The establishment of a group called “Courage” at the Newman Centre on U of T’s St. George campus, which sets out to “provide support for the inclusion of the Catholic homosexual person into the Catholic Church,” has been widely critiqued as offensive since it was first reported by The Globe and Mail earlier this month. Increasing scrutiny has prompted the university to issue an official statement distancing itself from the program.

“I know there are some people who have been going to the Newman Centre, who no longer feel they can participate in parish life because of [the Courage] program, and will either look for another Roman Catholic community, or maybe feel like they have to leave their own faith tradition because it’s yet another instance of the church being inhospitable,” said Reverend Ralph Carl Wushke, ecumenical chaplain at the University of Toronto.

Courage is an apostolate of the Catholic Church which ministers to “persons with same-sex attraction.” It was founded in 1980 by Father John Harvey, and introduced to the city of Toronto six years later.

Though not an official entity of the university, the Newman Centre Courage program was formed at the request of “a number of people [within the university community] aspiring to live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality,” said Bill Steinburg, communications manager at the Archdiocese of Toronto.

“Courage is one program available to those in the university community who wish to be involved — only those who wish to be involved have any direct connection with the group,” said Steinburg.

“This is an important ministry to those who have chosen to be involved, and I support their wishes to gather in prayer and discussion,” announced Newman Centre pastor, Chris Cauchi, during Sunday Mass on January 6, at the adjacent St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church.

The controversy surrounding the program stems largely from “the twelve steps of courage” patterned after the twelve steps for recovery from alcoholism, originally proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. (aa).

“The twelve step program is pathologizing same-sex attraction as a sickness, and I think that’s quite hateful,” said Wushke.

“Reparative therapy is harmful and doesn’t help gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people come into their own, to find a healthy, whole life that is spiritually grounded in a positive way,” Wushke continued. “It may look like a positive solution for people suffering from the effects of homophobia, but in the long-run, gender identity is deeper than surface behaviours or passing experiences. I don’t think you can be cured of it. I think you can possibly repress it for a while but it’s going to come out in some other neurosis.”

U of T alumnus Rob Walker reflected on his past exposure to groups like Courage: “I was told for years that I am a ‘bad Christian’ for living as a gay man,” said Walker.

“In the best circumstances, students who would opt for a program like Courage do so because they have the full courage of their convictions,” Walker explained. “These young adults may experience tremendous pressure to be ‘good Catholics’ by conforming their self-understandings to what the church teaches. It is very difficult to achieve clarity of thought when you are told that, should you decide to live as a well-adjusted queer Christian, you are arguing with God in a state of moral sin, or potentially destined for the flames of hell!”

The existence of the program has also provoked a condemnatory response from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (ustu). The union wants the program discontinued, as does the university’s vice-president of human resources and equity, Angela Hildyard.

“This has no place on a university campus,” said Shaun Shepherd, president of the utsu.

“I would encourage students to familiarize themselves with the notorious history of the ex-gay movement, and how programs like Courage continue to stigmatize queer identities, while offering little in return to participants,” said Shepherd.

Walker offered encouragement to fellow students, saying “There are ways to read Scripture, respect tradition, and incorporate the insights of science and personal experience that allow people to live as queer people, and I encourage you to make sure you give yourself the opportunity to ask many questions and to express your doubts and joys. In the end, choose the path that allows you to flourish — and allow others, in peace, to disagree with you and to make choices that are different from your own.”