Intrinsic Evil and Disorder: How To Misunderstand the Catholic Catechism

“Homosexuality is intrinsically more disordered than heterosexual adultery.”

“Homosexuality is described in Church teaching as an intrinsic disorder that goes against the natural law. Adultery, while gravely sinful, is not.”

“An intrinsically disordered condition is more akin to schizophrenia or addictions, whereas adultery is an act of rebellion against God’s norms.”

Statements such as these scrolled across my screen, as I surveyed the answers given in comments by well-intentioned Catholics in a private Facebook group. The original post had asked about the relative lack of prominent Catholic opposition to adultery, compared to homosexuality. It is a worthy question for reflection, and it does not admit of a simple answer. The above sentiments, however, captured most of my attention. Perhaps you have seen similar statements before. Perhaps you have made statements such as these yourself. Perhaps you even believe these statements to be true – or at the very least, believe them to be accurate expressions of the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. After all, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church we do read that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and contrary to the natural law (CCC 2357).

If you don’t see the problem with those initial statements above, then this post is for you. If you are uncomfortable with the Catechism’s use of the term “intrinsically disordered” within the context of homosexuality, then this post is for you. And if you think the Catechism is homophobic, or otherwise implicitly claiming that homosexuality is approximate to (if not actually equivalent to) some sort of psychiatric or psychological disorder, such as schizophrenia or addictions, then this post is for you. Welcome to an abbreviated crash-course in Catholic moral theology.

Lesson 1: “Intrinsically Evil” Actions

In harmony with centuries of Catholic teaching on how we should evaluate the moral character of certain actions, the Catechism affirms: “There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery.” (CCC 1756) In other words, there exist actions that must always, by their very nature – without any exception, under any circumstances – be considered as evil. Because the wickedness of the action is inherent, arising internally from the account of the very nature of the action, we describe actions of this sort as “intrinsically evil”, and hold that there is nothing that can ever justify such an action.

Perhaps the simplest possible example of an intrinsically evil action is the deliberate killing of an innocent person: “Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: ‘Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.’ The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.” (CCC 2261)

Lesson 2: “Disordered” Desires and Actions

Traditional moral theology holds that human actions always have some end or purpose: something that the action is for, some goal that the action is “ordered toward” obtaining. In many cases, the purpose of an action is given by nature (e.g. eating food is naturally ordered to health, whether or not that purpose is consciously intended by the person). In other cases, the purpose of an action is superadded by the human will (e.g. when “comfort food” is desired primarily because it gives pleasure or satisfaction, without any explicit concern for nutritional value). And sometimes, it can happen that the human purpose driving an action is radically incompatible with the natural purpose (e.g. when poison is consumed for the sake of suicide, which is absolutely incompatible with health)… and in these cases the action is considered to be disordered, because the natural purpose of the action has been wholly and fundamentally impeded. Note however that when moral theologians speak of actions being disordered, this refers to the moral character of the action. And indeed the Catechism is explicit on this point: “The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts… that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil” (CCC 1755).

In a very similar (and perhaps slightly more obvious) way, we also say that every desire has an end: something that the desire is for, something that the desire is “ordered toward” obtaining. If you desire to commit an action, we say that your desire is ordered toward that action; and if we speak of your desire as being disordered, this refers to the fact that your desire is ordered toward something bad, which you should not desire. Therefore: if you desire to commit an action that is evil, your desire is disordered; and if you desire to commit an action that is intrinsically evil (e.g. if you desire to murder your annoying neighbor), then we describe your desire as intrinsically disordered. Note well that if an action is only a sin in some cases, but not in others – if there are exceptions – then it is not an intrinsically evil action. Note also, for the very same reason, that every temptation toward sin is intrinsically disordered: because no matter how large or small the sin might be, sin (by definition) is always evil without exception.

A helpful example is given by the Catechism: “Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.” (CCC 2351) Here we see highlighted the disordered character of lustful desires, because they are directed toward an inordinate end. We also see the morally disordered character of lustful actions, which are motivated by seeking sexual pleasure in ways that are isolated from (and therefore not compatible with) its natural purposes. Note well that the desire for sexual pleasure is not intrinsically disordered: precisely because there are circumstances (e.g. within marriage) where the Church affirms that it can be sought in accord with its procreative and unitive purposes.

