There was no fairy-tale ending for Henry Frömmichen after his chance encounter with Prince Charming.
Last autumn the 21-year-old German seminarian was hurrying across Munich’s Odeonsplatz when he spotted Alexander Schäfer, the lead in a popular gay reality show.
“Everyone in the seminary watched it, just not me, but I knew him from Instagram,” said Frömmichen. “I introduced myself as a seminarian and it was a great conversation.”
The problems began when he posted a selfie with Prince Charming to his Instagram account – with a church in the background.
Unwittingly, he had exposed the gap between Catholic teaching, and discretionary practice, over admission of homosexual men to the priesthood. He paid a heavy price: expulsion from the seminary last November.
Frömmichen insists he was ready to lead a celibate life as required of all Catholic priests. During seminary admission interviews he remembers being asked in a general way about his sexuality and whether he had any relationships.
“I said I had given up a relationship for this step because it was a greater source of excitement for me to enter the priesthood,” he told German radio. “When I tell people this they think, ‘he’s not quite the full shilling’.”
Catholic teaching states that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”.
‘Deep-seated homosexual tendencies’
The additional hurdle Frömmichen faced is a rule introduced by Pope Benedict XVI that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or who support a “gay culture” may not become priests. The document from November 2005, the German pontiff’s first priority, says that only men who have “overcome” a homosexuality that was “transitory” and who have remained celibate for three years before joining the seminary are eligible for the priesthood.
Munich seminary director Wolfgang Lehners says he sees no reason why men with healthy relationships to men and women should not become priests.
“But when the rainbow is in the background of everything he does then it will be very difficult for someone to represent the Catholic church as a priest,” said Fr Lehners to Deutschlandfunk radio.
Six months after he was thrown out, Frömmichen went public about his shattered dream after the Holy See’s insistence in March that the church cannot bless gay couples. “There’s such a dishonesty and double standard,” he said. “As long as it’s not discussed, it’s fine . . . that’s what was insinuated to me.”
A new Vatican statement that has provoked widespread criticism for sharply rejecting the blessing of same-sex unions is the latest example of why it’s hard for many people to take the Catholic Church’s own professed values of equality and dignity seriously.
The decree, which notes God “cannot bless sin,” reiterates traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality. But the outpouring of painful reactions demonstrates the limits of Pope Francis’ welcoming gestures toward LGBTQ people and is a stark reminder that my church continues to deny people their full humanity. Straight Catholics who love our church and LGBTQ friends and family in equal measure are finding it increasingly difficult to square the church’s often contradictory messages.
The Catholic catechism insists gay people should be treated with dignity and “every sign of unjust discrimination” should be avoided. This is the same church that, in a 2003 Vatican statement, said allowing children to be adopted by same-sex couples “would actually mean doing violence to these children.” The same church that has promised to welcome and accompany gay Catholics is now opposing the Equality Act in Congress, which would ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And in a U.S. Supreme Court case that will be decided this summer, Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia wants to continue operating as a government contractor and receive city funding while refusing to place foster children with same-sex couples.
It’s a strange and un-Christian form of love that tells people they are equal in God’s eyes but then acts in ways that deem their committed relationships and parenting as inferior.
The Vatican’s latest statement is likely to cause spiritual and psychological damage to young LGBTQ people who already experience higher rates of suicide, and push more people away from the institutional church. This statement stings even more coming after what has felt like, for many LGBTQ Catholics, a shift with Pope Francis toward more welcoming and inclusive language.
“Not since the anger over sex abuse in 2002 and 2018 have I seen so many people so demoralized, and ready to leave the church,” tweeted the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest and advocate for LGBTQ Catholics who has met with Pope Francis and serves as a Vatican adviser. “And not simply LGBT people, but their families and friends, a large part of the church.”
Perhaps a necessary reckoning over how the church thinks about LGBTQ people and human sexuality is arriving. Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said the Vatican statement left him with “intellectual and moral incomprehension.” In a commentary published in several Belgian and international newspapers, the bishop apologized for those who found the decree “painful and incomprehensible.”
The bishop noted that he knows same-sex couples “who are legally married, have children, form a warm and stable family and actively participate in parish life. I’m immensely appreciative of their contributions.”
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, told The Tablet, a weekly Catholic journal, the statement “isn’t by any means the end of the conversation. I think it should give greater impetus to another kind of conversation about inclusion.” Even the Vatican statement, which in part came as a response to German bishops involved with ongoing discussions about blessing same-sex couples, cites the “positive elements” of gay relationships and acknowledges they should be “valued and appreciated.”
