Spiritual Friendship and Courage: On the Need for Variety in Ministry

This post is a somewhat tardy response to a question about Spiritual Friendship and Courage that Fr. Matthew Schneider asked last month:

First, the short, un-nuanced version: I think that each movement has something positive to contribute to the Church. Courage provides anonymous support groups, while Spiritual Friendship is more public and works toward the day when gay and lesbian people can receive all the support they need in their families and parishes. Both of us agree that friendship is important for those who are trying to grow in chastity. Like the Pope, Spiritual Friendship is comfortable using the word “gay” to describe attraction to the same sex, while many in Courage misunderstand and criticize us for this. Spiritual Friendship tries to talk about the difficult intersection between friendship and same-sex desire in a way that takes the Catholic moral tradition seriously. Some (though not all) writers at Spiritual Friendship have some reservations about the 12-Step model Courage uses. And we all disagree in varying degrees with the Freudian theories of causation that Courage has adopted, though we haven’t made attacking those theories a priority.

Now, the much longer, more nuanced version. (Because this is a large topic, this is, unfortunately, a long post. In order to make it a little bit easier, I have broken it up into sections addressing different parts of the discussion. It may be easier to come back to it and read it a bit at a time, rather than trying to read the whole article at once.)

In a 1996 interview, a journalist asked then-Cardinal Ratzinger how many ways there are to God. Ratzinger’s response was:

As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one. We have Christ’s word: I am the way. In that respect, there is ultimately one way, and everyone who is on the way to God is therefore in some sense also on the way of Jesus Christ. But this does not mean that all the ways are identical in terms of consciousness and will, but, on the contrary, the one way is so big that it becomes a personal way for each man. (p. 32)

Even if we consider only the ways to God that fall within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, the Church has always embraced a variety of approaches to spiritual growth. God gives diverse gifts, and those gifts build up the Body of Christ in diverse ways. The Catholic Church has always recognized this and so welcomed and encouraged different approaches to cultivating our own spiritual growth, sharing the Gospel, and to reaching out to those in need.

The Benedictine rule demands stability, but that did not prevent the Dominicans from embracing an itinerant form of religious life. The creative anarchy of the Franciscans coexists with the near-military hierarchy of the Jesuits. Some Catholics make the Liturgy of the Hours their main form of devotion, others pray the Rosary or the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. Lay Carmelites focus primarily on cultivating their prayer life, while those in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are dedicated to assisting those in need.

I could go on, mentioning the Legion of Mary, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Taizé Community, Opus Dei, L’Arche, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, the Knights of Columbus, the Carthusians, the Catholic Worker, the Neocatechumenal Way, and the many other very different concrete communities in which Catholics work together to live out their vocations. But the basic point is simple: there is never only one “Catholic” solution to any spiritual problem.

Spiritual Friendship and Courage?

Some have asked why, since Courage already exists, Spiritual Friendship should be necessary. It has also been suggested that, because we take a different approach, we disdain Courage.

This is not true. I was a member of Courage for 11 years, both in Seattle and in St. Louis. I attended and gave workshops at several Courage national conferences. One of the men I met in Courage, now deceased, may well have been a saint. His friendship was a tremendous source of encouragement and spiritual growth for me during my early years as a Catholic.

Of course, as with any organization run and populated by human beings, there were negative experiences along with the positive ones, and things I would have done differently if I had been in charge. But to say that is simply to say that Courage is a Catholic ministry, warts and all.

It is true that, with Spiritual Friendship, we are promoting a different approach. However, if a group of pro-lifers start a new group that promotes a different approach to achieving the same goal of protecting unborn life, we shouldn’t think that since we already have a pro-life group, no other approaches can be helpful.

Such a criticism would spring from a basic failure to understand the diverse ways the Catholic Church responds to every other human challenge in the world. It would also ignore the wisdom that problems are sometimes more readily solved when we approach them from several directions at once, rather than focusing on only one approach.

Because some critics of Spiritual Friendship have raised the question of whether our efforts are needed, and whether our project is hostile to Courage, I want to say a few things about Spiritual Friendship itself, and make some general observations about how our approach contrasts with that of Courage.

This is not an official statement on behalf of other bloggers at Spiritual Friendship; I am merely offering my own perspective on how our project relates to that of Courage.


When Courage was founded in New York City in 1980, I was in kindergarten, Eve Tushnet was still in diapers, and most of the other writers at Spiritual Friendship were not yet born.

Courage was founded at the last moment of the gay community’s post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS sexual frenzy. Many of the early members of Courage were older men who had been part of that sexual free-for-all for many years. I knew one of the founding members of the first New York Courage chapter. He was already 50 by the time Courage started, and he had lived a very colorful life (he claimed to have had a brief affair with a black-listed Hollywood celebrity during the 1950s; if I were a novelist, creative retelling of his stories—which may have already been creatively retold by the time I heard them—would keep food on my table for decades).

