On the centenary of the late priest’s birth, those who knew him personally offer reflections about his transformational legacy of helping people who experience same-sex attraction.
PHILADELPHIA—When Father John Harvey presented the full truth of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, Tina Nair never felt like she was being asked to do the impossible.
“He believed it, so I believed I could do it,” said Nair, a member of Courage International, the apostolate the late Father Harvey founded for men and women who experience same-sex attraction.
Nair’s recollection is among many that are being shared this week at Villanova University during the apostolate’s 30th annual conference, which is taking place through Sunday in the city of Father Harvey’s birth and commemorating what would have been his 100th birthday.
The conference, which includes EnCourage, Courage’s outreach to loved ones of those with same-sex attraction, is focusing on Father Harvey’s spirituality and pastoral approach through several talks and the showing of the documentary A Profile in Courage.
An Oblate of St. Francis de Sales and an academic who was trained as a moral theologian, Father Harvey, who died in 2010, never expected to become the founder of a ministry to those with same-sex attraction. But Gerard Bradley, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, who collaborated with Father Harvey on the book Same-Sex Attraction: A Parents’ Guide (St. Augustine’s Press), said early in the priest’s career he had happened to write an article on homosexuality. Jesuit Father John Ford, a renowned moral theologian, urged him to continue writing on the subject, telling him, “The Church needs it.”
“A few years later,” Bradley said, “another great Jesuit theologian by the name of John Courtney Murray delivered much the same advice to Father Harvey. Later still, Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York asked Father Harvey to found the group we know as Courage.”
Father Paul Check, who succeeded Father Harvey as Courage’s executive director, serving from 2008 to 2016, said the priest’s academic work on homosexuality spawned in him a fatherly concern for men and women with same-sex attraction. Although Father Harvey eventually would have to relinquish full-time teaching to focus on the Courage apostolate, Father Check said he did so willingly to fill what he saw as a void.
“I think that was always one of his great concerns—that men and women who experience same-sex attraction are a kind of underrepresented, underserved population in the Church,” Father Check said. “It’s a tribute to his spiritual fatherhood that he would give up another ministry to do this, but it’s one he was very drawn to because of his pastoral charity.”
Indeed, the priest’s compassion is what was most evident to Nair, who, after becoming involved with Courage in Toronto in 1994, wrote to Father Harvey to ask if she could do more to help the ministry. In 1996, he invited her to come to New York, where she served as the Courage office manager for nearly a decade.
“There’s a lot of well-intentioned, misguided compassion out there … but to me, Father Harvey was an example of how you can really adhere to the truth of what the Church teaches, and that doesn’t compromise compassion. It only makes it larger, bigger.”
Nair said Father Harvey could sympathize with people’s struggles while assuring them that, with God’s grace, they could live faithful, chaste and obedient lives.
Added Bradley: “Even though he was until the end of his life a high-functioning intellectual, he had a profoundly gentle manner and a keen pastoral touch. It is no small thing to add that Father John was one of the most holy persons I have ever known. It took no more than a minute or two in his presence to detect that special serenity that one usually associates with holiness. But it did not take long, either, to detect in [him] the steeliness, or toughness, of mind and of spirit that is the earmark of a true disciple of Jesus.”
On the one hand, Father Check said, Father Harvey possessed a particular knowledge of a difficult problem surrounded by a lot of confusion, rebellion, dissent and sentimentality, along with an understanding of the psychology of those with same-sex attraction. But on the other hand, he had a deep and real sympathy for the human condition. “Father Harvey had that gift because of the exceptional way he had surrendered his heart to the Lord and trusted him. That gave him the grace and insight to understand the human heart and to know how to put people at ease, to give encouragement, clarify when necessary, and be available to them.”
Father Check said Father Harvey managed to lovingly convey the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction because he was always careful to distinguish the person from the attraction and the action.
“That distinction, which is unique to Catholic anthropology and the understanding of the human person, helps us to find our way forward and to explain to people that we can affirm them emotionally in their dignity, but not in moral choices or beliefs that are wrong,” he said. “Father Harvey was very good at that. He wasn’t provocative or belligerent. He was strong in what he believed, but he could, in his charity, show someone how emotionally he could confirm the goodness that existed in their uniqueness, but at the same time not affirm misbehavior or wrong belief.”
Nair said when Father Harvey was scheduled to speak in public, he sometimes would be met with protesters and audience questions designed to paint him as mean and hateful. “There would be all the hype leading up to the event, and then this sweet, little, humble, unassuming priest gets up there. He would explain the Church’s teaching and then the pastoral care provided for somebody dealing with same-sex attraction.” Nair said the effect could be disarming.
Yet the very nature of his work and the controversial topic it addressed meant Father Harvey not only endured opposition in public-speaking venues, but isolation from other priests. “Surely, he was a great spiritual father to many people, especially members of Courage and EnCourage,” Father Check said, “but he found himself isolated from his brother priests, including those in his religious community, and that produced a lot of suffering. From what I saw … he bore that with peace, even as he continued to suffer for his fidelity.”
Still, the ministry he started has survived and continues to thrive today, even as many in the secular culture and some in the Church insist that same-sex attractions are normal and should be acted on.
Nair said she believes the ministry has endured because it is based on a very simple spiritual plan with five goals: chastity; prayer and dedication; fellowship; support; and good example. “It’s like Catholicism 101 and could be anyone’s spiritual plan,” Nair noted.
The group’s first seven members developed the plan under Father Harvey’s supervision, and Cardinal Cooke later approved it.
“One more practical factor in [the ministry’s] success,” added Bradley, “is that the chastity which is at the core of Courage’s care for same-sex attracted people is the same chastity which is morally required of all of us, namely, that apart from procreative marital acts, all sexual acts (including those solitary) are wrong.”
Likewise, Bradley said, Courage works because Father Harvey founded it on the understanding that one’s identity is not based on sexual attractions, as defined by cultural labels like “gay,” “lesbian” or even “straight.”
“Courage’s message is an indescribably welcome relief from the message on offer today, namely, that your ‘sexuality’ was fixed at birth, that you are immutably ‘gay,’ and that we all respect you and love you as ‘gay’ and for being ‘gay,’” Bradley said.
“What a joy it must be to be delivered from this enslaving message, this burden of being defined by one’s sexual attractions. Courage helps people to discover instead that, no matter what one’s sexual attractions might be, everyone is in the same boat: We are all disciples of the Lord, called to witness to the truth about — among other things, of course — sex and sexual morality.”