Intrinsically Disordered? How Not to Talk About Homosexuality

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 TaylorAaron 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.

34 thoughts on “Intrinsically Disordered? How Not to Talk About Homosexuality

  1. Pingback: First Links — 8.6.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. Of course the language of moral absolutes has the weakness in that moral absolutes are pretty easy to reject. All that changes is the witticsm from, “The folks who say that are intrinsically crazy,” to “The folks who say that are absolutely wrong.”

  3. Aaron Taylor on the Spiritual Friendship website wrote a beautiful piece much of which is true. I have to say, though, that the Church won’t be able to disregard the disorder of the homosexual person for the simple fact that he or she is disordered.

    You say that you don’t agree with the wording of the Church when she speaks of homosexuality. Well, how about attraction to the same sex is against the natural law? How about that? Adultery is intrinsically evil and wrong but is within the bounds of nature, as you put it in your article.

    Being blind, crippled or deaf isn’t an intrinsic disorder those people ‘chose’ to indulge in and don’t need a priest, minister or spiritual advisor to help them get past their affliction. When we have an addiction to drugs, alcohol or gluttony, spiritual advisers will point to the need to overcome this attraction to the addiction and serious intent to take the steps necessary to do this to be in union with the Church and the Lord.

    Your article doesn’t speak of overcoming same sex attraction and you seem to think kindly enough of having the disorder to want to use terms such as ‘homophobic Christians’ who twist into derogatory claims & terms about gays and lesbians as persons. You also appear to speak fondly of the ‘gay community.’ If homosexual persons want to belong to the community at large …whether in churches or in society……I believe the mindset of the homosexuals needs to be tweaked somewhat before any ‘reordering’ of what the Church is saying. They themselves need to see the need to ‘change’ out of wanting to ‘be’ homosexual for starters. This is where the Church can help and has help at the ready in terms of spiritual advice.

    The homosexuals themselves encourage separation from themselves by hanging onto the attitudes, styles and thought patterns that distance normal people from them. Humbling themselves to reach out and let those around them know they don’t want to hold onto same sex images or attractions and cling to Christ and His community ……however, what usually has happened is that homosexuals want other people to change for them when it has to be the other way around. Coming to grips with their issue same as alcoholics or drug addicts is the first step in becoming integrated as sinful, (we are all sinful) but normal people.

    The church of today is being asked to do something that is contrary to her mission. We are being asked not only to love everyone (which we strive to do); but to also validate known sin and be accepting of it. Of course, I’m speaking of the sin of homosexuality. If homosexuals maintain a prayer life, stay in close contact with those who understand what they go through as homosexuals and help them overcome it little by little, they can stay celebate. But your article here tells me you may not really think you must aim to stop referring to yourself as ‘gay’ but also may not hold too strongly the attitude that living the life is an aberration if indulged in. Maybe you could get back with another article in answer to what I’ve brought up here.

  4. thanks for your comments on vereloqui blog……en pointe…we need clarification of the sort you lined out about wording the Church has used for millennia …..people get very confused trying to say what they mean…on the other hand…….not so much …………far too many know perfectly well what it is the Church has taught on morality and look for ways to deflect her teaching.
    Thanks again Martin!

  5. Martin, thank you for your thoughtful critique of my piece, I appreciate you taking the time to give your comments. There are several things in there worth my bearing in mind, but I also think your critique is a little wide of the mark on several points:

    1) I agree that “if we’re going to lose the public battle on this issue” then “we might as well do it with our moral theology intact.” But your presentation of my argument as being concerned only with “public relations” overlooks the fact that my actual argument is that the language of disorder does not communicate the truth of the moral law accurately enough in our present circumstances, and is therefore not likely to help us keep our moral theology intact.

    2) You are correct to point out that St. Thomas sees a specific moral deformity in the homosexual act that isn’t there in heterosexual fornication. But I don’t deny this. I do point out that St Thomas also refers to fornication as an “intrinsically disordered act.” Ergo, if you want a phrase that highlights the *specific* gravity of homosexual acts, it obviously isn’t this one.

    3) I find it odd that you assume my references to “moral absolutes” and “exceptionless moral norms” must be veiled allusions to Kant. The natural law, as St. Thomas tells us, generates “precepts,” so to speak. If someone has a problem with the simple claim that some things are absolutely wrong, then they have a problem not merely with Kant, but with the entire tradition of Catholic natural law thinking.