It seems uncontroversial to say that attitudes toward homosexuality today are very different from those in 1980, and even more different from those in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s when the early members of Courage became sexually active. It would not be surprising if people who grew up with Will & Grace and Glee have different pastoral needs than those who grew up at a time when police raids on gay bars were still routine.

When I write, I try to write for as broad an audience as possible. But my primary concern is with young Christians in their teens and twenties who are struggling with their sexuality and trying to figure out how to deal with their sexual desires in light of their faith. With regard to their formation in the virtue of chastity, they are at a particularly critical time of life (see Catechism 2342). Wise guidance at this crucial time of life can help them to cultivate chaste friendships and avoid seeking intimacy in sexual relationships. This can save them from the much more difficult path of becoming habituated to sin, and then having to break bad habits later in life.

Those who are most likely to write to me for advice have little or no sexual experience. They therefore have different concerns from the men and women I typically met at Courage meetings, who tended to have had much longer sexual histories, and frequently struggled with serious sexual addictions. Even in terms of language—as Janet Smith points out below—different age groups may need different approaches.

In this context, I will note that one observation I made over my years at Courage was that several younger, more innocent people who came to Courage meetings were overwhelmed by the sexual content of the meeting, could not identify their own experiences in the stories they heard from other members, and dropped out after a few meetings. I don’t say this to blame Courage, but simply to say that I have long seen a need for different pastoral approaches to serve different needs. I am glad that Spiritual Friendship has been able to facilitate a different kind of discussion for those who find it helpful.

Another important difference between Courage and Spiritual Friendship is that Courage is a Catholic apostolate, while Spiritual Friendship is ecumenical. We have an approximately even split between Catholic and Protestant contributors (while Gregg Webb holds down the Eastern Orthodox end of the fort all by himself). This creates both wider opportunities and additional challenges. The Catholic writers of SF, however, always aim to present an orthodox Catholic approach in our writing.

I certainly hope that what we write here will speak to a wide range of people, and I don’t deliberately exclude the older and more sexually experienced population that Courage tends to serve. But almost all of the writers at Spiritual Friendship are in their twenties and thirties, and we are trying to speak to the needs we see in our own generation, which are, for many, different from the needs that Courage is best equipped to meet.

Anonymity and Publicity

One key difference between our approach and that of Courage involves publicity. Courage provides anonymous, confidential local support to men and women struggling with same-sex attraction. Although there is more to Spiritual Friendship than this blog, the blog is the most visible manifestation of our efforts. This makes what we’re doing accessible to a much wider audience, not only men and women struggling with their sexual attractions, but also friends, family members, teachers, pastors—basically anyone who’s interested in thinking about modern debates about sexuality from a traditional Christian perspective.

For local support groups, anonymity and confidentiality make sense. However, Spiritual Friendship is performing a very different function within the Body of Christ. Our writers have published books and articles in a variety of Christian publications. We typically do a significant number of presentations to college students, clergy, youth workers, parishes, and others every year. Anonymity makes much less sense for published authors or speakers than it does for individuals seeking confidential support for sexual struggles. I couldn’t make a very credible impression if I spoke at the World Meeting of Families while sitting in the shadows with my voice disguised.

There’s also an important point about the structure of the Church here. The most basic structures for providing human formation, love, and pastoral care are the family and the local parish. These institutions play a central role in God’s plan. In Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care (2006), the USCCB highlights the role of the family and parish in providing support and encouragement:

While the bonds of friendship should be carefully fostered at all levels, loving friendships among the members of a family are particularly important. Those ministering in the name of the Church should encourage healthy relationships between persons with a homosexual inclination and the other members of their families. The family can provide invaluable support to people who are striving to grow in the virtue of chastity.

The local Church community is also a place where the person with a homosexual inclination should experience friendship. This community can be a rich source of human relationships and friendships, so vital to living a healthy life. In fact, within the Church human friendship is raised to a new order of love, that of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Courage exists, in part, because many parishes and families failed to provide the kind of friendship and support many men and women needed to live a chaste life. Because of this failure at the level of the parish and family, many people will feel safer going to talk about their struggles in an anonymous support group where everyone else struggles in similar ways.

Encourage, a support group for parents and families that is affiliated with Courage, can help to meet this need to foster loving friendships among the members of a family. Like Courage, however, Encourage focuses on support groups, and stays mostly out of the public eye.

If the family and parish are going to fulfill the role God has given them in His plan of redemption, we have to think about how to make them places where people feel safe talking about their struggles. One of the problems we face is that most talk about homosexuality in our culture goes on in the political arena, where it’s often an us vs. them issue, and that can be profoundly alienating. It signals to people that it isn’t safe to talk about their struggles. And because we hear far less about the needs of LGBT people who are part of the Body of Christ and need ministry, we don’t think as much about these needs, or talk about them. That leaves people in our families and parishes feeling isolated and alone. It’s part of why the Church’s teaching on chastity seems so daunting and unbearable to so many people.

