In the past I’ve emphasized the difference between a “pathological” and a “teleological” understanding of “homosexuality.” I’ve associated the former with how most people (including Catholics) discuss the issue, and the former with the Catechism’s (and Catholic teaching’s) treatment of it. I still hold firm to the pathological vs. teleological distinction. However, I’ve recently reconsidered the catechetical definition of the term “homosexuality.” Re-reading of CCC 2357 in light of Persona Humana has brought me to a new catechetical definition of the term.
To begin, CCC 2357 states:
“Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex.”
The first question we might ask is what these “relations” consist of. Are we talking about any sort of relationship, or particular interactions, or something else? For this, we can turn to Persona Humana 8, which the Catechism cites in paragraph 2357. Persona Humana says, in part:
“For according to the objective moral order, homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality.”
Thus, when we return to the Catechism, we see that “homosexuality” is actually a combination of two things: objectively disordered acts (“relations”), plus an exclusive/predominant same-sex sexual attraction. If we use the Catechism’s definition, a person who engages in same-sex sexual activity (without an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction) is not necessarily a “homosexual.” Nor is a person who simply has sexual attraction to the same sex but has not engaged in such disordered acts. Rather, the Catechism defines “homosexuality” as the combination of acts + attraction.
Being “gay” and seminary admission
This should push us to re-read the remainder of the Catechism when it comes to these questions. When considering the question of “objective/intrinsic disorder,” the Catechism includes under this category “homosexual acts,” as well as the “inclination” towards “homosexual tendencies.” If we read carefully, the Catechism’s definition of homosexuality is quite narrow, excluding the vast majority of what most people consider to be homosexual/gay/same-sex-attraction. Being “gay” isn’t the same thing as “homosexuality,” because being “gay” doesn’t imply doing anything. “Gay” indicates a broad orientation towards those of the same sex, which includes everything from a childhood crush to certain appreciations of beauty to a lust for sex. “Homosexuality” in the Catechism doesn’t refer to an orientation, but only to very particular sexual actions and inclinations which may be experienced at particular times and in particular contexts. “Homosexuality” in the Catechism isn’t an orientation. “Orientation” is a broader concept which might include but is not reducible to a desire for and pursuit of sex. As one friend pointed out, the Catechism doesn’t seem to possess a concept of orientation at all. So we should be careful to clarify in conversations whether we are using catechetical understandings of terms or common understandings.
This includes conversations concerning seminary admission. The 2005 Instruction discusses “homosexuality” and “homosexual tendencies” in a way consistent with the catechetical, rather than cultural, understanding of the terms. It is significant that the Instruction does not discuss bar from seminary admissions “homosexual persons,” but rather those with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” It doesn’t bar admission based on an orientation, but rather based on a list of very specific “deep seated” tendencies and actions, something which would be consistent with criteria barring certain “heterosexual” candidates. More specifically, the 2005 instruction bars from seminary those who “practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.'” Those who argue that the instruction bans all homosexual/gay/same-sex-attracted persons are imposing their own understandings of sexuality and orientation, rather than drawing from the actual texts.
“Gay” isn’t catechetical “homosexuality”
But though the Catechism’s definition of homosexuality should be used in that conversation, it is simply inapplicable to most conversations in which it comes up. Most people are talking about something else when they use the terms homosexual, gay, and same-sex-attraction. Paragraphs 2357-2359 aren’t actually talking about what it means to be “gay” in the common sense of referring to broad orientations. It only refers to a particular combination of acts + attraction. That’s not what it means to be gay. “Gay” is a much larger concept. And so we shouldn’t think about “gay persons” (or “same-sex-attracted” persons, or really even what most of us understand to be “homosexual persons”) when we think about these paragraphs.
This isn’t to say that the Catechism’s definition doesn’t have something to teach us in a variety of contexts, but it is to say that this is one of the most poorly understood areas of catechetics, by both its critics and its advocates.
The narrowness does seem to fall within the parameters I’ve tried to lay out in the past: “homosexuality” is only intrinsically disordered insofar as it refers to specific disordered acts (for example, fornication, masturbation, etc.) and/or specific inclinations towards those specific acts. It doesn’t define something existing within the psyche or personality of the individual and thus should not be considered primarily in pathological terms. To do so would be to conclude that chastity is impossible for homosexual persons, since chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person.
Rather, as the Catechism states, homosexual persons can and should achieve chastity. Such persons ought to do this, first of all, by learning to respond and relate appropriately to their desires (at times denying, at times redirecting), loving well, and giving of themselves to those around them.
More on Catholicism and homosexuality here.
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