Several U.S. Catholic bishops in recent years have made efforts to show greater welcome toward LGBTQ people. After the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich called for “real, not rhetorical” respect for gays and lesbians. Newark Cardinal Joe Tobin welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBTQ Catholics to the city’s cathedral in 2017. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has said the church’s description of gay sexual intimacy as “intrinsically disordered” is “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”
LGBTQ Catholics and allies will continue to remind our church that until there is real discernment about how a disordered theology that excludes and wounds is never holy, welcoming rhetoric rings hollow. Catholic leaders can begin by showing more humility. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth when it comes to the complexities of gender and human sexuality. Reform and renewal first begin by listening — and acknowledging you have something to learn.
A representative of the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Tim Hazlewood, has said he would bless the union of same-sex couples despite the Vatican ruling it out this week, saying the church ‘cannot bless sin’.
“If Christ was with us now, he would do the caring, the loving thing,” Fr Hazelwood said.
Earlier this week, the Vatican decreed that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin”.
The Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a formal response to a question about whether Catholic clergy can bless gay unions.
The answer, approved by Pope Francis, was “negative”.
Fr Hazlewood, who ministers in a parish in East Cork, said he had been approached by families who have somebody who is in a same-sex relationship.
“Our experience is that they are lovely couples and to hear something like that, that their relationship is sinful, I wonder how many of them know and meet and interact with those families and those people,” he told RTÉ Morning Ir
Fr Hazlewood said the Pope was in a difficult position, but to listen to that statement was “so disappointing, it was appalling.”
“He’s trying to hold all the parts together, in parts of the world, including Ireland, there is a small group who are very anti-Pope Francis and anti the changes, the new breath of life that he’s bringing.”
“For a lot of people and families, it’s very disappointing. Does he want to cause a schism in the church?”
When asked if he would bless a same sex couple’s union, Fr Hazlewood replied: “Just two days ago there were pieces of weed that grow in the ground and I blessed them. I blessed shamrock, now if two people stand in front of me and they love each other and they are committing to each other for the rest of their lives and I bless shamrock and wouldn’t bless them. I don’t think there’s a doubt or a question there.”
The church’s teaching on what marriage means has not changed, he said.
“In Ireland, we’re going to have a synod in the next five years and the bishops have said they want people on the margins to be part of that, would any gay person come near a church that says things like this?”
“There’s an awful difference between somebody in Rome making a promulgation and what’s the lived experience of the church and I think a lot of priests would say ‘if Christ was here with us now, what would Christ do?’
“He would do the caring, the loving thing. He was the one who challenged all of these rules himself. Pope Francis is asking us to talk about these things, this is the way forward”
“There’s going to be an awful lot more things like this in the church which is a good thing.”
“Who here isn’t sure if they believe in God?” I tentatively raised my skinny seventh-grader hand with bitten-down nails and chipped pink and blue polish; the entire class held their breath. I was apparently alone in my apostasy.
I had just turned twelve years old and was the new girl at a posh Catholic school in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. I was immediately summoned into daily, extracurricular religion classes by the school’s deacon where secondary school authorities attempted to replace my radical notions about religion. You see, I was baptized Catholic, but my family was very progressive – I had been taught that there was something bigger than me but not to be too judgey about what, or who, that bigger-than-me entity was.
Later in life, I went on to DePaul University, a wonderful Jesuit school, where I took classes on Catholic social justice and met followers of all colors of the LGBTIQ+ rainbow. I was always amazed at their unquestioning faith; mine had faded long before. For me, Christianity and all its sexual abuse demons, dogma and misogyny gradually went from questionable to unappealing to utterly nauseating. As an increasingly radical progressive, I felt like Catholicism was no longer compatible with what I stood for or who I was.
So it came as no surprise when I woke up to the news today that the world’s beloved “progressive” Pope approved an announcement from the Vatican that Catholic priests could not, in fact, sanctify the unions of same-sex couples because they are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan”. God “cannot bless sin,” the Pope and his compatriots in the Vatican had decided, adding that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered”.
This pronouncement is of course disappointing, but not surprising. The Pope is restrained by an archaic institution that is patriarchal, regressive and indisputably abusive. He himself is not the forward-thinking, open-minded, enlightened leader people hoped him to be. He never was going to be able to push such reforms within the framework of the Catholic Church, no matter what his personal views might be (and which we will likely never know).