One of the reasons that Spiritual Friendship has focused on public conversation, rather than on setting up a parallel support network, is that we think it’s important to equip existing Christian institutions to be effective ministers to LGBT people. So if I’m invited to speak at a parish, I want to talk about how that parish can become a better place of ministry, not advertise an outside group for the parish to send people to. If I speak to parents about how to deal with a gay or lesbian child, I’m not directing them to send their child to the nearest Spiritual Friendship outlet, I’m trying to answer the questions they have about how best to love their child. Sometimes, when I’m invited to speak at a Christian college or university, I’m not only invited to give a public talk to the students, but also to speak to counselors, residential life, student ministry, and others within the school who would minister to gay and lesbian students. In all these cases, I’m trying to equip the existing institutions of the Church to minister to gay and lesbian people where they are.

An important element of friendship is revealing ourselves to each other. God feels the need to confide His plans to His friend Abraham (Genesis 18:18-19; see also 2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). At the Last Supper, as Jesus pours out His final discourse to the Twelve, He calls them friends, “for all that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). For families and parishes to be places of friendship for Catholics who are attracted to their own sex, they have to be safe places for self-disclosure. The openness of friendship doesn’t require big public announcements, but it does require a safe family and parish culture. Many Catholics look to Courage for support precisely because they don’t feel that they can disclose their struggles to the people around them and get support.

This education of the Church and the family is necessary to achieve one of the goals set out in one of the earliest pastoral documents about homosexuality, Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality, which was published by the US Catholic Bishops in 1973. That document advised that homosexual Catholics should “seek to form stable friendships among both homosexuals and heterosexuals.”

I am convinced that long-term spiritual growth requires moving beyond the cocoon of a support group and becoming integrated into the broader Church. This requires individual spiritual growth, of course, but it also requires that straight friends, family members, and fellow parishioners be comfortable with building healthy friendships with gays and lesbians who are striving to follow Church teaching. Many already are, of course, but there is still substantial room for improvement.

It is worth remarking, parenthetically, that friendship is not a subject that is only of interest to same-sex attracted Catholics. I have heard from more than a few straight readers who have appreciated what we’ve written, not because of how it helps them understand their gay or lesbian friends, but because it addresses their own longing for deeper friendship. In our culture, we’ve lost a sense of the value of friendship, and presumed that the only real solution to loneliness is romantic, sexual, marital relationships. This of course makes pastoral care for gay and lesbian Christians who are trying to follow the traditional Christian sexual ethic difficult. But it also contributes to a much wider isolation felt by men and women in our culture, who have romance, but lack the robust structure of long-term friendships which did much more to tie communities together in previous generations than it can do now. The challenge of loneliness which we face so directly is actually a challenge for almost everyone in modern society. If our efforts to recover the theology and practice of friendship help contribute to a wider recovery of the value of friendship in the Church and in society at large, that will be a valuable contribution to the Church as a whole, as well as an important contribution to our own well-being.

Both Courage and Spiritual Friendship contribute to this educational process in different ways, but this is more peripheral to the mission of Courage, and more central to the mission of Spiritual Friendship.

I would add that, despite differences in emphasis, I know that some Courage chaplains who are looking for ways to talk about chaste friendship and other aspects of Christian discipleship in their local support groups have used some of our posts. I hope that, going forward, we can find additional ways to complement each other’s work.

Concerns about Language

One of the most persistent sources of disagreement between Spiritual Friendship and Courage concerns the use of language. For some members and supporters of Courage, our willingness to describe ourselves as gay is a serious stumbling block. I can understand part of the basis of the disagreement, but I also think that many have persistently misrepresented Spiritual Friendship over this issue, uncharitably reading far more into our use of language than is warranted—even after repeated clarifications.

In his public comments, Pope Francis has been comfortable with talking about “gay” people in his pastoral remarks, rather than speaking only of “same-sex attraction” or “homosexual persons.” Without fully endorsing the way Eve Tushnet and Joseph Prever use the word “gay,” Janet Smith recently offered what is, I think, a fair assessment of our perspective:

Eve Tushnet mentioned her frustration that alcoholics are encouraged to “name it and claim it” as part of their healing process but that those who have SSA are not supposed to acknowledge this part of their being publicly. This is territory Deacon Russell has covered in a multitude of previous Internet postings. He finds the analogy wanting; I find it challenging to the position that very few should speak of themselves as gay.

As I mentioned at the conference, when my generation hears “gay” we think of someone who is militantly pro-gay, one who approves of same-sex sexual relationships and is likely an advocate of same-sex marriages. But when Prever and Tushnet use the term “gay” they clearly do not mean that and quite negate those meanings by also regularly noting that they are chaste, celibate, Catholic and seeking holiness. Rather, when they refer to themselves as “gay” they seem to mean to convey that they experience same-sex attraction, that they know the experience from the inside out. They will be misunderstood when they speak of themselves as “gay,” but when they have made it perfectly clear that they want to be chaste, holy, followers of Christ, I think they may not be responsible for such misunderstandings.

