Gay and lesbian Roman Catholics who contact the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for spiritual guidance can find themselves directed toward programs aimed at helping them become celibate.
Called reparative therapy, the programs are provoking national -- and even international -- protests from critics who say they are ineffective at best and, in some cases, harmful.
Many see the programs as an example of the Vatican's swing toward conservatism, and an insulting blow to a decade of bridge-building between the church and the gay community.
"[Retired Archbishop] Harry Flynn came to us -- we didn't go to them, they came to us -- in the late 1990s and asked us to serve as resource people for the church," said Michael Bayly, executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). "Then a new pope comes in. Now the archdiocese won't even take our phone calls."
So they are speaking out on their own. They're hosting a forum Tuesday at St. Martin's Table Restaurant and Bookstore in Minneapolis that they say will shine a spotlight on what they term the "pseudo-scientific organizations" that endorse reparative therapy.
Under the auspices of its Office of Marriage and Family, the Catholic church's programs are modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous and its sister program for the families of addicts, Al-Anon. The programs, called Courage (AA) and Encourage (Al-Anon), are intended to help gays remain chaste.
The chaplain of the local Courage chapter, the Rev. James Livingston, was out of town Monday and unavailable to comment. In explaining the programs, the archdiocese's website contains links to material that some gays find objectionable. That includes a Q&A with the director of Courage's national office, the Rev. Paul Check, in which he says, "People are relieved to know the condition [of homosexuality] is both treatable and preventable."
"Homosexuality is not an illness," objected David McCaffrey, one of the people who founded CPCSM in 1980. "You shouldn't be treating it because there's nothing to treat."
Check also was not available to comment, but a person in his office became angry when she heard about the forum. Although not an official spokesperson, she said, "We don't tell anyone what to do. We just try to help them live according to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church."
A decade ago, the CPCSM was asked to conduct sensitivity training sessions for the archdiocese. "That's how much things have changed recently," Bayly said.
He pointed to an article last November in the Catholic Spirit, the archdiocese's newspaper, endorsing the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Describing itself as a nonprofit educational organization serving people with "unwanted homosexual attraction," it maintains that through therapy, homosexuals can "develop their heterosexual potential."
In 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a statement challenging reparative or "conversion" therapy: "The APA's concern about the positions espoused by NARTH and so-called conversion therapy is that they are not supported by the science," it said. "There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed."
NARTH does have its supporters, however. In 2003, Psychology Today magazine ran an editorial citing data "which suggests that sexual orientation conversion therapy is at least sometimes successful."
NARTH is not connected to the Catholic Church and is endorsed by some Protestant denominations, also.
Minnesotans aren't the only ones objecting. There have been protest marches outside NARTH meetings in Dallas and London, and there's a NARTH protest page on Facebook.
A Courage drop-out
Tonight's forum features a panel that includes Bayly; Dr. Simon Rosser, a professor in the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, and Philip Lowe Jr., a former member of the Twin Cities chapter of Courage.
They will present an APA report that recommends that therapists address the distress of Catholic homosexuals "but not aim to alter sexual orientation," which it says "has the potential to be harmful."
Lowe spent 15 months in the Courage program in hopes of finding a way to reconcile his religion and his sexuality.
"I went to weekly meetings, I went to confession, I did everything you were supposed to do," he said. Through it all, he battled with the feeling that he was supposed to distance himself from who he is. "It wasn't a positive experience."
He quit the group and the church a year ago. He has since found a new partner and a new church home, St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis.
"We've been embraced by that community," he said. "I wish that everyone could experience that."
So, why don't other homosexuals leave the church?
"We identify the church as the people in it, not the hierarchy that runs it," McCaffrey said. "Besides, we've been Roman Catholics all of our lives. It's part of our lives. It's who we are."
Bayly doesn't expect the forum to change the church's stance on homosexuality, but he does hope that it might open a line of communication.
"All we're trying to do is start a discussion," he said. "We're trying to do a little consciousness-raising about the needs and gifts of the gay and lesbian community."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392