Sure, the Pope wants gay Catholics to continue to attend church, as more and more followers consider leaving after child sex abuse horror stories and Vatican coverups continue to be surface. According to the Catholic News Agency, in Germany, one in three Catholics is considering leaving. The same goes for US Catholics. And it’s true that Pope Francis encouraged same-sex civil union laws, which was as far as he could possibly go to keep progressives coming to Mass. But endorsing the church-blessed sacrament of marriage for their unions? That was never going to happen.
Don’t forget that back in 2011, Francis said women could read at the altar, but could never become priests. Catholics and non-Catholics alike lauded the Pope for this change when they shouldn’t have. Like when women were granted the right to vote under the 19th Amendment but weren’t able to have a credit card in their name until the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, it was more about optics than anything materially life-changing.
Even more outrageous: It wasn’t until 2020 that the Vatican finally overhauled its pontifical secrecy laws that allowed the institution to evade reporting cases of sexual abuse to authorities.
The papacy and the patriarchy are outdated institutions that have caused more harm than good. And today, the Pope has proved that no member of their congregation with progressive views can truly feel they belong.
Well that didn’t turn out like I hoped or imagined it would.
I wanted to be a priest ever since I was a little boy and I overcame the greatest of odds to achieve my life’s goal. On Saturday, November 22, 1975, I was ordained a Catholic Priest at the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Oakland, CA.
Sadly, it all came crashing to a halt only 6 years later with the publication of my doctoral dissertation.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, my religious community at the time, assigned me to post graduate studies in San Francisco in 1978. I completed that assignment in January 1981 with my dissertation, Gay Catholic Priests; A Study of Cognitive and Affective Dissonance. A media firestorm erupted shortly there after when I publicly identified myself as gay. (I had come out to my provincial superiors before I was ordained six years earlier.)
When word got to Rome, however, the Oblates began a process to dismiss me from the community. They erroneously accused me of “living a false lifestyle” because of my public declaration a month earlier. The community leadership claimed that anyone who would self identify as gay must also be sexually active. In their defense, it was 1981, and I had just studied a population of gay priests in the active ministry, years and years before the Church could even bring itself to admit that there were such a thing as gay priests in their midst. Nonetheless, my efforts to explain myself and the nature of self-identification fell on deaf ears. I was to be made an example of how others would be treated if they came out.
Priesthood was my whole life. To be cut off from the community and ministry in an instant, without due process nearly killed me. And thus, began a grueling 13-year battle with the Church to save my good name, my priesthood, and my ministry. I chronicled this odyssey in a book published in 2011, Secrecy, Sophistry And Gay Sex In The Catholic Church.
I lost the battle in 1994; I was dismissed from the Oblates. But I believe I won the war.
Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Looking back on the last 45 years, I can see clearly that Dr King was right. LGBT people have gone from pariah status to having their relationships granted the same legal and societal status as straight people. Acceptance of LGBT people is at an all-time high in this country and throughout most of the world. And young U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly accept LGBT people.
Unfortunately, Church leadership continues to drag it’s feet. While there are some enlightened bishops, and certainly the Pope is pointing the way, most of the other church leadershiop have their head in the sand. The rear-guard action of trying to defend the indefensible continues unabated. Gay priests are still persecuted for coming out and the clerical closet continues to make Catholic priests sick, sometimes even to death, One has to ask; how can anyone preach the Good News while living a lie?
Forty five years after ordination, I believe that I now finally know the real meaning of priesthood and ministry. And I can safely say that it has nothing to do with the ritual depicted in the photos above. My priesthood and ministry are rooted in knowing who I am and knowing that God called me as I am. My priesthood is to the people on the margins and the sexual fringe. And my priesthood means speaking truth to power and supporting others to do the same. I continue to stand against the fear, ignorance, and repression that destroys God’s people. And if I have to do my priesthood standing this distance from the altar, then I’m ok with that.
Pope Francis referred to gay people as “children of God” in a recently released documentary, “Francesco.” He further noted that “a civil union law” needs to be created so gays are “legally covered.” The Vatican later confirmed the pope’s comments, but clarified that the church doctrine remained unchanged.
Public support for civil unions from Pope Francis is not entirely new. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and again in a 2014 interview, he spoke about civil unions for same-sex couples.
While the Vatican is right in saying that church doctrine remains the same, as a theologian who has been writing about Catholicism and family for over two decades, I see in the pope’s comments evidence that Catholic understanding of who counts as family is evolving.
From judgment to mercy
Traditional Catholic doctrine holds that marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of the family. Sex outside of marriage is judged to be immoral and, while gay people are not seen as inherently sinful, their sexual actions are. Same-sex marriages and civil unions, the Vatican says, are harmful to society and “in no way similar” to heterosexual marriages.
