Politics and misrepresentation over ‘conversion therapy’

Al Kresta

Al Kresta

Politics organizes our common civic life together. In contrast, the sciences figure out how the material universe works. Questions about evolution, global warming, the cause of dinosaur extinction (I’m told it wasn’t smoking or drinking but perhaps some other lifestyle issue) or whether homosexuals can be “converted” into heterosexuals are scientific, not political or theological, questions. Such questions cannot be settled by popular vote, political decree or Scripture quotes. Nevertheless, President Obama is politicizing science and wants to outlaw “conversion” therapies for homosexual youth who are troubled by unbidden and unwanted same-sex attraction.

This is what we need to know.

First, the Catholic Church has no dog in the fight over the origin of same-sex attraction or the degree to which it can be changed. It is pastoral malpractice to try and settle these scientific questions by an appeal to Catholic faith and morals. Homosexuals are to be treated with compassion and respect and Catholics must avoid any sign of unjust discrimination toward them.

Second, the president’s use of the term “conversion therapy” is misleading. No professional therapist promises 180 degree change for same-sex attracted men who just saunter in and do a few rounds of therapy. “Conversion therapy” is a straw man that gay activists use as a bogey man to discredit Catholic moral concerns.

Third, the president and his activist supporters claim that overwhelming scientific evidence shows that “conversion therapy” is harmful. Then, in an intellectual slight of hand, all efforts to assist homosexuals dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction is condemned as “conversion therapy.”

Perhaps the president is thinking about certain deliverance ministers who insist that if those with same-sex attraction just pray or get born again they will be “converted” into heterosexuals. This is both bad theology and bad therapy. Failed attempts at change can lead to depression. But there is no overwhelming scientific evidence that condemns all professional attempts to help those with same-sex attraction.

One study by Shidlo and Shroeder intended to prove that efforts to change produced harm. Titled “Homophobic Therapies: Documenting the Damage,” it appealed to a sample population predisposed to report harm. They believed that because homosexuality is immutable, it is an identity to be embraced. Attempts to alter one’s identity would only end in frustration and harm. Philosophically, that, of course, assumes the very conclusion that must be proven by evidence. Is homosexuality absolutely fixed?

According to Shidlo and Schroeder, most participants reported no change. Many reported harm. But, against their expectations, a modest percentage reported benefits from attempting change. On the other hand, four significant studies by Schaeffer, Spitzer, Wade, Jones and Yarhouse demonstrated far more positive than negative results from similar therapies.

For instance, a 2010 study by Fordham University’s Jay Wade found that men with unwanted same-sex attraction can experience some degree of healing by developing healthy non-sexual relationships, i.e., friendships, with other men.

These men reported a decrease in homosexual behavior and feelings and some degree of increase in heterosexual feelings and behavior.

What accounts for these favorable changes? First of all, the goal of professional therapy is not conversion from homosexual to heterosexual, but identifying the underlying causes of their same-sex attraction. Occasionally, people who identify themselves as “ex-gay” claim that Jesus worked a miracle in their soul and released them from bondage to same-sex attraction. He not only forgave their sin and reconciled them to God but extinguished their disordered sexual desires.

I have encountered and enjoyed dozens of such stories. As a Catholic, I do believe in such miracles. I don’t believe, however, in licensed professional therapists fostering extravagant expectations and then charging money for promised “miracles.”

In the scientific literature, we learn that success depends on many factors:

  • the professional expertise of the mental health professional
  • a good therapeutic relationship between counselor and client
  • adequate length of time for treatment
  • significant social support for treatment
  • the absence of other psychological problems, particularly addictions.

Treating conflicts in male confidence and sustained chastity are essential. Chastity correlates with personal satisfaction and happiness. In contrast, promiscuity correlates with various psychopathologies. Through these therapies, many experience positive change in their overall psychological functioning.

Unfortunately, our society is settling the political questions surrounding homosexuality even before we know the causes of same-sex attraction. At least four different theories remain plausible and have some degree of empirical confirmation. Consequently, modesty and humility should mark our probing into this very deep mystery of our humanity. Neither religious triumphalism or political flippancy helps. If we don’t know the origin of same-sex attraction, we can rest assured that we probably haven’t yet nailed down what degree of “change” is possible. For a sober look at what we know and don’t know, see Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse’s “Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate” and their related work.

While knowledge is power, those in power don’t have any privileged right to determine what is knowledge. The dispassionate, apolitical love for truth that drives the greatest men and women of science often eludes those running for political office.

For those troubled by homosexual feelings, hope exists. At couragerc.net, honest, loving, spiritual and social support is available from those who know the difficulties, firsthand. Also, “Desire of the Everlasting Hills” is a beautifully produced DVD that doesn’t preach or lobby but, rather, tells the stories of three adult Catholics struggling with same-sex attraction but who remain committed to the Church’s moral teaching. For a free copy, email me at [email protected] and I’ll send it out at no charge.

Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.