In what is likely an historic first, the Vatican has instructed Spain’s bishops to disavow a conversion therapy group in that country .
Vida Nueva reported that in June the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy issued a report to the Spanish Episcopal Conference saying the bishops should distance themselves from the group known as Truth and Freedom. This group, founded in 2013, offers a form of conversion therapy that many Catholics, including clergy and religious, have attempted. The report continued (via Google Translate):
“‘Under no circumstances is [Truth and Freedom] an ecclesial association, and the Episcopal Conference has never supported or authorized it,’ sources [at the bishops’ conference] told this magazine, detailing how ‘there is much less support for this entity.’ ‘What’s more, we encourage those who consider themselves affected or victim to file a civil complaint, because from the canonical point of view we cannot stop what they do,’ reaffirms the church office.
“‘The fact that believers have participated cannot lead to the identification of a Church activity because it is not. This is how the Holy See has made it clear and that is how we have been asked to expose it and communicate it clearly in our dioceses’, points out a bishop. At the same time, he regrets that the promoters of ‘Truth and Freedom’ themselves have assumed the name ‘Catholic’ and have sought applicants in Christian spaces.”
The Vatican’s intervention last month follows 2019 reports that “about five or six” bishops, according to one of Truth and Freedom’s former members, participated in group activities and referred people, including youth, for conversion therapy. Vida Nueva explained:
“The Roman declaration in June comes after a first notice in November 2019 from the Holy See, when the participants in the [Spanish Episcopal Conference’s assembly] addressed a report on this organization that had been sent to [outgoing prefect of the Congregation for Clergy] Cardinal [Beniamino] Stella. The document collects the testimonies of several clergymen who denounced the group, having suffered practices that they call ‘humiliating’ and were justified by the concept of ‘reversible homosexuality’.
“In response to this, Stella sent it directly to the [Spanish bishops] and then asked the bishops who have priests or seminarians in their diocese who have taken part in the activities of the entity to investigate it. According to evidence from another internal source in a diocese where this movement has had a significant presence, an internal audit has not been undertaken.”
The topic of conversion therapy has been debated fiercely in some quarters of the Spanish church preceding the 2019 report to the entire bishops’ conference. In one incident, the government investigated the Diocese of Alcalá de Henares after a journalist reported the church there supported conversion therapy, which is illegal in many parts of the country. The diocese defended its involvement with the conversion therapy providers. Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Pla even suggested Catholics might be martyred for supporting the practice, which added to his highly LGBTQ-negative record.
The Vatican’s intervention now sets a precedent for bishops and pastors in other countries to follow. Spain is not the only country where church leaders have endorsed ex-gay organizations, and the vicious myth that homosexuality is somehow curable persists among many Catholics. But at the highest levels of the church, a shift seems to be occurring. Pope Francis has himself expressed concern about conversion therapy, according to lesbian activist Jayne Ozanne in 2019.
That this intervention is from the Vatican Congregation for Clergy raises an interesting question, too. Homosexuality is considered innate and natural in church teaching, even if such truth is too often disregarded by pastors. But if there is now greater adherence to this teaching, in particular from this congregation, then the concern for clergy and religious subjected to the practice could be an opening for a reconsideration of the ban on accepting gay men to the priesthood, which was issued by the same office. Regardless, that the Vatican intervened at all against such a damaging practice is a win.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 15, 2021