International Courage conference draws participants from 78 dioceses

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Almost everyone knows someone who experiences same-sex attraction, and faithful Catholics are often at a loss for how to engage a friend or loved one who declares he or she is gay, said speakers at a three-day international conference at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth.

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto offers Communion to a conference participant Aug. 10 at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth, Mich., during the opening Mass of a three-day conference exploring the Catholic Church’s ministry to those living with same-sex attraction. The international conference featured more than 30 speakers and was co-sponsored by Courage and the Archdiocese of Detroit. (CNS photo | Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

Nearly 400 people attended the Aug. 10-12 conference, “Love One Another as I Have Loved You: Accompanying Our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction,” designed for clergy, pastoral staff and others who minister or teach on the topic of same-sex attraction.

“We want to do the right thing. We want to speak the truth in love,” said Janet Smith, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and the conference’s chief organizer. “We want to be loving, and we want to be truthful. How do we do that?”

Talks seeking to answer that question were given by a wide range of experts, from Catholic moral theologians to psychologists, doctors and pastors.

Courage International, an apostolate that supports those with same-sex attraction in living a lifestyle of chastity, was co-host of the conference with the Archdiocese of Detroit and Our Sunday Visitor.

Fr. Paul Check, Courage’s executive director, said when it comes to explaining and defending the church’s teaching on same-sex attraction, “our best ambassadors are our members.”

Fr. Check said in the run-up to the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family, when secular attention was at its highest over the issue of same-sex attraction in the church, “one voice was missing: the voice of the person for whom same-sex attractions are a lived reality and who also believes that what the church teaches on the matter of homosexuality is true and ultimately leads to peace.”

One of those voices, Dan Mattson, a Midwestern man who speaks often in Catholic media about his struggles with same-sex attraction and eventual re-conversion to the church, acknowledged the biggest question he’s had to face is why God allowed him to feel attracted to other men.

After years of struggling to reconcile his faith and desires, Mattson said, his “world was turned upside down” when he realized his same-sex attraction could instead be viewed as a cross to help him achieve sanctity.

“This has become my central conviction about why God allows men and women to live with confusion about sexuality: To be seen correctly, same-sex attraction must always be viewed through the lens of suffering,” Mattson told those gathered from 78 dioceses in 34 states and six countries. “It must be viewed as connected with the cross of Christ.”

Mattson denounced the idea of the “closet” as “a trap constructed by the father of lies” to obscure the truth about man’s identity and dignity. Mattson said homosexuality is not rightly seen as “a different form of God-given sexual orientation,” but “rather an absence of that which should be present in man, but is not,” similar to blindness.

He added same-sex attracted individuals must “rely on the objective truth of who we are” as male and female created by God, and not be pressured into accepting labels that ultimately undermine the full truth of the human person.

During the conference, Masses were celebrated by Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins and Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Byrnes.

Participants also were invited to view and discuss films, including “The Desire of the Everlasting Hills” and “The Third Way,” that tell the stories of struggle, redemption and self-discovery of those seeking to live the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality.

Also made available was a book by Ignatius Press, “Living the Truth in Love,” which features essays from each of the conference speakers. The book will be sent to bishops traveling to Rome for the Synod of Bishops this fall, and a second volume is in the works.

Many speakers acknowledged the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching that feelings of same-sex attraction in themselves are not sinful, and that people with same-sex attraction must be treated with compassion and sensitivity.

Timothy Lock, a licensed clinical psychologist from Brookfield, Conn., said it’s “striking” how many of his patients had been treated with disrespect and insensitivity throughout their lives, and stressed that the condition of same-sex attraction is difficult and deserves a listening ear.

Lock pointed to studies showing much higher rates of anxiety, mood disorders, substance abuse and suicide attempts among gay men and women, even in countries such as the Netherlands that are generally accepting of homosexuality.

“We need to listen to their experiences and not get hung up on perceptions, but hear their heart,” he said.

He emphasized that when it comes to parents, friends and even doctors counseling those with same-sex attraction, one size doesn’t fit all, and a person’s individual experiences can vary widely.

Lock, a Catholic and a Courage board member, said he often sees patients with unwanted same-sex attraction, but that groups such as Courage “are not reparative therapy.”

“I want to make this point very, very clear: The purpose of Courage is to help individuals with same-sex attraction live the virtue of chastity,” he said. “The purpose of Courage is not to change people’s sexual attractions.”

Father Check echoed that point, saying Courage is ultimately about helping lead people to toward God through a discovery of a deeper personal value.

Robin Beck, an author from Livonia, said while compassion and understanding is critical, sticking to the biblical language is key to avoiding a too-permissive attitude toward sexual behavior on the other hand. Beck, who lived in same-sex relationships for 35 years before finding healing through the church, said she never questioned her relationships because she thought “the Bible wasn’t really describing a loving, committed, monogamous relationship.”

However, it wasn’t until she faced the scriptural language of Romans 1 head-on that, “for the first time in decades, I took the word of God at face value,” she said.

It wasn’t just Scripture’s prohibitions that affected her, though, but ultimately its message of mercy, Beck said.

“The Bible not only gives a no-nonsense pronouncement of the critical condition this sin puts a person in,” Beck said, “but it gives a message of hope to those trapped in and coming out of it. When we remove ourselves from scriptural indictments, do we not also remove ourselves from its power to heal and restore?”

Because Jesus offers such grace, Father Check said, the church “must with equal voice extend her hand in truth and charity to the people who need her maternal compassion, insight and help in a personal way.”

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Stechschulte is managing editor of The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Detroit.