Yet in his comments made public on Oct. 21, the pope framed his support for civil unions in the context of family. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it,” he said in a news-breaking interview used in the documentary.
In researching for a book on Pope Francis, I found that he has consistently offered compassion for Catholics without traditional families. Soon after becoming pope in 2013, in response to a journalist’s question about a gay person, he famously said, “Who am I to judge?”
Mercy over judgment has been the mark of his papacy. The pope’s priority on extending mercy, theologian Cardinal Walter Kasperexplains, especially pertains to families.
Surveys commissioned by the Vatican in 2015 found that Catholics desire more acceptance from the church for people who are single parents, divorced or have live-in relationships. Knowing that people often feel judged because their families aren’t perfect, Francis has tried to make them feel welcome. He has stressed that the doors of churches must be open to all.
When, in discussing same-sex civil unions, Francis said that gay people have “a right to a family,” he seems to have implied that civil unions create a family. Though he is not changing Catholic moral teaching, I argue that he is departing from traditional Catholic rhetoric on the family and offering an inclusive, merciful vision to guide church practice.
From family structure to family action
Changes in Catholic teaching in the 20th century paved the way for Francis’ recent moves.
In a 1930 Vatican document on marriage, Pope Pius XI defended the traditional family structure against perceived threats of cohabitation, divorce and “false teachers” who asserted the equality of men and women.
Three decades later, at Vatican II, a meeting of the world’s bishops from 1962 to 1965 that led to sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church, emphasis shifted to the role families could play in shaping society. Marriage was defined as an “intimate partnership of life and love,” and the family was praised as “a school of deeper humanity” where parents and children learn how to be better human beings.
Pope John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, is often viewed as a foil to Pope Francis. In his writings, he defended heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles, as well as rules against divorce, contraception and same-sex relationships. Yet the former pope contributed to shifting the Catholic conversation to ethical actions families can take.
In this regard, John Paul II’s most important document on the family Familiaris Consortio, 1981, gave families four tasks: growing in love, raising children, contributing to society and praying in their home. He taught that being a family means engaging in actions related to these tasks.
Though same-sex couples remain excluded from official Catholic teaching, Catholic theologians such as Margaret A. Farley have suggested that these families, too, could prioritize love, social action and spirituality. Gay couples, she argued, “deserve the same protection under the law” as heterosexual couples. They also have the same moral obligations to each other and to the common good.
Pope Francis on inclusion
Pope Francis built on work done at Vatican II and the decades following it. One of his favorite ways of describing the church is as a “field hospital” that goes where people are hurting.
Though he has addressed many important social issues during his papacy, including economic inequality and climate change, he called the world’s bishops to special meetings in Rome only to discuss families. He urged them to find creative ways of ministering to people who feel excluded because they are not living in line with Catholic doctrine on marriage.
Themes of welcome and inclusion for single parents, divorced and remarried people and cohabiting unmarried couples were amplified in the document Francis wrote in 2016, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.”
For instance, theologian Mary Catherine O’Reilly-Gindhart sees Francis saying that cohabiting unmarried couples “need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly.” This allows priests to meet couples where they are rather than shaming them or forcing them to hide their living situations.
What’s the future of the church?
Francis’ critics worry that the pope is watering down Catholic doctrine on marriage and family. But what I argue is that Francis is not changing doctrine. He is encouraging a broader view of who counts as families inside and outside the church.
In the same documentary in which Francis made his remarks on same-sex civil unions, he also criticized countries with overly restrictive immigration policies, saying, “It’s cruelty, and separating parents from kids goes against natural rights.” He was referring to the right to family, which “exists prior to the State or any other community.”
The comments in the documentary show a persistent move toward welcoming families in contemporary Catholic thought. Francis proposes that a welcoming church should support all families, especially those who are hurting. Similarly, as he says, governments should do the same – including supporting gay and lesbian couples.
Meanwhile, Stonewall, as part of a YouGov survey, found that 10% of health and social care workers – who they surveyed to analyse how beliefs may impact patient care – said a colleague had vocalised belief in a ‘gay cure’. Essentially, this is not just a fringe issue.
The United Nations defines so-called conversion therapy as practices that seek ‘to change non-heteronormative sexual orientations and non-cisnormative gender identities.’
They continue that it is ‘an umbrella term to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed when they do not fall under what other actors in a given setting and time perceive as the desirable norm, in particular when the person is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse.
‘Such practices are therefore consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.
