What Does “Disinterested Friendship” Mean?

Popes Francis and Benedict

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the term “disinterested” in five different places. The most relevant instance for most readers of this blog is:

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

The first definition for “disinterested” at Dictionary.com is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,” which would mean that a “disinterested friendship” is a friendship that is not biased by personal interest or advantage, nor influenced by selfish motives. In the context of 2359, the most obvious selfish motive in view would be lust, though any selfish motive will poison friendship. This unbiased and unselfish friendship seems like the sort of love most of us would want from our friends.

However, the second definition for “disinterested” is “not interested; indifferent.” A usage note points out that

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

And, this confusion infects many people’s understanding of the term “disinterested friendship” in 2359. To many, “disinterested friendship” suggests a friend who is “not interested, indifferent.” Comparison with other usages of the same word in the Catechism, however, demonstrates that this cannot be the sense the authors of the Catechism had in mind.

2649 Prayer of praise is entirely disinterested and rises to God, lauds him, and gives him glory for his own sake, quite beyond what he has done, but simply because HE IS.

Understanding “disinterested” as “not interested, indifferent” in this paragraph would do violence to the whole Christian understanding of prayer. In the introduction of the section on Christian prayer (2558), the Catechism quotes St. Thérèse of Lisieux:

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart;
it is a simple look turned toward heaven,
it is a cry of recognition and of love,
embracing both trial and joy.

The Catechism also teaches that “Praise embraces the other forms of prayer and carries them toward him who is its source and goal: the ‘one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist'” (2639). The Catechism describes praise pouring forth in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (2641, quoting Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16).

In praise, our hearts swell with love, devotion, and delight in God. Yet praise is disinterested because we are not trying to get something from God. In its purest form, praise is a gift freely given, not a bargain entered in the selfish expectation of gain.

1829 The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; charity demands beneficence and fraternal correction; it is benevolence; it fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion: Love is itself the fulfillment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest.

This is probably the most important passage for understanding what “disinterested friendship” might be. It is certainly not “not interested, indifferent.” Note here that charity “fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous.” Disinterested love is not a bargain for personal gain; at the same time, love fosters reciprocity. The ideal here is love which is unselfish, yet mutually generous.

2223 Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery—the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.” Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them:

He who loves his son will not spare the rod. . . . He who disciplines his son will profit by him (Sirach 30:1-2).

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).

The picture of family life which emerges in this paragraph is also helpful for interpreting “disinterested friendship” in 2359. Several of the themes from 2359 (self-mastery, virtue, freedom) appear in this paragraph. In some ways, the picture of family life found here is stern, yet it is a sternness infused with love and tenderness, and marked by humility and forgiveness. Disinterested service—that is, service offered unselfishly, without seeking personal advantage—emerges out of this loving family life.

2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

Paragraph 2223 deals with the loving formation of a child; 2279 deals with care in the twilight of life. Again, the meaning here has to be that the care offered to the dying person is offered without any selfish agenda. As the context of the paragraph makes clear, decisions about the use of painkillers must be made only out of concern for the suffering of the patient; any selfish motive for hastening death is a serious evil.

There is no reason that disinterested friendship should not delight in praising a friend. Disinterested friendship can be reciprocal and generous. There is no reason it should not be tender, forgiving, respectful, faithful, like a parent’s love for her child, or a child’s care for a dying parent. It is disinterested friendship because it has no selfish agenda. In the context of 2359, this would particularly forbid any sexual agenda. But to interpret this as calling for friends who are distant, uninterested, not concerned, or indifferent would do violence to the meaning of the word found in other contexts in the Catechism, and make no sense in the context of paragraph 2359. How would friends who are uninterested or indifferent provide the kind of support 2359 envisions?

A few years ago, Francis Cardinal George observed, “The Church speaks, in moral and doctrinal issues, a philosophical and theological language in a society that understands, at best, only psychological and political terms. Our language is exact, but it does not help us in welcoming men and women of homosexual orientation. It can seem lacking in respect. This is a pastoral problem and a source of anxiety for me.”

The Catechism uses the word “disinterested” in a precise way; but those who are not sensitive to the different senses of “disinterested,” or those who have not looked at the Catechism to understand the meaning of the term in context, may easily fall into an interpretation which is nearly the opposite of the intended meaning. This is an unfortunate result of the “confused and confusing history” of the word “disinterested.” Yet careful attention not only to the dictionary meaning, but also the word’s use in the context of the Catechism, demonstrates that the word admits much more warmth and tenderness than those who confuse it with uninterested or indifferent imagine.

