If there is one thing we can learn from Pope Francis’s recent comments on gay Christians, it is that style matters. Francis said nothing other recent popes haven’t said, but the winsome way he said it earned him a hearing from many for whom Catholic teaching on homosexuality is considered toxic.
Many Catholics have expressed disquiet with the form in which that teaching has been presented in recent decades, and in particular with the Church’s oft-repeated claim that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” Less has been said, however, about what the Church might say instead of this.
As Eve Tushnet points out, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex.” It’s important not to reduce what the Church has to say to gay people merely to its teaching on sex. But while not-having-sex is only a small part of what the Church has to say, it is worth thinking about how it could be better presented, given that the ham-fisted way in which this particular teaching is presented often causes significant damage to the Church’s relationship with the gay community.
One problem with the language of “intrinsic disorder” is that almost no-one apart from theologians trained in the scholastic tradition correctly grasps its meaning. One author, who sets out passionately to defend the terminology, argues that the reason we call same-sex sex intrinsically disordered is because there is no “positive reordering of the sexual faculty to what is true, good, and beautiful,” and never can be, between same-sex partners. In contrast, a man having sex with a woman who is not his wife “is acting in a disordered way – but not intrinsically so,” because “his desire for the opposite sex, which is designed for the good of marriage, can become ordered to that end” if he later decides to marry.
But that isn’t what the term means. If it were, Thomas Aquinas would not have said that “all sex between men and women outside marriage is intrinsically disordered,” nor would the Catechism of the Catholic Church list fornication as an example of an intrinsically disordered act (1750-6), and neither would it claim that “lying” and “calumny” are intrinsically disordered (1753), since a liar can later choose to order his speech toward the truth. Without getting into a technical discussion of the history of the term, the main point of claiming that an act is intrinsically disordered is simply to highlight that “it is always wrong to choose” (1755). The clearest statement of the Catechism’s teaching on homosexual acts is therefore not the claim that such acts are “intrinsically disordered,” but the claim that, “under no circumstances can they be approved” (2357).
But if this is what we mean by intrinsically disordered, why not just say it? Most contemporary theologians speak simply about “moral absolutes” or “exceptionless moral norms,” and homosexuality is the only area in which the language of disorder is maintained in popular writing.
One reason for this is that both extremes of the ideological spectrum have a vested interest in speaking about “disorder.” Diehard conservatives and ex-gays like the connotations of mental illness that accompany the term in modern discourse (connotations which would have been incomprehensible to medieval theologians), while radicals who want to junk the Church’s teachings can do so more easily if they can paint them as uninformed bigotry or pseudo-science.
Speaking of “exceptionless moral norms” or “moral absolutes” has three distinct advantages over speaking of intrinsic disorders.
First, the claim that homosexual acts are disordered obviously entails the judgment that the inclination to those acts is disordered. However, this is usually heard as the Church calling the sexuality of gays and lesbians disordered in toto. Given that the Church teaches that sexuality “affects all aspects of the human person,” it is almost impossible for the layman to distinguish this from the claim that the entire personalities of gay people are disordered.
Catholics are quick to blame the media for misrepresenting their beliefs, when in fact the jargon they employ lends itself almost unavoidably to such misrepresentations. Speaking about moral absolutes keeps the focus on human action, and is much more difficult either for the public to misunderstand, or for homophobic Christians to twist into derogatory claims about gays and lesbians as persons. Such terminology actually moves the focus away from gays entirely, since the real moral absolute for Catholics in the domain of sex is the one against non-procreative acts, regardless of either the gender or the sexual orientation of the participants.
Second, speaking of exceptionless moral norms actually communicates the Church’s sexual teaching more plainly than the term “intrinsic disorder,” which is usually accompanied by paragraphs of waffle trying to explain what it means (usually written by someone who doesn’t actually have a clue).
Those who have expressed discomfort with the language of disorder have sometimes been accused of capitulating to a radical “gay agenda,” of sacrificing truth to spare hurt feelings. Such accusations cannot be sustained if the terms we use (and it should be stressed that such terms are to be used when appropriate, not shoved in people’s faces just to make a point) are both more pastorally sensitive and communicate moral truths about the purpose of sex more clearly. Even organizations like Courage which favor the disorder terminology admit it “can be difficult to understand,” so why use it? “Faith comes from what is heard,” St. Paul tells us (Rom 10:17). The real offense against truth would be if we knew that no-one understands what we are saying, and that the terms we use are obfuscating our message, and carried on saying the same thing in the same way.
Finally, a significant advantage of speaking about moral absolutes is that, by moving the focus of moral teaching to human action, it steers clear of an unhealthy focus on identity and language. Those who support the use of the disorder language often wish to make not only theological claims about the proper context for sexual relations, but anthropological claims – for which they claim theological authority – about how gay people ought to speak about, think about, and identify themselves.
There is a beautiful phrase in the documents of the Second Vatican Council that “Christ fully reveals man to himself.” And it is true. Christian doctrine contains important truths not only about God, but about humans, their dignity, and their final destiny. But another phrase often excised from this quotation tells us that Christ reveals man to himself “by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love,” and that the purpose of this revelation to man is to make “his supreme calling clear.” It is this revelation which is the overriding purpose for the incarnation. Christ came not to teach us about our own identity, but to teach us about God, and the first task of Christian theology is not to help us think about ourselves, but to teach us to think about, speak about, and relate to God. This is what needs to be the prime focus of the Church’s evangelizing mission when it comes to gay people; not how gay people identify themselves, but their relationship to the Father, and their supreme calling as His beloved sons and daughters.
Aaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.