“Intrinsically Disordered”: How We Got There, Why It Matters, and What We Should Do About It

Geek alert:  theological history ahead!

Last month, I wrote on Bondings 2.0 about an English translation problem in the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons that changed the meaning of a significant passage.  A number of readers pointed out that correcting this little error would not come close to undoing the document’s dominant language (and thinking) of intrinsic, objective, moral disorder.

Surprisingly, people from across the theological spectrum agree.  Even some who energetically support Vatican teaching and take a strong tone against same-sex relationships oppose the term (for instance blogger Aaron Taylor).  James Martin, S.J. decries it. More recently, Bob Shine reported that Irish journalist Ursula Halligan had called such language “vile.”

Why is this the one thing on which Catholics who agree about little else can find common ground?  Possibly because we agree on one other thing:  the label of intrinsic, objective moral disorder doesn’t fit anyone who gets up every morning committed to inhabiting God’s love, justice, and wisdom.  We are all flawed, we all fall short, but intrinsically disordered?  That’s a hard one to take.  So how did the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith arrive at this destructive language, why is it still employed, and what should we do about it?  The main point of the tale is that we’re here because of some odd twists of history that can hardly be considered the final word and that we shouldn’t accept as fixed.

How we got here

            Throughout early Christian history, theology—including moral theology, or ethics—was a hot mess of varied approaches, just as Europe and the Mediterranean world were a shifting, hot mess of cultures, states, and empires.  If theologians said something impossibly far out and gathered a following, they were likely to be anathematized.  But in general, variety reigned.

Scholarly doctors at the University of Paris in the Middle Ages.

           In the late Middle Ages, however, theologians began to be interested in doing more than collecting and organizing theological debates.  They wanted to systematize them too, and conform them to the rigor of philosophy.  The University of Paris became a center for this project.  It was also a center for the study and systematization of law, and the two disciplines—law and what became known as scholastic theology—grew up in conversation with each other.

            It does not take too much imagination to see how the language necessary for legal judgment of an action—object, knowledge, freedom, intention, means, end, etc.—could also be useful for a confessor determining the degree of a sinner’s moral culpability for an action.  The Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas found the 4thcentury BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle very useful for this project.  Thomas was excommunicated posthumously for his radical approach, but eventually Rome came around and declared him a saint.  That freed scholastic moral theologians to meld Aristotle with the philosophy of a good creation, orderly legal thinking, and traditional Western Christian sexual mores, adopting the idea that all God’s creations are meant to accomplish some particular good end.

            Let’s spin out the consequences of this thinking.  For Thomas, it was self-evident that human beings are meant for union with God, and their bodies are meant to contribute to this project while they are on earth.  Feet are for walking, hands are for working, mouths are for eating the right sorts and amounts of food to nourish the body and for speaking the truth, and sexual organs are for propagating the species in an orderly way, within marriage.  At least for men, desire and pleasure (thanks to design or the fall, depending on your perspective) are almost inevitable in the process, so they are permitted, but sex for the sake of desire and pleasure alone is always sinful to some degree because it orders or directs the sexual organs to the wrong end:  self-gratification.  (The irrelevance of women’s desires and pleasures to this story leads to problems we should address another time!)

           Of course, there are gradations of sin-as-disorder.  On this logic, sex that can produce offspring (opposite-sex vaginal fornication, adultery, rape, etc.) may at least achieve procreation imperfectly, outside marriage. So it does not disrespect God’s created order as gravely as sex that by definition cannot reproduce:  masturbation, contraceptive sex, bestiality, and same-sex unions.  Scholastic moral theology sees these acts and desires as intrinsically disordered because they don’t aim even implicitly at procreation.

          From the scholastic perspective, then, same-sex attraction is mainly a category error, a tendency that makes no sense according to God’s plan for creation.  It’s not a sin, or a physical or psychological illness, but it is an intrinsic disorder, as in basic dis-order, as in a self-evident mis-direction.  The moral disorder is pursuing this obviously mistaken desire as if it were a good.  It’s an active choice against God’s objective plan.

Pope Leo XIII

         This mode of thinking about sex became Church policy in 1879, when Pope Leo XIII was looking for a way to found a pro-labor theology in something besides Marx.  Leo’s encyclical Aeterni Patris used Thomas Aquinas not only to start the ball rolling on what we now call Catholic social teaching but also to set the exclusive standard of orthodoxy for all of Catholic theology.  In the process Leo swept all other approaches to theology off the table.  The upshot was that Thomas’s description of persons, ends, acts, and objects was now the only game in town.  Moral theology had to be expressed in Thomistic, scholastic analytical concepts, like “well-ordered” and “disordered” acts and desires.

            But when Vatican Council II finally broke the Thomistic theological logjam (for instance, replacing Thomas’s ideal of monarchy with democracy), individual moral theology was only slightly affected. With the promulgation of Humanae vitae (the birth control encyclical) in 1968, it became clear that the fresh air of aggiornamento had had the least effect of all on the Vatican’s moral teaching on sexuality.  The result is that, despite Humane Vitae’s addition of the “unitive” dimension of sex, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith still views sex as being first and foremost about procreation. With the 1975 Persona humana and its language of “intrinsically disordered,” the Vatican doubled down on scholasticism, and this wording fed into both the 1986 Letter and the Catechism.  When it comes to sex, the Vatican really is stuck in the 13th century.

