It’s not always what you say, but also how you say it. Even a man like St. Peter, characteristically known for his bluntness, recognized this and cajoled the peddlers of the Good News that while having a ready defense of the reason for their hope, it should always be done with reverence and respect for the other person. The truth is naturally harmful to error, but it can always be presented in a manner that makes it more palatable to those who hold those errors. This balance is at the heart of the Church’s pastoral mission. That is why, when the self-appointed Apostle to the LGBTQ community, Fr. James Martin, says that the Church’s language regarding the homosexual condition is unnecessarily harsh, we ought to take his criticism seriously.
Fr. Martin takes exception to the use of the term disordered. The Catechism uses the term twice within the context of same sex attraction (SSA)—once when referring to homosexual activity, calling it intrinsically disordered (CCC 2357) and then a second time calling the inclination itself objectively disordered (CCC 2358). Many people, Fr. Martin included, are quick to point out that the term disordered refers “to the orientation, and not the person” (Building a Bridge, p.46).
Why We Use the Term Disordered
They are correct that in this context the adjective, disordered, is modifying the inclination and the action and not the person. But this does not mean that the persons themselves are not disordered. In fact, the Church believes that we are all disordered and those with same sex attraction are no different in that regard. The particulars of their disorder may be different than mine or yours, but rest assured dear reader that we are all disordered. If we weren’t then there would be no need for the Church. The Church is given by Christ so that He might continue His ministry to disordered tax collectors and prostitutes throughout time and space.
The use of the term disordered is really meant to highlight an important aspect of human life, one that truly is Good News. Life is not just a series of unrelated episodes, but has a specific purpose or end based upon the fact that we have an unchangeable human nature. Those inclinations and actions which take us towards true fulfillment are said to be ordered to happiness, those which take us off that path are said to be disordered. In short, homosexual inclinations and actions are only one of a number of things that are disordered; things such as lying and calumny are also classified as being intrinsically disordered by the Catechism (CCC 1753) precisely because they lead us away from a life of true fulfilment and happiness.
Nevertheless, the Catechism does single out the inclination as disordered and this also for a very good reason. There is only one way in which order can be re-introduced back into our fallen nature—grace. The Church turns her focus to this inclination rather than the many others because she wants to apply the medicine of grace to those who live with same sex attraction. She is the lone voice crying out in the desert that SSA is a serious obstacle to the Promised Land. That is, in their struggle for chastity and rightly ordered love, the person struggling with same sex attraction may unite their suffering with the suffering Christ, sanctifying the whole Church in the process. This is why we should “build a bridge” to them and invite them in—not just because we want to see them healed, but because of their particular cross they might add to the holiness of all the members of Christ’s Mystical Body.
The Weight of the Burden
It is worth mentioning as well why so many people who suffer with SSA do read into the Catechism a specific condemnation of their being ontologically disordered—they read it as a noun rather than an adjective. There is something much more fundamental to each person than their sexual inclinations. In fact the Church, “refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: a creature of God and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life”(PCHP, 16). The truth is that no one is ontologically homosexual; there really is no such thing as “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality”. There are only two sexual identities; male and female. Our sexuality is the call of men and women to love as God loves in and through their bodies. The unfortunate reality is that we live in a fallen world where there can be distortions that obscure our sexual identity.
This particular burden is especially difficult because it attacks one’s ability to relate to other people, both of the opposite sex and the same sex. In other words, it disorders all your relationships. This leaves the person feeling very isolated and very alone. When they find a community of like-minded people, whose social action centers on making their inclination and actions ordered it is hard not to fall victim to wearing nothing but the homosexual label. We are so much more than our feelings and our genitals however. Even if the inclination were not disordered, wearing the label to the extent that many wear it, would lead to grave unhappiness. That basket can’t hold the eggs of our identity and the Church wants those who struggle with SSA to know that.
We can see why then the Church might use the term disordered as a way to point out there is an ordered way of life in which things proceed in an ordered fashion towards true human fulfillment, but is the phrase “still needlessly hurtful. Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person — the part that gives and receives love — is ‘disordered’ in itself is needlessly cruel” (p. 46-47), as Fr. Martin suggests? There might be a gentler term that could be used, but most that I can think of betray the truth. Fr. Martin’s suggestion that we should call it “differently ordered” is problematic in that it implies that it is ordered. It is, according to him then one different way of life that when lived out would lead to true personal happiness and thriving. The Church cannot, as Cardinal Sarah says in referring to Our Lord’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery, be more merciful than her Lord. The merciful call of the Church always echoes Christ’s compassionate call to conversion. That is, it always mixes the bad news with the Good News, or rather begins with the bad news (dis) and ends with the Good News (ordered). Come to think of it, maybe, just maybe, there is wisdom in the use of the term. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it indeed.
***As a postscript, I would not recommend anyone spend money on Fr. Martin’s book as it is really a veiled attempt to circumvent the Church’s teaching through subterfuge and verbal gymnastics. His unwillingness to engage any of his critics head-on always makes someone suspect in my mind. Instead, buy Daniel Mattson’s book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay. For anyone trying to aid in the bridge building, this book should be one of the pillars.