I would like to offer a few more thoughts.

As I’ve already noted, Courage’s ministry focuses around support groups, while Spiritual Friendship is engaged in a public conversation. This has important implications for the way each group uses language.

In any relatively isolated conversation, the participants will develop their own jargon. This has two effects. First, the language of the group becomes better adapted to efficiently communicating within the group. Second, however, it becomes more and more opaque to outsiders. Courage has developed its own idiom, and within the group, that idiom seems to work well for talking about their struggles. It provides clarity in conversations in the group that is often missing with the language of the broader culture.

However, if you try to use the same idiom in public conversation, the result can be confusion or serious miscommunication. For example, because of the sharp distinction that Courage draws between “gay” and “same-sex attracted,” it makes sense in the Courage idiom to strongly condemn being gay, while welcoming people who are same-sex attracted. In the broader culture, however, where “gay” can mean “sexually attracted to someone who is the same sex,” the same statement can easily be heard as a condemnation of people for being same-sex attracted, an understanding which is actually contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

So language which effectively communicates Church teaching in the context of a Courage meeting may actually radically distort Church teaching in a public setting.

Another important point about language concerns interpretation. In the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, jointly issued in 1999 by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, an important part of the process of understanding Lutheran and Catholic views of justification involved sorting out terminological differences between Catholic and Lutheran theology. It is only possible to evaluate the true extent of difference between the two theological outlooks if each is interpreted according to its own use of terms.

This point flows from the point I just made. Since the Reformation, the idioms of Lutheran and Catholic theology have developed in different ways. These developments have enabled each tradition to articulate its own ideas more clearly, but also made each tradition increasingly opaque to the other. If we want to ask whether the will “cooperates” with God’s grace, for example, we need to understand whether Lutheran and Catholic theologians mean the same thing by “cooperation.” On a Catholic definition of “cooperation,” the Lutheran denial that the will can cooperate with God’s grace seems heretical. But the Declaration concludes that the two traditions are compatible, if the key concepts are properly translated into the idiom of the other tradition.

Let’s assume that it were true that speaking about “same-sex attraction” is clearer than speaking about being “gay” or “lesbian” (though I have my reservations about that; for more of my past comments on language, see here and here). Even in that case, charity would still demand that writers at Spiritual Friendship be interpreted according to the way we mean to use the terms. Interpreting our posts as if they were written in the idiom of Courage meetings is guaranteed to lead to misunderstanding. Up to a point, this sort of misunderstanding is natural. But after we have repeatedly clarified our meaning, obstinate persistence in misinterpreting our intent amounts to a moral and intellectual failure.

Nothing I have said here is meant to argue that everyone should use the terminology we use. If Courage finds its own idiom more helpful, I am not trying to take that away from them. Nor is it meant to deny that there is a fruitful discussion to be had about what terms it is prudent to use (Michael Hannon, the most articulate critic of using words like “gay” in speaking to this issue from the Catholic perspective, has offered a thoughtful critique here, here, and here).

I simply want to insist that the way we are using language should be within the range of legitimate possibilities for orthodox Catholics. The Pope is comfortable with using the word “gay” in talking about how to provide pastoral care. We have been careful to clarify what we do and do not mean when we talk about ourselves as gay and celibate. The fact that we use language differently from Courage flows, in part, from the fact that we are engaged in a different kind of conversation.

One final point to make is that although we are more engaged with broader cultural discussions about homosexuality than Courage is, we are not simply using the language of the culture without criticism. As the Spiritual Friendship project has developed, we have also developed our own idiom. “Friendship,” for example, as it is used here, draws heavily on ancient and medieval sources, as well as our own experiences of friendship. One of the challenges I encounter when I go out to speak is that my audience usually hasn’t read the ancient and medieval sources that have become so familiar to us that referencing them becomes second nature.

Thus, when I talk about friendship being a source of support for those who are unmarried, there are two common misunderstandings. First, someone may think that if friendship is to provide that support, it will basically have to be very like a romantic and marital relationship, only somehow not involve genital activity. Or, second, the person may feel that I am consigning gay and lesbian people to a basically lonely life. Neither of these perceptions reflects what I think of when I mean friendship, but they do reflect the assumptions about intimacy and friendship found in the broader culture.

I wish there were an easy way to write a single blog post that could simply create in my reader the same understanding that has emerged from years of personal experience and the study of ancient and medieval texts. But that isn’t possible. What we can do, though, and have done, is persistently explore different aspects of friendship, talk about our experiences, and refer to the books that we’ve found helpful. In this way, we hope to give our readers a sense of the possibilities of friendship, and “to encourage each other in forming and sustaining them.”

