By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
One of the more disappointing things I read in the news recently was that Amazon decided, in response to a petition from LGBTQ activists, to stop selling books by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a Catholic psychologist who promoted “reparative therapy” for those trying to reshape homosexual desires into heterosexual ones. He claimed that psychological trauma could underlie homosexual desires, and that therapy could heal this trauma. The activists found these claims offensive, and so they petitioned for the books to be banned.
I must say that I am alarmed Amazon would ban books at the request of those who simply have an ideological disagreement with their author. Is Amazon responsible for maintaining a new index of forbidden books? When the Church tried a long time ago to prohibit her members from reading certain books, many understandably cried foul. So, what should we cry now that another institution is trying to keep its consumers from reading certain books? The Church at least had a transparent rationale and a public list of the books it banned. Will Amazon provide such a list and relevant explanations?
In addition, I am alarmed by the power of the activists to control what others think about sexual attraction. It is now illegal in several states to help people through therapy to reshape their sexual desires (all such efforts are indiscriminately and derisively lumped together as “conversion therapy”). Are the activists really so absolutely confident in their position that they want to outlaw efforts to assist someone who wants to reshape his or her desires? And how can they simply erase contrary arguments?
Finally, I think it is tragic to see the readiness with which some people declare as a dogma that we are completely helpless to shape our desires. Thankfully, there is ample reason to hope that the activists are simply wrong. I am not a psychologist and I have not studied the work of Dr. Nicolosi, so I cannot evaluate his science. But the underlying premise of his work seems obvious to me: namely, we are not helpless victims of our sexual desires. Take, for example, the science of sexual addiction which appears to show very clearly that an experience like pornography effects the neuroplasticity of our brains and thereby also our desires. See, for example, Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction by Gary Wilson, or Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain by William Struthers. Wilson is, I think, a particularly valuable witness, since he writes explicitly as someone who does not want to express any judgments about normative sexual behavior. In other words, he is trying to write as a scientist without a social agenda, whether religious or other (and, in fact, he even appears open to different sexual orientations). And yet, given the plasticity of our brains, or their ability to change in response to our environment and behavior, he says, “Today’s internet porn users are demonstrating that human sexuality is far more malleable than anyone realized.” (160). This is especially true, he says, for adolescents, who have “unique vulnerabilities […] with respect to sexual conditioning and addiction. Adolescent brains are more plastic than adult brains, and evolutionarily speaking, their most important job is to adapt to their sexual environment so they can reproduce successfully.” (184).
Wilson is just one witness to show that in many cases our appetites can be conditioned over time by our environment and behavior. Many people already know from personal experience that it is possible to gain enough control over our eyes, thoughts and actions, such that certain images, ideas and desires occur more often and others less often. Now, I’m sure there are many conditions and unexplored facets of our humanity that can make this difficult, and in some cases maybe even practically impossible. We ought to keep an open mind as the work of scientists, philosophers and theologians continues to deepen (we hope) our understanding of sexuality; and, most importantly, we ought always to have compassion on ourselves and on all our brothers and sisters who struggle with their desires. God loves us, no matter how much we struggle — and, in a sense, he loves us even more when we struggle: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Mt 5:6).
What Amazon did is disappointing. In our society, we should all be in love with the truth enough to protect reasoned debate. The more one tries to shout down his interlocutor, the more he reveals his own insecurities about his argument. Perhaps those trying today to silence Dr. Nicolosi are only revealing their suspicion that when everything comes to light they will have to admit their dogma is not as absolute as they had claimed.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.