What we should do, and why it matters

            On one hand, if the past is any indicator, theological forecasters should take courage.  Just when it seems things can’t get any worse, a change is usually around the corner.  The revolutionary theologian Thomas Aquinas was excommunicated, then canonized, then declared the sole standard of orthodoxy.  Many of the theologians who shaped the documents of Vatican Council II did so in semi-secrecy from sidelines because, as dissenters from orthodox Thomism, they were suspected of heterodoxy or were actually under censure.  Thus it’s likely that the moral theologians now laboring under a cloud will be embraced in the near future, and that all the LGTBQ Catholics stinging from the blows inflicted by current moral theology will see it replaced.

On the other hand, however, too much is at stake for us to wait for Vatican III.  The Vatican’s current teaching deprives people of the Eucharist, gets them fired, forbids them funerals, and even subjects them to violence in some places.  What to do?

Paradoxically, if we lay aside “intrinsic disorder,” Thomas Aquinas is an inspiration for just the Catholic moral theology of sexuality we need.  Thomas trusts our embodied experience of the world, and he assumes that a sure sign of a genuinely holy person is a life of true fruitfulness and flourishing.  I’m betting you know at least one partnered LGBTQ person who fits this description.  Let’s get started!

Cristina Traina, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2018

 Related Bondings 2.0:posts: 

Catholic LGBT History: 30th Anniversary of the “Ratzinger Letter” 

When the U.S. Bishops Rejected the Language of “Objective Disorder” 

Theologian James Alison on “Objectively Disordered” and What Drives Him Crazy 

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

7 replies
  1. Richard Boyle, OSM
    Richard Boyle, OSM says:

    “The revolutionary theologian Thomas Aquinas was excommunicated, then canonized, then declared the sole standard of orthodoxy.”

    Ms Traina…with all due respect, I have never heard this before. What, please, are the sources for writing this into your article?

    I also happen to respectfully disagree with your expressed opinion that:

    “On one hand, if the past is any indicator, theological forecasters should take courage. Just when it seems things can’t get any worse, a change is usually around the corner.”

    While I consider myself an overall optimist, I beleive your observation is overly “rosy,” because so many of the current conservative and anti-progressive movements, declarations, judgments, and individuals appear to be forming a phalanx of hard/”durable” opposition to change in the substance of moral theology, one which would loosen (or even eliminate) the burden of the chains of “intrinsic disorder” so callously and willfully attached to a large segment of humanity, our LGBTQ family.

  2. Mary Jo
    Mary Jo says:

    Thank you Cristie for this thought provoking article. As much as I admire your optimism, and I see that in your works always, I can’t say I share it. I’d love to think big change is around the corner but I see no indication that will happen in my lifetime. This pope has made a few nice comments and some not so nice ones as well. Once this merciful pope is gone, do you think they might put in another even more so? Oh, I would guess not. I believe the church is a dangerous minefield for LGBTQ people and others as well. When I learned that of the Roman Catholics who voted in the last election, 56% voted for the present president, that told a story of intolerance that is hard to bypass. Best of luck to you. Stay optimistic.

  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Ms. Triana, as with your other comments you provide great clarity. One of the great mysteries of being Christian is our belief in the love of Christ. There is no explaining it, we have faith or we don’t.

    Yet I have noted that hierarchy who should have had the strongest faith of all have spent the last 15-16 centuries trying to create a formula for belief. Somewhere in logic or power or a created order there is a proof that God exists and loves us they think. That kind of belief denies what it is trying to make self-evident. Why the idea of an understanding open Catholic university has frustrated so many bishops is they are afraid that some belief in Christ will come up short and lead students astray. They lack faith. If they can keep a tiny circle of beliefs tightly defended, then they will have preserved the Faith (and probably driven away the faithful). Yet the one thing our God asks of us is that there can be no proof of God’s existence, just a belief that it is so.

    The Old Testament presented various tests for the Hebrew God to prove His being able to better the other local gods and He won the battles, bull burnings and other tests so He was believed in. The Christian God simply is there to give us love and to encourage us to share that love with one another. Christ didn’t say anything about same sex couplings because we are all called to love ourselves as we were created. When I am asked how I can be happily gay and Catholic, I just say that one is what I am and the other is what I believe, and neither should be challenged based on constructs of extraneous details.

  4. John Hobson
    John Hobson says:

    One thing that I would have mentioned about Humanae Vitae is the argument they use. In HV 3, it says that “natural law” says that the proper end of sexual intercourse is procreation. HV 4 goes on to say, “This kind of question requires from the teaching authority of the Church a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the moral teaching on marriage—a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation. No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable”

    Now, I cannot interpret this last as being the logical fallacy of the Argument from Authority, with themselves as the authority. In other words, this is true because we say it’s true. Sorry, but I’ve given up circular reasoning for Lent.

  5. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Pedophilia has nothing to do with a discussion of the nature of homosexuality or heterosexuality. According to the FBI in fact pedophilia is more likely among heterosexuals by a vast amount than among same sex partners. Forced sex between/among individuals is certainly evil but so are many actions: rape, theft, murder, hate, etc. that have nothing to do with one’s sexual interest.

  6. nancy laleau
    nancy laleau says:

    Why even bother thinking about this so-called church with its opinions and judgments… as far as I can see it is a big business with features that often include murder and criminal enterprise, currently as well as historically. Does anyone caring about the life and example of Christ really think he would spend ten minutes trying to justify himself to them?
    Scribes and Pharisees, moneychangers in the temple. –nancy laleau


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