In January, the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut announced it was becoming the latest diocese to launch a chapter of Courage, the Catholic apostolate that helps men and women struggling with same-sex attraction live in accordance with the teachings of the Church. Deacon Robert Pallotti, director of the office of the diaconate for the archdiocese, helped develop the program for Hartford. He explained that Courage helps people “who need our care and love. In some cases, they have been rejected by society. They need to be accepted, affirmed, and supported as Roman Catholics trying to remain faithful to Church teaching.”
Courage was founded by Cardinal Terence Cooke, former archbishop of New York, and led for many years by Father John F. Harvey, OSFS. In 2010, Father Harvey died at age 92; the apostolate is currently led by Father Paul Check. There are more than 100 Courage chapters and contacts nationwide; there is also an outreach for spouses, relatives, and friends of persons with same-sex attraction called EnCourage.
Courage makes a distinction between homosexual attractions or feelings and the behavior of acting on those feelings. The feelings themselves are not sinful, the organization notes, but homosexual acts are. Deacon Pallotti continued, “Courage will not reduce a person’s identity to their sexual desire; [those with same-sex attraction] are people with full human dignity not defined solely by their sexual desire.”
Some of the deacons of the archdiocese initially objected to the program because they mistakenly believed Courage condoned homosexual behavior, but were reassured it did not. Pallotti noted, “Through support and spiritual intervention, we can help people with same-sex attraction lead moral and fulfilling lives. These people are hurting and so are their families. Doing nothing would be a lack of compassion.”
Courage’s entry into Hartford was not celebrated by all. Phil Attey, executive director of the gay rights group Catholics for Equality, complained in the Connecticut Post that “…at [Courage’s] core it’s still rooted in dangerous, harmful, and barbaric thinking. The idea that you can suppress someone’s sexuality and still have that person develop into a happy, well-adjusted person, well, there’s very little evidence that that’s possible.”
But many Courage members in established chapters object to characterizations made by critics, and counter that Courage has been an effective tool in helping them become happy, well-adjusted people. Three such members recently spoke with CWR.
Forty-one-year-old Dan, a Michigan resident who works in the entertainment industry, has been a Courage member for three years. He decided to join the group after attending a Courage conference.
Dan grew up in Michigan, and was part of a devout Catholic family. He was the youngest of four sons. The family left the Catholic Church, however, and joined an evangelical Christian community. “We thought we were doing the right thing,” Dan explained. “We still studied the Scriptures, and didn’t compromise on morality, including the belief that sex is for a married man and woman.”
Dan recalls his first same-sex attractions as early as age six. He was awkward around girls, and thought himself different from other boys. He also had “body issues,” and believed he was unattractive.
He describes his father as emotionally distant. His father’s father had committed suicide when his father was only three, which left him emotionally scarred. His dad loved him, Dan believes, but was not nurturing.
The primary male activity in the household was working on cars. His three brothers took to it, but he did not. Dan recalled, “I’d rather be cooking in the kitchen with mom.”
Rounding out the psychological profile, Dan said he has a “sensitive spirit” and a creative bent, and had an overprotective mother, who “lived her life through me.”
In high school and college, Dan’s efforts to date women were unsuccessful. He became addicted to pornography, and found himself more interested in the men than the women. The Internet emerged in the late 90s, and he found himself a regular viewer of gay porn. He joined online chat groups, and found himself corresponding with other men with same-sex attractions.
He finally told his parents he was struggling with same-sex attractions, assuring them, “I want to do the right thing.”
Dan joined an evangelical group which helped men with sexual problems, but found himself lonely and unhappy. He even recalls going to a strip club to look at naked women in hopes that he would feel arousal. He didn’t. In fact, he recalls sitting with a naked woman talking about gardening.
Dan believed the gay lifestyle was wrong, but reasoned, “I may risk hell, but I’m living hell now.”
He found a boyfriend and lived with him for a year. Dan enjoyed the friendship, loved the man, but found the sexual relationship “unfulfilling.” In fact, he came to believe, “We were not loving each other when we were having sex.”