‘Depending on the context, the term is used for a multitude of practices and methods, some of which are clandestine and therefore poorly documented.’
Some of the ‘techniques’ they have seen in their extensive research on the topic include ‘corrective’ rape, threats, exorcisms, forced repentance, and isolation from family and friends.
The Government response to the petition promises to ‘to deepen our understanding and consider all options for ending the practice of conversion therapy’, noting that ‘conversion therapy is a very complex issue’.
Carolyn Mercer – who was assigned male at birth – had aversion therapy at the age of 17, with the aim to ‘cure’ her from feelings of gender dysphoria.
Now 73, Carolyn says that this form of punitive treatment has affected her ability to feel positive emotions – despite the decades that have passed.
Her experience with aversion therapy began after she visited the doctor to talk about feeling like she was born in the wrong body. These feelings had started around age three, but the doctor brushed them off, telling the confused teenager to ‘stop worrying your mum’.
She said: ‘I needed someone to listen to me and recognise my identity not to try to change me by denial and punishment.’
From there, a meeting with the local vicar (who’d come to visit Carolyn’s parents while they were at work and only Carolyn was home) led to a chat where she spoke about her dysphoria, and then led to her being referred to a mental hospital.
‘I felt that I ought to be punished for feeling the way that I did,’ Carolyn told Metro.co.uk.
‘I didn’t know how to process it. Of course, in those days, there was no internet. There was no literature. There was no one I could talk to.’
When Carolyn did open up, she was sent to Whittingham Hospital near Preston, the town where she grew up.
She said: ‘I wanted to be cured. I didn’t want to be odd. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be nasty, dirty – which is how I saw it.
‘And so he referred me to the psychiatrist, who then recommended NHS treatment.’
This ‘therapy’ (Carolyn doesn’t like the word, but stresses that she did enter into it voluntarily) saw her strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room, with electrodes fastened to her arms.
She said: ‘I can still smell it. They soaked the electrodes in salt water, in brine, and attached them to my arm.
‘And then from time to time while showing pictures [of women’s clothes or typically feminine things] on the wall, they’d pull the switch and send a pain through my body.
‘The idea was to make me associate the pain with what I wanted to do, and therefore that would stop me wanting to do it.
‘Effectively what it did was not make me hate that aspect of me. It made me hate me because it reinforced that I was wrong; I was evil, and so I deserved to be punished. And that was inflicted as part of NHS treatment.’
Carolyn went on to marry a woman and had children, moving up the ranks in teaching to become the youngest headteacher in Lancashire.
Her life was filled with enviable and admirable moments, but the spectre of the therapy and knowing she was trans was always there.
It was barbaric… and it clearly didn’t work
Carolyn likens what she went through to previous corrective and punitive measures used on left-handed people throughout history, which are not only proven not to work, but are designed to change a natural facet of someone, pathologising their sexuality or gender expression.
A UN study published in June 2020 found that 98% of the 940 persons who reported having undergone some form of conversion therapy testified to having suffered damage as a result.
However, due to the underreporting of conversion therapy and the myriad of effects from physical to psychological (potentially making it harder for a specific harm to be pinpointed by governments), these practices are still not banned.
Although such practices are frowned upon in the therapy industry (and have been disavowed by the NHS), a petition by the public to enshrine this into law recently highlighted the fact that the overarching practise is still allowed in the UK.
Josh Bradlow, Policy Manager, Stonewall told Metro.co.uk: ‘Conversion therapy can come in many different forms from a variety of sources and is often hidden.
‘It may be disguised as pastoral care or a form of support to help someone with difficult feelings. These so-called therapies are also sometimes based in psychotherapy or medical practices that try to “fix” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.’
Many of the physically violent acts that fall under the conversion therapy banner are already illegal – rape, for example – so in theory, a ban would encompass the psychological methods being used.
We have to continue to shine a light on the horrifying after-effects of these methods, too, so that they don’t fall by the wayside in legislation.
Despite Carolyn doing the ‘blokey’ things she felt she were supposed to do, the dysphoria didn’t go away until she transitioned in 2002 ( or, as Carolyn puts it, ‘align my gender expression with my gender identity, which most people call transition’).
We can’t change the past, but we can look at the main effect for Carolyn – over 40 years of self-hatred and low self-esteem – as a stark warning of what we need to do next.
She said: ‘I can smile about it now, because I force myself to.’
‘But it was barbaric, you wouldn’t subject somebody to that in a concentration camp.
‘It clearly didn’t work, but worked at making me hate myself for a lifetime.’
