There is widespread misunderstanding about what the Catholic Church teaches with regard to same-sex attraction. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding—which often construes the teaching as “offensive”—tends to isolate men and women who struggle with their sexual identity. They often feel ostracized at a time in their life when they need love from the people of God. This reception to Church teaching can be avoided by proactively offering a clear explanation of the Church’s teaching concerning homosexuality, and in particular the judgment about the sexual attraction to persons of the same sex.
The Church’s document, The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, notes that sexual attraction to persons of the same sex is “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” The Catechism uses nearly identical language: “Exclusive or predominant sexual attraction towards persons of the same sex … is objectively disordered.”
Chaste men who struggle with same sex attraction have conveyed to me that this choice of words, particularly the technical and precise phrase “objective disorder,” is “offensive,” “hard on the ears” or “disrespectful.” It makes many feel like a diseased outcast. I am sincerely empathetic to this reaction, as I know they face challenges everyday and do so with persistent faith and prayer. I am also sincerely convinced that the negative reaction to the Church’s language is primarily a case of misunderstanding. Therefore, we have an opportunity to bring clarity to others about the Church’s teachings regarding same-sex attraction and use of the term “objective disorder.”
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Before clarifying the meaning of the term it should be noted that one reason such language is received as harsh is because we live in a society that no longer sees human nature as universal, intrinsic, and immutable. Rather than recognizing an intelligible telos, or inner aim of man, today it is claimed that our human nature consists of whatever individual feelings come “spontaneously,” are “genuine” or what feels “natural to me.” Most are unfamiliar with natural law and thereby reject the traditional western and Biblical belief that as humans we have a law written upon our hearts, and to abide by that law ensures our flourishing. To flaunt that law does harm. The reaction to Church teaching in the area of homosexuality is, in part, symptomatic of a deeper and fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the human person. The misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching is further complicated by the fact that we live in a sound-bite culture, where nuanced technical terms are underappreciated. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Catholics to explain thoroughly and with sensitivity the eternal truth conveyed by the language of the Church.
So how do we make sense of this phrase, “objective disorder”?
First, we need to be very clear that this phrase does not refer to the person himself. The Church proclaims a deep respect for every person as being made in the “image of God” and this absolutely includes persons who experience same-sex attraction. Such men and women reflect God’s image, share in the same dignity, and are precious in God’s sight. They should never be subject to unjust discrimination, ridicule, or hatred. Such actions are deplorable.
Second, the phrase indicates what is explicitly stated elsewhere, that sexual acts between persons of the same sex are an “intrinsic moral evil” and “intrinsically disordered.” The Church describes such an act as a sin “gravely contrary to chastity” and an offense to natural law and Revelation, especially Scripture.
Third, we can address the inclination itself which is described as “objectively disordered.” This phrase and the whole of Church teaching indicate in the first place that a person experiencing same sex attraction is not necessarily sinning. One need not feel guilty on account of the inclination alone. Instead of being harsh, this is freeing, a relief.
At the same time, the attraction cannot be described as good or neutral because it is ordered toward an act that is, by definition, immoral. Consider a young college male who is sexually attracted to a female classmate. Though this attraction can be directed toward sinful thoughts and actions, his attraction in itself is capable of being and is naturally ordered toward particular goods (i.e., mutual complementarity, marriage, and procreation). His attraction to a female classmate is naturally directed toward his (and society’s) flourishing and his happiness. However, if the same male college student finds himself sexually attracted to a male classmate, such an attraction itself can never be directed toward any particular goods such as mutual complementarity, marriage, and procreation. This attraction, if acted upon, is incapable of leading to his flourishing and happiness.
Grounded in the natural law, the Church notes that while the sexual attraction to the female classmate can be (and is naturally) ordered toward his good, the sexual attraction to his male classmate cannot be ordered toward his good. This is what the Church means when it uses the term, “disorder.”
Concerned with “overly benign” interpretations of her teaching and obliged to seek the good of persons, the Church has described the attraction to persons of the same sex with carefully chosen language that, as it turns out, conveys two statements of love: those who simply experience same-sex attraction need not feel guilty for their attraction and their happiness and flourishing cannot be accomplished by embracing it.
The Church affirms that every human being is “wonderfully made” in God’s image, that moral guilt is not necessarily incurred by one who experiences same-sex attraction, and it offers the roadmap for flourishing through the inner freedom of a life of chastity, genuine friendship and a resolute embrace of holiness.
Editor’s note: The image above was taken at the “La Manif Pour Tours” demonstration for traditional marriage in Paris, May 5, 2013. (Photo credit: AFP Photo / Loic Venance)