Responding to the needs of a group of people who often feel alienated from the Church, the Courage apostolate ministers to men and women with same-sex attraction by helping them to move beyond the homosexual label and find unity with Christ.
The international apostolate, which serves half the dioceses of the United States and 12 other countries, aims to offer its members a support system whereby they can live chaste lives in fellowship, truth, and love.
Since 2008, Fr. Paul Check has served as the director of Courage, having assumed the position from its founder, the late Fr. John Harvey.
In a recent interview with ZENIT, Fr. Check spoke about the origins of the apostolate, and the importance of approaching the definition of homosexuality with care and attentiveness:
ZENIT: Could you speak a little about the history of the Courage apostolate?
Fr. Check: In 1980, the then Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Terence Cooke, had a sense that there was a need for the Church to express her maternal solicitude and her pastoral charity for a group of people who often feel as though they are estranged from the Church, even hated by the Church, and have no place in the Church. He called upon Fr. Benedict Groeschel, asking for his assistance in beginning an apostolate, a ministry, to help men and women with homosexual inclinations know that they are loved by Christ, that they have a place in the Church, that they are called to live chaste lives, and that God will give them the grace to do so.
Fr. Groeschel knew of a priest who had been working on the question of homosexuality for many years, Fr. John Harvey, an Oblate of St Francis de Sales. Among priests in the United States, Fr. Harvey was a pioneer in this field.
By specialty, Fr. Harvey was a moral theologian. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the moral theology of St. Augustine’s Confessions and had been teaching moral theology for many years to the Oblates in formation at the seminary in Washington, DC. Sometime previously, his superior had told him there was a need for someone to study the question of homosexuality and to prepare the seminarians to better understand this condition.
When Cardinal Cooke and Fr. Harvey met, they came upon the idea of forming a support group for men (and later for women), in order that in fellowship with one another, and with Christ at the center, those with same-sex attractions would be welcomed and spiritually supported by Mother Church’s maternal charity and pastoral care. Each Courage chapter is to have a priest, appointed by his bishop, to serve as its chaplain.
In 1980, seven men met in lower Manhattan, under the care of Fr. Harvey, and formulated the Five Goals of Courage which address chastity, prayer and self-giving, fellowship in Christ, the need for chaste friendships, and setting a good example.
Since that beginning, the Courage apostolate has grown to include spiritual support groups in about half the dioceses in the United States and 12 countries overseas.
In following Fr. Harvey [as director of Courage], my principle work, in addition to helping begin and strengthen these support groups, is in the realm of clergy formation for priests and seminarians, helping them understand something about this particular challenge so that in their ministerial life and work, whether at a parish or in a special ministry or chaplaincy, they will be prepared and have some understanding of the complexity of homosexuality and of the challenge that men and women with these attractions face.
ZENIT: Speaking especially to those who live with same-sex attraction, how can homosexuality be defined and understood? How can those with these inclinations define themselves?
Fr Check: That question is very much at the center of our work. The question of vocabulary is very important because words convey images and ideas and sometimes very settled concepts. You and I may use a particular word in conversation, but in another setting – particularly in a cultural setting – the same word may be heard in another way. Having said that, I am aware that there are great sensitivities around vocabulary, the way people understand words, and therefore the way people understand themselves. At no time do I want to cheapen or attempt to denigrate someone’s lived experience or self-understanding, because I don’t speak out of their lived experience.
I try to approach this question of identity very carefully, from two perspectives, in the way that the Church, following the example of Christ, does. In the Gospel, we could say that our Lord engages people in two ways: one way is with regard to a particular teaching delivered to a group. Let’s think of the Sermon on the Mount for instance, where Jesus puts forth what St. Augustine later called the “magna carta” of Christian living. Christ offers rich teaching here about Christian identity, and He engages many people in a particular form of pedagogy.
But the other way Our Lord engages people is personally, where he encounters an individual soul and presents the some portion of the “good news” in a very precise, plain and intimate way, to guide them to a deeper self-understanding.
So, Jesus didn’t do both things at once, and neither can we. That’s part of the challenge we face, because the Church wants to announce her teaching, but she also wants to encounter individual men and women.
We should keep in mind that what we may intend when we talk about identity may not be the same thing that is perceived and heard.
That’s a long introduction to your question, but I hope a helpful one, so that what I say does not appear to be insensitive, thoughtless, or ignorant of the lived reality. We can never say “your experience of yourself is not valid,” as if we know more about someone than he or she does.
Therefore the vocabulary of the Church is very carefully chosen and over the years has become more and more precise. By saying this I mean that the Church is very careful to measure all aspects of the human experience according to the order of their importance, and to give things their proper weight—not more and not less.
She avoids categorizing people according to a sexual inclination, at the same time not undermining, cheapening, or being insensitive to the understanding that someone has of himself or herself. I think it is interesting to note that the most important question ever asked in human history is the question of identity. Jesus asked the Apostles: “Who do you say that I Am?”
When the Church speaks about homosexuality, she speaks about it in the larger context of chastity. Chastity is the virtue that blocks false aspirations by regulating the sexual appetite according to right reason and God’s design for human nature. A chaste heart is a peaceful heart, and one that gives itself, according to one’s state in life, and in that self-giving finds fulfillment. One of the greatest challenges the Church faces today is proposing chastity as part of the “good news,” but Jesus did and we can, too.
And so, the Church thinks carefully about who someone is, not simply as a person with same-sex attractions but as a child of God, who is redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ, and invited to grace in this life and glory in the life to come. She says: same-sex attractions may be a significant piece of your experience in life or even of your own self-understanding, however take care not to think of yourself first through the lens of homosexuality.
The Church speaks carefully and charitably when she speaks of the homosexual inclination or attraction, or of same-sex attraction, as opposed to using nouns like “homosexual,” “lesbian,” or “gay.”
Part Two of this interview will be published Friday, February 14.