Carolyn believes her experience has made her devote her life to teaching in an effort to help others, in part because of her low opinion of herself caused by the therapy.
Mark Loewen tells a similar story, although the form of conversion therapy he experienced was different to Carolyn’s.
Mark grew up in Paraguay in a religious family. As a child – and without the internet until about the age of 13 – he didn’t know what the word gay even meant, but tells us: ‘Growing up, I knew that something was different.’
Small things such as playing with girls’ toys and the sense of shame that came with that led to Mark questioning his sexuality, and it was when he went through puberty that he realised he was sexually attracted to men.
The way that homosexuality was treated by the pastors at his church was to read the passages of the Bible about sex between men, and to tell Mark ‘just don’t do it, and you’ll be fine’.
Mark worked in a pet shop where one of the customers was known to be gay. His colleagues warned Mark to be careful around the customer.
He said: ‘That’s the message; kind of like we’re dangerous, and that I could be dangerous.’
That man went on to kill himself, leaving Mark believing that this is what ‘destiny’ would have in store too if he came out.
When Mark reached his early twenties he found chatrooms where he was able to identify other gay men through coded language and have secret meet-ups for sex. But because of the negative messages he internalised, these were filled with shame for him and he began to use the internet in order to look for a ‘solution’.
‘I’m not looking for “how can I be happy as a gay man?”,’ said Mark.
‘My searches are “how do we get rid of this?” And so I get involved with a group I find called Exodus International.’
His church told Mark that homosexuality was caused by a distant father and an overbearing mother, and that he was being ‘respectful’ by not feeling a desire to sleep with the girls he was dating. When the time was right, they said, he would meet that right woman.
While working at a Christian book store at around the age of 22, Mark would regularly have business trips to the US, so he was able to go to his first ‘ex-gay’ conference in California without telling his family or friends.
The three-day conference including worship and music, which Mark says made the crowd feel like they were in a ‘trance’.
‘Their speakers would talk a lot about this seeking wholeness where we were missing something emotionally and to seek it. And so a lot of it was about finding approval for yourself in as a person as a man.’
The seminars were framed in a way where gay wasn’t who you were, instead portraying it as a series of attractions and behaviours that could be managed.
At first, these sessions were cathartic for Mark, seeming to him the one place he could truly talk about his innermost secrets and still be ‘loved’.
Mark said: ‘It goes well for some time, and then you notice that you’re still attracted to guys, and all of that happens again and again until you kind of fall again and have sex with someone or whatever it is that you do. And then you feel like you’ve failed.’
Throughout later group therapy sessions it was drummed into Mark that his desire for emotional connection with another man was not love, but instead a form of codependence and selfishness – a way to gain a stronger sense of masculinity that he believed he lacked.
Group members and those he knew would pray for him and he would be given what we’d know as a form of exorcism to change him.
It was only when he went to a college in the US and began studying psychotherapy himself that he realised these techniques were ineffective and morally wrong.
He left the sessions and has gone on to have a daughter and get married to a man he loves dearly. But he says that unpicking the idea that he was codependent and that who he is is shameful has taken a lot of work.
Like Carolyn, he has channeled his energy into helping others.
If we look at the idea of the carrot or the stick, Carolyn’s aversion therapy was the stick and Mark’s conversion therapy was the carrot.
Where Carolyn experienced the more extreme-seeming Clockwork Orange type treatment, Mark’s therapy veered into the territory of the 1999 movie But I’m A Cheerleader, where ‘reparative therapy’ is used, with the idea being that same-sex attraction is a symptom of a psychological problem that can be fixed by talking through childhood issues.
The damage has been done
But both of these types of conversion therapy still go on throughout the world, and both have the end result of making people believe they are inherently wrong.
Stonewall’s Josh Bradlow said: ‘A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is a natural, normal part of their identity and not something that can or should be changed.
‘By trying to shame a person into denying a core part of who they are, these ‘therapies’ can have a seriously damaging impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Major UK health organisations like the NHS, and the leading psychotherapy and counselling bodies have publicly condemned these practices.’
The ‘happy ending’ here is the fact that Carolyn transitioned and is a grandparent with a loving wife and children, and that Mark has found his calling and started a beautiful family.
But healing scars that run so deep are much harder than ensuring we don’t inflict them in the first place.
Carolyn likens the experience to stretching an elastic band to the point where it no longer has any give left.
‘I don’t feel positive emotions,’ she said.
‘And that’s what has been driven out of me by an understanding that I was wrong. I was evil.
