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Different or Disordered?

It isn't compassionate to encourage people to embrace a false version of reality

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the desire to be sexually involved with a member of the same sex is “objectively disordered” (2358). But for some, them’s fightin’ words.

Take Fr. James Martin, S.J., for example. In a 2017 interview with columnist Jonathan Merritt, Fr. Martin reaffirmed the position he took in his book Building a Bridge, namely, that this language in the Catechism is “needlessly hurtful” and should be replaced with the more pastoral language of “differently ordered.”

I don’t know if Fr. Martin still holds this view. In a 2018 article for America Magazine, he presents the Church’s official teaching on the objective disorder of same-sex sexual activity and the disorder of the desire for it. He then says, “As a Catholic priest, I have…never challenged those teachings, nor will I.”

Perhaps we could push back a bit on this last claim since he routinely celebrates events and organizations that publicly oppose Church teaching. Regardless, we still need to address the question: are sexual desires for members of the same-sex disordered or merely different?

First, to say the desire for sexual involvement with a member of the same sex is “different” is to suggest the desire is not disordered. We don’t say someone’s preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate is disordered; we say it’s different. But to say the desire for same-sex sexual activity is not disordered entails the further claim that there’s no disorder in same-sex sexual activity itself. And there’s the rub: same-sex sexual activity is morally disordered, as Fr. Martin acknowledged in the America article.

A morally disordered act is a human act (proceeding from intellect and will) that lacks the order to its due end. In other words, it’s a human act that intentionally misses the mark, like the archer that intentionally misses the target he’s supposed to hit. St. Thomas Aquinas explains,

Sin as we properly speak of it in moral matters, and as it has the nature of moral wrong, comes about because the will by tending toward an improper [undue] end fails to attain its proper [due] end (De Malo q.3, a.1; emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Aquinas articulates the principle this way: “We call every act that is not properly related to its requisite [due] end a disordered act” (De Malo q.15, a.1).

But what does Aquinas mean when he speaks of a “proper [due] end” for a human act? It’s that which the human action naturally aims at: its natural end.

Consider, for example, how the due end or goal of an oak tree is to grow and to reproduce, which entails sinking its roots deep into the ground, taking in nutrients, performing photosynthesis, and dropping acorns. Such things are due or proper to the oak tree in that the achievement of such things makes the oak tree flourish as the kind of thing it is. If the oak tree were to fail in achieving these natural ends or goals, the oak tree would be defective in being an oak tree.

So, the due end of a thing is the natural end or goal of a thing and its activities: that which is befitting for the perfection of the thing, making it a good instance of its kind.

The same holds true for human actions. Some human actions have natural ends or goals that constitute the perfection of the act. For example, the human act of assertion has the natural end of expressing that which we believe to be true. So, when we assert what we believe to be true, that act is perfected inasmuch as it is the kind of act that it’s supposed to be.

Similarly, the act of eating has the natural end of nourishing the body. When we eat in a way that achieves this natural end or goal, our act succeeds in being the kind of act it’s supposed to be.

Disorder enters into human acts when we voluntarily engage in an act that is directed away from its natural end or goal (a due end or goal). Eating with the intention to vomit out the food afterward is one example of a disordered action. The act from the beginning is willfully directed away from its natural end of nourishing the body. Perversion is another word for this.

Now, the achievement of the natural ends of a human action not only determines the perfection of the act itself, but also of the person who performs the action. For the power to act belongs to a person for the sake of fully actualizing herself as a human being, or acquiring those things that are perfective of her nature.

So, when a person voluntarily prevents her act from achieving its natural end, she rejects the associated good. Since morality entails doing good and avoiding evil, to reject the good of an action is a moral defect, or in the words of Aquinas from the above quote, “sin.”

So what’s all this got to do with same-sex sexual activity? As I’ve argued before, one of the natural (due) ends of our reproductive organs is the generation of offspring. That’s an end or goal at which the sexual act naturally aims (the other being unitive love between the spouses).

And since it’s a moral disorder to voluntary prevent an act from achieving its natural end, it follows that to voluntarily thwart the use of our sexual organs from achieving their natural end of generation of offspring is morally disordered. Same-sex sexual activity does just that. Therefore, same-sex sexual activity is morally disordered.

With this in mind, let’s go back to our original question: should we start calling the desire to be sexually involved with a member of the same sex “different” instead of “disordered”?

No, we should not. Either we encourage people to embrace a false version of reality by telling them their sexual desires for members of the same-sex are natural and good, or we stick with what’s true and invite people to live in accordance with reality.

I don’t know about you, but I’m all about leading people to the truth and helping them experience authentic human happiness. I don’t see anything “needlessly hurtful” about that.

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