Why do Catholics use the word “disordered”?

We ought to understand the language the Church uses, humbly repent of our own wayward desires, and journey together back to the beginning.

(Image: Ben White | Unsplash.com)

Any high school teacher both loves and loathes the team-based review game. They’re fun and functional, but often bring a streak of chaos to your classroom. When my former students selected team names, I would refuse to let them incorporate a word I didn’t understand. Either that, or I would look it up on “Urban Dictionary” – a collaborative online lexicon for all things trendy and possibly inappropriate.

Teenagers are easily recognizable for their distinct and ever-evolving vocabulary. As the societal mainstream departs further from Christianity and classical philosophy, it can seem like Catholics exist in a subculture with a language all their own.

Homonyms are all fun and games until someone gets hurt

As a kid, my devout parents picked up a cassette tape for a summer road trip called “The Mass Explained.” I remember being startled that I’d needed to put down my Gameboy for an hour to listen to a scientific explanation of weights and volumes, or possibly something to do with the Big Bang and the order of the universe. I misjudged the title. I’d been attending Sunday “Mass” my entire life, and within a few minutes I knew what the tape was actually about. This new revelation didn’t make relinquishing The Legend of Zelda any easier.

Many of us may have similar stories of “Catholic-y” words or phrases that were less clear to us when we first encountered them. Our religious education programs involve taking these complex terms and translating their meanings into simpler, more applicable language. This is an important element of age-appropriate catechesis. As society shifts, some religious ideas can become even more difficult to fathom. Some words come with more baggage. One of those words is “disordered.”

“Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” (CCC 2357)

“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.” (CCC 2358).

There have been calls in some circles to end the use of this language when discussing same sex attraction. To the modern ear – for both religious and nonreligious people – “disordered” can sound like “disorder.” We might use the word to describe a room or office space in radical disarray. But more often than not, we likely associate “disorder” with mental or psychological illness. In light of this modern understanding, should the Church change her language?

“In my end is my beginning”

Before we can understand what the Church means by “disordered,” we need to understand what she means by “order.” The word has Latin roots, connecting it to a row; a pattern or series in progression. When we say an action is “ordered” morally, we mean that is directed towards it’s proper “end.” That is, it’s following the trajectory that God intended. That trajectory is love.

The Latin root “ord” is also the foundation of the word meaning “to begin to weave,” which further gives structure to the word “primordial.” From the most ancient of beginnings, God sets life into motion. In it’s perfection we see “the order and harmony of the created world,” which includes human persons and their relationships (CCC 341). The fall disrupts the lived experience of God’s original design, and our tendencies towards it. The moral order is not unknowable, however. “By his reason, [the human person] is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of direction himself toward his true good” (CCC 1704). In the life and teachings of Christ, a renewal of God’s original vision is set forth. Teachings like “the Beatitudes reveal an order of happiness and grace, of beauty and peace” (CCC 2546).

So to be “ordered” is to move towards the “end” that God designed “in the beginning,” living in the image and likeness of a God Who is love. To be “disordered” is to move away from the beginning’s intended end, to desire sin and to choose it.

Everybody’s got something

We see the words “disorder” and “disordered” scattered throughout the morality section of the Catechism. In the description of grave sin, we read “there are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil” (CCC 1761). Some sins get the extra buzzword “intrinsic,” meaning that in and of themselves the actions are wrong. The Catechism gives us a few specific examples, including fornication, masturbation, lying, slander, and – yes – homosexual acts (CCC 1765, 2352, 1753, 2357, respectively). As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Humane Vitae, it’s worth noting that artificial contraception makes a related list as an “intrinsic evil” (CCC 2370).

The Church wants us to know that evil is evil. It’s contrary to God’s design for life and love. Even if you commit a sin that you truly don’t know is wrong, the Catechism still has some strong words about the act itself. “The evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder” (CCC 1793).

In other words, the Church takes sin seriously; so seriously that no fallen human is exempt from it’s disorder. Consider this: “Venial sin constitutes a moral disorder that is reparable by charity” (CCC 1875, emphasis added). If you were wondering what this could possibly mean, an example is provided. “When the sinner’s will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial” (CCC 1856, emphasis added).

I don’t add these lines to downplay the gravity of serious sin, nor do I believe the Catechism intends to do that. The point here is not levity, but solidarity. All of us experience a tendency towards moral disorder. This is the inclination to sin, also known as concupiscence. And while all of us may be sinners, all of us have access to grace. All of us are called to a life of holiness and growth in virtue. And what are the virtues? “The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct” (CCC 1834, emphasis added). Developing virtues is the journey of sanctity. It’s the task that brings our hearts more and more aligned to the proper “ends” of our life – union with God. It’s the “end” that God destined for us from the very beginning.

When it comes to same-sex attraction, those who want to shift the language from “disordered” to “differently ordered” may have good intentions. They may want to avoid further marginalizing a vulnerable person. They may want to avoid provoking unnecessary shame. In doing so, however, a different kind of alienation occurs. When the draw towards sin is universally “disordered,” we can recognize that we’re all in this mess together. No one is exempt from the consequences of original sin. But if we remove the word “disordered” from one type of immorality, we create a category beyond sin. Rather than elevating the dignity of the person, it isolates their experience in a twilight realm outside grace and redemption.