Friendship and Desire

In line with Catholic teaching and pastoral practice, both Courage and Spiritual Friendship believe that friendship is an important part of spiritual growth.

An important thread of discussion at Spiritual Friendship has focused on distinguishing licit reasons for desiring friendship with someone of the same sex from disordered desire. We agree that the inclination toward homosexual acts is disordered; but we agree with Courage that “chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life.” We believe that one of the ways to “encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships” is by understanding the differences between carnal friendships, based on the inclination toward homosexual acts, and spiritual friendships, which grow out of shared calling in Christ.

For example, if we discuss the friendship of Bl. John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John, or Newman’s writings on friendship more generally, we are not suggesting that there was anything sexual about their relationship. We are looking to their chaste and holy intimacy as a model for Christ-centered spiritual friendship. The key here is that we think that virtuous, Christ-centered friendships are a basic human good, an essential part of a flourishing human and Christian life. Lust or homosexual activity corrupts this good, while the virtues—particularly chastity—preserve, protect, and nurture this love, which is an important icon of the love of God.

When we look to Aelred of Rievaulx, we are not trying to read him through a quasi-romantic lens, as if he were a medieval Charles Ryder or Sebastian Flyte. We look to him because he does a good job of distinguishing disordered carnal friendship from rightly ordered spiritual friendship, which is important if we are to overcome temptation and cultivate chaste spiritual friendships.

In an autobiographical essay I wrote over 10 years ago now, I described a youthful friendship that, while it was not sexual, did resemble the sort of romantic friendship of Charles and Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited. But I not only explicitly criticized the emotional drama of that friendship (while praising the many things that were good in it), I also contrasted it with a more mature friendship with my straight friend Mark.

Spiritual growth does not happen automatically. It is through the process of discernment about one’s own impulses, learning, sometimes failure and repentance, that we “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” Very few same-sex attracted men will just wake up one morning knowing how to practice “disinterested friendship” (in fact, most people’s immediate sense of what this means is quite different from what the Catechism actually means by the term).

Most of us grow in virtue through a gradual process, and part of that process means learning to discern what is a desire for healthy friendship and what is disordered desire. In real life, we will only achieve chaste, disinterested, or spiritual friendship through a process of purification. Much of the most controversial writing at Spiritual Friendship has been controversial precisely because it tries to discern the real good in friendships which still contain disordered desire.

I understand the danger of misunderstanding here, but this kind discernment is necessary, and we try to conduct it while remaining deeply anchored within the Christian tradition.

In my own experience, one thing Courage truly can excel at is providing a context for same-sex attracted men and women to form networks of friendships that make the challenge of remaining within the Church and faithful to Catholic teaching not only bearable but, potentially, joyful. There were some aspects of Courage—the regular confession of sexual sin or the twelve steps—that I found unhelpful. And other aspects—like the Freudian theories of causation—that I think are plain wrong. I think Spiritual Friendship has done much more theoretical reflection on friendship than I ever heard when I was a part of Courage. But in the practice of friendship, many Courage groups excel.

Of course, mileage will vary; some local chapters are friendlier than others. And since friendship is partly a matter of shared interests and outlook, it’s a matter of luck how much a particular person will have in common with others in their local Courage group. Still, I know many men and women whose faith has been nurtured by friendships formed through Courage, and several of my own good friendships began through Courage.

12-Step Approach

Another significant difference concerns the 12 Steps, which is used in many Courage meetings. In practice, it has been my experience that the use of 12-Step materials in Courage meetings does tend to place the discussion in an addiction recovery framework. This tends to put undue focus on addictive behavior, and neglect the vocational questions that are central to Spiritual Friendship’s approach.

I would like to make three observations about this approach, two positive, and one more skeptical.

First, the 12-Step approach may be a good fit for a number of the gay and lesbian people. At one point in Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival, Andrew Sullivan is trying to describe a man he knew who embodied many gay stereotypes. Along with the 1970s mustache and being a Miss America Beauty Pageant fan, he lists “Alcoholics Anonymous theology.” Because many gays and lesbians feel alienated from traditional Christian theology, and because many have struggled with substance abuse and other addictions, it’s not uncommon to hear stories where a person’s “spiritual awakening” began in the recovery movement.

It’s easier for many gay and lesbian people, especially those who have been hurt by Christians, to begin to engage spiritually with “a power greater than ourselves” or “God as we understood Him,” than it is to encounter God as He is presented in the Bible or the Catechism (or at least the parts of the Bible and Catechism that Christians are most likely to quote to gay people). If a gay person who has begun to have a spiritual awakening through the twelve steps later begins to be drawn to more traditional Christian spirituality—John Paulk, who was for several years the most prominent face of Exodus International, and whose wife has spoken at Courage Conferences, was a prominent example of this spiritual trajectory—many aspects of Courage will feel familiar to them, while much of the idiom of the writers at Spiritual Friendship will feel unfamiliar. (Eve Tushnet is the obvious exception to this generalization.)

