Q&A: Psychologist explains Church teaching on same-sex attraction
The Denver Catholic Register interviewed psychologist Stephen A. Hopkins who studied the impact of the Courage and EnCourage ministries on men with same-sex attraction. The interview below has been edited for space and clarity.
By Roxanne King
CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters
Q: Does Catholic teaching about same-sex attraction and its causes differ from the secular medical perspective?
A: Yes, Catholic teaching does differ from some secular psychology on its teaching about same-sex attraction (SSA). Yet, secular psychology itself is divided over this issue. Recently, the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Concerns Office task force for the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a report criticizing religions that fail to condone homo-genital behavior as promoting “the stigmatization of homosexuality” (American Psychiatric Association, 2009).
For years such groups have attempted to change Church teaching and place bans on “reparative therapy” for those who wish to grow in their heterosexual maturation. I suspect that such efforts will continue to fail.
I say this because of the recent growth of empirical research that “reparative therapy” works. In fact, Dr. Robert Spitzer concluded a study of 200 ex-gays who completed “reparative therapy” and found that people can and do come out of homosexuality and that, five years after therapy, the benefits are seen as stable and there is no indication of harm. It was particularly striking that this report came from Dr. Spitzer, as he is the man responsible for removing homosexuality from the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1973. Yet, large national surveys repeatedly find higher rates of psychological distress for people with SSA.
They are more depressed, suicidal, anxious and have deep a sense of social and internal isolation. So it is great as a mental health professional to see the advances in understanding and treating this condition. All of this confirms what the Church has been teaching for centuries. While there is no moral fault in having same-sex attractions, homo-genital behavior is not—ultimately—helpful.
Q: Does Catholic teaching say what causes same-sex attraction?
A: No, the Church leaves that to science. Unfortunately, powerful political forces have attempted to obscure what science has found on this topic. Although the American Psychiatric Association’s LGBT task force would strongly disagree with me, more than 100 years of clinical observation and the best empirical data all point to primarily early attachment issues and difficulty in the gender-identification and individuation stage of development. This usually starts before the second year of life, although some have primary gender-identification trauma later in their childhood (about 20 percent of SSA men; while SSA women have high rates of childhood sexual molestation).
What the Church does say is that homosexuality is an objective moral disorder and that homo-genital behavior is spiritually hurtful (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1986). I once thought that this was a harsh teaching. I mean these people didn’t choose to have SSA. Why can’t they enjoy sexual intimacy like everyone else? But I have found that the natural, psychological reality shows that homo-genital behavior is a misguided reparative attempt that is not helpful. Hence, the Church’s response is compassionate and compatible with science.
Q: Tell me about the so-called “gay gene.”
A: Not much to tell. There is none. Time magazine ran a banner across their cover in the mid-1990s “Science finds Gay Gene.” The problem was that subsequent studies were unable to replicate the findings and all those studies have been discredited. Right now some people are looking at the influence of prenatal hormones that, if interrupted could result in a low-masculinized brain in some male fetuses. However, there is no evidence right now to support this theory. There is certainly a lot we have yet to learn; however, from what we know it is unlikely that there is a hard gene determining sexual orientation, but rather there is a possibility of pre-dispositional factors that could interact with one’s experiences during childhood psychosexual maturation. Clinical observation does find that many SSA men are more interpersonally sensitive. This explains how they can more easily suffer the types of traumas seen in the early histories of many SSA people.
Q: Do you have experience treating anyone with same-sex attraction? If so, have they been freed of the condition and/or perhaps successfully gone on to healthy heterosexual relationships and even marriage?
A: Yes, and I’ve had positive results. I don’t have longitudinal rates, but I have seen respondents from the Courage study sustain positive heterosexual marriages. These guys tend to be great husbands and fathers because they have really had to look at themselves and deal with their issues in ways the average guy does not.
Q: What advice would you offer to someone who is struggling with this issue themselves?
A: For someone with SSA to spend time reading the Denver Catholic Register—and to stay with this article at least to this point—says something about their ability to listen to ideas, even if they conflict with some of their most basic feelings. It may indicate that they have a capacity and desire to love Jesus in a heroic way. Yet, the reader may feel discouraged or find it extremely difficult to do it alone. I can think of no other psychological issue in which support from other people who share your goals is so absolutely vital. This is why it is so important for the Church to support Courage.
Q: What advice would you offer to a family member struggling with same-sex attraction?
A: To parents of SSA persons I would simply say, uphold the truth and love the person. If they ask what you believe, don’t compromise the truth to avoid an uncomfortable moment. Yet, speak the truth with compassion. Once they know your position, you never have to bring it up again unless they ask you. Join EnCourage (Catholic anonymous support group for family members with SSA members). You will receive invaluable support from others who have been there before you. If there is not a local EnCourage chapter in your area, speak to the National Courage Office (www.CourageRC.net) and to local priests who would be most supportive in helping you to start such a chapter. If your child is young, seek professional help from a knowledgeable mental health provider experienced in gender-affirmation therapy (not gay-affirmative therapy). If you cannot find one locally, contact the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (www.narth.com) for further assistance. Call trusted clergy, such as a local Courage or EnCourage chaplain (see story on Courage & EnCourage on Page 3 or click here). If your child is an adult, don’t nag him or her to change. Attempts to control the situation or confront it with power will be destructive.
Q: What would you say to those who see the Church as lacking compassion toward those with same-sex attraction?
A: Some argue that greater acceptance and tolerance of homo-genital behavior would help to reduce the suffering of that population. They believe that in failing to call homosexual behavior good, the Church is being cruel. Yet, we see just the opposite. The Dutch have been hailed as leading the world in establishing equality for same-sex couples, yet we find increased psychological distress among SSA people there rather than less. Those with a history of homosexual activity in that part of the world have the highest rates for suffering psychiatric pathologies and for all phases of their life beyond adolescence. The more I see the psychological pain associated with homo-genital behavior, the more I understand the profound compassion of the Church’s teaching.
Stephen A. Hopkins, Psy.D., attended the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va., where he completed his doctoral dissertation on the impact of chastity and religious participation upon same-sex attracted men who are members of Courage. He is a graduate of Oxford University, and the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco. He is currently in private practice in Nashville, Tenn.