Should we stop calling the Mass “the Mass” because the word has a homonym in the realm of science? No. We ought to clarify and catechize. Should we stop calling particular tendencies to sin “disordered”? No. We ought to understand the language the Church uses, humbly repent of our own wayward desires, and journey together back to the beginning.

(This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form in Truth & Love, an initiative of Courage International.)

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About Anna Carter 1 Article
Anna Carter lives and works in Milwaukee, WI.  Since graduating from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Anna has worked for NET Ministries and in local catechetical ministry with youth and young adults.  Anna is the Co-Founder of Eden Invitation, an evangelistic outreach to millennial Catholics experiencing same sex attraction.


  1. Now and then someone unexpectedly in this disordered world gives us a well thought out correct explanation of an essential truth. Anne Carter does this with a thorough explanation of the word disordered, which implies there is an order of things. Aristotle perceived the order of nature Aquinas perfected our understanding attributing that order to God, citing it as the basis for a natural law that reflects the Eternal Law. Ms Carter explains the meaning and how it relates to life comprehensively and easy to grasp. She mentions ends of things signal to ends of acts. A disorder if willful may incur sin, evil described by Aquinas as a willed privation to a due end (ST 1a 49, 1). The ends of things, specifically human acts are ordained by God Man possessing the inherent capacity to deliberate and apprehend what action is morally good and what is not. It’s an inherent capacity referred to as the Natural Law Within, those truths known by all. Frequently referred to as the law of God written in our hearts, a law as Ms Carter says of Love.

    • Father, I would use the word “dangerous” to describe the world today. We sometimes use the word disordered to couch our description of a Gay person or as Webster defines the word to mean “morally reprehensive”. Why is the world in decline? I offer the following…

      If world scientist are right on global warming there is only a decade remaining of earth as we know it. Some learned call it the “tipping point”. Some important and influential people remain reticent deniers such as the President of the United States along with his Republican supporters. Today in Calcutta India the “smog” is so dangerous the air is toxic from burning of fossil fuels like coal. Beijing China, another population of over one billion, has similar deadly smog to where a child must wear a mask in the city. I do not agree that contraception is “intrinsically evil”. A monumental task is trying to control the world’s population. If a couple uses their good conscience they will seek the right solution to control the size of their family. It is my feeling that if contraception, whether by NFP or other means, the intention is the same… not to get pregnant. And, it could be intrinsically evil to ignore population control. We must remember that the earth is finite and human reproduction is infinite!

      The there are many more animal extinctions that shine a light on global decline. In Bristol Bay Alaska home to the largest population of salmon a drilling company was given the green light by the administration to drill in this sanctuary. With all the concern about animal I recently saw a picture of a polar bear swimming among chunks of ice with her cubs on the shore. Polar Bears hunt mainly ring seals and because the seals are such swift swimmers the bears can’t hunt them while swimming. They need pack ice where they punch holes in the ice and wait for the seals. Now that the ice is melting the bears can’t hunt. The mother bear will die and so will her dependent cubs who are starving on shore.
      Lastly, our attention moves to the US Government and the fact that we have never experienced such polarization before. I think back to Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan. They could manage like none before them… and they respected each other. Bipartisanship was in play every day. What happened to that calm cordial approach? Both were ardent ideologues. One word… power. Power is manifested by greed, narcissism and illness. The power we have entrusted in our current government has been radically misused and polarized. We have never known a president who has made lying the norm. Nor have we encountered a president who cannot say he is wrong and apologizes. Yet, the Catholic Church blindly supports and enables him. He is not a uniter, but a divider. The congress is sharply polarized to the point where they refuse to perform their constitutional duty of administrative oversight.

      • morganB,
        “If” scientists are right.
        That’s a big If.
        As a matter of fact, it’s so big, that the climatologists have been caught fudging their own data to support their wacky predictions.
        Immorality – now that’s a threat.

      • I do not agree that contraception is “intrinsically evil”.

        Therein is the foundation of your problems. Being wrong about that explains why you are wrong about virtually every other one of your opinions.

  2. One of the basic challenges in every society is how to live in harmony with someone who is intrinsically different. I use the word “harmony” and not “tolerance” because one tolerates a difficulty, like a mosquito. This challenge to come to harmony is a tremendous one and it is not easy. Traditional marriage accepts the challenge, though too many marriages fail to succeed in resolving it. Same-sex relationships avoid the challenge, and this is why they are an inadequate foundation on which to build. To live in harmony with someone who is intrinsically different from myself makes tremendous demands on both persons. The challenge is tremendously increased when it is a question of living in harmony with God. God is “holy” and the word “holy” means different. “God’s ways are not our ways…As high as the heavens are above the earth, so far are God’s ways above our ways and God’s thoughts above our thoughts.” To come to harmony with God involves a tremendous purification and transformation. To understand this, one has only to read the lives of the Saints to see what they lived through in growing in their relationship with God. Because a same-sex relationship avoids the challenge of harmony with one who is different, it increases the difficulty of coming to harmony with God who is “the all-holy One, the all-different One.”