Second, Fr. Harvey saw the 12 Steps as a way of living a virtuous life, and saw parallels between the 12 Steps and St. Francis de Sales’ teachings in the Introduction to the Devout Life. For Fr. Harvey, each step corresponds to one or more of the traditional Christian virtues. At its best, then, the 12-Step approach can be harmonized with the deeper wisdom of the Catholic moral tradition, and can be a way of bringing the virtues into the moral life in modern dress. The steps can help to address addictive behavior if the heart desires a life of wholeness and holiness, which will be achieved by the development of the moral virtues. If 12-Step spirituality is already familiar to many gay and lesbian people, an approach that transforms the twelve steps into the pursuit of virtue can be a good approach to spiritual growth.

However, my third and more skeptical point is that Courage has not only adopted the 12-Steps, but also adopted the vague New Age theological language of “a power greater than ourselves” or “God as we understood Him.” I have two thoughts about this.

One is that there was always a disconnect for me between the very precise language of the Nicene Creed which we recited at Mass on Sundays and the extraordinarily vague theology of the 12-Steps. In translating the Creed, the Church is so concerned to get the nature of God right that we worry over the difference between saying that Christ is “consubstantial with the Father” and saying that He is “one in being with the Father.” This is quite far removed from the almost entirely subjective concept of God found in the 12 Steps. If “God as we understand Him” is an adequate way of expressing Catholic belief, St. Athanasius could have saved himself a lot of trouble. And we could have avoided the great schism if only Catholic and Orthodox churches could have agreed to the formula that the Holy Spirit “proceeds as I understand it.”

The problem here is not only with beliefs about God. At the very least, “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” blurs over the theology of the sacrament of penance, which is at the center of Catholic spiritual growth. Admitting that I’ve done something wrong to God and another human being is not the same thing as confessing the same sin sacramentally. So although I agree that many aspects of 12-Step spirituality can be helpful with acquiring the moral virtues, I would have expected a Catholic apostolate to be more careful to translate the theological language of the 12 Steps into the idioms of Catholic theology and pastoral practice. (And to be clear, in critiquing vague 12-step language, I don’t mean to suggest that Courage didn’t, at other times, talk about Catholic theology in a more precise way.)

The other thought concerns the way Courage and Spiritual Friendship are often perceived in Catholic circles. Many people speak as if Courage is the 100% pure orthodox Catholic approach, while Spiritual Friendship is at best confused and at worst fatally tainted by confused theology and anthropology. This perception is, to put it mildly, difficult to square with my experience in Courage. At Courage meetings, we recited the 12 Steps, and often brought in outside 12-Step literature. I don’t want to say that none of this was helpful to people—I think that it often was. But it was far removed from the precision of Catholic dogmatic and moral theology. When I talk to others associated with Spiritual Friendship, I have exactly the opposite experience. Many of us have strong backgrounds in philosophy and theology, and are able to make precise philosophical and theological distinctions.

I don’t think that this difference is altogether in our favor: for the pastoral care of someone struggling with sexual addiction, theological precision is not necessarily a virtue. A person who is willing to open herself to God, even if she barely understands Him at all, is in a much healthier place spiritually than a person with detailed theological knowledge who lacks humility and trust.

Regardless of the merits of the 12-Step approach, however, the Catholic Church has never made 12-Step spirituality mandatory. Yet, for many years, if I wanted to find local Catholic support in living out the Church’s teaching on sexuality, I had no option but a 12-Step Courage group. Even if 12-Step approach works extremely well for some, if other people with same-sex attraction want to draw strength from different areas of the Church’s rich spiritual patrimony, there is no reason we should not so.

Nor is there any reason to think that we “disdain” one approach to spirituality because we choose to follow another. As long as both approaches are within the bounds of orthodoxy, having more approaches means being able to provide support to a wider range of people. (Though if I may speak from my own experience, being forced to accept an approach that is not well-suited to one’s own situation can produce a kind of resentment that would not arise if the method had not been imposed from above.)

If I have reservations about the 12-Step approach, however, I’ve never made expressing those reservations an important part of my writing at Spiritual Friendship. If the 12-Step approach works well for some, I’m happy that they should use it. I am much more interested in talking about spiritual friendship as a positive way of living out our vocation in Christ than I am in criticizing other approaches (and, indeed, I am only taking up the comparison today because I have been falsely accused of having “disdain” for Courage).

Freudian Anthropology

The last difference I want to highlight concerns anthropology. In his final book, Fr. John Harvey highly praised the insights of Dr. Elizabeth Moberly into the origins and treatment of same-sex desire, using them as the foundation for his approach to pastoral care. I have read Moberly’s Psychogenesis: The Early Development of Gender Identity, which Fr. Harvey cites. It approaches same-sex desire through a thoroughly Freudian anthropology (the entire first chapter is devoted to the Schreber case, one of Freud’s more bizarre case-studies).