Update: A reader pointed me to this Slate article, which discusses the confusion over the different meanings of “disinterested.” To get a sense of how the meanings have shifted, the author gave an ungraded, anonymous quiz to college students in his advanced writing seminar. He found that 94% of the students thought that “disinterested” meant “uninterested.” If his sample is at all representative, then the phrase “disinterested friendship” is likely to be misunderstood by almost all English speaking readers of the Catechism. (This is completely consistent with my own experience: most people I have discussed the phrase with presume that “disinterested friendship” means “uninterested friendship.”)

31 thoughts on “What Does “Disinterested Friendship” Mean?

  1. Excellent! I have long been intending to write something on this topic myself, Ron, but you have saved me the trouble. I think you hit the nail on the head here.

    I might add one thing: to be disinterested, in this sense, is to care more about the good of the other person than the continuance of one’s relationship with the other person. It does not only forbid lust; it forbids envy and possessiveness of every kind; it forbids the sort of longing that would be willing to sacrifice the other person on the altar of one’s own loneliness. It is happy to find encouragement, closeness, and camaraderie, but it considers those things as undeserved “perks”. The good of the other is what matters, period.

    • I too found this to be helpful, even though I’m not Catholic.

      In a Reformed evangelical context, the practice of friendship–at least between men–reflects the “uninterested” meaning of the word. Men are expected to maintain a fair bit of interpersonal distance. In practice, it means that our friendships boil down to guys with whom I share a common interest or a common professional station. I often wonder whether that doesn’t contribute to the central role that right-wing politics plays within evangelical church life. It’s one thing that some number of men share in common.

    • As Ron wrote above, Jeff, two friends can be “disinterested” in the relevant sense while still being quite interested in each other! And of course, they would also have a genuine loving attachment, so that loss would hurt them.

      What disinterested friendship doesn’t admit is a set of other things: adoration, for instance. I don’t think I’m uncommon in that I want people to adore me, to idolize me — but that desire is DEFINITELY unhealthy. To some degree, the modern notion of “love” includes this sort of unhealthy adoration. But it’s not healthy even in a marriage, and it’s definitely not good for a friendship.

    • I think it’s worth looking at paragraph 2223 (quoted above). What does it mean for a parent’s love to be disinterested? Think about the father who wants to vicariously re-live his football career through his son, or the mother who will not let go of her insistence that her son become a doctor, even though he believes he’s called to be a priest.

      We want to be loved deeply, but part of authentic love is being loved for ourselves, not for what someone else wants us to be. If “disinterested” love is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,” then the catechism is telling us to love people for themselves, not to fulfill or own needs, wants, or desires.

      In common English usage, “interested in” is the opposite of uninterested, not the opposite of “disinterested,” in the sense we’re discussing here.

      You can be very “interested in” someone, love them, and miss them if they pass, and still “disinterested” in the sense we’re discussing here.

  2. This is fantastic, and very important. Unfortunately I know someone for whom a misunderstanding of the word has been disastrous. Between not comprehending “disinterested,” and reading books meant for religious which warn against particular friendship, someone I love very much has no healthy friendships to speak of. (Both became such intrenched understandings that it didn’t help when our priest tried to clear it up.)

    She is the most generous person I know. When someone in our parish has a family crisis, she is the first to show up and offer support. But because she’s starved for friendship, this results in going overboard–showing up every day, for weeks, when someone’s spouse has died or there is a divorce, loss of income, illness, etc. She’s expressed that she feels like she’s not allowed unless she is serving in some tangible way, and that she experiences intense guilt if she’s “just” enjoying someone’s company and not, like, bringing them groceries or letting them cry on her shoulder. So once some equilibrium returns to the household and there’s less need for concrete help, she withdraws completely. It’s incredibly sad to see this happen over and over again. Both for her and for people who’ve bonded to her in a crisis and want to share a cup of tea and laugh with their sweet friend now that they’re capable of getting themselves dressed and washing dishes.

    Granted, this has a lot to do with untreated mental illness; most people, whether they misunderstand the meaning or not, aren’t going to let it wreck their lives. But the fact that some people might, and that others can suffer to a lesser degree from misapplying it, makes it all the more important to define words that aren’t really commonly used anymore.

    • This reminds me of one of the attributes of God: apatheia (“God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.”*), which is not to be confused with apathy, but which often is so confused.

      * Jason Micheli parsing David Bentley Hart.

      • Oops … I got snookered into seeing “Reply” and not seeing a top level reply. My comment is meant to refer to the original post, not to comments on it.