  3. It’s been a while since I looked at the Catechism (and my time is scarce these days–apologies for not doing my homework). An open question for those in the know: is there a need for the Catechism, when it talks about SSA as disordered, to mention in some detail the appropriate scope of the term disordered, *particularly* as it applies to other non-SSA attractions, such as (say) inclinations some people may have to adultery, or onanism, or whatever? This would deflect the criticism some people have that there is an undue focus on SSA in the catechism. Or maybe a comprehensive reading of everything the Catechism has to say about the term disordered already addresses this question.

    • A good question. The section in the CCC prior to the passages on homosexuality contains the following:

      2351 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.

      2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”

      • Bravo, thanks. Here’s another question: should those passages of the Catechism that discuss homosexuality, and invoke the term disordered but don’t mention that this term extends to all sorts of other things (as the Catechism makes clear in the passages you cite), be revised to mention all those those other things as well wherever homosexuality is discussed? That way the Church’s criticis won’t do selective readings of the magisterium.
        Many orthodox, magisterially observant Catholics are getting so tired of being accused of being hateful or homophobic. These accusations contribute to the rife anti-Cathoclism in the media. People who sling these accusations need to be educated that Catholicism is not singling out a particular sexual sin. *Everyone*, regardless of their attractions or temptations, is called to chastity. There is a question, too, of linkage to other issues. Specifically, would the Church’s pro-life teachings get more credibility if these stupid accusations were deflected with a revision to the Catechism in the way suggested above? Just asking the question. On the other hand, maybe people who hate the Church because of its teaching on homosexuality will hate the Church anyhow, and this proposed revision will have little effect. Or maybe it is worth the try? Hard to say.

        • “That way the Church’s criticis won’t do selective readings of the magisterium.”

          Oh, you dreamer you! They will selectively read and selectively report *anything* that allows them to attack morality and the Church.

          • Well, yeah, we don’t know what effect this will have, as my comment implied. Any more than how we never knnow rhetorically present ourselves to the pro-abortionists who show up will have any effect. Don’t be so certain.
            If you get cynical, you’ve lost part of the battle, forthwith. We use every means we can in this environ, because our resources are very limited.

  4. “Disordered” is the perfect word choice, and those protesting it reveal their less-than-Catholic theologies by their protests.

  5. Despite possessing no real qualification in the area of Christian theology, I have always harbored a sense of bafflement at the avoidance of the word “natural” when it comes to the topics discussed above.
    Does the stream flow to the mountain top, or to the sea?
    Doesn’t human logic, as well as a formed conscience, play a part in determining the goodness or evil of behavior?
    If we agree that our Lord and Savior is the Creator of the universe and all that is natural, doesn’t it make sense that what contradicts his natural creation is displeasing to Him, and thus a moral evil?
    But, I never hear any church authority argue for moral behavior based on what is in accord with Christ’s “natural” creation.
    Perhaps in a world in love with intellectualism, it is
    considered an oversimplification to do so…..
    It almost seems that there is a phobia attached to identifying Christ, the Creator, with the nitty gritty, natural world that He created.
    Please set me straight here.

  6. Church switched to dead-end path of infinitive search for language (which dates back to abandoning Latin).
    But Church is here for something else: She has to love Christ. Instead, catholic are often “offended by a language”, “bored with the Mass”, and so on. But the true reason is this: “following Christ” was replaced with “followed by Christ”.

  7. Catholics are no different from anyone else. They use a word that’s deliberately insulting in order to insult. If you call me disordered, I’m hardly going to take it as a compliment, am I?

    I could respond with many well-chosen insults of my own, but quite frankly it isn’t worth it. Who wants to trade insults with control freaks when they abuse you for not obeying their every wish and command? What’s the point? They’re control freaks. They’re never going to change.

    Of course there are times when the rain of insults becomes intensely irritating, at which point I might be tempted to lash out in anger. But as much as possible I try to rise above it.

    Experience has shown me that being bigger than an opponent is the best way to win general support. A pitying glance at a ranting homophobe is all that’s needed to persuade others that the problem lies with him, not with me. That’s how the gay community has turned public opinion around over the past few decades. While Christians thunder hellfire and damnation from their pulpits, we laugh, roll our eyes and get on with our lives. The general public knows who’s full of hatred and condemnation. That’s why the church is in the parlous state it’s in today.

    Nothing I can say or do will change a Catholic’s mind about homosexuality. Dogmatic prejudice is stubbornly resistant to change. So why try to change it? If it reaches a point where it threatens my ability to lead my life as I choose, then action needs to be taken. But we’re a long way from that point and, as recent events in the US have shown, the tide of conservative religious hatred has reached its high water mark and is now beginning to recede. So as far as I’m concerned, Catholics can carry on insulting me. Indeed I expect it will only get worse as they sense the power they thought they were regaining begin to slip away from them.

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