THE BLOG
10/30/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Let's Banish Talk About 'Intrinsic Disorder'

Paras. 2357 and 2358 of the Catholic Catechism describe same-sex attraction as "objectively disordered" and same-sex relations as "intrinsically disordered." These are passages, it seems, that Pope Francis refuses to speak. Even though as supreme pontiff he has addressed same-sex attraction several times in highly public ways, so far as I can determine he has made no reference to these passages. The Pope knows that this language is in the Catechism. After all, he has quoted and discussed those portions of the Catechism which recognize that gays can be subject to terrible discrimination and must be made to feel respected and welcomed.

The time has come, I believe, to remove the offending language from the Catechism. Catechisms can be changed after all. Bear in mind, the Catholic Catechism to which these paragraphs belong has only been in effect since 1997 and that the Catholic Church has issued other, very different, catechisms in her long history.

To appreciate just how dramatically catechisms can change, just compare the 16-century Catechism of the Council of Trent with the 1997 version issued by John Paul II. Take the matter of religious liberty. Issued only decades after the Protestant Reformation, the Tridentine Catechism brimmed with denunciations of Protestants. They were "schismatics." They were "deserters" from the Church Militant, and should be regarded as enemies of the faith. They were "wicked" and "flagitious" and remained subject to the Church's criminal code.

The 1997 Catechism could not be more different. In the new Catechism, other Christian denominations are described as "brothers in the Lord." Catholics are encouraged to cooperate with them, knowing that Protestants, like Catholics, work with good will to advance the mission of Jesus Christ as they understand it. (paras. 816-819). The Catechism reiterates that Protestants do not have the fullness of faith possessed by Catholics and it appreciates the transcendent significance of Church unity. Both Catechisms, in fact, retain the ideal of Church unity as a goal to be striven for, but the insight of history has taught Catholics that voluntariness, not compulsion, is the only fit and proper way of seeking it.

What does this have to do with removing the offensive language about "intrinsically disordered?" Quite a bit. To be sure, philosophers will defend the "intrinsically disordered" language by reference to the procreative purpose of the sex act. All sexual expression, they will claim, must at least theoretically be open to procreation and express the symbolism of male/female complementarity. And since same-sex relations cannot be accomplish these things, they are "intrinsically disordered."

These are hidden nuances which 99 percent of the Catechism's readers cannot be expected to fathom. The average reader of the Catechism will see in this language the whole, sorry history of efforts to medicalize and "treat" those deemed "afflicted" with same-sex attractions.

Indeed, it was not that many years ago when psychologists and psychiatrists used aggressive forms of treatment, including electrical shock therapy, as a means of "curing" people of their attractions for members of the same sex. A 1973 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology thus asserted confidently that "[e]lectric shock as an aversive technique for treatment of sexual deviation has been reported to be effective in numerous case reports and in various larger studies." Today, we quite properly condemn such medical interventions as barbaric and cruel.

The 1997 Catechism is not that far removed in time from this mode of thought. This becomes especially clear when we consider that the principal source for the "intrinsically disordered" language was the Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, published in 1986 under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's signature. This Letter taught that while "the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." (para. 3). Gay people, the text added, can only avoid this evil through sexual chastity. (para. 12). These conclusions, the Letter declares, "find support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences."

Doubtlessly, such a conclusion would have had the backing of some portions of the scientific community in 1973. But by 1986, when Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, science had already moved well beyond this sort of linkage. Indeed, it was in that very year that the American Psychiatric Association removed all mention of same-sex attraction from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, its basic handbook of psychiatric disorders.

And science today recognizes that same-sex attraction is simply a naturally-occurring variant of what it means to be human. Scientists cannot identify a single cause of same-sex attraction but they know that it is not a choice and that it is not something that can or should be "treated."

Same-sex attraction, therefore, is not something that is "evil." It is a tendency that may arise in pre-natal development. Subtle differences in brain morphology can be detected between those with heterosexual as opposed to same-sex tendencies. Birth order may make a difference in the likelihood of someone being born straight or gay. Gender-non-conforming behavior is likely to emerge early in life, well before puberty or sexual awareness.

These findings constitute a very small sampling of the large and evolving body of scholarship that should be reorienting the way moralists think about same-sex attraction. Being gay is not a choice but something innate and natural. Are those who are born gay really required to lead lives devoid of physical intimacy? Even Cardinal Ratzinger, who insisted upon this, based his opinion on what he believed to be "the more secure findings of the natural sciences."

The "natural sciences" teach us something very different today. Truly, the time has come to remove the "intrinsically disordered" language from the Catechism.