The Real Nature of Catholic Reparative Therapy

“Distinguo”—that curious Latin term that reminds us that we need to make essential distinctions between and among similar concepts in order to fully understand them.

And now, with the untimely passing of reparative therapy pioneer Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, which in turn met with an inhumane “glad-you’re-dead” response from ‘gay’-affirming ideologues who refer to Nicolosi’s life’s work as “torture,” faithful Catholics absolutely must make some crucial distinctions.

First, we Catholics must be willing to affirm unswervingly that those experiencing same-sex attraction deserve more dignity than the label “gay” affords them and that the psychological sciences can indeed help many people experience some semblance of liberation from the attractions themselves and more readily lead a life of authentic chastity.

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Next, we Catholics must be willing to acknowledge that, unlike the Catholic foundation of Dr. Nicolosi’s pioneering work, some approaches to reparative therapy that are not based on Catholic anthropology have significantly missed the mark because of a fatal flaw in their understanding of the human person. In fact, the garden-variety perceptions of so-called “conversion therapy” or the notions of “ex-gay” and “pray-away-the-gay” really arise from this issue.

Homosexual Inclination: Sin or Temptation to Sin?
The misunderstanding is a direct consequence of the Protestant Reformation, not surprisingly. The rejection of the true understanding of original sin and its effects led a number of early Protestant theologians to accept the notion of human nature’s “total depravity”—that the Fall so corrupted man that the very inclinations we experience that tempt us to sin are actually sinful in themselves.

Here is the major distinction Catholics need to make between the Catholic understanding of reparative therapy and the understanding espoused by at least some Protestant Christian reparative therapy supporters: The competent and informed therapist will ground therapy in the understanding that the homosexual inclination itself is not an instance of personal sin but is a temptation to sin. As such, the Christian’s goal of therapy will be shifted—the goal will not be to completely eliminate the erroneously perceived personal “sin” of having the inclination, by stopping the inclinations altogether. Rather, it will be to move the person toward a less-difficult pursuit of chastity despite whatever may remain of the inclination itself after therapy.

If a therapist misunderstands the fundamental truth that the objectively disordered homosexual inclination is not a form of personal sin, someone can indeed be harmed by such therapies, even in a Christian setting.

Marriage Is Not a Remedy for Same-Sex Attraction
The reparative-therapy arena can become even more destabilizing to a person with same-sex attraction when a practitioner not only attempts to eradicate completely the “sin” of homosexual inclinations but also attempts to steer the same-sex attracted person toward other-sex marriage as a blunt remedy for homosexuality instead of as a potential consequence of psychological and spiritual healing and recovery of one’s God-given sexual (complementary) inclination.

One of the rabbit-holes of misguided reparative therapy among some Christians is a basic mistrust of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, as well as a dim view of being single in general (and it is important to recognize that these are two different categories). And yet the Catholic view is that chastity is fully attainable both for a single person who is open to marriage as well as for a single person who believes he or she is called to not pursue marriage and instead chooses to build up God’s Kingdom through the gift of celibacy.

Too often, some reparative-therapy efforts may have pressed people toward ill-advised other-sex marriages as a means of treating the homosexual condition rather than as a possible goal for at least some who can heal beyond the same-sex attraction to experience authentic eros-love for an other-sex spouse. In the Catholic view, however, this is by no means a one-size-fits-all measure of “conversion” success, but rather is a specific blessing that may well be experienced by some, but perhaps not by others.

Thus, there is a need to make a vital distinction between the hope that even a person with deep-seated homosexual inclinations might heal sufficiently to enter into a life-giving and fruitful marriage and the false mandate that marriage is somehow the measure of whether a particular form of reparative therapy is deemed successful.

At the Heart of Therapy: A Hypothesis
Okay, you may say, so chastity is the goal, not marriage, and it’s choosing to say “yes” to the disordered inclination that is the sin, and not the attraction itself. Then what is really the “stuff” of reparative therapy—what does it ultimately seek to address?

