Alison:Does "Objectively Disordered" Mean Anything At All?

In the CDF Hallowe’en Letter, possibly the most offensive and damaging element was the labelling of the homosexual orientation as “intrinsically disordered” – but just what does “disordered” in fact mean? Science has shown from mental health and from animal biology that it is entirely natural, and not in any scientific sense disordered. Defenders of the Vatican line respond to this criticism of the label by insisting that it does not mean what it appears to do in common speech. It has, they say, a specifically theological sense, which the critics are ignoring. My question then becomes, “Just what does ‘disordered’ mean, theologically?’ “

Beyond meaning simply that it is not ordered to procreation, which we can counter (and Bishop Robinson has done) by demonstrated that much else in human and animal sexuality is likewise not ordered to procreation, I have not yet worked out just what this supposed deep theological meaning might be. The Catholic theologian James Alison has now illuminated this for me. If I understand him correctly, I don’t understand the theological meaning of the term – because there is none, that makes any theological sense. The use of the term is itself  disordered.

In his long interview for Vox Nova, Brett Salkeld asked Alison about this term. The interviewer first described how he had once forced Lifestyle News to retract a claim, widely assumed but rejected by mental health professionals, that the term refers to a psychological disorder, and asked Alison for his own views on the “origins” of homosexuality. Instead, Alison responded by addressing the meaning (or rather, the absence of any meaning) in the term “disordered”.

The heart of Alison’s reasoning here, is that either the term means something, and or it does not. If the former, and it does mean something, then it should be possible to understand it at least by analogy with other conditions described in other contexts as “objectively disordered”. In that case, we should be able to deduce a meaning for “disordered” by a clear statement of just what it is that is its opposite – what is meant by the “ordered” condition, against which the supposedly disordered condition of homosexuality falls short?  The Vatican theologians have conceded that the condition is entirely natural, and so not disordered in this sense – but they have also not offered any clear statement of what meaning it does have.  And so, we are forced to reject the first possibility, that the term means something.

We are forced then to turn to the other possibility, that the term has no meaning “in any reality that can be measured”. It is simply a verbal construct used by those theologians to get to the conclusions they want to reach. This leads Alison to describe it as “unstable” in meaning. He points out that in traditional Catholic theology (and Alison is a very traditional theologian), “the acts flowing from a neutral or positive inclination could not be intrinsically evil”. Any moral judgement on this inclination must depend on their use. From this it follows that if the  homosexual orientation is morally neutral (which is agreed), then the judgement that homosexual acts that follow naturally from that orientation are disordered does not logically follow: it makes no more sense that to say that it’s OK to be left-handed, just don’t write left-handed.

Here are the question that led to Alison’s observation, and two extracts from his response. (The full interview has been published in two instalments at Vox Nova, and at James Alison’s website)

7. Some time ago I engaged in a lengthy e-mail exchange with the editor-in-chief of Lifesitenews because one of their articles had claimed that it was the teaching of the Catholic Church that homosexuality was a psychological disorder. After much wrangling, I was successful in getting them to edit the article. It is not Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a psychological disorder. In fact, my reading of the Catechism is that the official stance on this question is one of agnosticism. We don’t know the causes of homosexuality. What do you think the Church’s position is on this question? What are your beliefs about the origins of homosexuality? What factors strike you as the most important? What are your thoughts about homosexuality that has roots in sexual trauma or other aspects of a broken past?

I’m so glad that I wasn’t involved in your discussion with Lifesitenews! To judge by what you say, I think that I would simultaneously agree and disagree with both of you. Personally I think that the current teaching of the Roman Congregations in this area is of unstable meaning. The Congregations both insist that the inclination itself must be considered objectively disordered, and yet fight shy of committing themselves to a sense in which this claim has incidence in reality. Well, either their claim means something, in which case it enters into the realm of that which can be studied and understood by analogy with other objective disorders, having as its backdrop a clear claim about the proper order by comparison with which it is some sort of defect. Or, on the other hand, the claim has no incidence in any reality that can be measured, and is simply the verbally necessary logical ground which the CDF must stake out if it wants to maintain that the acts flowing from the inclination are intrinsically evil.

This would be a consequence of their knowing that in Catholic Theology, acts flowing from a neutral or positive inclination could not be intrinsically evil, but would be good or bad according to use. So, in the one case, the claim would be falsifiable by the human sciences, and in the other, we would be obliged to derive our understanding of what is from what is forbidden, or “can never be approved”, a voluntarist position smuggled in by the back door, and the claim would be something like a de facto defection from Catholic teaching concerning grace, nature, faith and reason as set out with admirable clarity by Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address.

My own belief is that being gay is a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, and that an appropriate analogy is left-handedness, which also, as it happens, used to be regarded as some sort of defect in a normatively right-handed humanity. I’ve arrived at this position having, as an educated amateur, followed the studies and arguments back and forth over many years, and notice that this position is tending to be confirmed massively the more that we know and see of gay people who are able to live their lives openly. I hope I would be open to any emerging evidence that my view was wrong, though I’m aware how easily any of us can become locked into convenient self-deceptions and self-reinforcing ideological cocoons. Like all other educated amateurs gathering what I can from disciplines in which I have no expertise, what I know about the aetiology of same-sex desire is regularly being updated as the field advances, and I’m sure that we are in the early days of scientific knowledge about such things.

As part of my personal history, I should say that I remember my own relief on realizing that not all searches for causality are helpful. Part of my motivation in the search for a cause of being gay earlier in my life was the need to find “something that has gone wrong that I can put right”, and it was good, spiritually fruitful, to discover that the question: “what went wrong in where I came from?” is actually not a useful one. More helpful is to ask: “how can I enrich where I’m going starting from where I am, however this has come about?” I wish I could find the reference, but I remember a quote from St Augustine, tired of nit-picking arguments about the finer details of Original Sin, insisting that “it’s not where we come from that is important, but where we are going” or words to that effect.

Books by James Alison:

Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

On Being Liked

Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in

Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal


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