He was angry at God at this time. In fact, whenever he drove past the Catholic cathedral in town, Dan says he would “flip it the bird.”
But something unexpected happened. He met a woman at work he found attractive. He said, “It stirred up the old thoughts and desires I’d once had for women.” It also reminded Dan of his deeply felt desire to marry and have children of his own.
He told his boyfriend, and to his pleasant surprise, the man “did a Christ-like act of love.”
“He told me, ‘If you can have that life you want, I’ll let you go,’” Dan recalled.
When Dan shares his experiences with others, he stresses that just because a person is living the gay lifestyle, he is not “totally depraved” and is capable of goodness.
Dan enjoyed a relationship with the woman at work for more than a year. They ultimately separated; she didn’t want to have children and Dan did.
Dan’s family, meanwhile, had returned to the Catholic Church. Additionally, one of his brothers became a priest. Dan began a period of intense reading of Christian authors, and eventually also returned to the Catholic Church. He has come to believe that his same-sex attraction is a cross that can help him become closer to Christ. He said, “God has allowed me to suffer with same-sex attraction so that I can ultimately become whole and long for heaven.”
Some friends were involved with EnCourage, which led to Dan’s introduction to Courage three years ago. He has since shared his testimony at the 2010 and 2011 Courage conferences, and has received invitations from bishops to speak to priests in their dioceses about the issue of same-sex attraction.
Dan is grateful for the support Courage offers him. When he’s struggling with a temptation (“I’m not over the hurtle—chastity is still a daily battle”), he sends a text message to other men in the group requesting their prayers. He receives immediate encouragement from fellow members, who text him back, “You can do it” or “Call me any time.”
“We’re in this battle together—we’re like a band of brothers,” Dan observed. “I’ll help you one day, you help me the next.”
Those who have never had an experience of same-sex attraction often are unable to relate to the struggle in the same ways fellow members of Courage are, Dan said. He also gets annoyed by those who proclaim that people with same-sex attractions must identify themselves as homosexual and live the gay lifestyle.
“The truth and dignity of man calls us to something far greater,” he said. “Who I am is not my sexual attraction.”
He also rejects the notion that if he is a good cook, a talented photographer, or a gifted musician, it is because he has same-sex attraction.
Dan believes he’s in a much better place than he was a decade ago, when he believed God had abandoned him. He’s open to marriage, “if it’s God’s will.”
He’s dialogued with gay activists, who he says have labeled him “a gay Uncle Tom.” Dan has two responses to his critics in the gay rights movement: “I don’t care what they think about me,” and “I am not limited or identified by who I’m sexually attracted to.” Many gay activists—he specifically mentioned the writer Dan Savage—encourage promiscuity, including for couples in committed relationships. Dan opined, “That’s not a path to happiness.”
Dan has committed himself to chastity, although he says it remains a daily struggle. “I remain chaste by the grace of God, and the support of my family and friends,” he says. In order to remove the temptation to look at online pornography, Dan removed his home Internet connection last year. To combat loneliness, Dan socializes frequently with friends who understand his struggles.
He’s working on a memoir about his experiences, and hopes to go public to a wider audience in the future.
Andrew, 31, has been a Courage member since 2009. He is a teacher and lives in western Canada. Born and raised Catholic, he left the Church in his teens and immersed himself in New Age philosophies.
Andrew recalls experiencing same-sex attraction as a boy, and was particularly troubled by an experience he had as a teenager. He went to a massage therapist, and, while receiving a massage, was inappropriately touched by the male masseuse. Young and scared, Andrew was upset that it aroused him, and thought to himself, “Oh my gosh, I’m gay.”
In an effort to prove to himself that he was not, Andrew became promiscuous with women. He has come to regret this, explaining, “My behavior was selfish. It was exploitive of others.”
The experience also drew him into viewing pornography, which soon became an addiction. His focus shifted from women to men and transsexuals. “I had made sex the center of my life,” he says.
Andrew reflects today that his life was a “continuous cycle of seek-and-not-find”—“I never found the love I knew I desired,” he explains.
