The Abstinence of Courage Comes to Connecticut

Catholic Church and spiritual support program for gay men and lesbians
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Catholic Church and spiritual support program for gay men and lesbiansBy: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter/

The Catholic archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., is offering a spiritual support program, or ministry, for gay men and lesbians, holding out abstinence, or mandatory celibacy, as key to living a moral life.

News of the program, a chapter of the national ministry called Courage, first greeted readers of the Hartford Courant on Wednesday morning, Jan. 4, and spread quickly over the Internet and through national and other local print and broadcast media, prompting strong reactions from Connecticut Catholics, as well as national Catholic LGBT advocacy groups and organizations that minister with gay Catholics and their families.

“What this ministry is about is making straight people comfortable, not about providing a welcoming place for LGBT people,” said Paul Scarbrough of Norwalk, a member of Dignity USA.

“The purpose of the ministry is to support men and women who struggle with homosexual tendencies and to motivate them to live chaste and fruitful lives in accordance with Catholic Church teaching,” according the archdiocese’s press release.

“Through support and spiritual intervention, we can help people with same-sex attraction lead moral and fulfilling lives,” said Robert M. Pallotti, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Diaconate, in the press statement.

By design, Courage is in accord with official Catholic doctrine, which says homosexuality “is more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus, the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

Theologically speaking, the Courage ministry also stems from natural law theory, which holds that sex is morally acceptable only when expressed in sacramental marriage and only when sexual intercourse is open to procreation.

Other sexual (including heterosexual) activity — masturbation, artificial contraception, adultery, and sex outside of marriage — are also considered to be immoral under natural law.

During a lengthy telephone interview, Deacon Pallotti readily acknowledged the moral question of sexual activity is the rub for many gay Catholics.

In upholding the Church’s moral teaching, he said, “We know it’s going to be challenge and hard to live this [celibate] life.”

“We know within the Catholic Church there is a struggle about the [moral] teaching,” said Pallotti. Still, “We want to minister in light of that [teaching] for those who want to remain in the Church. We are here to offer them pastoral care and support for them and their families.”

Pallotti also said he expected “blow back” from the gay community.

He got it, as gay Catholics and Hartford LGBT community leaders pushed back, saying the Church’s view is outdated, unsound, and worse yet, harmful.

“It perpetuates a falsehood that gay people are somehow defective, when in reality we are wonderful people created in the image and likeness of God as is all creation,” said Frank O’Gorman, 47, of West Hartford.

Asked about the harm Courage does, he explained, “Many of us, gay Catholics of my generation, believed during our teen and into our 20’s that we were somehow defective and that was a period of great depression.”

“Only when we fully embraced our sexuality as a gift from God were we transformed from people who were walking dead into people who had a light to shine and offer other people,” said O’Gorman, who is a member of Dignity USA.

Medford, Mass.-based Dignity USA is the nation’s oldest and largest LGBT Catholic advocacy organization.

“Courage’s falsehood,” he added, “that gay people cannot live full, loving lives and express themselves [sexually] in a loving way” harms people as a “form of spiritual violence.”

“Religious people, of all people, should not be promoting spiritual violence,” said O’Gorman.

“I am deeply concerned about what seems to be an increase in the roll out of Courage and 12-step [addiction-model] programs in Catholic dioceses across the country,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, Dignity USA’s executive director. “These kinds of programs promote exactly the kind of negativity that has been demonstrated to lead to substance abuse, depression, and even suicide.”

“It’s bad enough that the bishops are attacking LGBT people politically. Now it seems they are launching a campaign to attack us pastorally, as well,” Duddy-Burke said.

“The main problem I see with the Courage ministry is that it primarily views lesbian/gay people in terms of sexual activity. This approach does not consider lesbian/gay people as whole people, but narrowly defines them in terms of sex,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, writing in a blog posting

“A ministry which primarily focuses on the possibility of sexual activity is a very stunted ministry,” he added.

Based in Mount Ranier, Md., New Ways Ministry is “a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice” for LGBT Catholics  and of “reconciliation within the larger Christian and civil communities.”

“The direct implication [of Courage] is that who you are is not okay,” said Robin McHaelen, executive director of Hartford’s True Colors, a nonprofit agency that offers services to LGBT teens.

McHaelen also finds off-putting Courage’s “love-the-sinner-but-hate-the sin” perspective, which, she says, hurts kids.

While young people who seek services at True Colors say they generally don’t believe the line of reasoning, McHaelen said, “The fear still lingers. ‘But what if it’s true?’ some youth wonder.”

Courage’s approach, she added, “Is truly, absolutely invalidated, by every mainstream social science, psychological, and mental health organization,” which consider homosexuality as a natural occurrence, a variation of human sexuality.

As early as 1973, for instance, the _American Psychiatric Association_ removed homosexuality from its codification of mental health disorders.

Linda Estabrook, executive director of Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective (HGLHC), bristled at the press-release language.

“It says gay people are not moral and not living fulfilled lives,” she said. “That is not accurate, along with beyond offensive.

In the press statement, Rev. Paul Check, a priest of the Bridgeport diocese, referred to gay and lesbian persons as “people who have a unique struggle, an often difficult and vexing one.”  He also said gays are a “group of people who often feel isolated,” adding, “I don’t just say lonely but isolated.”

Rev. Check is the director of Courage, which describes itself as a support organization for “people struggling with same-sex attractions.”

The organization does not use of the words “gay” or “lesbian,” in effect refusing to acknowledge homosexual orientation as a fundamental gay identity.

The Church doesn’t “like to label people ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ because” it doesn’t “want to simply identify them based their sexuality,” explained Pallotti. “They are people. They are human beings with a same-sex attraction.

