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. Continue reading

What Does Matthew 5:28 Say about Sexual Orientation?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes how a legalistic interpretation of the law of Moses actually misses the sinfulness of common attitudes of the heart. Matthew 5:27-28 is just one example of this theme. In the ESV, this passage reads, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

I have often seen this passage used to argue that “same-sex attraction” or a “homosexual orientation” or something similar is a sin. Sometimes the further argument is that we shouldn’t identify with our sin by using words like “gay.”

The thing is, there are major issues with the way I usually see this argument being made. After all, the immediate context of the passage is heterosexual: a man looking at a woman lustfully. So how do people usually understand its application to heterosexual forms of sexual attraction?

Most evangelicals I’ve talked to say that there is some kind of distinction between “sexual attraction” and the “lustful intent” described in this passage. For example, they see a man’s attraction to another man’s wife as a form of temptation that may or may not cross the line into sin depending on how he handles it.

For someone who takes this kind of approach to heterosexual attraction, the passage provides no reason to take homosexual attraction any differently. It’s thus not a reason to see homosexual attraction itself as a form of sin (though like heterosexual attraction, it can lead to sinful sexual activity or lust in the heart).

On the other hand, there are some people in Reformed circles who see sexual attraction towards the wrong person as always a sin, even in a heterosexual context. From this perspective, it is straightforward to see homosexual attraction itself as a sin.

But even in this case, the way it’s used to argue that homosexual attraction is a sin doesn’t make a lot of sense. Specifically, most folks making the argument make a huge deal about homosexual desire, and see the acceptance of it as temptation rather than sin as a crisis. However, they say almost nothing about the common interpretation of adulterous heterosexual attraction as only temptation and not sin.

If viewing homosexual attraction as merely a temptation is a crisis, why is the same view of adulterous heterosexual attraction not an even larger crisis? Alternatively, if it’s good enough to find common ground because the focus is on how to resist temptation, why can the same not be said about efforts like Spiritual Friendship and Revoice? Continue reading

Benedict XVI and the Natural Law

Several friends have asked me questions about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent essay on “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” which has led to a few conversations about various aspects of the document. Since these issues may be of interest to others, I have decided to share some of what I said more widely.

Benedict XVI

Some of these questions—which I will address in future posts—concern controversial issues that I want to research and polish more carefully before sharing. The first, however, which I will address in this post, concerns a relatively non-controversial question about what Benedict said about the natural law: “Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation.”

A friend commented:

I agree that, in a sense, Greek philosophy provided a foundation for Catholic moral theology, but Benedict seems to be suggesting that Scripture just played a secondary role of providing a sort of support if things went sideways or if Greek philosophy needed further justification, as if Catholic moral theology is synonymous with non-Scriptural “natural law.” Or am I misunderstanding?

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About Revoice’s “Queer Treasure”

One of the most controversial workshops at last year’s Revoice conference — in the weeks leading up the conference, conservative Christian bloggers and podcasters criticized it mercilessly for what they felt certain it would argue — was titled “Redeeming Queer Culture,” and you can now watch it here on YouTube.

When the workshop began in a small chapel at the church where the conference was held, every seat was taken. (I made sure to get there early so I could sit near the front.) The presenter — a young evangelical named Grant Hartley who talked about the challenges of growing up gay in the rural Midwest — gave a potted history of gay life in America from the 1950s through the plague years. He insisted that traditionalist Christians shouldn’t give up their belief that gay sex is morally forbidden by Scripture, but he was equally certain that gay history and culture was about much more than sex and unbridled lust. Kicked out of homes and churches, gay people created alternative communities and took care of one another, he said, describing institutions like the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York and The Body Politic, an alternative newspaper. Whatever else marked gay life in the mid-twentieth century, Grant contended that solidarity in the face of bigotry and mistreatment lay near its heart.

Using the theological category of “common grace,” the general benevolence that God bestows on all peoples and cultures, regardless of whether they are Christian, Grant asked his audience what signposts and foretastes of a yet-unknown saving grace might be present already within queer communities — foretastes which might allow for fruitful dialogue and friendship between LGBTQ folks and those Christians who remain alienated from them. The notion of “chosen family” — long prized by LGBTQ people who have lost, sometimes forcibly, ties with their own biological kin — is, Grant suggested, one such signpost or foretaste. Citing Jesus’ own countercultural redefinition of family (“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”), Grant asked, “What could happen if we learned from LGBT people about the intricacies and practicalities of chosen family?” And, vice versa, what might happen if LGBT people could see that this most beautiful aspect of their own lives could find elevation and transformation, rather than simple erasure, through Jesus Christ?

