Some musings concerning the phrases “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically disordered (or evil)” in current Church discourse regarding LGBT issues

In February 2020 I was one of several people asked by some Catholic higher-ups to provide brief observations concerning the use of the above phrases, particularly in reference to the current Catechism. This was with a view to their sharing such views with higher-ups way beyond my “pay-grade”. I have no idea how these observations have been received, but now feel free to make them public.

  1. There is nothing in divine revelation concerning sexual relations between unrelated consenting adults of the same sex who also share a certain social equality.
  2. It has become ever clearer that any use of Holy Scripture to prohibit such relations involves fundamentalist misreading and false “actualisation” of texts concerning varied ancient realities.
  3. Therefore any attempt to prohibit such relations has to be made from natural law.
  4. Doing this means showing that such relations are wrong not because of an ancient decree attributed to Moses but because they are “wrong in themselves”.
  5. In order to show that the acts are “wrong in themselves” it is necessary to define which sexual relations might be “right in themselves”.
  6. The answer solidified in the 13th Century was that a sexual act which is open to the possibility of procreation and is between people of opposite sex who are married is what constitutes a genuine sexual act, the one type which by its very nature gives glory to God.
  7. Any purported sexual act that does not aim for this status is in some degree ordered away from its true object. Any purported sexual act that could not conceivably attain its true object (by being, for instance, between two people of the same sex) is intrinsically disordered – “wrong in itself”.
  8. However, this obvious deduction of the goodness of the sexual act from the reproductive mating of a bi-gametal species only works in as far as it is assumed that those unrelated consenting adults of the same sex who share a certain equality are in some sense attempting to achieve what is achieved in a “genuine sexual act” which is defined in purely bi-gametal reproductive terms.
  9. But they say they are not: they are sharing pleasure and intimacy within friendship.
  10. To maintain the prohibition therefore requires that not only the act, but the tendency towards regularly committing such acts, the pattern of desire involved, be described as “heading away from where it should be heading”.
  11. This means claiming that the bodily status of a human in one or other form of a bi-gametal reproductive species automatically and inherently overrides any pattern of desire which might lead such a human to prefer the sexual company of other bearers of the same gamete.
  12. Or in other words that the body of a gay man or a lesbian woman automatically and inherently seeks fulfilment in relations with someone of the opposite sex; and that however strongly the desire of that person seems to be expressed in relations with someone of the same sex, their desire is in fact, and however little they may feel it, heading away from where it should be heading; that is to say, it is “objectively disordered”.

Please notice that all this boils down to two claims: “it’s wrong in itself”, and “if you need a reason for it being wrong, it is that in reality, you are not who you think you are”.

So, by a master sleight of hand, a prohibition derived from extrinsic law is turned into a prohibition of intrinsic law. Oh, foolish Galatians…!

In fact, the claim that your body automatically and inherently “intends” something, and that your pattern of desire which is not in accord with that is wrong, is a form of “gaslighting” (an attempt to convince people that they are in some way out-of-synch so as to exercise control over them). It involves some people – purported experts – claiming to “know” something true about you that you don’t know; and that furthermore, you have to trust them and agree not to be the fully functioning human that you are. Nowadays such a claim can only properly be made by experts where there is a scientifically verifiable pathology present. In this case, however, the claim is pure pharisaism and leaves the LGBT believer vulnerable to cure-promising charlatans.

Furthermore, the body/desire distinction on which the claim depends is no longer tenable, since internal chemistry and neurobiology leading to patterns of desire are every bit as bodily as visible organs and orifices. A stable sexual orientation is every bit as bodily as a penis or a vagina. And therefore every bit as much a bearer of an inherent tendency ordered towards giving glory to God.

So, back to point one:

There is nothing in divine revelation concerning sexual relations between unrelated consenting adults of the same sex who also share a certain social equality.

The only teaching the Church has in this area is a negative one: an attempt to maintain a purported ancient prohibition by defining gay people as defective straight people.

I do not think there is any other way the Church can maintain the purported ancient prohibition than by recourse to this sleight of hand, whether it uses aristotelian language or some modern equivalent. Outside Christianity (e.g. in Islam or Judaism) divine prohibitions can survive without human reasons being given for them. Within Christianity, which recognises no extrinsic law, and therefore no voluntaristic commandments, the reason given for a divine prohibition has to correspond to the genuine humanly discoverable nature of the persons involved.

In other words, unless you can convince gay people that gay sex is automatically wrong because they aren’t really gay, and therefore aren’t acting according to their real nature, you have failed to maintain the prohibition. You are maintaining instead a club rule, and trying to vest it with sacred power: this is a sin against catholicity, since it creates an “out” group by contrast with which an “in” group is “good”.

Now, however, a problem arises: the moment you stop demanding that gay and lesbian people treat themselves as though they are not really gay or lesbian, but instead defective heterosexuals, then you are faced with the fact that there is nothing in divine revelation concerning sexual relations between unrelated consenting adults of the same sex who also share a certain social equality.

And that therefore the Church has quite literally no teaching at all on the subject, since all attempts to teach in this area so far have been predicated either on bad readings of Scripture or false claims about who the people involved really are or both.

Conclusion

  1. The phrases “intrinsically evil, or disordered” and “objectively disordered” are obviously profoundly unhelpful catechetically and can be seriously damaging;
  2. But merely changing aristotelian words to, for instance, “wrong in itself” or “heading away from where it should be heading” is to put lipstick on a pig;
  3. Current teaching in this area is predicated entirely on a negative deduction concerning what a person is in order to maintain a prohibition: it needs a gay person to be a defective straight person in order to be valid;
  4. The moment you remove the negative deduction you recognise the inapplicability of the prohibition, and the Church is left to recognise that it has no formal teaching in this area.
  5. So we need to ask: what are the forms of flourishing proper to the bearers of what is, in fact, a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition?
  6. And that means that it is we LGBT believers who, with ecclesiastical encouragement, have to work this out for ourselves in the first person (plural and singular) over time.

James Alison, Madrid, August 2020