Both Dr. Moberly and Fr. Harvey have put a lot of thought into integrating this Freudian anthropology with a Christian understanding of the human person. Both have devoted books to working out this synthesis, and any just criticism of their work would need to consider carefully the nuances of their position.

I am not attempting to write that critique. But, I am also unpersuaded by their synthesis. Their description of the homosexual person does not match my own experience. And their reliance on Freudian anthropology seems like a strange starting point for a Christian understanding of human love and human sexuality. (Indeed, in the Theology of the Body, John Paul II condemns Freud as one of the “Masters of Suspicion.”)

However, my concern here is not to attack those who want to continue to develop pastoral care based on this Freudian account of the origins of homosexuality, though I think the approach is misguided at best.

My primary concern is to argue that Catholics are under no obligation to embrace this approach. The Catechism says that the psychological genesis of homosexuality remains largely unexplained (2357). There is therefore no basis in Catholic teaching for insisting that Dr. Moberly has explained it. (It’s worth noting that the Catechism was written several years after Dr. Moberly’s theories were published.) If Fr. Harvey and others in Courage believe these theories are helpful, they have a right to defend their opinion. But it is a private opinion, not the teaching of the Church, and not supported by the best available science.

Once again, if Courage wants to use these Freudian theories, I think they’re open to fairly obvious criticism, but I’m not trying to stop them. However, if these theories are going to be promoted within Courage, there is nothing wrong with Catholics developing other approaches that do not use these theories. Questioning Courage’s use of these theories is not questioning Catholic teaching, in any sense.

I also would point out the contrast between the common claim that Spiritual Friendship has an inadequate anthropology, and my actual experience on the ground in Courage. When I went to a Courage conference, I could more or less count on hearing a lecture on the origins of same-sex attraction which would be deeply Freudian in nature. (At one conference, I remember the late Dr. Peter Rudegeair beginning his answer to a question with the phrase, “As a Freudian analyst…”) Even in the local group, these ideas often came up. To say that Freudian theories about sexuality have no roots in the Catholic tradition is an understatement. Yet these theories have become pervasive in conservative Christian pastoral approaches to homosexuality. On the other hand, Spiritual Friendship is often accused of having an inadequate anthropology, even though the model of three kinds of friendship, which we use to understand how to grow in chastity, has deep roots in the Christian tradition. (This isn’t the place to defend this claim in depth. However, if we consider just the Summa Theologiae, for example, we find St. Thomas using the distinctions between different types of friendship in Ia 20.2, Ia-IIae 4.826.4, 27.328.1-4, 31.6, 99.2, ; IIa-IIae 23.1, 23.5, 77.1106.1, 106.5114.1, 115.1, 117.6; and Supplement 49.1, to illuminate a wide range of theological and anthropological questions.)


Over the few years, a number of members and supporters of Courage have been critical of certain aspects of Spiritual Friendship’s approach. And we at Spiritual Friendship have criticized certain aspects of the approach Courage has taken. There is nothing wrong with this: the two groups do have different ways of thinking about ministry to men and women with same-sex attraction, and thoughtful consideration of the differences can help both organizations to be more faithful to the Gospel. Charitable dialogue can also clarify possible sources of confusion.

Some of those differences, like Courage’s focus on anonymous support and our focus on publicly thinking through Christian teaching, are simply a matter of different missions leading to different approaches. If people stopped to consider that the public defense of the Church’s teaching requires more publicity than anonymous support groups need, a good deal of confusion would be avoided.

In other areas, like differences in approach to language, the reliance on the 12-Steps, and use of Freudian theories about the origin of homosexuality, there is some real disagreement about what the best approach to ministry involves. But these differences do not involve disagreement with Catholic teaching. They are prudential differences which may deserve further discussion. (For my own part, I would much rather spend my time promoting Spiritual Friendship than trying to attack the parts of Courage’s approach I find questionable or unhelpful.)

Intelligent Catholics can and will debate which approach is best. Likely, only time will tell which approach will prove more fruitful in encouraging same-sex attracted men and women to discover God’s calling in their life and grow in chastity. However, I don’t think that the argument for Spiritual Friendship needs to be an argument against Courage or vice-versa.

To assume that same-sex attracted men and women need only one possible solution—either Courage or Spiritual Friendship—would forget that the Church as a whole needs the full diversity of religious orders, third orders, and other groups that make up the Church’s spiritual support system. Different approaches to spiritual problems are the norm, not the exception, in Catholic spiritual practice.

And that is a very good thing. It helps ensure that everyone—no matter what situation they find themselves in or what challenges they face—can find a path that will lead them home to God.

