Courage and the work of Fr. John Harvey arrive in Italy

The real “homophobia” is to “banalize the suffering” of those with same-sex attraction, says the founding member of Courage Italia.

Courage, a Catholic apostolate for men and women experiencing same-sex attractions (SSA), was founded by Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York in 1980. Inspired by the work of American Father John F. Harvey, Courage has spread to five continents, including 15 countries. It arrived in Italy in 2012, and the first Italian translation of Father Harvey’s work was released on October 1, 2016 by Edizioni Studio Dominicano, Bologna. Dr. Alberto Corteggiani, 43, translated the book into Italian, and recently spoke with Dorothy Cummings McLean for CWR about the work of the Courage Italia, on location in Umbria.

CWR: Are you the director of Courage Italia?

Dr. Alberto Corteggiani: No, I would not say I am the director. I am the contact person for Courage in Italy. I have an instrumental and serving role. I am a layman, and I obey the local bishops. Courage has an international executive director, Father Philip Bochanski. He was nominated by Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan, who is head of the episcopal board of the Courage apostolate. There are two boards. The head of the board of directors is Father Paul Scalia, the son of the late American Supreme Court justice.

CWR: How did you become involved in Courage?

Corteggiani: I became involved seven years ago because I asked for support. I was living in Rome at the time, and I knew about Courage from a book about same-sex attractions and pastoral care. You know, Courage has been called the second-best kept secret in the Catholic Church, after the Holy Grail. At that time, Courage was known only to a few scholars of moral theology. I sent an email to Courage’s central office, which was then in New York, and they put me in touch with an American priest who was in Rome at the time for spiritual direction.

CWR: And that is how Courage Italia began?

Corteggiani: I had previous experience with 12-step programs, and this was providential because Courage uses the 12 steps, and I had already learned that through them evil can be transformed into good. There is meaning in suffering. It can lead to a transforming source of grace. But I should call it something more than suffering: wounds.

CWR: Did you ever meet Father Harvey?

Corteggiani: No, by the time I visited America, Father Harvey had already died—that was in 2010, I think. But I went to a Courage conference in Chicago and it changed my life. There were so many young people—hundreds of young people—striving for chastity and supporting each other in doing that. Another thing there changed my life: finding compassionate clergy faithful to the teachings of the Church. They don’t look at you like a Martian, but as a person.

CWR: Compassionate and faithful clergy look at people with SSA not as Martians, but as people. I see.

Corteggiani: When I [first] asked for support, Father Paul Check gave me his hands and said, “This is the Church.” Really touching. I still remember that. I remember that with deep, deep gratitude. It was part of the life-changing experience. I understood then that living a life of grace, a life of chastity, was possible. It was not a mere ideal. It was possible. It was real.

CWR: So, just to clarify, you are the first member of Courage in Italy.

Corteggiani: Yes, I’m Member Zero! [Laughs.] I told Father Check that I needed the support of a group, and Father Check said, “Let’s start one.” He gave me a mission, and I said “Yes.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I soon discovered [the mission] was tough and challenging. There were also surprises, thanks to the action of grace.

CWR: What was so challenging?

Corteggiani: First of all, Courage was unknown. The ecclesiastical culture in Italy had a rule of keeping silent on the subject of homosexuality. Also there was the gay lobby.

CWR: Is there, as Cardinal Maradiaga has said, a gay lobby in the Vatican?

Corteggiani: Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it because I want to focus on the positive. The positive things are more important.

CWR: Okay. Let’s stick to Courage Italia. How many members does it have?

Corteggiani: Courage is a service and not a movement. We serve hundreds of people in Italy every year.

CWR: What services does Courage provide?

Corteggiani: Spiritual support to people struggling with same-sex attractions to live a chaste life. Spiritual direction and support-groups based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model.

CWR: And you have had had much experience with the 12 steps, you said.

Corteggiani: Yes, providential experience.

CWR: In which cities is Courage active?

Corteggiani: Mainly Rome. Regio Emilia. Turin. Puglia. I’d like to say Milan—soon in Milan.

CWR: And which bishops have been the most supportive?

Corteggiani: There is Bishop Massimo Camisasca [of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla, and the founder of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo]. There is Cardinal Scola of Milan, and also Cardinal Vallini in Rome, the Pope’s own vicar. Finally, the archbishop of Turin, Caesare Nosiglia. Oh—I should mention also the new archbishop of Bologna, Matteo Zuppi. So you see, Courage enjoys support from both conservatives and liberals.

CWR: Let’s talk about the new translation of Father Harvey’s Same-Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice. Does Father Harvey still, after his death, influence Courage today?

Corteggiani: Yes. His works are fundamental not only for the apostolate but for Catholic theological reflection [in general] on same-sex attraction. In his writings, he summarized 50 years of pastoral experience with SSA people.

CWR: And is there anything significant about your translation of Same-Sex Attraction—that is, Attrazione per lo Stesso Sesso: Accompagnare la Persona—being released now?