  6. Aaron,

    I think I understand the rhetorical problem you are trying to deal with here, and its a difficult one to negotiate. And I certainly understand your desire not to transgress the boundary between speaking a truth so it can be understood and changing the truth so that it can be understood.

    I guess my point is that to say “instrinsically disordered” gets at a teleological truth that the more deontological-sounding “moral absolutes” doesn’t get to. The terms are not co-terminous at all, primarily because one refers to the nature of the person and the other refers to a rule outside the individual. So using the latter language is far from just a matter of style: It is emphasizing a completely different aspect of ethics, and a secondary one at that.

    You say, “If someone has a problem with the simple claim that some things are absolutely wrong, then they have a problem not merely with Kant, but with the entire tradition of Catholic natural law thinking.” But Catholic natural thinking is very different from its more rationalistic Enlightenment counterpart. Catholic natural law teaching is teleological, not deontological.

    Aquinas didn’t deny there were moral absolutes in his articulation of natural law, but he considered them secondary precepts governing actions and derivative of the primary precepts that involved human nature itself: Moral absolutes were moral only because they guided a human to the completion of his nature.

    Of course, I think this is precisely what you were getting at in trying to shift the focus away from the individual because the former language seems more threatening than the latter. But giving up on the more primary teleological truth seems to me to be a move away from the more teleological Catholic natural law teaching and toward the Enlightenment version, which is a false imitation: It is a move away from Catholic natural law teaching.

    And besides, I don’t know that that it helps us (or them) in the long run to take the focus away from the condition of their own soul (which Catholic natural law emphasizes) and place it instead on an abstract moral law (which is the Enlightenment emphasis). In fact, I think it was this move that helped to get us into the fix we’re in.

    And as I said, I doubt, practically speaking, that the strategy would work anyway.

    Also, I didn’t mean to imply that you were intentionally channeling Kant. That was just my way of underscoring the deontological nature of what you seemed to be saying. Catholic ethics and Kantian ethics do not stand or fall together.

    Thanks. I enjoy the discussion and congratulations on your fine blog. I was not familiar with it before.

  7. Thanks, Martin.

    I don’t disagree with what you are saying, but the problem, as I point out, is that for almost everyone today “disorder” means something like “mental illness.” It’s original, teleological meaning has largely been lost. And I’m not just talking about the secular media and non-Catholics. Even educated Catholics who try to explain what the term means show in the process that they don’t understand it. Of course, if you want to try and recapture that teleological understanding, that’s a noble undertaking, but you can’t do it just by repeating the term that has now become distorted.

  8. I would concur with Aaron on this one, precisely because of my own experience in studying and defending Thomistic moral theology. By way of putting forward my own bona fides, I have studied quite a lot of moral theology indeed, and have authored (for a school purpose) a 10 page outline and review of Christopher Kaczor’s excellent “Propotionalism and the Natural Law Tradition”; I have also written a paper attacking Strawson’s “Basic Argument against Moral Responsibility” from a Thomistic metaphysical-moral perspective which you can find on under my name. I was also a Dominican seminarian last year, and my entire education has been steeped primarily in Aquinas. I don’t say this to toot my own horn as such, but rather to put the brakes on the now-classic “maybe if x read the Summa like a REAL Catholic they would know how WRONG they are” strategy, which to me is a slap in the face of my namesake who wrote it. The less I might need to say about my credentials, the better, but there it is.

    I would agree owing to the Thomistic tradition concerning language. A name is “a vocal sound significant by convention, without time, no part of which is significant separately.”

    All names are essentially conventional. (It is part of the definition of a name or noun.) and “disorder” is a name. So the meaning of “disorder” is essentially conventional. The same can be said for “intrinsic disorder”, both because “intrinsic” is a name and “disorder” is what it modifies. But in the case of “disorder”, the convention has come to mean “psychological and pejorative maladjustment manifested in an inability to function prudently.” So, for example, “bipolar disorder” indicates that someone is incapable of controlling their emotional inclinations. If homosexuality were such, it would be impossible to have a “chaste” homosexual before us, which is absurd.

    This does not mean that homosexuality is not a “disorder”; it is one, in the sense used by moral theology and ONLY, it seems, by moral theology. But this is not what most people hear when you say the word, because most people are not moral theologians! What most people are familiar with by the term “disorder” is a psychological disorder. When the audience cannot be expected to make the distinction, and it is not made by the speaker (and it must be made!) then there is a massive pastoral abuse happening there.

