Pope Francis has become wildly popular in the United States for striking an unusually inclusive tone as pontiff, winning praise — and possibly converts — for encouraging his fellow Catholics to be less judgmental towards the poor, immigrants, and even LGBT people. But when the pope travels to Philadelphia next month to attend the World Meeting of Families, he’ll be rubbing elbows with people known for advocating a very different kind of conversion: Ex-gay therapy.
Ex-gay therapy, or attempts to change an LGBT person’s sexual orientation, has been widely discredited for being ineffective at best and destructive at worst. Some former advocates of the practice have publicly recanted and apologized for promoting it, the American Psychological Association has condemned its use, and it is legally banned in California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.
Yet so-called “reparative therapy” has long enjoyed pockets of support with conservative Christian circles, and some of its backers will be present at the World Meeting of Families next month. According to the National Catholic Reporter, an organization known as Courage ministries is listed as an exhibitor at the conference, which is held every three years — this year in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The group officially rejects the label of ex-gay ministry, claiming instead that its employees promote a lifetime of celibacy for homosexual Catholics, saying the organization “prefers to think of itself as a ‘Pro-Chastity’ ministry.”
Yet Courage has repeatedly challenged the validity of this distinction. It has invited professional ex-gay therapists to lead trainings at conferences, and the suggested reading list on the Courage’s website includes several publications promoting ex-gay therapy written by ex-gay counselors.
The group’s executive director, Rev. Paul Check, has also voiced support for more explicit forms of ex-gay therapy. He told the Washington Times in March that he does not support laws banning ex-gay therapy organizations for children, arguing that it is an “unproven assertion” that such “change” counseling “does harm to people.”
“The claim or the assertion that people are born [homosexual] is unproven by science and medicine,” Check said.
Several other Catholic leaders with connections to ex-gay therapy are also expected to give talks or lead discussions at the convening. Dr. Janet Smith, a speaker for Courage who has publicly promoted a pamphlet that advocates for the “prevention” and “treatment” of same-sex attraction in children, is scheduled to lead a breakout session at the conference. So too is Christopher West, a theologian who has positively reviewed books on “reparative ministries” and is listed on the board of references for the Restored Hope Network, an ex-gay group.
By contrast, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput told reporters in June he had no intention of allowing LGBT groups to speak at the conference, saying, “We don’t want to provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for positions contrary to the life of the church.” And according to Reuters, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has refused to allow a local parish to host a workshop on gender identity during Pope Francis’ visit, forcing organizers — the Catholic group New Ways Ministry — to relocate a nearby Methodist church.
Chaput has justified the rejection by appealing to Catholic teaching, but his decisions arguably contradict the spirit of inclusiveness that has been a hallmark of Francis’ papacy. Although the pope has made no moves to alter the Church’s historic opposition to LGBT people, he has worked to make the church less “obsessed” with the issue with a compassionate voice: He famously answered a question about gay priests by saying “who am I to judge?”, has dined with gay and transgender inmates, reportedly told a transgender man that “the church loves you and accepts you as you are,” and has repeatedly asked Catholic leaders at high-level meetings to reexamine traditional Catholic approaches to homosexuality.
Ex-gay therapy is also widely rejected by most Catholics. A 2011 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that an overwhelming majority of American Catholics (69 percent) don’t believe that sexual orientation can be changed, and the group is actually more supportive of same-sex marriage than any other major American Christian denomination. Some parishes even march in gay pride parades.
The practice may even contradict the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which notes that “[LGBT people] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” adding, “Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Catholic teaching does designate homosexual acts as “objectively disordered,” but it recommends that LGBT people pursue chastity — not conversion.
The controversy also touches on an ongoing battle within American Catholicism, where the majority of Catholics embrace LGBT people while the Church hierarchy continues to push back against acceptance — and sometimes firing people for being “publicly” gay.