Is the catechism homophobic? Depends on who’s reading it

In a recent interview, Father James Martin voiced a common concern over the catechism’s language on homosexuality. He said:

“I’m no theologian, but I would say that some of the language used in the catechism on that topic needs to be updated, given what we know now about homosexuality. Earlier, for example, the catechism says that the homosexual orientation is itself ‘objectively disordered.’ But, as I say in the book, saying that one of the deepest parts of a person — the part that gives and receives love — is disordered is needlessly hurtful. A few weeks ago, I met an Italian theologian who suggested the phrase ‘differently ordered’ might convey that idea more pastorally.”

I would be open to changing (or “updating,” as Fr. Martin has put it) the catechism’s language on homosexuality. But, contrary to Fr. Martin’s commentary, not because I believe the language is incorrect or out of touch with reality, but because almost no one uses or understands this language in its proper context. The language is not wrong. It’s misunderstood. And this leads to some of the worst pastoral approaches to the issue, from both the right and the left.

There are two readings of the catechism’s language on “homosexuality” and “intrinsically disordered,” the theological-teleological reading and the Freudian-psychological reading. The problem is that nearly everyone adopts the latter, to the detriment of the Church’s broader experience and the ability of many gay/homosexual/same-sex-attracted Catholics to develop an integrated sexuality.

The Freudian-Psychological (Pathological) Reading

What I call the “Freudian-psychological” reading is not a strict reading of Freud but a popularization of certain philosophical-psychological groundings that have become especially popular since Freud. Under this reading, the “sexual urge,” the general desire for “sexual intercourse,” is so deeply ingrained in man’s affective desires that it is an essential part of them, and if these desires are given sufficient space to grow, the sexual urge will relentlessly demand attention. This urge, further, is deeply ingrained in every aspect of man’s being and personality that involves erotic desire.

This reading continues: Sexuality generally, taken as inseparable from and largely defined by this urge, is an essential part of how man experiences the world. Sexuality is an essential aspect of personhood, and if sexuality is defined largely by sexual urge, then the existence of urges improperly directed, “intrinsically disordered” (towards a same-sex person, for example), implies that sexuality generally is “intrinsically disordered.” Thus the person is “intrinsically disordered” in essential features of his personhood. His personality is “intrinsically disordered.” Certain acts are wrong simply because it’s the homosexual person who does them. This reading, the Freudian-psychological-pathological reading, is how most of us unwittingly understand the catechism’s treatment of “homosexuality.”

This reading has wide-ranging implications. Under such a reading, the “homosexual person” would find that nearly all of his “attractions” towards someone of the same sex are “intrinsically disordered,” or at least very suspect. Because under this view, almost all “attraction” is inherently going to be, at some level, illicit “sexual attraction.” A person with such attractions would have to regard any “awakening of the soul” in the face of a same-sex person’s beauty with disdain. Holding hands with someone of the same sex would fall under the same moral category and depravity as his heterosexual counterpart’s fornication. It’s not simply particularized activities or attachments of his sexuality which are intrinsically disordered, but his sexuality itself, and thus any attachments, desires, or actions implicating his sexuality are categorically wrong. Under this view, the homosexual person is prohibited from falling in love because his pathology mars any form of ecstatic joy in the beauty of a same-sex other.

On a personal level, one hard thing about being gay under such a reading is that most Catholics don’t want to talk to you about your sexuality until you do something they disagree with. But why would they? When their image of your sexuality comes through the filter of “intrinsically disordered,” what conversation could be had that’s not characterized by pity or rebuke? And if they praise you, it’s only for things you haven’t done. 

This reading is important, because I believe it’s held by the majority of the catechism’s readers, both its advocates and its critics. Thus, the advocates are bound to the views listed above, and the critics see the language of “intrinsically disordered” as cruel and inhumane and necessarily repressive of the personality.

The Theological-Teleological Reading

Such a reading is not the proper reading of the catechism. Under the “theological-teleological” reading, “intrinsically disordered” is narrowly focused on very particular acts (this distinguishes “homosexuality” in the catechism from what most people mean by “gay” or “homosexuality” when they use the terms). This is consistent both with the catechism’s treatment of homosexuality, and also with the language of “intrinsically disordered” in other passages. Paragraph 2357 calls homosexual “acts” intrinsically disordered. Masturbation is “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” Good intentions do “not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered” good (1753). Acts are clearly contemplated when 2351 calls lust a “disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure” and says that such pleasure “is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.”

The theological-teleological reading looks to particular acts, separate even from intentionality or desire, to determine whether something is “intrinsically disordered.” And it is improper acts which make the desires “disordered,” not the other way around, as in the Freudian-psychological reading. Even the catechism’s definition of concupiscence limits it to appetites or desires “which produce an inclination to sin.” Here, “homosexuality,” as understood in the catechism, does not lie primarily within the personality, but in particular inclinations towards particular acts that are immoral apart from intentionality and desire (though they may be accompanied by illicit intentions and desires).

Of course, it may be that holding hands with someone may incite an overwhelming desire to commit fornication. But this, I believe, would be a sign of an immature or imbalanced sexuality, rather than a sign of sexuality acting as it ought or always does. To say that holding hands with someone to whom you are attracted will inevitably lead to an overwhelming urge to fornicate is to mistake teleology for pathology, and I’m afraid that many people who use the word “teleology” in these matters are actually just talking about pathology.

It is true that intimate activities work on a spectrum, and there may be acts that more strongly open man to concupiscence than others (though such acts would not be “intrinsically disordered”). But as we grow and develop as moral agents, these mostly fall under the order of prudence, rather than catechetical directive. And prudential judgments are to be made by moral agents, not imposed by outside commentators.

This is the great problem of the Freudian-psychological reading. It attempts to put into the catechism hordes of dictates that are simply not there. This is catastrophic when put into pastoral practice. On the one hand, it makes the catechism appear cruel and inhumane and outdated to those who write in the vein of Father Martin. On the other hand, it makes the catechism actually cruel and inhumane and outdated to those who uphold it.

This is an unacceptable state of affairs. But I tend to think it’s not really the catechism’s fault. It’s ours.

(If you would like another interesting take on “objectively disordered,” from the perspective of Aquinas, I would recommend this post by Aaron Taylor.) 


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