Melbourne archbishop: LGBT conversion therapy law silences ministers, parents, and doctors

A Pillar interview with Archbishop Peter Comensoli

The Australian state of Victoria passed new legislation yesterday making it a crime to “engage in a practice” directed towards changing or suppressing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. While the law has been hailed by LGBT campaigners as a victory against discrimination, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne told The Pillar that the bill infringes on religious freedom and sound medical practice.

Supporters say the law aims at prohibiting the practice of conversion therapy, while critics say the term is nebulous, and is often used indiscriminately to describe both psychologically harmful practices and ordinary, religiously-based pastoral, spiritual, and mental health counseling.

Archbishop Peter Comensoli also told The Pillar that the new law is the latest in a string of legislation which erodes religious liberty, and that the Church faces an uphill battle in Australia both to defend religious liberty and to articulate what was, until recently, a commonly accepted vision of human flourishing.

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill passed into law Feb. 4, following a 12-hour debate and a 29-9 vote in the state’s legislative council. Shortly before the bill’s passage, Comensoli, who has served as archbishop of Victoria’s largest city since 2018, signed a letter along with other faith leaders which the new law ignored the concerns of faith leaders.

“Every day we are working alongside our fellow Victorians to celebrate our diversity, care for the vulnerable and serve one another. We value our freedom to do so responsibly, by supporting and caring for people in their searching and questioning, with honesty, attentiveness, and compassion,” the letter said.

“Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t just ban out-dated and insidious practices of coercion and harm, which we firmly reject. The bill also criminalizes conversation between children and parents, interferes with sound professional advice, and silences ministers of religion from providing personal attention for individuals freely seeking pastoral care for complex personal situations.” 

The archbishop wrote that the law “includes ill-conceived concepts of faith and conversation, vague definitions, and scientifically and medically flawed approaches. It places arbitrary limitations on parents, families and people of faith.”

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Speaking to The Pillar shortly after the bill’s passage, Comenolsi said that he and other Church leaders had tried to work with legislators to improve the bill, but had been rebuffed.

“We asked to meet with the attorney general and the premier [of Victoria], those meetings were not forthcoming. We did have a group Zoom meeting with members of the opposition party - they heard our concerns, and I had been speaking with individuals trying to work through these issues,” Comensoli said. “But the battle is lost, the legislation has been voted on and will go into effect.”

“The issue,” he said, “is not coercive practices towards people who are same-sex attracted or people with gender identity question — certainly everyone is against anything that is harmful to the dignity of people and attempts to force a change in someone’s life.”

“The problem of the bill is the very unclear definitions around what might be considered suppressive or coercive ‘conversion’ practices. We actually resisted very strongly the use of the word ‘conversion’ in this respect; obviously, in our faith, conversion is a very positive term, and a positive thing, not a harmful thing.”

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The archbishop noted that the law outlaws “a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person's consent,” which aims to induce “the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“There’s a very unfortunate conflation between sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said Friday. “It’s as if the two are the same phenomenon, and need the same things in terms of psychiatric treatment.”

The archbishop said the law criminalizes “anything which is not affirming or supportive of the direction that person wishes to go and is perceived as harmful — this point of ‘harmful’ needs to be highlighted. That’s where the problems really lie, this is a very loose and unclear piece of legislation that seems to be extensive overreach into what can be genuine and appropriate conversations with families or offering pastoral care.” 

Comensoli called the law’s treatment of different kinds of pastoral and medical care “really quite problematic.” 

“There are those who are advocating for what they perceive as treating their situation as somehow broken or disabled, or wronged and so on, and so the legislation comes out very strongly on the side of affirmative practices,” he said.

“So medical practitioners, psychiatrists, psychologists, families or religious counselors, have to come from the perspective of affirmation regarding what a person is presenting as their sexual or gender identity.”

The archbishop pointed out that the new law essentially prohibits mental health practitioners from considering gender dysphoria as a symptom of any other underlying issue, and can prevent patients from getting the best possible care.

“The legislation doesn’t take into consideration, particularly on the gender dysphoria side of things, the situation of co-presenting issues - psychological or other issues - that might be influencing someone’s circumstances. There’s nothing in the legislation that might be open to questioning the circumstances in a person’s life that might lead to them presenting as transgender.”

“Say someone is 19 or 20, they go to their psychologist, says ‘I feel more comfortable thinking of myself as a female rather than as my birth sex as male,’ the doctor might then do some tests, consider other question about this person’s life and might then say ‘Well, there’s these other things in your life that you are dealing with that might be the underlying reason for these feelings - that they might be something you are presenting as symptoms but not the deeper reality.’ That conversation can’t happen anymore.”

Comensoli told The Pillar that the law is “a one-way street.” 

“The presumption is towards transitioning, but there is not - as is evident in all the literature these days - a recognition of the substantial reality of people, some years down the track, ‘de-transitioning’ as the term seems to be.”

“It is not that someone going through the throws of questioning their gender should not be listened to, and supported, and cared for, and their dignity respected, but these other dimensions are not being attended to in the legislation.”

The archbishop said the new law is just the latest in a series of laws at the state and national level in Australia which encroach on religious freedom.

“I would say that there is a genuine ignorance at play here around Christians, religious liberty, and general freedoms,” he said. “There is a great deal of ignorance about faith in Parliamentarians generally these days, I think.”

The state of Victoria has become one of the most progressive- minded states in Australia, and the new law includes the possibility of prosecuting those who might engage in banned treatments outside the state, too, giving it a national and international reach, the archbishop said.

“All these fights start in Victoria,” Comensoli said. “If you’re going to have anything that's on the progressive side of things, Victoria is the place where you’re going to get it: we’ve got euthanasia now, we’ve got laws around abortion that require doctors to refer [women for abortions] even if they don’t want to do it themselves.” 

In 2017, a Royal Commission investigation into institutional responses to sexual abuse recommended new laws compelling Catholic priests to violate the seal of confession if they learned of or suspect child abuse in the sacrament. “We’ve got that one, too,” Comensoli said.  “We’ve got it all here.”

“There is certainly a genuine question about how well religious freedom is understood and is protected, both in Victoria and in Australia more generally. Like all human freedoms, the freedom of religion needs to be a protection, not just an exemption. We are working at the federal level towards religious freedom as a protected right, and something which can be advanced as an extension of freedom of conscience.”

The archbishop told The Pillar that the debate around transgender issues is about more than just securing a narrow legislative exemption for the Church, and that the Church has to make a much broader case about social goods, instead of fighting only for its own religious liberty.

“The question is an anthropological one,” he said.

“This is about the basics of our humanity and the living well of it, and the allowing of the flourishing of the human person, these are the key questions.” 

“This is well and truly beyond just a religious liberty question, but it shows up in religious liberty cases particularly because we are the ones saying this is undermining a certain way of understanding the human person, and wanting to hold forth a particular vision of that, and allow it to be part of the life of citizens in Australia.”

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Asked how the Church can articulate universal truths about human nature to a society that was widely ignorant of, if not outright hostile to religion, Comensoli said that “[Pope] Benedict used to put it well: the Church proposes, not imposes.” 

“Often enough people experience it as imposition, but I will keep speaking up for a positive vision of the human person, and I will do so hopefully in ways that are respectful of other people - not being belligerent but in a way that is rooted in reason.”

“But, as you know, arguments that proceed in a logical or reasoning fashion is not the way things happen anymore. It is now just the exercise of the will: someone states their position by willing their position, rather than by arguing for it in reasonable ways,” Comensoli said. 

“Everybody matters and every body matters, and both principles need to be upheld.”