EnCourage embraces, upholds Catholic teaching
Being a Catholic with a loved one who has expressed feelings of same-sex attraction can be an isolating experience. How does one best respond when the world is filled with so many conflicting messages on the subject?
How does one best support a friend, sibling or child while still remaining true to one’s faith, holding fast to the teachings of the Church?
What, exactly, are the teachings of the Church?
This past June, Bishop Barry C. Knestout approved the establishment of an EnCourage chapter in Hampton Roads. It is the first group in the diocese for a ministry created to support the families and friends of people who have experienced same-sex attraction.
Its 10 members meet once a month to pray, share their experiences and support one another in their own walks of faith as they navigate through trying times that can often put a strain on — or even sever — friendships and family ties.
People who understand
David Sammons, lay coordinator of the chapter and a parishioner at St. Benedict, Chesapeake, explained that he was searching for guidance in his relationship with a loved one, when, in April 2019, he attended a talk about the Catholic perspective on same-sex attraction at St. Nicholas, Virginia Beach. There, he met others in Hampton Roads in similar circumstances.
“It was a relief for me to find others I could talk to,” he said, “to find people who understand and desired to remain faithful to Church teaching and to find out how to support their loved one in a way that is faithful to this teaching.”
The group exchanged contact information and began meeting informally, he said, before writing to Bishop Knestout in July 2019 to begin the process of establishing the chapter.
EnCourage is an outreach of Courage International, a Catholic apostolate that provides pastoral care to those experiencing same-sex attractions. Founded in 1980, it has expanded to more than 175 chapters worldwide and is the only canonically approved apostolate of its kind.
The members of the EnCourage chapter, Sammons said, are also working to establish a chapter of Courage in the diocese.
All God’s children
One difficulty friends and family members face, Sammons said, stems from the fact that the truth about what the Church teaches about same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria is often undermined or misrepresented in the broader culture. The lack of clarity can make communication difficult from the very start, as many might misunderstand the Catholic perspective.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” states: “While the Church teaches that homosexual acts are immoral, she does distinguish between engaging in homosexual acts and having a homosexual inclination. While the former is always objectively sinful, the latter is not. To the extent that a homosexual tendency or inclination is not subject to one’s free will, one is not morally culpable for that tendency. Although one would be morally culpable if one were voluntarily to entertain homosexual temptations or to choose to act on them, simply having the tendency is not a sin. Consequently, the Church does not teach that the experience of homosexual attraction is in itself sinful.” (https://www.usccb.org/committees/doctrine/general-principles)
“The bishops have spoken clearly,” said Father Daniel Malingumu, pastor of Church of the Ascension, Virginia Beach, whom the bishop has asked to be chaplain of the group. “People who experience same-sex attraction are all God’s children. We are called to love them, to support them, to encourage them. We do have to tell them that God has created man and woman according to His plan, and that is marriage. We are all called to live in a charitable way. We walk with them in love and endurance and strength.”
Embracing Catholic teaching
“When my son first shared with me how he felt,” said one mother of a college-aged son, “I told him, ‘Your sexuality is not your identity. You are first and foremost a child of God.’”
She said that she and her son entered counseling to help to keep the lines of communication open, but, when she went to look for a support group for herself, she struggled to find a place where she could find acceptance and understanding.
While there are many secular support groups that fully promote an LGBTQ lifestyle, including the recognition of gay marriage, and other groups that counsel “conversion” or reparative therapy — which the Catholic Church does not endorse — EnCourage is the only such group that embraces and upholds Catholic teaching.
“I tried other places, but I was dying to talk to someone who’s Catholic,” she said. “It was a relief to find En- Courage; it’s meant a lot to me, knowing that I have their support.”
Sheila Jenkins, a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament, Norfolk, said she began her experience with EnCourage through an online forum but finds the local chapter to be more helpful.
“The group is so much better,” she said. “When you know one another and have seen one another face to face, you can tell who needs to speak and who needs a day just to listen.”
The focus of the meetings, Jenkins said, is on supporting one another through conversation and through prayer.
“It’s not our job to convert anyone,” she said. “It’s up to the Holy Spirit to guide their paths. We are learning to speak the truth with charity and clarity. And with love.”
This point was emphasized by the U.S. bishops in “Always Our Children,” a 1997 message to parents of homosexual children.
“All in all, it is essential to re- Support Continued from Page 10 call one basic truth. God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps to define the unique persons we are, and one component of our sexual identity is sexual orientation. Thus, our total personhood is more encompassing than sexual orientation. Human beings see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart” (cf. 1 Sm 16:7).
Sammons said that the love must be continuous.
“We must model the love of Jesus. He loves us all, unconditionally, just as we are, in the midst of our sins and our brokenness — but he loves us too much to leave us that way. That is why the clarity of truth must accompany love,” he said. “We have to remain strong and faithful. EnCourage helps us in this endeavor.”
Editor’s note: To connect with the Hampton Roads EnCourage chapter or to discuss plans for a Courage chapter, contact David Sammons in confidence at 757-690-5762 or [email protected]. You can also visit the Courage International website at courgagerc.org for other chapter locations, online forums other information and resources.