to speak for the first time about their experiences of attraction (even if Courage conditions them to only speak about these experiences in very specific ways). People don’t want to lose that. But ultimately, this approach seems to focus on the results, rather than the integrity, of ministry. It plays a utilitarian game that is willing to excuse a certain amount of disorder as long as we can see a sufficient amount of “benefit.” Again, this is problematic from a Catholic perspective.

In addition, some worry that dismantling the entire organization and being forthcoming about its shortcomings could lead to instability and further damage the credibility of much of the Church. Many Catholics have aligned themselves with Courage to such an extent that they probably see their credibility tied together. They don’t want that credibility damaged or questioned. Or they just don’t want to see further hurt and confusion in the Church. I certainly understand that, though I don’t agree with it in this situation.

Fourth, many who critique Courage are former members and/or former Catholics who are dismissed as having “an agenda.”

The agenda, Richard Sipe, and language

For these last two reasons, the clergy abuse crisis is highly instructive. One should recall that prior to the Boston Globe‘s coverage, the psychologist Richard Sipe was ignored, renounced, and/or vilified by Catholic bishops and other leaders for his claims about the prevalence of abuser-priests. They dismissed Sipe by accusing him of being an ex-priest with an agenda. He continued to be ignored, even as he wrote letters to bishops about Cardinal McCarrick’s abuses. History showed that if Catholics would have considered his research, rather than pursuing ad hominem attacks, the Church would have been significantly better situated to protect its children (and perhaps he would have felt differently about the Church).

One of the most fascinating things about Courage is its constant focus on language, party lines, and identity. One might look, for example, at one Courage chaplain’s recent critiques of a Wisconsin retreat for “gay Catholic priests.” Not once does he state that the retreat’s sponsor, New Ways Ministry, publicly supports same sex marriage. The actual contradiction with Church teaching goes unmentioned. Instead, the chaplain spends more than half of his critique arguing that the use of the word “gay” presents a rejection of Scripture and Church teaching, while doing so attributing a host of views to gay persons that many gay persons don’t hold.

Often, Christians also reject the term “gay” in favor of “homosexual” or “heterosexual,” claiming that “gay” is a term with certain political and moral connotations and backgrounds that must be rejected. But even “heterosexual” has such baggage. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church privileges the the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” it is important to note that the “heterosexual” first arose in the medical community as a term used to define men and women engaging in nonprocreative intercourse. So such Christians present views that, historically speaking, don’t hold up.

At the very least, that chaplain and others are (as Johanna Finegan has put it) refusing to speak English. They are attempting to clarify party lines, rather than engaging with what others actually believe and how they understand themselves. The John Jay study lists similar tactics by abusers to justify their own lifestyles and to groom others to accept them. While not making specific accusations of abuse against any individuals, I believe we should consider how this manipulation could happen at a macro level. Surely the continued crisis of sexuality, ministry, and institutional structure touch more than just the specific scandals running through the media. Perhaps a broader exploration is needed into pastoral structures, and also today’s interpretations of Catholic teaching on sexuality. (I would distinguish these interpretations from the actual magisterial texts, and also from the broader tradition.)

I believe the constant attack on the word “gay” operates as a distraction from more fundamental issues of sexuality and Church teaching, in a similar way that scapegoating gay persons in the clergy abuse crisis distracts us from issues of authority and transparency. This fight over language is a form of obfuscation, where advocates such as this chaplain attribute certain views to Catholic teaching that don’t actually exist anywhere in official Church teaching. This has been a common practice among Courage leaders and advocates, who typically go so far as to reject the frameworks of sexuality used in the Catechism, while claiming adherence to Church teaching. This isn’t particularly surprising, as I believe their views of sexuality are more committed to neo-Freudian worldviews than they are to the more robust and mysterious approach to sexuality presented in the Catholic tradition.

I don’t think that these anthropological commitments will change for the Courage apologists. But I think they partly explain the organization’s increasing lack of relevance in the lives of serious Catholics. Time will tell, and perhaps is already telling. In the meantime, those of us who see something should say something.  

In Wednesday’s post, I will ask: Given my (rather bleak) analysis of the situation, what can be done?


More in this series on Courage and Freud:


Footnotes:

[1] Take, for example, this homily by a well-respected priest in my diocese, who describes sexuality for both homosexuals and heterosexuals primarily in terms of desires to fornicate and lust. He utilized the previously discussed Freudian and “alcoholic” account of homosexuality (and, implicitly, he placed heterosexuality within this account as well). I have no doubt that he simply wants to present the Church’s teaching on sexuality and that this was the account presented to him in seminary and afterwards. Unfortunately, I find it to be deeply flawed. As a gay man, surely God calls me to view other men as more than bottles of alcohol and my sexuality as more than a sort of alcoholism. And I’m sure that he calls this priest to view the women in his life and his sexuality as more than this as well. At the very least, such a view represents the reductionistic Freudian tendencies John Paul II rejects in his Theology of the Body.

[2] None of this is to say that anyone associated with Courage is bad or that no good comes of it. Certainly there are many good eggs. And I should say that I think one of the strengths of Courage is that it doesn’t appear to be an overly centralized institution. Though I take significant issue with the philosophical groundings of the organization, the individual chapters can vary, which means they may be more or less attached to such groundings. But such groundings cannot totally be escaped, as they shape and form the priorities and general structure of the chapter meetings.

I should also say that many of the individuals involved in Courage are good people who want to help and serve the Church. Sometimes chaplains and other leaders have put themselves at odds with other Catholics by insisting that a ministry for those with same-sex attractions exist at all. I thank them for this. I do not at all want to deny their good intentions, or their authentic desire to serve the Church and their SSA brothers and sisters. I do hope that I can find ways to support and encourage these persons. But I do not feel I can in good conscience support this within the framework of Courage. Fortunately, the Church is larger than one ministry.

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