Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Homosexuality and the Catholic Church: Book Review (Part 2)
This is a guest post by Resty Odon, a freelance writer whom I have invited to comment on this issue, regarding the much talked about book by Fr. John Harvey. We in the SSA ministry did not expect to get this much publicity from the media but we are grateful for the opportunity to present our stand on this issue from a biblical and Christian perspective.
How God Sees Same-Sex Attraction
Book Review: Harvey, John. (2007). Homosexuality and the Catholic Church: Clear Answers to Difficult Questions. West Chester, PA: Ascension Press. 167 pp.
It's a great joy to learn that a Catholic priest has specialized on a difficult subject often misunderstood even among the clergy and devout Catholics. We may have heard about Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, as the New York-based priest who is the founder of Courage (among other things), but we never knew he wrote a series of books on homosexuality. This book, Homosexuality and the Catholic Church, is his fourth and last, having passed on just late last year. And what a last book it is! It is entirely different from the many books we've read on the subject in that he raises the discourse to a whole new level by looking at the big picture.
Here, he gives us an even better perspective by attempting to marry or at least stitch together strains from subtopics under the continuum spanning behavioral science and psychology, philosophy, Christian morality, and Catholic theology. In the attempt to shed light on a confusing and highly politicized subject, the ideas covered delightfully run the gamut and come unexpectedly one after another. But in Fr. Harvey's expert hands, these thoughts and ideas come together as a fresh guiding light for a conflicted world. I say 'expert' because Fr. Harvey is not only a priest or pastor, but also a moral theologian, a spiritual director/formator, as well as a psychologist/psychotherapist and counselor. He is not just a specialist, but also an integrator of disparate ideas, and this book is a treasure trove of new hopeful and exciting finds.
Structured in the question-and-answer format, the book turns a challenging subject written in a quite intimidating level of language into one that is manageable enough to the widest possible target audience without the risk of oversimplifying complex concepts. The only requirement here, apart from a considerable facility with the language, is an open mind. One can jump from one question to the next and go back and forth without much difficulty. Each question more or less can stand alone but each section flows logically from one question to the next.
Not only are all the right questions asked; focus is also made on the hardest questions, backed up by the most reliable scientific evidence and the most credible and authoritative (i.e. Church-approved) opinions. Same-sex attraction is not only explained here psychologically, but also through sacred Scripture (which for Catholics is always interpreted in the context of Tradition).
Since same-sex attraction (now abbreviated to SSA), on the surface, is about sex, Fr. Harvey can not help but touch on matters closely related to it: masturbation, pornography, addiction/compulsion, chastity, friendship, marriage, and even contraception and same-sex adoption, plus Catholic Church's views on each of these issues since time immemorial. Entire sections have been devoted to these associated subjects in a way that is ample and not dragging.
The reader might be turned off by the heavy, i.e., nosebleed-inducing, theology, but all that is necessary, if one is to gain a better understanding. With some perseverance, the reader emerges edified, struck that the Magisterium of the Church is right all along in trusting its instinct that same-sex attraction is what it really is, an "intrinsically disordered" phenomenon often caused by childhood abuse; it is a disorder that, when acted upon, always violates natural and moral laws. I use the word 'instinct' because the Church's view is in consonance with existing views of the world's major faiths.
If "intrinsically disordered" sounds harsh, that's probably the harshest phrase one can ever find in this book. More than being informative, the book is a carefully calibrated explanation, exhibiting an amount of care and compassion I seldom come across in the other works I have perused. Fr. Harvey was so kind to avoid using words loaded with stigma. He avoids mention of neurosis, sickness, disease, or mental illness. He cautions against labeling and easy stereotyping, avoiding the usual pitfalls of politically incendiary words and phrases. Far from causing further animosities, divisions, and wars, Fr. Harvey instead enlightens with qualifications that are mind-openers without infantilizing his subject group. He offers the hope of change to those who are willing, with no one being forced to do what he or she doesn't believe in. To him, the terms 'homosexual,' 'gay,' and 'lesbian' should no longer be used because these labels tend to define the whole person suffering from same-sex attraction; he prefers the term 'same-sex attraction,' which focuses on just one aspect of a person and does not define the person in his or her totality.
Fr. Harvey is hesitant as well to use 'sex orientation,' for he says it implies, wrongly, that it is a permanent condition (it is not; it is changeable). Furthermore, he uses 'trauma' instead of 'abuse,' which tends to presume intentionality on the part of the parent/caregiver. He uses 'subrational tendency' instead of 'neurosis' outright. Personally, I feel edified, even mortified, by the level of compassion exhibited that I am moved to contrition. This book exposes my great misunderstanding, even ignorance, of same-sex attraction.
His choice of terms can hardly be called politically correct either, because when he proceeds to explain the causes (or etiology) of SSA, he doesn't blink, covering all the bases and calling a spade a spade. He never shirks from his duty to tell the truth, using the best specialists (mostly Elizabeth Moberly and Gerard van den Aardweg) to back up his claims.
But the difference is he tells the truth without coming off hate-filled and discriminatory or ridiculing or looking down on SSA sufferers. He even inserts the essential reminder never to judge the SSA sufferer rashly, for we do not know exactly the issues he or she is dealing with (p. 16).
The book is peppered with so many insights we never saw coming. Here are my quick paraphrases: "God does not make people homosexual, but allows it for some mysterious reason" (p. 13). "Nobody ever chose to be homosexual" (p. 15). (Do gays ever really want to be gay?) "Continence is different from (interior) chastity" (p. 15). "98% of the population are not 'homosexual'" (p. 11). "Same-sex attraction per se is not pathological, but an attempt to solve one's gender identity problem. What is pathological is the defensive detachment that results in attachment loss and intensified desire to compensate for that perceived loss" (p. 5-6). "Bisexuality is really a form of homosexuality" (p. 13). The only fault I can see in this book is its numerous typographical errors. But that's a minor complaint side by side the important ideas and subtle distinctions it puts forth. I predict this book will be Fr. Harvey's long-lasting legacy.
Among other wonderful discoveries here include the use of St. Francis of Sales' principles of spiritual direction, St. Augustine's thoughts on freedom of the will and addiction (all kinds), and an unforgettable anonymous essay on the evils of pornography. The rest of the book contains invaluable information not found in other books: norms for seminary admissions, the Courage and Encourage support groups and the 12 Steps, spiritual direction for people with SSA, other organizations helping people manage or overcome SSA (with programs in support of different goals, from chastity to reorientation/reparative therapy), and the dissenting Catholic organizations (yes, there are such organizations, and they call themselves Catholic!).
This book is probably the closest we have right now on how God sees same-sex attraction.
(The Philippine edition of this book, published by the Columbans through Fr. Dave Clay, is dedicated to Joe Garcia, the first Filipino director of Courage Philippines.)