Using modern science to treat homosexuality
December 7, 2015 (CrisisMagazine) -- Homosexuality is an issue that has been shaped by Western values, and is now front-and-center in almost every country and culture around the world, especially those societies influenced by secular humanism. But even more traditional societies, such as those in Africa, have not gone unaffected by it, given how social media shrinks our globe.
In polemics over homosexuality, Catholicism is often falsely accused of being both “homophobic” and “anti-science.” But the Catholic Church is far from being against science, a fact that can be seen by the large number of priests who have been top scientists, such as Georges Lemaître, who proposed the Big Bang theory, and Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. In fact, the Church encourages the upright work of scientists in all fields. Simply reading what the Church officially teaches about science—today and historically—would easily confirm this positive view (e.g., see parts 1 and 2 of the Introduction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1987 “Instruction,” Donum vitae).
Moreover, the Church shows respect for science in affirming that scientific inquiry proceeds according to its own particular laws and principles. Vatican Council II’s Gaudium et spes proclaimed that science has a legitimate autonomy (see 36 and 59). The recognition that science has a legitimate autonomy does not mean, however, that there are no moral principles it must respect. Indeed, the Church reminds scientists—many of whom are Catholic Christians and other persons of religious faith—that the integrity of their vocation and work depends on its conformity to moral truth and respect for the dignity of the human person.
The Church also warns of a reductionist account of the human person, e.g., reducing our understanding of the person to what can be known by means of the positivist scientific method alone. As much as we need the investigations carried out by modern science, we need reminding that science alone cannot answer every question. This is why it is so important for everyone to listen to the testimonies of those who consider themselves as having same-sex attraction (SSA). Of course, scientists too from relevant fields (e.g., genetics) should listen to that lived experience, as they have done. But other disciplines, such as philosophy, theology, and psychology—more humanistic in their approach and aims—should also be part of this listening and learning process.
This work is needed now more than ever. Our culture is greatly confused about the person, sex, marriage, and the family. Again, not exactly the newest of news! This confusion has only grown over the past several decades, especially in the West, as witnessed by the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in America and other countries. Yet the secular culture bullies the Church and others who might offer hope to persons with SSA seeking to live chastely and/or to change their sexual orientation in order to cease these efforts, even going so far as to legally ban “reparative therapy” for children and teenagers—”junk science,” they disparagingly call it.
At the same time, in utter contradiction, when individuals struggle with gender dysphoria, i.e., transgenderism or transsexualism, the culture often condemns those who merely raise questions about the advisability of the radical transformation of a man to a “woman” or a woman to a “man.” This “transitioning” can only be affirmed, never criticized, say the Thought Police, in this ideological atmosphere of selective non-judgmentalism.
This is why I believe that clinical psychology—at least one with a sound philosophical anthropology—is most advantageous. These clinicians actually work directly with individuals who suffer with SSA. Of all scientific professionals, the clinical psychologist is probably best situated to treat, as well as gain insights into, the homosexual/lesbian orientation. These therapists are the best suited for the task, because they are the most familiar with the struggles of these clients. They see the psychic wounds, and hear the often-tragic life stories of people who have been troubled by their same-gender sexual orientation. (Of course, family and close friends, priests and ministers, etc., are also often aware of these struggles, but are not usually involved in a professional therapeutic relationship with the person with SSA.)
They are also most attuned to, and willing to maintain, the “normal–abnormal” distinction when it comes to mental health. In some way, they have to uphold the distinction in order to help their patients: for they come face-to-face with it every day and see the negative effects of this abnormality. (I purposely avoid using the older terms employed in psychology and moral theology, “perversion” and “deviancy,” which, to me, imply a certain element of choice which the term “abnormal” can, of course, allow for, but does not explicitly indicate.)
This explains why I find the comment by the respected French priest-psychotherapist Tony Anatrella, who specializes in clinical and social psychology, so telling. In his 2006 essay in the Pontifical Council for the Family’s Lexicon titled “Homosexuality and Homophobia,” Anatrella observes that the view which denies there is a psychological problem at the root of homosexuality “does not correspond to the opinion of the majority of practitioners, who are forced to keep quiet so as not to be punished in the name of the politically correct orthodoxy in fashion” (p. 427; the first emphasis is mine).