Though I am not in the field of reparative therapy,* I would offer this hypothesis: in some people the homosexual inclination could be the consequence of some form of same-sex relational deficit that is eroticized within the person. Successful therapy would then seek to discover the nature of that deficit and then look for ways to “de-eroticize” it in favor of authentic chastity and healthy same-sex friendships.

God gives us “eros-love” and the complementary human sexual inclination as part of our human nature. Eros is by definition necessarily complementary—for example, a man is attracted to a woman because she “is” something he “is not.” He desires to enter into communion with that which he “is not” and thereby possess or receive that gift of the other.

In my hypothesis, with some cases of same-sex attraction, a man can experience some kind of relational deficit first within himself—he feels he does not fully possess that which he really “is”—he seems at odds with his own manhood. Thus, when he encounters another man who appears to be that which he “is not,” he experiences the desire to enter into communion with the other man and thereby possess or receive his manhood. He eroticizes his interior desire for self-completion.

The core of the word “complementarity” is “complete-ment,” basically. Perhaps this is why such deep-seated interior deficits become eroticized—eros-love is by nature designed to attract us toward communion with the other sex, allowing us to receive that which we ourselves “are not.” Similarly, eros-love is the means by which we then give that which we are to “complete” the other person (self-gift).

All this becomes massively disrupted if a man (this principle would apply to women as well) experiences the pervasive feeling that he doesn’t, in fact, possess his own manhood as possible gift to a woman. The entire contour of eros-love would be short-circuited. There could be no complementary eros-love because a man would not yet perceive the “other sex” truly as “other,” since he would not yet perceive his own sex as fully his own possession.

Thus, he would become greatly invested in seeking to attain, at least vicariously, the “being-man” he feels is absent in himself. This isn’t merely a desire for male companionship, though this is also very important. Rather, it’s primarily an eroticized deep desire for male self-possession. In such a case this interior, eroticized desire would also become a major impediment for developing the very appropriate, chaste, and healthy same-sex friendships that are often the best forms of strengthening one’s own sexual identity (for both man and woman).

In these circumstances, confronting and resolving deeper issues could be a vital part of the process of inner healing. It may well bring a person great relief and a realistic possibility of experiencing some tangible level of the other-sex attractions that remain rooted in his or her God-given human nature.

Reparative Therapy: A Vital Resource for Many
If this hypothesis has merit, then clearly there are circumstances under which and ways in which psychological counseling and reparative therapy would be absolutely appropriate helps for those with same-sex attraction who seek authentic chastity. Chastity is utterly dependent upon self-mastery, and self-mastery is dependent upon self-possession of our sexual identities as either man or woman.

Simply stated, reparative therapy—grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human being—is one vitally important tool in the toolbox for anyone seeking both healing and chastity from the inside out. It is important to note that the Church doesn’t see reparative therapy as a form of healing that every same-sex-attracted person should or must choose. But the Church’s view of the human person clearly reveals the potentially great value of reparative therapy for those who may choose it.

With these distinctions in place, Catholic—and non-Catholic—practitioners of reparative therapy can honor the pioneering and ground-breaking efforts of people like the late Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, and faithful Catholics everywhere can help stem the secular tide that seeks to prevent this kind of healing in the name of preserving a corrupt and dangerous sexual ideology. Together, we can help our same-sex-attracted brothers and sisters move closer to self-mastery and chaste living.

Author’s Note: While I’m not a therapist, the hypothesis I present is based largely upon what I continue to read from those who are professional Catholic therapists—this includes a timely April 1 interview in the National Catholic Register of therapist David Pickup, himself a board member of the National Association for the Research and Treatment of Homosexuality ( Pickup’s interview appears to echo and align with the hypothesis I present above.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a billboard sponsored by Exodus International, a Protestant “reparative therapy” ministry that ultimately closed shop after admitting that their approach was unsuccessful.


  • Jim Russell

    Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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