Listening to this proposal, I was struck by just how far removed it is from what Revoice’s critics took it to be about. Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, decried Grant’s workshop (before it even occurred!) with characteristic bluntness: “We cannot now try to sanctify what Scripture presents as ungodly. We cannot marry paganism and Christianity. We cannot think that our fallenness, our depraved condition, is in any way good and praiseworthy.” But that’s a far cry from what Grant was up to in his workshop. Gay sexual sin, like any other sin, will be banished, not salvaged, in God’s eschatological future. But the glimmers of longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful — implanted by God in queer communities, as in every other culture — can be lures that God uses to beckon his wayward children home. Sin can’t be redeemed, but the lives and loves of sinners certainly can be.

After Grant’s session (my favorite I attended at Revoice), I found myself recalling the time from my own evangelical upbringing when my parents read aloud to my siblings and me the now-classic missionary biography Peace Child by Don Richardson. The book tells the story of the Richardson family’s arrival in Dutch New Guinea in 1962 and their subsequent efforts to preach the gospel among the Sawi tribe. While Richardson made progress in learning the tribe’s language and began to try to communicate the Christian message to the Sawi with little initial fruit to show for it, the tribe itself was locked in bitter conflict with neighboring villages, to the point of bloodshed. What eventually led to a truce was a revival of the practice of these tribes’ exchanging children with one another. The gift of a child, quite literally, enacted reconciliation. For Richardson, this represented a breakthrough, a point of contact (as missiologists call it) between an unevangelized culture and the gospel. “The principle we discerned,” writes Richardson, “was that God had already provided for the evangelization of these people by means of redemptive analogies in their own culture,” adding that these analogies served as “stepping-stones, the secret entryway by which the gospel came into the Sawi culture.”

Don Richardson’s evangelism perhaps illumines the significance of Grant’s session at Revoice as much as anything. Paralleling Richardson’s life among the Sawi tribe, Revoice attendees like Grant have come to love queer culture and communities. LGBTQ people are “our people,” we feel. Although our renunciation of gay sex may seem strange to most LGBTQ people today, we aren’t thereby deterred from wanting to go on knowing these friends, learning from them, and loving them — and having them love us back. Our goal isn’t somehow to baptize sexual acts we believe to be sinful; on this we submit to what Nate Collins, the founder of Revoice, calls “the Great Tradition.” What we want, instead, is to talk about how the longing for intimacy that every queer person experiences is fulfilled, not simply overcome, when we put our faith in the One who called himself our “friend” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34; John 15:15). Paradoxically, His love may make us more peculiar — more queer — rather than less.

Notes for Calvin College Talk

Ron Justin

I will be speaking this evening at Calvin College, in dialogue with my friend Justin Lee, about same-sex marriage in the Church.

Because of the limits of the format, we had to talk about Christian teaching about homosexuality in broad brush strokes, giving the overall picture, but not addressing a lot of details. However, I have written a lot about these topics over the years, and this post will help point interested readers in the right direction.

Back in 2003, Justin invited me to write an essay defending the traditional view that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and he wrote a companion essay arguing that same-sex unions are compatible with Christian belief. They were published online together as The Great Debate.

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Call for Participants

issiThe Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (Dr. Mark Yarhouse’s research group) is conducting a new study on mixed orientation marriages. If you are in a mixed orientation marriage (that is, a marriage in which one spouse experiences same-sex attraction and the other spouse is attracted to the opposite sex), we would love for you to participate and also pass this survey on if you know others who are in mixed orientation marriages.

We are welcoming responses from both the sexual minority spouse and the heterosexual spouse, so once you’re finished, forward the survey on to your spouse, if you think they would be willing to participate. (Note that it is not necessary for both spouses to participate, but we welcome responses from either or both spouses.)

The survey should take 15-45 minutes to complete. At the end of the survey, you will be given the option to provide your contact information for a more in-depth phone interview.

Here is the link below.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PWRSTQD

Again, please feel free to share with others who are also in mixed orientation marriages.

Translating “Disinterested Friendship”

If you search for the phrase “disinterested friendship” online, many of the articles you will find are attempts to explain paragraph 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which lists “disinterested friendship” as one of the sources of support for homosexual persons seeking to live chaste lives.

mont st michele

The main difficulty is that, in English, the term “disinterested” can have two meanings. Most often, it means, “not interested, indifferent.” In a friendship that was “disinterested” (in this sense), friends wouldn’t care much for each other or for the friendship. But the older—and now rarer meaning—is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives.” A few scans of 19th Century texts turn up in the search results, using the phrase “disinterested friendship” in this older, more positive sense.