Lesson 3: Homosexuality Is Hardly Unique

Before we began these reflections, we observed the Catechism’s affirmation that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (CCC 2357). This citation is frequently invoked as if to imply that sexual actions occurring between two men or between two women is disordered in the extreme: as if the plain text of the Catechism suggested that homosexual sex is hardly even capable of comparison with other sins that are not (here one obviously clutches their pearls in horror) intrinsically disordered. Sometimes the same citation is invoked to emphasize the disordered character of homosexual actions, as if that adjective obviously implied some form of psychiatric or psychological defect. By now, it should be clear to the reader just how deeply confused those alleged implications are, and how radically unsupported they are by the authentic meaning of the Catechism’s text.

Indeed, it is worthwhile to take a step back and soberly observe the full array of sins that are also described in the Catechism as inherently evil, or otherwise objectively and intrinsically disordered: lying and calumny (CCC 1753); fornication (CCC 1755); blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery (CCC 1756); masturbation (CCC 2352); rape (CCC 2356); homosexual acts (CCC 2357); and contraception (CCC 2370). The language of disorder is even extended to describe the “spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation” between a husband and wife in marriage (CCC 1606-1607). Of course, it is impossible to fully explain and defend the arguments for the Catholic Church’s teaching on all these topics within the scope of this essay; for now, it is sufficient to simply observe that the Catechism does not condemn homosexual actions in a unique way.

But it is helpful to pay closer attention to the Catechism’s affirmation that: “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose” (CCC 2352). For in the final analysis, this is the very same core moral principle by which the Catechism condemns masturbation as an “intrinsically and gravely disordered action” on the one hand, and equally labels homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” on the other: because sexual pleasure is always “morally disordered when [it is] isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes” (CCC 2351). The fact that homosexual actions are “deprived of their essential and indispensable finality” (CDF, 1986, n. 3) – i.e. that these actions are inherently deprived of their natural end, the purpose that sexual activity is ordered toward by nature – applies to an incredibly broad variety of sexual acts, and is by no means uniquely applied to homosexual sex.

Lesson 4: Always Distinguish

In sum, the Catechism’s position on homosexuality follows a very simple logic: since homosexual actions are an objective and intrinsic moral evil, the desire to engage in those actions is intrinsically (morally) disordered. And for the very same reason, it is evident that any behavioral tendency to engage in those actions is a moral disorder within the person: a bad habit (vice) that must be broken through cultivating the contrary habit (virtue) of chastity, whereby man gains freedom from slavery to his passions (CCC 2337-2339).

Note carefully, however, what is being said, and what is not being said: Sinful actions are disordered. The behavioral tendency to engage in those sinful actions is disordered. The desire or temptation to engage in those sinful actions is disordered. This logic applies to every sin, and unquestionably to every sexual action outside of marriage, not only to homosexual actions. And here we are speaking of “disorders” only in the moral sense, not the psychiatric or psychological sense. But we do not speak of the person being disordered, merely because he or she experiences temptation. And indeed, we affirm that merely experiencing temptation is not a sin.

Again: We do not say that the homosexual person is disordered, but only concrete action, habits, and temptations (see Note 1). And if “being homosexual” means nothing other than experiencing this form of temptation in a stable manner, then – because experiencing temptation is not a sin – “being homosexual” is not a sin, and indeed it is no more disordered than an internal tendency to experience literally any other temptation. The opposite conclusion follows if we define “being homosexual” as engaging in specifically homosexual actions: for then indeed there is an intrinsic link toward sinful actions. Are terms like “homosexuality” and “same sex attraction” reducible to sinful acts and their temptations, or do they signify something broader? Is homosexuality the same as “being gay”? Is a homosexual “orientation” intrinsically disordered? These are controversial and complex questions, to be sure, but in every case the principle is exactly the same: it depends entirely on exactly how the speaker defines the philosophical relationship between these terms and sinful homosexual acts. For to the degree that sinful acts and temptations are separable from whatever concept we are speaking about, then (by that very fact) there ceases to be any coherent basis for labeling that thing as intrinsically disordered (see Note 2). Caution in speaking, and in discerning how speakers define their own terminology, is critical.

Lessons In Action: Homosexuality vs. Adultery

Pulling all of these lessons together, the confused claim that homosexuality is “intrinsically more disordered than other sexual sins, such as adultery” represents a good case in point, a valuable thought exercise that highlights just how profoundly misleading it can be to harp on the terminology of “intrinsic disorder” as if this phrase made everything very simple and obvious. For indeed: adulterous and homosexual acts are both unequivocally contrary to the natural law, gravely illicit, and intrinsically evil. From this it follows that any temptation, desire, or inclination to engage in either adultery or homosexual activity is objectively and intrinsically disordered. So far, so similar.

