No one is ‘intrinsically disordered.’ Here’s why

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It has become standard practice, when discussing the pastoral care of young people struggling with issues of sexual orientation or gender identity, to say something like “Don’t tell them they’re intrinsically disordered.” Sometimes this is said in dead earnest, sometimes in a way intended to get a laugh. Sometimes it is said in a way that indicates that the speaker thinks that the Church’s teaching is dangerous and wrong. Sometimes it is qualified with an assurance that, while Church teaching on human sexuality is profound and beautiful, the language in which it is sometimes expressed cannot be heard and understood by a young person in this situation.

The basic advice here is certainly correct. The last thing that a person facing these questions needs to hear is that their Church considers them “intrinsically disordered.” Nevertheless, this approach betrays a deep misapprehension of Church teaching. Indeed, while pastoral care requires real sensitivity to the way words are heard and understood, there is a much simpler reason not to tell people they are intrinsically disordered: they aren’t.

People versus acts and inclinations

The language of “intrinsically disordered” comes from the Catechism’s treatment of the question of homosexuality. In paragraph 2357, quoting the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s Persona Humana, it teaches that “Tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” In the next paragraph it states that, “the number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.”

Now, there is no question that this constitutes for many people a hard saying, and certainly one that must be handled with great care when working with young people. And, like many aspects of Catholic teaching about human sexuality taken in isolation, the Church’s moral judgment here makes very little sense to a contemporary audience. But notice that one thing it absolutely does not say is that any person is disordered.

Actions may be disordered. If you are like me, you commit disordered actions most every day. And inclinations to disordered actions may, derivatively, be termed disordered. If I’m having a good day, not all of my disordered inclinations lead to disordered actions. But people, miserable sinners though we may be, are not even the kinds of things that can be disordered. And so, we should never tell anyone that they are disordered for the simple reason that it is not true. More than that, it is not even possible.

Not a psychological judgment

A complicating factor here is the language of psychopathology. Humans might not be disordered, or even the kinds of things that could be disordered, but many of us have disorders of a psychological nature. This is, in itself, no more shameful than a disorder of a physical nature. Now, homosexuality was itself once considered such a disorder in standard psychological practice and parlance. And so, many people misunderstand the Church’s teaching here as a statement about psychology, i.e., that the Church is insisting that homosexuality constitutes a psychological disorder.

But notice, in using the language of disorder, the Catechism speaks only of actions and inclinations. Earlier in paragraph 2357, in fact, the Catechism explicitly distances itself from any psychological judgments, stating simply, “[Homosexuality’s] psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.” In other words, the Catechism’s judgment about acts and inclinations is completely independent of any particular judgment about the psychology of the person with such inclinations.

Such a person may well be experiencing any number of psychological issues, just like anyone else, and those issues may well have implications for the healthy integration of their sexuality, just like for anyone else. But that is not what the Church’s teaching is talking about when it uses the language of “disordered.” Just as the Church does not teach that any person is disordered, it also does not teach that homosexual attraction is, in itself, a psychological disorder.

Still, chastity’s not easy

Now, let us not imagine that these distinctions, important as they are, are enough to fully remove the difficulty facing a young person in our care. Telling someone that the Church does not believe they are disordered lifts a heavy burden, but it does not magically make chastity easy. It is undoubtedly the case that differences in life circumstances, personality, upbringing, past trauma, or even genetics can make chastity (or any other virtue you care to mention) more difficult for some people than for others. And the inability to marry, for whatever reason, can certainly contribute to the difficulty of a chaste life.

There is no getting around the fact that the Christian vision of human sexuality is a demanding one. And it is especially challenging in a culture that has obscured some of its most basic premises, like the intimate relationship between sex and procreation or the possibility of a healthy and lifegiving celibacy. There is no shortage of stumbling blocks for those seeking to understand and live the Church’s teaching here.

Nevertheless, if our approach conveys to young people struggling with questions of sexual orientation or gender identity that, despite all the qualifications, the Church actually does consider them disordered, we will have put the stumbling block in the wrong place. 

Brett Salkeld

Brett Salkeld, Ph.D., is a Catholic theologian, speaker and author. He serves as archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan.