Conversion Therapy is variously understood, but essentially defined as the practice of attempting to change someone’s (or one’s own) sexual orientation, usually from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, and so cease to be what St Paul called παρα φυσιν (para phusin), ‘contrary to nature’ (Rom 1:26, 11:24), and instead to do what is ‘natural’. Over many decades (if not centuries) it has consisted of all manner of remedial interventions from reconditioning thoughts through genital electrocution to behavioural modification through psychiatric counselling (and an awful lot in between, and some methods beyond those polarities). Chemical castration is more libido-neutering than conversion therapy, though it is often included under the aegis.
The ethics of the practice have long been a subject of intense debate (not at least in the General Synod of the Church of England), principally because of the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual damage which Conversion Therapy can cause, and has indeed undoubtedly caused. Alan Turing’s suicide is well known, but less well known are the many thousands of children, teenagers and young adults who have been (and still are) coerced into programmes of psycho-spiritual intervention in order to ‘correct’ their sexual orientation, from one of “objective moral disorder” to “the divine plan of the loving and live-giving union of men and women in the sacrament of marriage” (Cardinal Ratzinger, 1986). “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” (ibid.)
The problem now, of course, is that to refer to the homosexual inclination or the homosexual act as being an intrinsic, objective or moral disorder is to express ‘hate’. And to adduce ‘evil’ in this context is simply evil. No matter how much love you emphasise, and how much pastoral care you exhort, the assertion of ‘disorder’ is all that’s heard, even as you try to explain that ‘disorder’ simply means ‘not normal’, because even in that ‘not normal’ is a rich vein of offence waiting to be taken by those who repudiate normative sexual complementarity.
We can all agree that electrocuting people’s genitals in order to change someone’s sexual orientation is evil: it is torture, and is rightly banned. We can all probably agree, too, that hormonal castration is barbarous, and that psychological counselling in order to change a person’s sexual orientation is a dangerous pseudo-science, not least because practitioners rarely have formal medical qualifications, and the practice so easily becomes controlling and coercive.
Conservative MP Alicia Kearns is absolutely right to demand a ban on any form of Conversion Therapy which involves abuse – emotional, psychological, physical or spiritual. She writes:
So-called ‘conversion therapy’ is just as it sounds: attempts to use medical, psychological and social methods to ‘convert’ someone away from their innate sexual orientation. It can range from ‘therapy’ and prayer sessions, to aversive treatments like electroshocks or even ‘corrective’ rape. The impact is deeply harmful, causing life-long difficulties in forming relationships, experiencing positive emotions and maintaining self-esteem as well as painful physical manifestations of abuse.
This led Mike Judge in the Evangelical Times to denounce Alicia Kearns for equating prayer with rape, which, he says, “could make it illegal for churches to advocate biblical sexual ethics in sermons, prayers, bible studies, or pastoral counselling”.
Yet the Tory MP made it clear that her proposal must not impinge upon freedom of religion: “There must, of course, be provisions made for the complex discussions around faith and sexuality too, and any ban should include a recognition of our fundamental freedoms of thought and belief.” And it is frankly absurd that any politician, let alone a female one, would believe “prayer sessions” to be analogous with “corrective rape”: she was expressing Conversion Therapy on a spectrum; that is from prayer to rape, and it doesn’t aid understanding of the ethical complexities of the issue to foment hostility.
But are the concerns justified?
The State of Victoria in Australia has just banned Conversion Therapy, and that includes prayer:
The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill bars any therapy that attempts to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, the Australian Associated Press reports. The proposal includes in its definition of conversion therapy “carrying out a religious practice including but not limited to, a prayer-based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism.”
So a minister of religion who prays for someone with unwanted same-sex attraction could face up to 10 years in prison, and if you just send the person out of state to pray in order to avoid the law, you’ll get a fine of up to $7,700. Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders wrote a joint letter of objection:
“It places arbitrary limitations on parents, families and people of faith,” the statement continued. “People change for all kinds of reasons, and should feel free to do so, whether it be on matters of personal identity, gender, sexuality, family association, or religion. Contrary to its intent, this bill obstructs people’s freedom by limiting, restricting and removing options for their good, thereby creating undesirable possibilities of harm.”
What is interesting here is the conflation of unwanted coercive correction, which is undoubtedly abusive, with desired internal transformation, which is the pursuit of holiness. Certainly, prayer sessions may be oppressive and abusive: we all know the ‘God told me to‘ type of prayer which is more manipulation than piety, but if a teenage boy or a young man struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction seeks counsel from a minister of religion or trusted elder, it cannot be against the law to pray with him that his burden might be lifted. Certainly, that burden might be lifted with self-acceptance and the extinguishing of guilt, anxiety and depression; but equally might it be lifted with a profound desire to draw closer to God; to overcome lust with love.
Prayer is not bullying or forced transformation; it is the means by which we move closer to God’s will through adoration, confession, intercession, petition and thanksgiving. Anyone who uses prayer to inculcate guilt destroys innocence: if ‘Thou shalt not..’ hinders the sensitive soul in the understanding of sin, mercy and the pursuit of holiness, it becomes spiritual abuse. The understanding has to be deeply spiritual, not superficially cerebral. If the young man leaves a prayer session more hag-ridden by guilt and tormented by demons than feeling loved, accepted and at peace with himself, then evil has not been overcome. That is not to say that all desires and actions have to be blessed, on pain of imprisonment, but that the fruit of prayer cannot be despair. There is forgiveness of sin, new life, and eternal hope.
Many people need human help, and the freedom to give help – prayerful help – cannot be impinged upon. If we are to confess our faults to one another, and someone confesses same-sex attraction believing it to be ‘contrary to nature’ and a sin, it cannot be a requirement in law to respond that this is no sin at all and is perfectly natural. There is a need for compassion and therapeutic honesty, but there can be nothing so severe as to be psychologically injurious, leaving the person feeling confused, despised and rejected, if not suicidal.
Prayer is solidarity with God; trying to live a life of faith in Christ faithfully. If a young Roman Catholic, homosexual in inclination, feels a calling to the priesthood, which requires celibacy, it cannot be against the law for him to seek prayer in his vocation in order to better observe and perfect his perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.