The first difference between these sins arises from the fact that homosexual acts between two men or two women are more “contrary to nature” than adulterous sex between a man and a woman (see Note 3). This is simply due to the fact that heterosexual sex has at least an inherent natural potential to be compatible with the natural procreative purpose of sexual activity (even when it is adulterous) in a way that homosexual sex never can be. From this vantage point, it does follow that homosexual acts are an inherently greater sin against the virtue of chastity.

The second difference, however, arises from the fact that adultery is inherently a sin against the virtue of justice, precisely because it involves a violation of the marriage bond (CCC 2381). But justice is traditionally considered to be an inherently greater and more divine-noble virtue than chastity – indeed, Aquinas holds justice to be preeminent among all the moral virtues (Summa Theologiae, II.II, question 58, article 12) – from which it necessarily follows that sins against justice are inherently greater evils than sins against chastity. Thus in the final analysis: acts that offend against chastity and justice simultaneously are inherently more gravely sinful than acts that offend against chastity alone. Again, to be very clear: a rigorously traditional analysis leads to the (surely surprising) conclusion that consensual non-adulterous homosexual sex is less gravely sinful than adulterous heterosexual sex. For the fact that homosexual sin is a greater violation against chastity is overshadowed, in the end, by the fact that adultery is inherently a sin against justice.

And our analysis of related sexual sins need not end there. For by the very same principles, we can begin to deduce that all heterosexual sex outside of marriage (even when it is not adulterous) is at least naturally proximate to a sin against justice: namely, the conception of a child outside of marriage, in violation of every child’s natural right to be raised by his or her biological parents. Alternatively, if the danger of this injustice is avoided via contraception, then – the sexual act between man and woman having been voided even of its procreative element (in a deliberate manner that is considered both intrinsically evil and “contrary to nature”) – the actual logical-moral difference between contraceptive sex and homosexual sex becomes incredibly thin. And finally, it also follows that violent and exploitative homosexual rape (such as carried out the biblical sin of the city of Sodom) offends gravely against justice, even to an exponentially greater degree than the consensual injustice of adultery. But that is a topic for a separate reflection.


Note 1: Actions are intrinsically disordered whenever they are inherently evil and (therefore) always morally wrong to choose. Habits and temptations are disordered in the exact same way, by extension, simply because of their logical internal relationship to those intrinsically evil actions.

Note 2: Note well that the modern concept of “sexual orientation” is (as yet) completely foreign to the language of the Catechism and traditional moral theology of the Church: thus again, whether or not any “sexual orientation” is intrinsically disordered will depend on precisely how the philosophical concept of “sexual orientation” is defined. For instance, if (if) it is coherent to understand “sexual orientation” as a something like a quality deep within the person – a fundamental disposition toward apprehending beauty in either sex (or both) in a manner that can accidentally give rise to sexual temptations, but at the same time, a disposition that is not wholly reducible to those temptations – then indeed, it might be correct to affirm that no sexual orientation is ever inherently disordered in its totality, but that every sexual orientation constitutes a potential source of various disordered temptations, which can always nevertheless be purified through the cultivation of chastity.

Note 3: Here I am following the framework presented by Thomas Aquinas, in which the gravity of the “unnatural vices” contrary to nature are ranked, from least to greatest: masturbation (“which consists in the mere omission of copulation with another”), contraception (or any sexual activity between men and women “not observing the right manner of copulation”), homosexual actions (which is a more grave sin against nature because “use of the right sex is not observed”), and finally bestiality (which is “the most grievous [sin against nature] because use of the due species is not observed”). Summa Theologiae II-II, question 154, article 12, reply to objection 4.


4 thoughts on “Intrinsic Evil and Disorder: How To Misunderstand the Catholic Catechism

  1. Pingback: A Note on Courage and Language | Spiritual Friendship

    • Thanks for asking. My answer is that the modifier of “consensual” does in fact apply to both. (And indeed. it must, for the sake of equitable comparison.) But in the first case, it is made explicit, whereas in the second case I believe it is implicit.

      That is to say, I believe most readers instinctively (and correctly) think of “adultery” (of any sort) as carrying an implicit notion of consent. If it were not consensual, we would not refer to it as adultery, but rather as “rape”.

      So it is necessary to include the explicit additional modifier (“consensual”) when we are speaking about something that is “non-adulterous”. It is important to specify if the non-adulterous action is consensual or not, whereas the adulterous action is implicitly-presumably consensual, by definition.

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