For some, the language of Courage is pejorative. “Using ‘same-sex attraction’ is offensive because it perpetuates the denial of homosexuality as a sexual orientation equal to heterosexual identity,” said Charles Martel, co-founder of Catholics for Marriage Equality, a national advocacy organization.

“What about a person integrating his identity as a gay person as a healthy psychological reality instead of being ‘lonely’ and ‘isolated?’”

Martel is a licensed clinical social worker in a private psychotherapy practice in Boston.

The Hartford archdiocese’s Courage press release also said that deacons had been “prepared to serve in the ministry by attending workshops on human sexuality and pastoral ministry. In many cases” with “their wives.”

“I am glad the deacons were able to talk and brought their wives,” said HGLHC’s Estabrook, adding, “Were there any gay or lesbian people who participated?”

“What this ministry is about is making straight people comfortable, not about providing a welcoming place for LGBT people,” said Paul Scarbrough of Norwalk, a member of Dignity USA.

“It’s disappointing to see the Archdiocese of Hartford taking this approach rather than sitting down with LGBT people and soliciting advice on how to craft a pastoral outreach to the [gay] community,” he added. “It would be laughable, if not so sad.”

For his part, Deacon Pallotti said, the Courage ministry has been a works-in-progress for four years and resulted from Archbishop Henry J. Mansell’s asking him to train deacons to run the local chapter, rather than priests. Deacons serve in the Catholic Church as ordained ministers, are men only, and are permitted to be either single or married.

The Hartford Courage chapter, which will meet twice a week, is believed to be the only one in the United States run by deacons.

Pallotti also said he pursued the Courage ministry because he was requested to do so by Archbishop Mansell as the only approach officially approved of by the Vatican.

Accordingly, gay affirming ministries across the nation were not contacted directly for any input, said Pallotti, including New Ways Ministry; the Rochester, N.Y.-based Fortunate Families, which ministers primarily to Catholic parents of LGBT children; the Berkeley, Calif.-based Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry; and Dignity USA.

Nonetheless, for years, one Hartford parish has taken a gay-friendly approach. St. Patrick – St. Anthony Church and the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry offers an “Open Hearts Ministry,” which “provides educational experiences to build greater visibility and understanding” of the LGBT “experience within our church community, and develop faith-building outreach programming to the diverse spectrum” of that community, according its mission statement.

New Ways Ministry lists the church among its 200 gay-friendly parishes nationwide

Reached by telephone, Rev. Thomas Gallagher, the pastor, said, “We have a great ministry here.” In the same breath he voiced caution. “I am not sure where [Courage] is going,” Gallagher said.

Marian Levine, the mother of a lesbian daughter, said that she’d like to see the archdiocese “use the St. Patrick – St. Anthony model.”

Levine is a Fortunate Families “listening parent.”

“I’d also like to see all the churches in the archdiocese be hospitable and welcoming to gays and lesbians, just like to everybody else,” said Levine, who offered Southbury’s Sacred Heart Church and its pastor, Rev, Joseph T. Donnelly, as an example.

The advent of Courage in the Hartford archdiocese comes after years of heated public debate over same-sex marriage, which became legal in 2008.

“I was very fearful of the emotional backlash that I was witnessing,” Pallotti told the Stamford Advocate. “So I went to the archbishop and said, ‘O. K.’ this is our position (to oppose gay marriage), but I am concerned about people who are whipping up hate against gays as if they have the Plague or something — some Christian churches were doing that. We had to confront this head-on.”

But O’Gorman points to Connecticut’s climate of “openness, acceptance, and cherishing of queer people,” predicting Courage “is not going to get off the ground” in the state, he said.

“This ministry belongs in the Middle Ages,” O’Gorman said. “It is out of touch with the reality in Connecticut” and may well “close up shop for lack of customers.”

One priest seems to agree. “My acquaintance with Courage in a couple dioceses is that it begins with a social calendar of some kind and the limited possibility of some counseling, but eventually trails off to a dedicated phone number and the possibility that someone will respond, said Rev. Kenneth F. Smits, in a New Ways Ministry blog post.

He added, “Gathering them together for social events tends to foster pairing up into relationships, which is natural and normal for them. Only through very great efforts can this movement avoid being self-defeating, which it seems to be most of the time.

“So every time I hear of a new effort being made, I ask: how long will that last? And it usually seems to be initiated by clergy, rather than by gay and lesbian people. Interesting,” Smits said.

For Pallotti, the father of three, Church doctrine on homosexuality is theological, pastoral — and personal. He has a daughter who is lesbian.

Would he encourage her to attend Courage meetings?  “She knows about Courage,” said Pallotti. “We’ve had long conversations. She won’t go. She won’t have anything to do with the Catholic Church.”

He added, “I feel for my child, especially because of the great hardships she had had to endure. I love her for who she is and am willing do what I can as her father to ensure her happiness and well being.”

I will love no matter what,” Pallotti said.

So will Levine, who said her daughter and wife have found a home in another Christian denomination, namely Hancock United Church of Christ, located in Lexington, Mass. Levine’s grandson was baptized there, “What every parent would want,” she said. “They are spiritually fed there and welcomed as a family.”

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1 Comment on "The Abstinence of Courage Comes to Connecticut"

  1. Joseph Gentilini | March 31, 2012 at 11:33 pm |

    Courage is also in our diocese (as well as Encourage for parents). Courage is morally,emotionally, and spiritually damaging. It says that it is based on Natural Law but refuses to look at any new theological and scientific information regarding what is natural! My gay relationship of almost 31 years is very natural to me and, I think, to God. I’m at peace. Wish those who go to Courage would find it too.

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