New Language for Speaking about Homosexuality?

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One of the more popular, misunderstood, and challenging problems Catholics face today is the topic of homosexuality. I think of the many great strides we as a Church and as a culture have taken in speaking about it. In the same way, neither side whether secular or religious, has spoken more clearly on the subject. Catholics, at the very least, have always been very good at making distinctions. The process of making distinctions is not just good philosophy and theology, but it also aids in our practical and charitable responses to what we experience.

When we respond to homosexuality we should know what it is. Moreover, when someone is homosexual it does us little good to categorize that person according to preconceived notions about their sexual activity, sexual purity, or moral state. In fact I’ve usually seen these reactions as one’s own personal, moral blindness than as a useful discussion geared towards understanding something so as to respond to it more effectively.

That being said, I also see among many Catholics, (more understandably, perhaps) secular homosexuals, and supporters of “gay rights” a departure from language such as “disordered.” A great deal of language focuses on “natural” sexual desire. It should be granted that the word “nature” (or “natural”) is not as clear as it first appears, but some have achieved a greater sense of clarity about it.

Part of my worry is that even good, Catholic homosexuals have found the language of “disorder” offensive and disheartening. My worry is not so much their individual feelings about the word, but it does bring forth the valid question as to whether or not our language about homosexuality is unsound, invalid, or ineffective.

This is also not as easy to determine right away. Our language could be unsound if it simply isn’t true or because we are operating under false premises. It may be invalid simply because what we do know about the human person and human sexuality is not properly expressed (i.e., our conclusions may not be properly derived from our premises). Our language may be ineffective as a result. Effectiveness is not only a matter of truth but also rhetoric. Speaking ineffectively is just as damaging to an argument as it is to be untrue or be lacking logically. This also accepts that, like Jesus, some people simply will not accept what is true—but this should stop us from pausing and considering our own words.

Should we discard the use of the term “disordered,” then? I am inclined to say ‘no’ for the time being. I say this for a number of reasons, some of which I’ll list:

(1) Scientifically speaking we do not know what causes one to be homosexual, in what way they are inclined, exactly, or to what degree one is a homosexual. Furthermore, as part of our species, what function or role does homosexuality play?

(2) The notion of “disordered” is often improperly univocated. There can be disordered states of being and there can be disordered acts. An act whose content or purpose is “good,” such as sex, but which is realized improperly is disordered. Thus both homosexuals and heterosexuals can engage in “disordered” sex.

Something that is disordered, however, is both simple and complex. An eye that cannot see is “disordered” insofar as it can not operate according to its purpose. A keyboard whose keys work except the “t,” “h,” and “e” is unable to fulfill its function adequately.

Thus something can be “disordered” either in execution (i.e., how it’s carried out) or through inability (i.e., it’s incapable of doing what it should).

Catholics hold that the purpose of sex is unitive and procreative. The act of sex is reserved as an expression of marital love. This does not mean that sex must result in procreation. Marital sex must be open to the possibility of procreation lovingly, otherwise that act of sex is disordered. Thus to be truly married and have sex according to the order established by God, the couple must execute the act in an “orderly” way (i.e., they must be married, freely have sex, truly love one another, and be open to (one of) the natural consequences of sex) and both must also be capable of fulfilling these criteria in order to be “ordered properly” in the first place.

(3) We should not be afraid to label ourselves as “disordered,” homosexual or heterosexual. Sin itself is a disruption of “order” insofar as all sin is contrary to God’s will. One who is addicted to masturbation acts in a disordered way. One who is prone to spreading rumors and gossip acts in a disordered way. Those of us who do not go to mass on Sunday act in a disordered way. Those who do not forgive others for their transgressions against us act in a disordered way.

Many of us, because of family history, genetics, or circumstance are also born into a state of greater probability for certain sins or vices, whether we want them or not. We are all born into an existence both ordered by grace and disorderly because of sin.

And so…?

My intention is not to “solve” the problem we have since I do not believe we have the full tools to solve it. I have some self-criticisms that I will briefly connect to my points above:

(1) Sifting through today’s science (biology, sociology, psychology, etc.) on the subject is at times biased, confusing, and willing to promote certain findings for reasons that aren’t always “scientific.” Nevertheless honestly engaging what we are discovering about human sexuality, along with their impulses, are necessary endeavors. Regardless of a lack of scientific clarity those of us who do minister to or interact with homosexuals (etc.) must recognize them as persons created in the imago dei.

(2) My hope is that there is still clarity and a lack of clarity in the term “disordered.” How do we call homosexuality, the state of being, “disordered.” For too long we considered someone who was openly homosexual as one who was by necessity sexually active and predatory to the same sex. This is simply untrue, otherwise we would have to bring the same complaint to heterosexuals.

Homosexuals, by virtue of their homosexuality, are still fully capable of practicing virtues, discerning right from wrong, and making rationally informed choices. Thus their homosexuality is not a disorder to their will and, perhaps one could even say with confidence, their souls.

Their biology is another matter. Their homosexuality does not affect their internal or reproductive organs. In fact we have seen cases of homosexuals who have a desire to reproduce yet, for obvious reasons, can not do so by means of their ‘native’ sexual inclination.