‘[Without aversion therapy] I would have been freed from that. I would have been able to enjoy things more. It’s better now than it was, but the damage is done.’
As the stats above show, although these decades have passed in Carolyn and Mark’s stories, these therapies are still happening, and the damage is still being done to others.
Both the survivors of conversion therapy that Metro.co.uk spoke to say that the solution is more understanding and empathy alongside a ban on these practices.
It’s all very well to ban conversion therapy, but without the proper understanding about the shame and hiding that comes with gender dysphoria or questions about our sexuality, we’re no closer to equality.
Mr Bradlow said: ‘Banning sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy would send a powerful message to young LGBT people to let them know that they are not ill.
‘But we also need to work on raising awareness of these dangerous practices, and ensure practitioners are trained to recognise it too.
‘And fundamentally, we need to tackle messages young LGBT people may get from other places, whether that be school, the media or at home, that there’s something wrong with who they are.
‘Until that happens, our work continues to ensure every lesbian, gay, bi and trans person can grow up happy, healthy and supported to be themselves.’
Declan Henry’s new book,Forbidden Fruit, speaks to gay priests about the hypocrisy and homophobia of the Catholic Church. It also looks at the issues, which he writes, have led to the crumbling of a once-mighty institution. Declan speaks about the creation of the book, the high percentage of gay priests in the Church and how he, as a gay man and a Catholic, has managed to reconcile his faith.
What was the impetus for writing your book?
“I wanted to explore the changing face of Catholicism in Ireland over the past 30 years post the cleric abuse scandals. I want to find out why the Church has never adequately addressed the reasons why paedophilia occurred among priests – and question if this malaise is still present – and why. I wanted to explore the hypocrisy of the church towards gay people – given that such a high percentage of Catholic priests are gay. I also wanted to explore compulsory celibacy and question if it is emotionally healthy to expect any man – gay or straight – to live a life devoid of intimate personal relationships and sex.”
Did your research surprise you?
“I met two very different – yet both happy priests during my research. One was an openly gay (celibate) priest in Dublin who is much loved and respected by his parishioners for being so honest. The other was a married priest in London (converted from the Anglican Church many years ago). It was so refreshing to be shown around his church and to be introduced to his wife and children. This clearly showed two things – a) that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay and a priest… b) being a married Catholic priest is not the slightest deterrent in fulfilling the role of a priest.”
Declan continued, “Research last year from the French author (Frederick Martel) found that 80% of the Vatican’s top clergy are gay. And yet, despite these high statistics, the Catholic Church is very homophobic. Why?”
How do you balance your affinity for the Catholic Church alongside your findings?
“I believe that most people in the LGBT+ community must transcend their belief system beyond the Catholic Church and find their own faith, their own God, their own Jesus. In the end, this is not too hard to do. Remember that you can read all the Gospels and you will find that Jesus never once condemned homosexuality.”
“In one sense, I smile when I think back about my earlier years growing up gay in Ireland – how vulnerable I was, how naïve I was. In the book, I recall how once I was feeling down and went to see a priest – but he refused to see me because he had just started to prepare his dinner. His dinner was far more important to him than seeing me. And so, I left and never returned. But I’m lucky. I left all that behind. I’ve had a good life, so any bitterness is forgotten. But there was pain and rejection. On one hand you had this unrivalled sense of belonging but on the other hand rejection, fear, shame and guilt for being gay.”
Do you believe the Catholic Church has alienated LGBT+ people to the point of pushing them from their faith?
“Yes, absolutely. Pope after Pope has helped to reinforce this message. Take the current Pope for example – he is not a stupid man, he is well informed and very knowledgeable about what is going on around him, yet he can say the most foolish of things. In December 2018 he stated, ‘There is no place for gay priests in the clergy’. Who is he trying to fool when the horse has well and truly bolted on that one?!”
“The truth is the church is full of homosexuals at every level. But unfortunately, most of these gay priests have a very unhealthy attitude towards their own sexuality – which is not alone very damaging to themselves but damaging to the wider LGBT+ community.”
Belief in the virgin birth comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their birth stories are different, but both present Mary as a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. Mary and Joseph begin their sexual relationship following Jesus’ birth, and so Jesus has brothers and sisters.
Catholic piety goes beyond this, with Mary depicted as a virgin not only before but also during and after Jesus’ birth, her hymen miraculously restored. The brothers and sisters of Jesus are seen as either cousins or children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.
In Catholicism, Mary remains a virgin throughout her married life. This view arises not from the New Testament but from an apocryphal Gospel in the second century, the “Protoevangelium of James”, which affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity.