    It seems to me that to use a term that does not mean the same thing in a different context as though it does is NOT to preserve the Church’s moral theology, any more than one preserves English by refusing to speak Chinese in China. It only makes the Church’s moral teaching, which deserves the highest respect, look ridiculous, and if that is our doing then it is our fault.

  9. Although I understand you all wanting to discuss the exact wording for the problem so many humans suffer from, it still comes down to what kind of terminology would work better than to call it an ‘intrinsic disorder’ of the mind and body? I come away after reading all of your comments, plus Aarons article, thinking your main raison detere is you don’t want Aaron and the homosexual community to feel badly about homosexuality and the onus on it.

    My thought is that whether we call this a ‘disorder’ or an ‘intrinsic disorder’ same sex attraction still remains in the seriously flawed category and there isn’t any really nice sweet words to describe it.

  10. Thank you, Reta, for your comments. My aim is not to find “nice sweet words” to describe homosexuality, but rather to describe is as accurately as possible, as I explained above.

  11. Thomas,

    I’m not unsympathetic with what you and Aaron are saying here, I’m simply saying that you only have so many alternatives and none of them are very good and, if one of our criteria is whether our rhetorical strategy “works,” then the strategy of using “moral absolutes” is no better than “intrinsic disorder.” The gay community (or anyone else) isn’t going to be any more persuaded by the former than the latter.

    So if neither strategy is going to work anyway, you have no good reason to abandon the language most appropriate to your moral theology. You gain nothing.

    Our therapeutic culture uses this language to move things from the category of voluntary behavior to involuntary behavior. In fact, I just recently wrote about this problem. But our only hope on issues like this is to reshape the moral discussion, as Alasdair MacIntyre has been fairly successful at doing.

    I think this is possible if we know it ourselves, which, unfortunately, most of us don’t. Maybe discussions like this will help.

    Also, the “intrinsic disorder” at issue here IS a psychological disorder. Psychology is, literally, the “study of the soul” and sin is a condition of the soul. I realize that just set the problem one step back, and gives us one more term that is problematic, but, again, I think the only hope on any of this is to reclaim these terms.

    Maybe what we disagree about is whether you have any chance of winning a public debate if you allow your opponent to define the terms. If we continue to cede the terminology to the enemies of the Church, we’re doomed from the start.

  12. Martin, thanks again for responding.

    I would ask, how is the claim that gay sex is absolutely morally wrong “allowing your opponent to define the terms”? Which opponents of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality have you heard make such a claim? Because I haven’t heard this claim from any of them.

    As I have said previously, my aim is not to win a public debate, or to smooth ruffled feathers, but simply to present the Church’s teaching in the clearest manner possible. If people still choose to reject it or find it offensive after having heard it presented in the clearest, easiest-to-understand, most tactful way, then in that case there is nothing more we can do. I am simply putting forward the hypothesis that the statement that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” is not in fact that clearest way to present that teaching, given that the context for understanding such a statement has now largely disappeared from Western culture.

    • Aaron,

      I was trying to acknowledge the problem you were seeing in the term ‘intrinsically disordered’ and adding that there was also a problem with the term ‘psychology’. Both of these terms have taken on a therapeutic cast because of the scientistic mindset that now dominates our culture. Both of these expressions originated in a culture that didn’t see conditions of the soul as diseases, but as moral conditions. Sin is no longer a tenable term, but sickness is.

      In other words, I was agreeing with you on what the problem is and pointing out that it extends also to the term ‘psychology’: Not only are you correct in diagnosing the problem, but it’s even worse than you stated it.

      That being said, where we differ is what we do about it. Your solution would accept the modern therapeutic definition of these terms and try to work around them. I am saying that that won’t work anyway, so all we can do is to try to salvage the original definition of the terms.

      But maybe I’m being a pessimist.

  13. To summarize, Martin: what we disagree about is not the best way to do PR. What we disagree about is simply the clearest way to communicate the Church’s moral objection to homosexual acts to people who aren’t academic philosophers.

  14. Thomas you said some helpful things in this last post then you lost it with…

    ” If we continue to cede the terminology to the enemies of the Church, we’re doomed from the start.”

    Just what did you mean by that………if someone has cancer ought he not continue to realize he is very ill and needs to seek out a doctor to help him either to get healed or find ways to manage the cancer to keep it from metastasizing? I mean would you have a cancer patient try to have people see his illness as not being serious perhaps something leading to his death by using benign wording when doctors discuss it? Would you rather he jump up and down and get mad at those who advise him of the truth of his situation?