The Catechism uses this older meaning of “disinterested,” as I showed in an older post that examined other uses of the word  in the Catechism. I concluded, based on the way the word was used in other paragraphs, that:

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?

Since the English phrase “disinterested friendship” seemed so ill-suited for communicating its intended meaning, I decided to explore the connotation of the corresponding phrase, “amitié désintéressée” in French, the language in which the Catechism was originally drafted. I thought this would help to understand what the drafters of the Catechism had in mind, and add to the analysis in my previous post.

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Gay Boys and Their Evangelical Parents

While in Arkansas this past weekend for a belated Thanksgiving, I went with my parents to see Boy Erased, the film version of Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name about surviving a stint in a now-shuttered ex-gay treatment program in Memphis, Tennessee called Love in Action.

Conley’s story is in some ways discomfitingly similar to mine. He was the son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas and realized he was gay sometime during his teenage years. I was the son of the most devout lay Baptists you could imagine, and, also from Arkansas, I knew I was gay from about the age of 13. My own brush with so-called “conversion therapy” was negligible compared to Conley’s, but I did imbibe a lot of its ideas over the radio waves during my adolescence. As I would later write when I was in my mid-twenties:

I remember listening to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio broadcast occasionally with my mother as we rode somewhere in the car together. My ears would perk up when the subject of homosexuality came up, which it did often, since this was the mid-’90s, and the “gay rights” movement was gaining steam. Dobson talked a lot about the “causes” of homosexuality — childhood sexual abuse, an emotionally distant father, the absence of affectionate male role models. I remember scrutinizing my past and present experiences. Did I fit these categories? I had never been sexually abused by anyone, let alone my parents. Was I close enough to my dad? I could think of one time I tried to initiate a weekly time of reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline with him and praying together, but it flopped. Plus, I never learned to play golf with him, nor did I want to take up deer hunting, as he seemed to hope I would sometimes. Did that mean I was suffering from a lack of paternal intimacy?

Dobson was one of the biggest promoters of the kind of therapeutic approaches depicted harrowingly and powerfully in Boy Erased. He advocated a popularized, lightly Christianized version of the Freudian origin story for same-sex desire. If homosexuality in boys is traceable to the toxic cocktail of an overbearing mother and a distant father, then it stood to reason that it could be treated — or even prevented. (Dobson viewed this as a compassionate, pastoral approach compared to the one that said to gay people, “You’re choosing to be gay, so, just stop it.”)

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Weariness

We don’t attach other modifiers to our Christian faith when the modifier in question originates with sin or natures that are the product of the fall. We should no more endorse “gay Christianity” or “gay identity” than we should alcoholic Christianity, racist Christianity, or slanderous Christianity. We ought not modify our Christian walk with attributes born of fallen desires.

That’s from Andrew Walker’s review of David Bennett’s new book A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. I can’t tell y’all how weary I am of hearing that criticism from my fellow traditionalist Christians.

In the first place, it takes no account of the way we “Side B” folks have qualified — again and again and again and… — what “gay” means to us. David himself qualifies it carefully in his book:

The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behavior, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.

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Herald of the Good News

Over a lunch last summer, a new friend and I discovered that we had a mutual friend in David Bennett, a current doctoral student at Oxford and a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. I have known David for a few years as a thoughtful writer and a delightfully larger-than-life personality. He has written powerfully about his conversion from atheism — he worked as a non-religious gay activist in his native Australia before migrating to the UK — to Christianity. And, as someone who accepts the historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, David has also written movingly about his calling to a life of celibacy and the way he tries to live out that calling in community.

As we swapped anecdotes about David, my new friend paused and said, “At heart, David is an evangelist.” I immediately nodded. Although David is many things (a catholic reader, a charismatic “prayer warrior,” an enthusiastic host and friend-maker), he is, above all, someone who loves those who don’t (yet) love Jesus. He is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, a herald of the good news. He wants you to know that Jesus has invaded his life — and can transform yours too.

His conversion memoir, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus, releases today, and I hope you’ll consider reading it. Here is what I wrote for the back cover:

Imagine a gay comedian like Stephen Fry writing a conversion memoir like C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, and you’ll have some idea of the laughter and the tears that await you in these exuberant, aching, Jesus-obsessed pages. David Bennett has found that, far from eliminating his love for men, Christ’s call to take up his cross and follow the path of celibacy has led him deeper into love. David’s story of embracing that call is disarming, captivating, and — most of all — hope-giving.

I mean that endorsement, and I hope it might entice you to pick up the book.

And congratulations to you, David, on your pub day!