12 thoughts on “Spiritual Friendship and Courage: On the Need for Variety in Ministry

  1. If anything, Ron is being *too* charitable here.

    The essence of Courage as a ministry boils down to this: an equivalence between homosexuality and alcoholism.

    It’s basically “Gays Anonymous.” (The only difference being that Courage purists would probably throw a semantic fit if anyone recommended saying “I’m Mr X…and I’m a homosexual,” rather than some circumlocution like “and I struggle with same-sex attraction.”)

    The alcoholism analogy might have some applicability to gay-sex-addicts (and they no doubt exist!) though one wonders why, in this day and age, it makes sense to separate the sodomy-addicts from the generic sex-addiction group, though I suppose some people for shame or stigma might prefer a segregated group still.

    Generally speaking, Courage tends to be associated with the belief that being gay or identifying as gay is equivalent (or often verbally ellided with, sneakily) to sexual addiction, unchastity, or “identifying with temptations,” even though the whole modern concept of orientation is much less concrete than that.

    Yet still, using that alcoholism analogy, Courage thinks ‘being gay’ is itself a moral and psychological problem that needs to be ‘quit’ via 12-step addiction methods and ex-gay psychobabble.

    To act like that’s the be all and end all of the gay experience/identity (especially for modern young people) or as if such a grim analogy is the end of what theological narrative can accomplish with gay orientation…is very impoverished and of limited pastoral utility.

  2. Well said Ron. I would like to ask one thing of you. Please don’t leave out those of us in mid-life who find great comfort in this site out. I realize you are attempting to reach a particular audience here but not everyone my age desires or needs a group like Courage. While I may have garnered some “experience” over the years, I seem to find myself yet again as a minority within a minority. Even slightly or unintentionally suggesting that “older” gay people belong in Courage and that Spiritual Friendship is mainly for a younger audience only adds to the loneliness and “homelessness” that people my age with my values already feel. I have no desire to seek out a spot in Courage. I do desire for a place at the table here. I know it is not your intention to leave anyone out, but I would like to see you more fully embrace those of us who are older.

      • I agree much with what jhuck said. I came back to the Church when I was 49, divorced and celibate/SSA, and found that I fit in virtually no groups out there. While I agree more so with the Courage concept than you may (for example on the points of confession being available at each meeting and using the 12 steps on some level), I would also assure you I am no Deacon Jim either hehe. My views may be closer to his than yours but my attitude closer to yours than his if that makes sense. So I don’t quite fit either the mold of Courage or Spiritual Friendship at times frankly. And it is a lot like being, as jhuck said well, a “minority within a minority.” For the record I think much, and I mean much, of what you are doing has deep value and that both groups can learn hugely from each other, as well as others with varying perspectives too, Catholic or not, sexually active or not. Back to when I returned to Rome a decade ago, the Church at that time had numerous outreaches to the young, older adults, poor, and rich, and “singles,” (code word for looking/prowling for a spouse usually) but to the 2 job working middle class/middle aged SSA/”celibate gay” person such as myself not so much existed then and still does not. I still have my doughnuts mostly alone after Mass unless I force myself upon a family sitting together. And now I am nearing 60 and still find that I am very much journeying alone at times in many ways, even though I have lots of good acquaintances and even a few deeper friendships in my life, for which I am very fortunate. In any case need for far better integration which you have identified on this site is certainly in many ways valid to say the least, and true for celibate “straight” folks too.

        Incidentally Ron I have been looking for a way to contact you personally for months other than public posts which may or may not totally fit the topic posted. How does one actually do that? You invited jhuck to do so but I am not sure how or where to do so and that too is frustrating. There seems to be no link here for personal correspondence with any of you who run or contribute to this site for that matter. Maybe I am missing it, and if so please let me know. Also is your talk from this week going to be available in video form? I would be very interested in seeing it and am sure many others who could not attend WMOF may also. Thanks so much and God bless you in your efforts. If you wish you may reach me at my personal email rgevans415@comcast.net. I know you are more than busy but as said some things are difficult to discuss in the comments section. Thanks again!

      • Thank you Ron. I appreciate that. If I can think of something specific I will be sure to share it. In the meantime, keep doing what you do. 🙂

    • You are completely correct. I think I’m close to the same age as you- and while I’m straight, I’ve been directly harmed by the culture wars to the extent that I have a hard time putting a “charitable interpretation” on the use of the word gay. I was part of the initial movement in college for the Church to provide support for people with AIDS- led by my hero St. John Paul The Great, who was working on this 1987-1992. BEFORE the gay marriage debate turned things incredibly ugly, before The Church of the Holy Redeemer was vandalized, before the only treatment for the AIDS epidemic became to hand out second-rate condoms that neither stopped transmission or in heterosexual use, stopped pregnancy.

      I now know that a part of my problem with the New Homophiles is indeed their focus on early 20s, before sexual orientation is set in stone. For that I applaud them, and will in the future try to make up for what I see as their shortcomings talking to my generation.

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