Corteggiani: Yes, it was published [on October 1] on the 30th anniversary of the pastoral letter by the CDF to the bishops entitled “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”

CWR: Was that the first time the CDF used the term “homosexuals”?

Corteggiani: They never said “homosexuals.” They said “homosexual person.” The term “homosexual” is reductive. The person is more than his emotions, tendencies, and actions.

CWR: I believe we are encouraged today to say “people with same-sex attractions” instead. Is this because of Father Harvey’s work?

Corteggiani: Yes. His first book was entitled The Homosexual Person, but he changed his mind regarding the terminology. This was due to a better understanding of the anthropological perspective.

CWR: What does that mean?

Corteggiani: Pastoral care must look at the person as [God’s] creature and, by grace, [a] son of God and His heir. The person’s wounds are not essential to define the identity of the person. In itself, a same-sex attraction is the phenomenon of a deeper wound. We do not have to deny [the existence] of this wound, but we cannot say that the wound is good. As Pope Francis says, wounds must be healed, and people must be accompanied.

CWR: In Courage Italia, what does this accompaniment consist of?

Corteggiani: First of all, Courage is a spiritual sharing group that meets weekly, giving people who live the gay lifestyle the opportunity to socialize in a chaste and fruitful way. It is a school of authentic love. In the summertime, we organize a sports camp. The people with SSA live together, cook together, do horseback riding, rafting, hiking, and praying.

CWR: Are these both men and women?

Corteggiani: No, it is all men. When possible, Courage prefers different groups for men and women. Courage, like other 12-step groups, operates on the principle of identification. It involves true testimony given for conversion in the group.

CWR: I see. Men with SSA can talk only to other men with SSA about what it is like to be a man with SSA.

Corteggiani: It is better. It could be useful to get different perspectives, but the principle of 12-step groups is identification. Courage also has groups for family members and for priests.

CWR: So mothers talk to other mothers…

Corteggiani: Mothers. Wives! And children.

CWR: Um, wives?

Corteggiani: SSA is not exclusive. It is rarely exclusive because it is a wound, not an identity. And it can change.

CWR: So a man might not have SSA at first, might get married and then later experience them.

Corteggiani: Yes. We are not “born that way.” It is not something biological or genetic. There are different factors that co-operate to create several kinds of homosexualities. Homosexualities—plural.

CWR: Could you give some examples of these factors?

Corteggiani: There are four main factors. First, non-identification with the parent of the same sex. Second, the overwhelming presence of the parent of the opposite sex. Third, not bonding with peers. Fourth, psychological or sexual abuse. It’s interesting: women who are the victims of abortion—women who have abortions—can develop SSA.

CWR: I am wondering what it means to have SSA in an Italian context. Is there violence towards people with SSA? Our impressions in Canada and the USA are that Italian culture is very macho.

Corteggiani: Violence, no. Italy is very tolerant. In the South—Sicily, Calabria, Puglia—there is a culture of men with SSA getting married to women, to be in the closet, because they feel shame. But overall, Italy is very tolerant, the most tolerant country in Europe. There have never been laws against homosexual acts in Italy.

CWR: That is surprising. In other countries, people with SSA have been, in certain periods, executed.

Corteggiani: Well, [the Republic of] Italy is very young, only 150 years old.

CWR: Why is Italy so tolerant?

Corteggiani: Because in Italy the policy was not to talk about it. Nobody talked about it. If you didn’t talk about it, the problem didn’t exist. It was a collective denial. The gay rights movement in Italy happened after it began in the USA. The [informal] founder of the Italian gay rights movement was Fernanda Pivano, who was a scholar of American literature, of Beat literature. She organized the first meeting of gay rights organizations in the 1970s at her house. Ten years later, there was “Arcigay,” which came from the Communist Party’s re-creation society. Arcigay was founded by a priest who, at the end of his life—he had HIV—reverted and died in the Church. It was a beautiful end, paradoxically.

CWR: Does Courage dialogue with groups like Arcigay?

Corteggiani: We are focused only on people, not on ideological organizations, so no. 

CWR: Do these gay rights organizations try to block Courage in any way? Do they have the ears of the bishops?

Corteggiani: [After a long pause.] This is an embarrassing question. The organizations are accusing us of offering reorientation treatment, but this is false, for Courage isn’t therapy. We are not trying to change anyone’s orientation. True self-acceptance is our first goal.  

CWR: What can Catholics who do not experience SSA do to help Courage with its apostolate?

Corteggiani: Change attitudes. Welcome the wounded in truth and compassion.

CWR: In truth and compassion. Some might say that it is difficult to accept someone while remarking on their wounds. We are now told that “Love the sinner but hate their sin” is in itself hateful.

Corteggiani: Homosexuality could be understood as a sign of our wounded nature. Accepting wounds—knowing our limits—is where we meet God. Real homophobia is to ignore people’s struggling, to say what is bad is good, and to banalize their suffering.

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About Dorothy Cummings McLean 26 Articles
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She is a regular writer for Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.