    Could you explain why using the same terminology now in use for discussions of the homosexual plight be considered giving in to the ‘enemies of the Church?’
    Using the correct language to name and claim an illness or disease is primary to helping in this situation. If you keep calling a 3 legged dog a 4 legged dog just because you want to ameliorate and placate those dogs with 3 legs, would this in ANY way help except to keep the poor animal in delusion about the true nature of his situation……using the correct terminology of the fact that he has only 3 legs will lead to his getting a prosthesis so he will be able to walk normally and not have to go about hopping as he now has to.

  15. Reta,

    That was me, not Thomas. What I meant was that if you let others frame the debate, you almost always lose. And I was arguing we shouldn’t abandon the teleological language of “intrinsic disorder” and if the teleological implications of the term are not apparent in the modern world, then we should not change the change term, but clarify its teleological import.

    I think we agree.

  16. Everything I’ve said notwithstanding, given the choice between the “intrinsically disordered” terminology, and Reta’s comparisons between homosexuals and 3-legged dogs, I’m beginning to appreciate the virtue of the Church’s measured choice of language …

  17. Martin,

    First, thank you for your clear and measured responses; they are quite refreshing in discussions on this subject! I should note that Spiritual Friendship provides an excellent example in this regard, in general, which is why I am glad to post my two cents here.

    You are right that, rhetorically, “moral absolutes” is less punchy and less accurate owing to the baggage of analytic philosophy. (Happily, I would not describe myself as a product of that tradition, except accidentally.) I would not use that. But “intrinsic disorder”, while punchy, is TOO punchy; it has the strong note of moral impropriety, as well as the false idea that whoever is before us is somehow unable to be a saint.

    As Reta also (I assume accidentally) notes, it has the additional notion, borrowed from psychology, that the one “disordered” is, in a parallel to the 3-legged dog, somehow fundamentally less capable of achieving their natural or spiritual ends. This is false. The Word did not become incarnate of a peasant girl just to say “salvation is available to all, unless I made you like men, because ewwww.” And I strongly object to the idea that spiritual friendship or the life in Christ is a prosthesis, though I am not so convinced that the modern uses of “intrinsic disorder” are not often crutches.

  18. Pingback: Disorder Revisited | Spiritual Friendship

  19. Dear Aaron:

    Would you call the fate that befell Sodom and Gommorah “ham-fisted?” Well, watch what happens to Seattle, especially after that youtube episode where a preacher was beaten up by a gay crowd. The Blessed Virgin stated to the late Fr. Gobbi the following:

    Jesus is today again despised, scourged and wounded in his Mystical Body. How the permissive attitude of many priests and of some bishops who justify even the gravest acts of impurity makes his divine Heart suffer!

    Precisely here, in this very place, the Heart of Jesus has been despised, wounded and outraged by the welcoming of so many of my poor children, consumed by this terrible vice and by the public encouragement given to them to continue along the road of impure sin against nature. Impure acts against nature are sins which cry for vengeance in the sight of God. These sins draw down upon you and upon your nations the flames of the justice of God.

    The time has come to proclaim to all, with clarity and with courage, the sixth commandment given by God to Moses: “Do not commit impure acts,” (cf. Ex. 20:14) still has its full force and must be observed even by this corrupted and perverted generation.

    Every pastor who, in any manner whatsoever, would justify these sins, draws down upon his person and upon his life the fierce fire of divine justice. The cup of iniquity is now full, is more than full and is flowing over everywhere.

    And so I invite you to multiply your cenacles of prayer and to offer me your lives, made fragrant by the virtue of purity, as a powerful force of supplication and of reparation.

    I promise you that even now the heavens are on the point of opening upon this poor corrupt world, to cause the fiery dew of divine justice and of mercy to descend so that it may again become a new garden of light, of purity and of holiness.

    Ham fisted? Just wait till you see what is waiting after death for us Almighty Rationalists.

    • Peter I haven’t been keeping up with this conversation so I don’t know what the question was that you are answering to,…..however, I do understand where you’re coming from and quite agree with you. Also, could you post the link to that UTube video you mention about Our Lady and Padre Pio……….I’m not familiar with that…..I believe Padre Pio received many messages regarding our recent times ……………thanks

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  26. I believe the disorder is W those who do not except
    the love of and commitment of anyone for there beliefs
    We R all sisters and brothers and should behave so

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