05 March 2016

Conversion Therapy and Other Queer Church Conversations

Where are my Latin sisters Still praying to Virgin Mary Rosarios, Novenas, Pomesas, despojos Ave María purísima! Forgive me for loving you The way I do (Vega 1994: 240)[i]

The Curia’s resistant response to the Bill proposing the criminalization of Conversion Therapy provoked strong reactions. As a country, Malta did move far ahead when it comes to legislating to ensure and safeguard the rights of LGBTI communities. But what the Curia’s response tells us, is that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Malta is struggling to negotiate between the changes that have taken place within our society, its own understanding and framing of homosexuality, and official teachings which do tie the hands of religious people, particularly Bishops and the Pope, even though in practice it is often talk about sex and sexuality that seems to create panic the most. One has to point out, though, that Pope Francis did bring some balance and has ruffled some feathers on a number of other issues too.  

The Curia’s position paper is to say the least highly problematic (and these have been pointed out by some in the media). At the same time, it does raise interesting, though not unproblematic philosophical questions which should not be entirely dismissed, particularly in regard to individual freedom. The bill does not address the issue of ‘praying over’, often a substitute for conversion therapy. These practices take place in both evangelical and Roman Catholic prayer groups, and as it seems these will continue to take place unquestioned- the bill only limits the practice of professionals. The Curia’s position articulates a number of questions: isn’t an (adult) individual free to choose to repress his or her sexual desires if that person wants to? Aren’t adults who are unhappy with their sexual orientation free to seek conversion therapy if they wish to do so? This is a troubling question, yet one that does raise some issues at the same time. How free is the individual to harm himself or herself? We do know that conversion therapies are deceitful because they promise what we all know can’t be guaranteed with definite assurance. Furthermore, many individuals have and continue to be harmed mainly through North American style boot camps. Peterson Toscano spent seventeen years of his life attempting to change and repress his same-sex orientation and gender differences. He then went on to come out of the closet. He was invited by the Maltese LGBTI Catholic organization Drachma twice to specifically address the matter. At the root of the discussion is not conversion therapy per se, but the understanding of homosexuality as defective heterosexuality and therefore, from that kind of understanding, conversion therapy must therefore follow- to correct.   

The Church’s document raises another important point. It reflects the concerns of some professionals, who, while they do not want to practice conversion therapy, still feel uncertain on the consequences of taking the path of criminalization. I personally feel that there needs to be further dialogue here to address these fears and concerns. Some professionals are asking: at what point can a session become defined as conversion therapy, especially when discussing sexuality with clients who are uncertain and/or confused about their own sexual orientation and sexual desires? Can professionals be falsely accused by clients? Such questions need to be part of the dialogue.  

And yet, there is one point raised by the Curia’s position paper that is extremely interesting and that we seem to have missed in the barrage of press releases and commentaries. The document which the Roman Catholic Church released, tells us that human sexuality can in actual fact be fluid and not confined to gender binaries. This is obviously no news to those who live their sexuality fluidly on a day to day basis, and are comfortable with it. Still, it does reflect at least some alertness and sensitivity to the notion that some may need and want help to better understand their sexual desires and directions they want to take, especially when they do not find themselves in any of the accepted categories that describe and articulate accepted human sexuality.

Interestingly, at the point when Government is legislating to normalize and mainstream sexual diversity, the Roman Catholic Church in Malta is paradoxically and most likely unknowingly saying: ‘Wait! Sexuality is a queer thing!’ While placing a moral judgment on some of those desires, and forcing people in a direction not congruent with their own ‘nature’ and desires is harmful, sexuality, like religion, one may surmise can well be a queer thing indeed. And now we have an official position paper, from the Maltese Curia saying there is a grey area and a complexity to human sexuality and orientations. So now we can perhaps (and finally) start having a serious anthropological-theological discussion about that. (Sadly the Curia’s position paper throws in pedophilia in the grey mix – apologies followed later).

At long last, at least in theory, and if we are to follow any logic in the implications (intended or otherwise), we may then be able to talk with Church authorities about the actual experience of human sexuality including its fluidity and queerness – let’s call them grey areas. As we have been saying for a very long time, the actual human experience of sexuality does not necessarily fit either the gender binary (the Adam and Eve narrative(s) often used (wrongly) to enforce that understanding of human sexuality in religious circles), nor the LGBTIQ narrative, that may perhaps be re-confining us in the same way that the gender binary previously did (though it offers a far more positive and affirmative narrative). 

The issue here is the creation of categories to understand a human sexuality that is itself always defied and subverted by the experiences of human beings. Another critique is that the LGBTIQ discourse is a Western conceptualization of human sexuality, and many in the so called global South fail to identify with those categories, even though there are men who have sex with men, women who love women… Others use different definitions such as sexual and gender nonconformity – language can be indeed limited when it comes to capturing the breadth and depth of the experiences of human sexuality.

Religious and secular definitions of human sexuality often oppose each other in their understanding of what human sexuality is, and what it is for, yet mirror each other in trying to define sexuality through the creation of some or other bounded category within which human sexuality is to be boxed. The document, therefore, most likely unknowingly raises an interesting point about that experience of sexuality, one that cannot be categorized. This, I reckon, may be an avenue for discussion between secular and religious narratives, and possibly also between global North and South narratives as well.   

Secular and religious leaders (not only the Roman Catholic ones) use different starting points to discuss human sexuality and its expression, and it is here that disconnections are wide and deep. What used to be considered as undesirable, is not entirely so from a secular legal point of view and the Church in Malta (not only) is not too sure what to do about all these (‘unexpected’) social developments.