From the second century onwards, Christians saw virginity as an ideal, an alternative to marriage and children. Mary was seen to exemplify this choice, along with Jesus and the apostle Paul. It accorded with the surrounding culture where Greek philosophers, male and female, tried to live a simple life without attachment to family or possessions.
This extolling of virginity, however unlikely when applied to Mary, did have some advantages. The option of becoming a celibate nun in community with other women gave young women in the early church an attractive alternative to marriage, in a culture where marriages were generally arranged and death in childbirth was common.
Yet belief in the eternal virginity of Mary has also inflicted damage over the centuries, particularly on women. It has distorted the character of Mary, turning her into a submissive, dependent creature, without threat to patriarchal structures.
She is divorced from the lives of real women who can never attain her sexless motherhood or her unsullied “purity”.
A strong minded leader
Yet in the Gospels, Mary is a vibrant figure: strong-minded and courageous, a leader in the community of faith.
Simone de Beauvoir, the influential, early French feminist, observed that the cult of the Virgin Mary represented the “supreme victory of masculinity”, implying that it served the interests of men rather than women.
The ever-Virgin diminishes women’s sexuality and makes the female body and female sexuality seem unwholesome, impure. She is a safe and nonthreatening figure for celibate men who place her on a pedestal, both literally and metaphorically.
It is true that Catholic women across the world have found great solace in the compassionate figure of Mary, especially against images of a very masculine, judgmental God, and the brutality of political and religious hierarchy.
But for this women have paid a price, in their exclusion from leadership. Mary’s voice has been permitted, in filtered tones, to ring out across the church, but real women’s voices are silent.
In today’s context, the cult of the Virgin becomes emblematic of the way the church silences women and marginalises their experience.
Marian piety in its traditional form has a deep contradiction at its heart. In a speech in 2014, Pope Francis said, “The model of maternity for the Church is the Virgin Mary” who “in the fullness of time conceived through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of God.”
If that were true, women could be ordained, since their connection to Mary would allow them, like her, to represent the church. If the world received the body of Christ from this woman, Mary, then women today should not be excluded from giving the body of Christ, as priests, to the faithful at Mass.
The Virgin cult cuts women off from the full, human reality of Mary, and so from full participation in the life of the church.
It is no coincidence that in the early 20th century, the Vatican forbade Mary to be depicted in priestly vestments. She could only ever be presented as the unattainable virgin-mother: never as leader, and never as a fully embodied woman in her own right.
The irony of this should not be lost. A fully human Gospel symbol of female authority, autonomy, and the capacity to envision a transformed world becomes a tool of patriarchy.
By contrast, the Mary of the Gospels, the God-bearer and priestly figure – a normal wife and mother of children – confirms women in their embodied humanity and supports their efforts to challenge unjust structures, both within and outside the church.
As the Catholic Church prepares for its contended review, the Commission for Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference came to the consensus that being gay is a “normal form of sexual predisposition.”
Moreover, church organisers committed to “newly assessing” topics such as sacraments of ordination and marriage, with another revision being that adultery will not longer “always be qualified as grave sin”, the Catholic News Agencyreported.
For centuries, Church leaders have been rattled by the thought of people being sexualities other than heterosexual. But as public attitudes and governments overwhelmingly sway in favour of letting the LGBT+ community exist, the church has steadily caught up to speed.
German bishops call for homophobia to be ‘rejected’ in the church.
The German Catholic Church’s statement comes ahead of a two-year ‘Synodal Process’ by the Germans which will see a national reform consultation. Although, Vatican leaders have warned against this.
In a press release detailing the conclusions of the conference, it detailed how a panel of bishops, sexologists, moral theologians and canon lawyers deliberated how to discuss “the sexuality of man […] scientifically-theologically, and how to assess it ecclesiastically.”
The experts, consisting of bishops from four diocese, agreed in the Berlin conference that “human sexuality encompasses a dimension of lust, of procreation, and of relationships”, the release stated.
“There was also agreement that the sexual preference of man expresses itself in puberty and assumes a hetero- or homosexual orientation. Both belong to the normal forms of sexual predisposition, which cannot or should be be changed with the help of a specific socialisation.”
The panel also said that “any form of discrimination of those persons with a homosexual orientation has to be rejected.”
However, the panel did not reach a consensus across all battle lines. There was no consensus on “whether the magisterial ban on practiced homosexuality is still up to date.”
Furthermore, the experts also disagreed on whether or not both married and unmarried people should be allowed to use artificial contraceptives.