'Not very happy and mixed with a lot of Nervousness': The Priest as Therapist in Catholic Mental Health Care

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Abstract

Between 1958 and 1965, a Catholic Pastoral Center in Amsterdam was specifically geared to providing mental care to homosexuals. The Center was part of a Catholic mental health organization and was staffed by several clergymen and psychiatrists. Its establishment directly followed from contacts that evolved earlier in the 1950s between the Amsterdam-based homosexual rights organization and several Catholic clergymen, psychiatrists, and psychologists who were open to new scientific insights around homosexuality. COC board members noted that increasingly they encountered Catholic homosexuals who were in moral conflict and felt a need for mental support. The direc¬tor of the Amsterdam Catholic organization for mental health, psychiatrist C.J.B.J. Trimbos (1920-1988), listened to the homosexual movement's criticism that the Church showed too little understanding for concerns related to homosexuality. With the knowledge of the Dutch episcopate and in collaboration with the nationwide Catholic organization for mental health, Trimbos took the initiative to establish the Pastoral Center, which on the basis of 'psy¬cho-hygienic insights' was equipped to provide mental support to Catholic homosexuals. The Center was set up as an expe¬riment and the experiences gained by the care providers had to serve as basis for advice to the Dutch bishops about 'the pastoral approach of Catholic homophi¬les.'
The realization and the care-providing practice of the Pastoral Center – the subject of this article – are to be understood against the backdrop of specific changes in the thinking about homosexuality within the Dutch Catholic community since the 1930s. Despite the Church’s official rejection of homosexual behavior as unnatural and sinful, some influential Catholic physicians and clergymen expressed alternative biomedical and psychological viewpoints. A differentiation was made between sinful homosexual acts that should be condemned and possibly prevented and a homosexual disposition, which by itself could not be considered a sin and which had to be accepted as a deplorable, pathological fate. The possible biological and psychological causes of the homosexual disposition were debated extensively among Catholic physicians, psychiatrists, and clergymen. In the 1930s and 1940s some doctors, often supported by priests, experimented with psychotherapy, chemical therapies, and even castration, but others were more reserved about the possibilities of curing a homosexual disposition. In the 1950s psychological explanations of homosexuality as a flaw, a neurotic disturbance of normal development during childhood and puberty, gained ground among Catholic psychiatrists.
Closely connected to the differentiation between disposition and behavior, two distinct categories were distinguished: so-called 'true homosexuality,' which was purportedly determined biologically or psychologically by an innate drive, and so-called 'pseudo-homosexuality', which was considered as contingent 'perverse' behavior of essentially 'normal' men and women. From the point of view of pastoral theology, these two forms of homosexuality were to be considered in different ways. As confessors and spiritual advisers, priests would have to take counsel with a physician before making their judgment on homosexual 'sinners'. Only in the case of pseudo-homosexuality was such behavior to be treated as a mortal sin for which the offender was accountable. Although psychiatrists had introduced the concept of pseudo-homosexuality, it was mainly defined in moral terms. Moral judgment vis-à-vis 'true' homosexuals, however, should be geared towards a medical or psychiatric diagnosis. Clergymen and doctors were advised to cooperate closely: they should come to a common understanding and judgment of homosexuality. This served in fact as the Pastoral Center's basic starting-point. It should be noted that its homosexual clients did not simply serve as passive objects of pastoral and psychiatric interference. In this paper I argue that new ways of dealing with homosexuality were not simply imposed on clients from above as the result of a clear-cut pastoral and medical strategy; rather, they came about by muddling through in a process of interactions between clergymen, psychiatrists, and Catholic homosexuals.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Transmission of Health Practices (c. 1500 to 2000)
EditorsM. Dinges, R. Jütte
Place of PublicationStuttgart
PublisherFranz Steiner Verlag
Pages169-190
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011

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