Three years ago, in October 2014, the secular media had a field day with the “midterm report” released by the episcopal spokesman for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. Recall that this unofficial “draft” report actually blindsided many bishops in the synod when it was presented to the world by the synod’s General Rapporteur, Cardinal Peter Erdő of Hungary.
But the world media ate it up. It was called a “seismic shift” regarding the Church’s treatment of homosexuality because it actually asked the rhetorical question: “Are our communities capable of providing [homosexual persons a welcoming home], accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
Thankfully, the troubling language of “valuing” the objectively disordered homosexual inclination was utterly absent in the final documents of that synod of bishops. But it remains an object lesson regarding why we can never afford to jettison the truth represented by the term “objectively disordered” as applied to the same-sex attraction.
The problem is relatively simple: Catholics across the globe, from those in the pew to some of our own bishops, appear to have bought into the ideology of sexual orientation, a morally bankrupt rewriting of sexual reality that utterly relativizes the truth about God’s plan for us.
The solution is also rather simple. Despite fresh efforts to try to convince people that “objectively disordered” is an alienating term that must be done away with, instead we have to hold fast to the truth represented by that, proclaiming it loudly and clearly.
It’s true that such a term can require some careful explanation. But this fact does not give us excuse to set it aside. Indeed, the fact that many people vigorously oppose the term and want it to vanish should give us pause to consider its impact. As I see it, it’s not that the term is overly “confusing” and so people get it wrong; it’s that many people get it right but reject its implications.
Here is what I mean: when people who are fully vested in the ideology of orientation encounter something stating the experience of same-sex attraction is “disordered,” they conclude the person is somehow being called disordered, precisely because they themselves make the category error of equating the attraction with identity.
Such people actually get it. They know “objectively disordered” means the attraction is somehow wrong. Yet, because they perceive “gay” as an identity, the descriptive “objectively disordered” is called cruel and hurtful toward the person.
In this light, the Church could change its terminology to anything else, and the result would be the same. It’s the meaning that is being rejected—not just the words “objectively” and “disordered.” As it stands, the words themselves are absolutely fitting and superbly functional. They hold an indispensable truth about the homosexual inclination: such an inclination can never, ever, be properly ordered toward a good end. Rather, the inclination, while not sinful itself, can never be willed or freely acted upon in any way without resulting in sin.
Before unpacking the full meaning of the term, one well-intended but incomplete assessment of it must be corrected. Often, some well-meaning Catholics believe the term “objective” before “disorder” merely refers to the moral “object” of some human act of the will being considered as a consequence of the experience of same-sex attraction. In this view, it’s often stated that all sexual sins with intrinsically evil moral objects—both same-sex and other-sex—are “objectively disordered,” so why does the Church single out homosexuality with this term?
But this conceals the full meaning of the term “objective” in this context, which includes a key distinction between the natural sexual inclination and the homosexual inclination—a distinction that the term “objectively disordered” is precisely intended to preserve. Rather than merely referring to the intrinsic disorder of the “moral object” of a future homosexual act, the term “objective” refers instead to the reality of the experience of the inclination itself apart from any and all considerations of either the intrinsic disorder of a deliberate future choice or the subjective guilt of the person making such a choice.
Put another way, even before considering whether or not someone actually is guilty of sin as a result of experiencing the homosexual inclination, there is nothing about the homosexual inclination itself that can be properly ordered toward the good of human flourishing. It always opposes the other-sex sexual inclination that God gives, via human nature, to every person.
Thus, recognizing the homosexual inclination’s objective disorder—prior to any moral choice—helps us make the crucial distinction between such inclinations and other acted-on sexual desires that themselves are not objectively disordered but can lead to intrinsically disordered acts.
For example, a single man sees a beautiful woman and experiences a surge of sexual attraction toward her. That is a completely natural inclination—part of his God-given human nature. There is nothing objectively disordered about it. But let’s say the same man finds out the woman is married. If he willfully and freely engages his sexual attractions toward her, and they commit adultery together, it is the act of adultery that is objectively disordered—not the God-given sexual inclination itself. The intrinsic evil of the adulterous act is the “location” of the objective disorder. This is also why some intrinsically evil acts—like fornication, rape, masturbation, adultery, and homosexual acts—are also called “intrinsically disordered.”
Now let’s consider the homosexual inclination that is experienced prior to any potential homosexual act. A man who experiences a surge of sexual attraction toward another man is experiencing, always and everywhere—objectively—a disordered attraction. The attraction isn’t a moral act because it hasn’t yet been willed—and thus it’s not a sin. Even so, nothing can be done to properly “order” that attraction toward a good end. Such attractions must be abandoned, not willed. Whereas, with a man’s attraction toward a particular woman, that attraction is itself properly ordered, but circumstances can make it such that it ought not be acted upon anyway .
It is also important to stress that, despite some assertions to the contrary, the Church didn’t just make up this term for the sake of its teaching on homosexuality. It’s part of traditional Catholic moral teaching. For example, it appears in a 1989 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding contraception, not homosexuality:
Contraception is one of these acts in itself and of itself it is always a moral disorder since objectively and intrinsically (independently of subjective intentions, motives, and circumstances) it contradicts “the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife” (Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, n. 32)….The same Christian moral tradition just referred to, has also always maintained the distinction – not the separation and still less an opposition – between objective disorder and subjective guilt. (“The Moral Norm of Humanae Vitae and Pastoral Duty)
Further, the 1995 document from the Pontifical Council for the Family titled “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” tells us explicitly that we need ensure that our young people experiencing same-sex attraction get the full truth, stating that “Young people need to be helped to distinguish between the concepts of what is normal and abnormal, between subjective guilt and objective disorder” (Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, no. 104).
One might try to argue that condemning homosexual acts should be sufficient, so why must a big deal be made about the inclination itself being disordered? The unfortunate truth is that, without the fullness of the Church’s teaching, very confusing situations can—and do—arise.
Some Catholics and others with same-sex attraction have actually sought to carve out room in the homosexual inclination for same-sex relationships that are built upon the inclination but never involve blatant same-sex sexual behaviors. This leads them to claim they are being “chaste” or “celibate” while simultaneously having same-sex “boyfriends,” going out on dates, even cuddling, spooning, and kissing just like a man and woman might do before marriage. It may be surprising to some readers, but justifications for same-sex “eros,” dating, and coupled “romance” are made routinely in some corners of the Church by those claiming a gay identity while seeking to avoid full-fledged sexual acting out.
Properly understanding the term “objectively disordered” is the only real solution to a confusing and vexing problem in the Church—the widespread embrace of orientation ideology. Also, lest we forget, there is one more hugely important reason we should not—we cannot—set aside this term and its real meaning.
A mere 20 years ago, Pope St. Paul II approved the “editio typica” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This version featured important clarifications that had not appeared in the first release of the Catechism in 1992.
Guess what was added to the Catechism’s few paragraphs directly treating the subject of homosexuality? That’s right—Paragraph 2358 was updated with the crucial addition: “This inclination, which is objectively disordered…”
A saint of the Church made sure the term entered our universal catechism. He clearly thought it was important.
And I certainly agree.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!