This forced silence of those most familiar with SSA is not only deafening, it is destructive for those who suffer with the inclination. If homosexuality “corresponds to a sexual inclination that occurs during the affective development of the person but which is based on an unresolved psychological conflict,” as Anatrella argues, then we do an injustice to SSA persons who do not receive the best treatment they deserve.
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In my observation, most physicians who treat bodily illnesses do not have a worked-out theory of human nature. They simply recognize from medical training and experience the difference between healthy and unhealthy functioning. In the area of psychotherapy, many therapists and counselors are in the same boat: they do not always have a theoretically detailed knowledge of human nature and mental illness, but rather an experiential understanding (a “working model”) gathered from their education and practice. Nonetheless, they know well a neurotic mind from a healthy mind.
Psychotropic drugs have worked miracles in restoring normal mental functioning in all sorts of troubled patients, e.g., those with schizophrenia, among others. The “pharmacological revolution,” as Francis Fukuyama has called it, coupled with the discovery of the biological basis of much mental disturbance, has enabled psychiatrists to work wonders treating patients with various debilitating afflictions of the mind having a biochemical basis. If cancer and schizophrenia are clear-cut cases of physical illness and mental illness, respectively, certain bodily ailments, however, remain mysterious in their origins and/or treatment. Such is true as well in the mental health field, where the interplay between nature and nurture or environment and choice is involved. I think of the issue in focus, i.e., homosexuality: its causes, cures, and cultural aspects. There are still many things we simply do not know, or do not know well enough.
Presupposing the historic truth of Christian teaching on homosexuality, there is, unfortunately, no drug available (as of yet!) that one could take in order to restore or create normal heterosexual functioning. Today, of course, the majority of psychologists and mental health care professionals deny that there is anything abnormal about homosexuality. Famously, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in the early 1970s. This was due primarily to political pressure more than anything having to do with the objective findings of an impartial psychiatric science (cf. Anatrella, p. 431).
My point here is that with sexual appetites or inclinations—whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual—we are faced with a complex phenomenon that exists on a wide spectrum. It has refused to be mastered by the methods of empirical science alone. Unlike many physical diseases, one cannot, as said, just give a person a drug: either to make him gay/make her lesbian, or to make this “gay” person heterosexual. (That is not to deny the possibility of a genetic component.)
Many of the clinical psychologists who treat patients seeking relief from their SSA have, in fact, a true assessment of this condition. They understand that the inability to establish a true marital relationship with a person of the opposite sex is harmful to the person with SSA. Without a one-flesh union, the possibility of a family—the very biological purpose of sex—is also obviously impeded. (Unless of course artificial reproductive techniques are used; but even then the natural family is still seriously compromised.) This is nothing less than a disability. To be precise, it is a psychological disorder before it is anything else. This disorder can impede the exercise of one’s freedom. To what degree we are not always certain. But we do know that it can lead to forms of behavior that are both physically and morally harmful, regardless of the matter of one’s responsibility for those behaviors. There’s nothing “homophobic” about saying that. The unwillingness of much of our culture, for whatever reasons, to admit this will, in fact, doom many SSA-afflicted men and women to lives of misery. You cannot help someone—and we all need help in dealing with our various moral and non-moral afflictions—you do not consider to be in need of help in the first place. True happiness is based on a realistic assessment of one’s own condition—the physical, mental, moral, spiritual, and intellectual aspects—and another’s.
But man-woman sexual complementarity is so fundamental and so obvious—literally rooted in our bodily and psychological make-up—that only sin-induced blindness could prevent us (and our culture) from acknowledging it. The loss of (human) nature has, in fact, blocked many persons from seeing this anthropological fact as a fact. Our postmodern culture likes to think of itself as having moved beyond such “outdated” ideas as truth, reality, objectivity, identity, absolutes, and so on. Everything now is, as the saying goes, “socially constructed.” And that includes such givens as nature, sex, and gender.
But without the acceptance of such created-by-God givens as these, we really have no stable and universal standard for determining if we have attained authentic progress, or pseudo-progress (cf. St. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 53). Everything, then, exists in flux without a fixed point of reference for evaluating changes and developments in politics, culture, science, medicine, ethics, and so on. In healthcare, including mental healthcare, notions such as normal and abnormal, sick and healthy, are basic and essential to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of pathology. Part of the effectiveness of the care—not only psychological, but also pastoral, and so on—offered to homosexually-inclined persons depends on (re)affirming (often in the face of opposition!) these fundamental givens of our human nature.
Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.