Aaron Taylor recently wrote a critique of the use (or abuse) of the category of “disorder” in relation to homosexual acts here at Spiritual Friendship. To my mind, the most important of his observations was the following:
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.
It seems to me that the core problem that this term has when it comes to the relation between the Catholic Church and the gay community is the oft-repeated inaccuracy that the Church teaches that gay people are disordered. When someone says this, I think it touches a good deal more directly on the “homosexual inclinations are objectively disordered” than on the “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (though, as Aaron notes, the two are linked.)
A close examination of magisterial texts reveals that a homosexual inclination is defined as disordered only insofar as it is directed towards same-sex intercourse; but of course, sexual desire is only one element to the broad range of experiences which we describe as “being gay.” As for what the others might be, I leave that for another time, but they embrace a great deal of a person’s affectivity and relational reality.
In the realm of spiritual formation, our task is to seek the transformation our loves and desire in conformity with the will of God. In this private realm, the description of homosexual inclinations as objectively disordered becomes relevant, as we seek the transformation of a sexual desire. But in terms of public discourse, our main task is to proclaim the Gospel, in ways that it can be heard. In that sphere, talk of homosexuality as disorder tends to function as a hindrance to hearing.
On the one hand, we have a James Alison, whose primary argument that the Church’s sexual ethic must change seems to be that homosexuality is a non-pathological minority variant, not a scientifically verifiable psychological disorder. Thus, he concludes, there is no real basis for the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics. (He makes this argument here, among other places.)
On the other hand, we have a Fr. Fessio, who is on record saying specifically that the Church teaches that homosexuality is a psychological disorder. Both of these are intelligent men, but both err grievously in their parsing of “objective disorder.”
More important than either right or left, however, is the bewildered cry of the person in the middle, the person who either is or loves someone who is gay. The use and misuse of the description of homosexual inclinations as “objectively disordered” reads to her or him, not as a moral guideline, but as a negation of someone’s entire personhood, rendering the talk about dignity of human persons devoid of content. It seems to me that these people are the real reason we should exercise caution in the use of this language.
In the comment thread on the aforementioned post, Aaron distanced himself from a concern for “public relations.” But if we hope to evangelize, then we should present the Gospel in as humanizing and life-giving a way as possible. “Public relations” have always been important to the Church; see, for instance, the second and third century apologists, whose main purpose in writing was to refute calumnies spread by the enemies of the Christians. In the pursuit of that task, they (and especially St. Justin Martyr) boldly sought to frame the Gospel in terms that were meaningful to their time, such as Logos.
Evangelization requires that the Gospel be proclaimed; it also requires that the Gospel be heard. If the language we are using is hindering the Gospel from being heard (and I think it quite clearly is), then we should, like Penelope, be circumspect, and exercise greater caution in the use of language. Through the practice of prudence, we can grow to know when it may help, and when it may harm.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology. His main focus is on Augustine, and he hopes to dissertate on Augustine’s doctrine of grace. He has also occasionally published in First Things, Spiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church relates to gay people.