The heavily Catholic island nation of Malta has become the first European country to outlaw conversion therapy designed to attempt to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This news reminds us that it is about time that the Vatican should also issue a statement opposing these practices which cause untold pain to people and which disrespect God’s creation.
The Times of Malta reported:
“The Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Bill imposes fines and jail terms for anyone advertising, offering, performing or referring an individual to another person which performs any form of conversion practice.
“In addition, the Bill affirms that no sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression constitutes a disorder, disease or shortcoming of any sort.”
Initially, Malta’s Catholic Church leadership opposed the bill, issuing an 8-page position paper against the proposal. The paper claimed that the bill would privilege homosexuality and linked homosexual orientation to pedophilia. But Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the head of Malta’s hierarchy, acknowledged that the paper was mistaken, stating in an interview:
“I want to reassure [the gay community] that we are dead set against conversion therapy because we believe, as they do, as government does, that it goes against human dignity.
“We do not subscribe to beliefs that describe gay people as sick.
“These are labels that demean them. And certainly we are not going to associate gay people with paedophilia.”
Scicluna is the only Catholic leader that I know who has spoken so forcefully and officially against conversion therapy. Yet, most mental health professionals and many pastoral leaders recognize that such therapy is dangerous and misleading. In 1997, the U.S. bishops gave faint disapproval to conversion therapy in their pastoral letter, Always Our Children, noting that people should respect:
“. . . a person’s freedom to choose or refuse therapy directed toward changing a homosexual orientation. Given the present state of medical and psychological knowledge, there is no guarantee that such therapy will succeed. Thus, there may be no obligation to undertake it, though some may find it helpful.”
Not an endorsement, but not a strong enough condemnation, either.
Key to the opposition of the hierarchy’s initial position were the groups Drachma and Drachma Parents, which are, respectively, Malta’s associations of LGBT Catholics and Catholic parents of LGBT people. In a statement at the time, they said, in part:
“We expected this group of experts commissioned to write this Paper to include LGBTIQ people who are living this reality. It would have been appropriate for the Church to dialogue with us about this delicate subject. . . .
“We expected that the Church would sympathise with all LGBTIQ persons who had to go through conversion therapies and ask for forgiveness in the name of members within the Institution, amongst which priests, who recommended or practised conversion therapy. At no point was there any indication of concern towards the pain of such people or of their families. . . .
“We expected the Paper to clearly state that no sexual orientation is a disorder or an illness, and hence, does not require the person to seek any form of healing. . . .
“It is sad to see that this Position Paper did not seek to build bridges with LGBTIQ persons and with their families in Malta. On the contrary, the Church tended to erect walls.”
Evidence that they had an effect on Scicluna’s retraction of the paper’s position can be found in his echoing much of the language that Drachma used in their statement, as well as his affirmation of the group. Scicluna stated:
“I feel I have to build bridges with the gay community who felt our language was too technical, too cold and too distant. . . .
“It would have helped immensely to include people from Drachma in the preparation of the position paper because they have contributed in other papers and their contribution has been precious.”
The Huffington Post report about the bill’s passage noted that “Catholicism is the official religion of Malta and the religion plays a major role in the passage of the country’s laws. For instance, the country didn’t legalize divorce until 2011.” Yet, Malta passed marriage equality and adoption laws which recognize lesbian and gay couples, as well as laws which allow transgender people to have the description of their gender changed on official documents.
In a news report on Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern came to an insightful conclusion:
“Malta, of course, retains its proud Catholic heritage and continues to celebrate church traditions that help to define the country’s identity. A majority of its citizens (and legislators) have simply decided that the government has no business enforcing discriminatory beliefs using the heavy hand of the law. In that sense, the country is really an inspiration, simultaneously a haven for LGBTQ rights and a nation of deep Catholic faith. Liberal Western values may be on the decline elsewhere in Europe. But Malta today is proving that a country can adhere to key traditional values, promote its own religious heritage, andrecognize the dignity of every citizen—all at the same time.”
Stern is right, of course, but he doesn’t go far enough. The Catholic hierarchy should follow Malta’s example by issuing a similar statement opposing conversion therapy, a practice which is damaging and ineffective. Pope Francis has called time and again for pastoral ministers to “accompany” LGBT people on their faith journey. He can make this recommendation much clearer by stating that “conversion therapy” should never be part of that accompaniment.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 15, 2016