When he was in college, gay rights groups pressed students such as Andrew to “come out,” identify themselves as homosexual, and openly live the lifestyle. At the time, Andrew accepted various positions that gay activists were taking, such as that people are born homosexual and that 10 percent of the population is homosexual. Andrew had previously held back from coming out, for fear of hurting his family. But by 2007, he thought it was his only road to happiness.
However, the week he decided to come out, Andrew went to Mass and heard a homily by a “very wise, humble” priest who challenged many of the statements put forth by gay activists. Andrew decided not to come out, and began to read voraciously. He discussed his situation with his bishop, who suggested Andrew get involved with Courage. It was not like other Christian ministries that try to “pray the gay away,” he said, but focused on helping the individual develop “a life-identity centered on Christ, the side effect of which is that one gradually disengages from a life-identity that is sexually-centered.”
It has been a long process, but Andrew has come back to the Church and regularly receives the sacraments. He still struggles with same-sex attraction, but noted, “I don’t want to be gay. I don’t want to self-identify as a homosexual person. I’m not a homosexual. Yes, I experience homosexual attraction, but I am first a human being; a human being who has been permitted the experience of same-sex attraction.”
Today, Andrew has found peace like “none I have ever had before,” which he compares to the “hopelessness” he felt as he prepared to come out. He’s never told his family about his same-sex attraction, as he knows it will be difficult for them to understand and accept. Instead, he enjoys the fellowship of other men in Courage who can relate to his experience. Like Dan, he has authored a personal testimony, but has only shared it privately with clergy who support the Courage mission. He hopes one day to go public with his message, so that “people will come to understand their brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction who are truly in need of their love.”
Pete, 62, is something of a rarity among Courage members in that he’s been married for 39 years, has an adult daughter, and, although he’s struggled with same-sex attraction, he’s never acted upon it.
Pete lives in Philadelphia and works as an accountant. As a boy, he was taunted by his classmates for his perceived effeminate characteristics; they called him “Mary” and many worse epithets. He had a passive father and overprotective mother, and suffered from a “weak masculine identity.”
When he first experienced same-sex attraction as a youth, he said, “I didn’t want those feelings. I didn’t want to be gay. Nobody does.”
At age 18, in the late 1960s, more than a decade before the establishment of Courage, Pete went into counseling. Advice he received ranged from encouraging him to join a gay rights group, to “go get hooked up with a girl.” Even Pete’s father, trying to help in his misguided way, suggested Pete hire a female prostitute.
Pete disregarded both suggestions because he was a practicing Catholic, and wanted a loving, heterosexual, married relationship like his parents had. He never acted on his same-sex attraction, and ended up marrying a woman when he was in his 20s. Pete is glad he never explored homosexual relations, remarking, “If I’d acted it out, I would have become a homosexual.”
But, at age 50, Pete’s same-sex attraction “came back with a vengeance.” He was so troubled by the temptations that he had what he called a “nervous breakdown,” manifested in panic attacks and obsessive thinking. He quit his job and his marriage suffered. He returned to counseling, this time with Richard Fitzgibbons, a Philadelphia psychiatrist supportive of Courage. He even had a few opportunities to share his struggles with Father Harvey, Courage’s founding leader.
Pete recalled, “Father Harvey was a kindly, saintly man, who had great compassion for people with same-sex attraction. He understood sexual brokenness, but was blunt about Church teaching.”
Pete joined Courage six years ago—one of the first married men to do so. “The goals of Courage should be the goals of any man: chaste living, regularly performing spiritual exercises, enjoying fellowship and mutual support, and offering one another good example,” he says.
Courage has been a great support for Pete, because his fellow members “walk with you, and they understand your struggle.”
Pete also offered a reflection for critics of Courage: “We’re not here to argue with or harm anyone. For people dealing with the pain of same-sex attraction, we have a remedy based on Scripture, the sacraments, and fellowship. Courage’s intent is not to get you out of the condition, but to help you develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. He has a plan for you.”