Sex has the ability to improve (or deteriorate) intimacy and trust, to procreate, and give pleasure. In what ways does our insistence on procreation cloud our understanding of sex. I remain, however, a firm believer in the premise that procreation is one of the biological purposes of sex, to which pleasure and intimacy aid in the realization of a new human life.

(3) Perhaps this is too negative a view of the current state which we live in. Some are more willing than me to speak of the goodness of the world/state/circumstance we live in. On the one hand any of us are capable of loving another and love is the only means to break the cycle of sin, since it is only love (according to Paul) that is eternal. Since we have the capacity to love does this mean we are more ordered than disordered? In many ways there is a greater confusion over the terms “evil” and “sin,” in my view, than terms such as “homosexuality” and marriage.

It would be good for all of us to consider more deeply the difficulties at hand with intentionality and patience.

To that end I would suggest two documents by the USCCB for your consideration:

The first is “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers” (1997).

The second is “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” (PDF, 2006).

Matthew Heinrich

Matthew Heinrich

Matthew Heinrich is a deacon for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He enters his 13th year in seminary. He attended the high School seminary (Archbishop Quigley), went to St. Joseph (at Loyola), continued at Theological College in Washington DC (Catholic University of America) where he earned his PhL. He currently studies at Mundelein Seminary working towards his STB, STL. He loves philosophy, has studied Greek, and fell in love with Patristic thought. He is a huge Chicago fan--Cubs, Bears, Hawks (2013 Champs!), and Bulls. The views expressed by the author are his alone, they neither reflect those of the diocese he studies for nor at the seminary where he studies.

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10 thoughts on “New Language for Speaking about Homosexuality?”

  1. Avatar

    It seems you are wanting to systematically transpose the use of natural language. How do you support a progression of change of definition without consideration of the topic? Are not the authoritative definitions sources sufficient? In short, why do we need a new definition? Isnt that what has allowed the secular/legal challenges to the Church doctrine on Marriage as it stands?

    1. Avatar

      Not at all. As one who has studied philosophy and particularly the development of the term “nature” (or “natural”) it is easy to see the deficiencies while also seeing the clarity and distinctions such definitions give.

      Many terms need refining and very few are unassailable.

      I am obedient to authoritative sources. One look at the history of the Church, however, shows clearly a development in the language (e.g., Christ, or of the Eucharist) that seeks to affirm what is true and deny what is false. Beyond mere affirmation or denial, the Church also seeks comprehension–this is an important endeavor.

      I do not propose a need for a new definition, per se, but I do call for a serious discussion to test the language we have now and test to see if it is sufficient.

      1. Avatar

        I do agree on the importance in using the proper language pertinent to the subject manner. This seems to be the flaw after Vat II. Trying to dumb down philosophical and theological terms into common language expressions doesnt seem to have accomplished the intended goal. I dont use engineering language to non engineering people so as to not confuse them… that being said… I recently read Sensus Fidei and see now how the people are to be properly brought into All church discussions. We just have to honest and recognize that most people as you said do not have philosophical training to understand the concepts and ideas in their true context. Cheers.

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        Identifying oneself or someone else as an object of sexual desire/orientation is a violation of God’s Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery. The reordering of man as an object of sexual desire, does not affirm what is true; from the moment of conception, we are not, in essence, objects of sexual desire, we are, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers,

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  3. Avatar

    The bit about things being “natural” is a bit overplayed. Human beings are the smartest creature on this planet, we are made in the image and likeness of God.
    It is precisely our ability to control our instincts which separates us from the animals, we have the brain power, literally, to overcome many autonomic responses.
    While we have the brains, it may paradoxically be our greatest strength which is our greatest weakness, in that it leads us to attempt to control the Cosmos, to “become like The Most High”. A smart man once told me that marriage is essentially an irrational act, putting ones-self completely under the power of another person, this may be true. Perhaps leaving sexual intercourse open to procreation is so important precisely because it opens the couple to the chaos of the universe, total abandonment to whatever God has in mind for them, and also it involves a total commitment to each other.
    This is essentially the problem with a gay relationship of any type, it is simply not in the cards that it can be such a total sharing of the essence of two people. Of course the biology is pretty pedestrian to figure out, but i wonder if there is not so much more, the blending of the couples spirits in a way that even we do not understand.
    I would like to think that God in his wisdom has laid it out for us, showed us what He had in mind, looking out for us, so to speak.

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    I may be oversimplifying. to me, natural and ordered corresponds to God’s will and design. unnatural and disordered corresponds to deviating from God’s will and design.
    human sexuality is designed by God to produce human beings in the most loving manner possible. according to Jesus, human sexuality is only divinely ordered when it occurs within a permanent and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman and is open to procreation.
    all other sexual acts are disordered and unnatural.

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    There is an order to Love, which is why a man does not Love his wife in the same manner as he Loves his daughter, or his son, or his mother, or his father, or a friend. The desire to engage in any act that does not respect the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person is a disordered desire; acting on a disordered desire, is a disordered act.

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