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.”)