Jesuit: Drop “Disorder” Language from Catholic Gay and Lesbian Discussions

In my over 20 years of Catholic LGBT ministry,  there is nothing that has sparked more anger and more questions and confusion than the Vatican’s use of the terms “intrinsically disordered” or “objective disorder”  to describe, respectively, homosexual acts and homosexual orientation.   They are terms that are not easily understood, and, even when they are, they still cause much pastoral damage and misinformation.

Father Frank Brennan, SJ

Father Frank Brennan, SJ

An Australian Jesuit legal scholar is calling for church people to stop using those terms in their discourse.  In an essay on, Fr. Frank Brennan, a professor of law at Australian Catholic University, has urged Catholic leaders:

“It’s time we dropped the unhelpful, judgmental language of intrinsic and objective disorder when respectfully trying to determine appropriate laws and policies for all people who want to support and nurture each other and their children.”

Fr. Brennan, who, in the past has supported civil unions for same-gender couples,  and has since professed support for civil marriage equality, notes a criticism of the “disorder” language from an Australian politician who is a lesbian:

“Penny Wong, a very eloquent and poised politician who is known to be lesbian, sharing with her partner the parenting of their child, addressed Monsignor John Woods saying, ‘I think it’s interesting you use words like respect at the same time as having a discussion about whether or not homosexuality is in fact natural or, by implication, you know a result of some form of disorder. I don’t think that’s particularly respectful.’ “

Instead of the “disorder” language, which is divisive, Fr. Brennan calls for a perspective that stresses the common humanity of all people, regardless of sexual orientation:

“Our theological starting point should be that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, whether we be gay or straight; that we are all called along the road to Jerusalem; and that the Lord’s purgative fire and promise of division is extended to us all in preparation for the invitation to the banquet where there is neither gay nor straight, and where each of us prays, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ “

And this Australian Jesuit is hopeful that his Jesuit brother who is now the pope is signaling a new direction towards discussing homosexuality that puts aside the pastorally harmful terms, and replaces them with a more positive approach:

“I called to mind the media press conference that Pope Francis gave recently on the plane on the way back from World Youth Day. He was asked about homosexuality and he said, ‘If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them?’ I think Pope Francis now gives us a better way of engaging in respectful discussion in our Church and in the community about the complex issues relating to homosexuality, including civil recognition of same sex marriage.”

The language of “disorder” is philosophical language.  It is not intended to mean medical or psychological disorder, but that is how the overwhelming majority of people hear it.  Because of that misunderstanding, it should definitely and immediately be stricken from church discourse.  It is a term that was applied to discussions of homosexuality by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.  As pope, he used it as the basis for his discussions of any issue related to gay and lesbian people.

Pope Francis has already indicated that he will be moving the discussion of homosexuality away from the “disorder” language.   Let’s hope that his papacy will banish this term from Catholic discussions.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

7 replies
  1. Margaret Watson
    Margaret Watson says:

    We are all built in the image of God . Sexuality is a spectrum. Some of us are nearer than others to one end or the other.

  2. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    When I hear “intrinsically disordered,” I get the same sick feeling in my skin as when I hear “illegal alien,” “retard” or any other term that purposely or not is uttered to strip a person of their dignity and humanity. Very sad.

  3. Larry Quirk
    Larry Quirk says:

    I applaud the author’s idea but if the church is just going to start using other language in dealing with gay people and issues that is not enough. The church must repudiate “intrinsically disordered” and its ilk before we will be able to be on equal footing with those from the church with whom we are have to this new conversation. If the hierarchy understands how hurtful its language has been and how it has been used to demean gays and lesbians if not worse, then they should have no problem in saying they were wrong.

  4. phrogge
    phrogge says:

    In an effort to stop the repeal of DADT in the US Military, a bishop wrote to Secretary of Defense and Members of Congress stating that soldiers I had served honorably with were “intrinsically disordered”. Haven’t paid attention to him since.

  5. Richard Novak
    Richard Novak says:

    It is LONG over-due! I believe the church needs to revisit it’s almost “idolatrous” endorsement of medieval Scholastic philosophy as the ONLY valid way to interpret, justify (or nullify) doctrinal and moral formulations – whether how to understand Eucharistic real presence, the validity of sacraments, the purposes of marriage, the admissibility of women to priestly ordination, and yes – even the ethics of sexual orientation and expression. Maybe it’s time for an inductive, “experienced-based” theology on the above issues — instead of the exclusive prevailing deductive, “top-down” methods based on high-level “abstractions” largely detached from the real lived experiences of people. But I guess the Roman Curia culture is trapped in a serious inertia regarding “development” of doctrine and in using 21st century communication technologies in facilitating consensus in these matters. The “new cosmology” story ought to be affecting how the church organizes itself, celebrates Eucharist, and formulates its teachings on the Gospel message for our times. Time is running-out for the church, as presently constituted, if it is to effectively proclaim Jesus Christ to the world.


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