  3. I’d long been confused by the expression “disinterested friendship” in the Catechism, that is until I was requested to expound on Goal 4 (To be mindful of the truth that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life; and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships) in my local Courage group ( http://www.couragerc.org ) and was forced to do some research. A dear brother, (whom until then I had given up on as an “uninterested friend”) Kevin from another Courage chapter across the Pacific saved my day when he explained it didn’t mean “uninterested” as it seemed to suggest but rather it referred to a friendship where both parties seek the well-being of the other and characterized by a self-giving love in contrast to a self-seeking kind of interest, and disinterested friendship then best translates as a chaste friendship as well, and for that I was truly grateful to him and realized I had been wrong in my earlier impression of this friend. So, thanks to you also, Ron Belgau for expounding and reiterating the intended and correct meaning of “disinterested friendship” through this excellent article. God bless you, brother! That being said, I would be honored if you’ll accept my offer of disinterested friendship on Facebook! =) Victor C.

  4. This is one of those cases where it pays to think with the Church. If one does it is pretty obvious that interpreting “disinterested” as “uninterested” is quite incoherent.

    I wonder if the abysmal results of your poll are more a reflection of an inability to think with the Church. After all for most it is an acquired skill.

    • Just to clarify, this wasn’t my poll, it was done by Ben Yagoda (the author of the Slate article I linked to). The poll wasn’t conducted in the context of a discussion of church teaching. It was conducted in a writing seminar, so the focus was on the shift in meaning in general use.

  5. I agree with your conclusions, but this proof texting seems an odd approach. The people who wrote the Catechism are largely still alive, we could ask them what they imagined, or submit a dubia, etc.

    The real question is less whether disinterested means uninterested and more whether it was a coded way of trying to hedge against a “winking” interpretation of “friendship” unqualified that the crafters might have seen as potentially problematic, as a way of not being seen as giving unequivocal support to “particular friendships” among gays (itself a coded term, of course) without necessarily directly mentioning or condemning the possibility.

    It seems to me the question we need to ask is what “disinterested” friendship was put in there to *contrast* with. What sort of friendship were they imagining that isn’t endorsed by the advice (though I’ll point out that merely “not explicitly endorsed” is not the same as condemned). And the sad truth is I have to think it was meant to be contrasted with the “particular friendships” that seminarians etc used to be warned against in grave knowing tones (that the naïve young seminarians didn’t necessarily understand themselves at all, until they experienced their first seminary scandal.)

  6. The CCC is written in many language not just English. I am shocked to learn that the word “disinterested” is a source of confusion in the English version. In Spanish there would be no question as to what it means even though the word itself has two different meanings as noted by Ron. There is no “code” behind this word and I’m sure that other languages would have clearer meaning about it.
    This remins me of the difficulty I have understanding the controversy about “having an attraction for” and “desiring something”. To me is crystal clear that the former is passive and the latter is active. It really should be “being attracted by” which is passive (something exerts attraction on you).

      • That’s what I call a shocking question! Which one do you think makes sense?

        No one that I know that speaks Spanish would say a real friendship can be uninterested so by default we would think about this passage in the CCC as stating that friendship should be disinterested in the sense of selfless and not seeking ulterior motives. This is the sense Ron endorses and the only one that makes sense.

      • The question is whether the authors think of “romantic” feelings as an ulterior motive. As being too “interested” in the other person’s life.

        I saw some conservatives over at Crisis, after admitting many lesbian couples aren’t having much in the way of sex, go on to say that there was still a problem because then it was “emotional dependency and getting an emotional fix from the other.”

        Is this what the Catechism thinks of the role of passionate emotions in human relationships? Is “getting your emotional fix” from the other person not being “disinterested”??

      • I don’t understand your last two questions but what the CCC is saying is that the church (members of the church) should support homosexual people in their pursue of chastity through true Christ-like friendship. These friendships are between two persons, whether gay-gay or gay-straight, man-man, woman-man or woman-woman, the point is that we ought to provide support. This means that I am being called to provide support through

      • (continue… – sorry) This means that I’m being called to provide support to people with homosexuality through friendship and that this friendship ought to be Christ-liked (disinterested).

    • ” I saw some conservatives over at Crisis, after admitting many lesbian couples aren’t having much in the way of sex, go on to say that there was still a problem because then it was “emotional dependency and getting an emotional fix from the other.” ”

      Sounds like grasping at straws to me. Unless these Crisis conservatives can read minds. More likely, their conservative nature predisposes them to thinking the worse of LGBT people, thus even if the lesbians are not having sex, their relationship must be bad because lesbians are, themselves, bad.

      I know they try to sell that guff about hating the sin and blah blah the sinner but what, besides utter contempt, could drive a group of people to think so lowly of us and our motives? Love isn’t a factor on Crisis, from my experience.

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  8. Very good article! It really helped clarify that term for me.
    The more I read, the more I find I’m appreciating how the catholic church handles issues like friendship and sexuality. I’m not catholic myself, but I have deep respect for them. It’s so refreshing these days to see a church that so strongly holds onto it’s tradition!

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