The Roman Catholic Church (again not only) is stuck here. Its tradition and official teachings about human sexuality are not helping it in engaging in dialogue with today’s society. For those of us who have been critically engaged on issues of faith, sexuality, religion and spirituality, we also know that tradition itself and the entire teachings need not necessarily be dismissed, but can instead become tools to help those for whom faith remains an important part of their own lives, to re-visit those same teachings, and to critically rediscover the message of Jesus as liberating rather than an oppressive one.

Pope Francis’ statement ‘who am I to judge’ is tremendously helpful, yet not helpful enough. It does not help the Church in Malta (or any other country) to engage with secular societies and the legal changes to protect LGBTI people and at the same time align itself with those who are opposing these developments. Pope Francis’ message is often very well received, but at the same time can come across as confusing: acceptance limited to a pastoral level, while opposing legal reforms in favor of civil unions. And of course one could say he can’t do otherwise because the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are what they are. There can be no change from the side of the Church, unless there is a profound transformation of the understanding of human sexuality, but how can the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church make such a break from two thousand years of traditions and teachings about human sexuality, and more particularly about homosexuality? But it is also true that when digging through the layers of tradition, other stories emerge, and same-sex love (always interpreted as non physical) is no novelty for Roman Catholic Tradition, and we find quite a few of those narratives in scripture as well.     

The Roman Catholic Church is desperately in need of a new language about human sexuality, and it needs to listen to all research and lay findings and perspectives that have emerged in the past decades across a range of disciplines and sub-disciplines including psychology, anthropology, sociology, queer studies, gender studies, and disability studies among others. It needs to first become comfortable with and then engage a discourse that is inclusive of intimacy, pleasure, and playful delight. It needs to include the role that passion (eros) plays in leading people into relationships and communion, and at times also into conflict and violence. It is here that the Church could offer inspiration in helping societies reflect about sexuality in all of its dimensions, as a potential force for people to enjoy bodily and other pleasures, flourish and construct meaningful relationships or as a force that could also lead to the path of self-destruction or that of others.

The way sexuality is framed and presented by Church authorities does influence the way people live with, and experience their sexual passions, and  at times, especially for those of us who happen to be LGBTIQ, this influence is not a positive one (generally speaking). While theological discourse about human sexuality is affirmative – life is good (for heterosexual people), its application is often limited and fails to offer clear and practical guidance in general. Church authorities do have a knack for coming across as having an entirely negative understanding of human sexuality at a popular level. The Roman Catholic Church needs to learn or re-learn to talk about sex.

The Church itself has a number of religious and lay people, including theologians, who offer this kind of language already, and these are often marginalized. If the Church wants to be vibrant once more, the hierarchy needs to lend its ears to critical theologians and pastoral leaders, and not sideline them or even persecute them. I am recalling Don Andrea Gallo who passed away in 2013, and who often called on powerful authorities within the Roman Catholic Church to develop a more liberating theology of human sexuality that is inclusive of sexual diversity.

The Roman Catholic Church in Malta (and not only) needs to stop functioning like a museum of handed down traditions, of teachings that can only be ‘transferred’ rather than ones that are actively and critically questioned and renegotiated. Rabbi Steven Greenberg tells us that religious traditions need to work their truths through life, and not above it, they need to work inside and across its complexities. Maybe it is time to remember that Roman Catholics may have flirted too much with Greek philosophy and need to rediscover the roots of the rebel rabbi we follow inside, to re-learn from Jewish traditions, where questions are the hallmark of engaging with sacred text, and to remember that religious law should not command the impossible. Jewish teachings could help us deepen our understanding of human sexuality (of course homosexuality a contentious issue there as well).

Catholics need to interrogate those beliefs that led so many baptized LGBTI as well as theologians into exile, while traumatizing so many others, notably the families of those ‘exiled’. We need to reject the idol god fabricated and sold over the years that seems to have a constant hang-up on human sexual desires. The Roman Catholic Church has an opportunity to engage and re-discover the meanings and reasons behind its own sexual rules. After all, Christianity views human sexuality as both a gift and as sacred ground, but only within a set of parameters, and this understanding excludes many other forms of human sexuality, viewed negatively – as flaws in human nature (at least in official teachings). It is time to expand on the sacredness discourse, and also for the hierarchy to ask itself: what is the experience and expression of human sexuality (including its ‘shadow aspect’, that is when it is not life-giving but violent, and used as a weapon to harm others) telling us about our Creator and creation for those who believe? Can those understandings inspire secular society?

If the Roman Catholic Church finds the courage to embark on such a journey, it could offer a service to our contemporary society, where some of the sexually liberated may be searching for a deeper and more meaningful understanding of that liberation. At the very least, those who believe and follow Church teachings, need some of the heavy weight, burden and guilt lifted off their shoulders, because all this does is push people away or forces them to turn inwards.

The Church itself is in dire need to start engaging with and incorporating that which is sexual and spiritual within its understanding of all human beings, including their spirituality, beyond the heteronormative understanding of Creation. And maybe, a secular society with all of its advancements (and misconceptions), could be the fertile ground for today’s Church to find that space for much needed renewal on sexual matters. Maybe secular society needs to also learn not to entirely reject its complex religious history, and be humble enough to also admit that possibly, learning to dialogue with this Other, could be fruitful for society at large. And it is in the fissures, that points of encounter can perhaps be found. 

Mario Gerada is a Maltese activist who tries to navigate between his gay and Roman Catholic identities. Faith, sexuality, religion and spirituality are also academic interests he’s been grappling with for the past fifteen years or so. He is one of the founding members of Drachma LGBTI and Drachma Parents’ Groups.

Vega, B. (1994) Adónde está la Salsa en SalsaSoul? In Althaus-Reid, M. (2003), The Queer God, Oxon: Routledge.

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