Fr Owen O’Sullivan on Gay Inclusion (Pt 4): “Homosexuality is fundamentally disordered”

In the fourth part of his long article on gay inclusion for the Irish theology magazine “Furrow”, Fr Owen O’Sullivan considers the part of the CDF presentation of the subject that most enrages gay and lesbian Catholics – that their orientation is fundamentally disordered. We know that this is simply not true, at least not in any conventional sense familiar from everyday speech. It is certainly not true in what appears to be the obvious, medical import: professionals in mental and physical health have agreed that same sex attraction is not disordered in any medical sense.

Not the only model

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The standard response from the defenders of the CDF position, is that the word is not being used here as it is in common speech, and so responses from science or medicine are irrelevant. Rather, they say, the sense used here is a strictly theological one.  Fr O’Sullivan, though, is a theologian, and offers a theological response.   It is simply not possible, he says, to consider sexuality as “disordered” without also considering the relationships.

Saying that homosexuality is objectively disordered presumes that sexuality can be evaluated outside of the context of persons and their relationships. Context matters. In the context of a loving, committed relationship, sexual acts have a different significance from what they have outside it. To ignore the context is to ignore the person, to ignore the full truth. To ignore the person is the pharisaism that Jesus condemned in the Gospel. Human relationships, like human beings, are so diverse that a one-size-fits-all approach to morality does justice neither to them nor to itself.

This emphasis on the relationships is one that seems to me to be gaining more prominence in Catholic discourse – it was the basis of Cardinal Schonborn’s informal remarks on the subject back in April, which have still not been refuted. I am becoming convinced that a renewed consideration of relationships is becoming part of a new sexual ethics orthodoxy taking hold under Benedict’s papacy, even if the rule-book Catholics have not yet recognized it. (A question for readers who follow Benedict’s words more closely than I do: since becoming pope, has he ever repeated that dread word, “disordered”?). O’Sullivan recognizes that consideration of the relationships is frequently dismissed as “subjectivism”  – but not to do so, he says, is to expose the argument to the opposite danger:

In this debate, to say that serious account must be taken of the quality of relationships between people is to leave oneself open to a charge of subjectivism. But its opposite pole, objectivism, is as fallacious; it is distorting and incomplete, as if everyone else had an axe to grind while the objectivist is a privileged person with a detached view from nowhere, above all personal considerations……The best authorities in sexuality are those who lead loving, committed, healthy, integrated sexual lives; the authority of experience trumps the experience of authority any day.

This, above all, is what I love in this analysis: the recognition that “the authority of experience” matters. In all the church documents on human sexuality, many are backed up with copious references in the end notes to previous church documents and to verses in scripture. But where, in any of the formal teaching, is there any attention paid to the reality of people who lead sexual lives – where are their voices?

For gay men and lesbians, the absence of this voice of experience is particularly acute. When I participated, as a member of the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, in discussions with diocesan representatives about the move into a Catholic parish church, I was fascinated by a chance remark at the end, which was made by a participating priest. He said that after the process of physical transition was complete, the next challenge would be to consider the bigger picture of theology around homosexual relationships – and that we would necessarily be part of that process. He was right, of course, in identifying the challenge and the need  – but inevitably, nothing has come of it in any formal sense.

James Alison has said much the same thing. Noting that the church will inevitably have to reconsider its theology in the light of new information from science, he concluded that it is an exciting time to be gay and Catholic – because the makers of doctrine will have to listen to the voice of our experience.

There are still no formal structures for this listening process to take place, nowhere where queer people in committed, loving relationships can go to the formal leaders of the church, and say to them, “This is what is like.” Nevertheless, listening processes can be informal as well as formal. This is yet another reason why we have to come out in church, and be honest and open about our lives and experiences. If we cannot share our experience in formal structures, let us do so informally, to fellow parishioners, to our priests, and to each other. We can do it face to face, or on-line.

The extract closes with this paragraph:

To homosexuals, the pastoral rhetoric about respect is dishonest, because it is not possible to respect a person while hating the actions that express what that person is. A frequent comment by homosexuals is that they believe they have become better human beings by coming out and entering into a committed relationship. If you have to suppress your sexuality, can you develop as a balanced human-being with feelings of self-worth? What is it like to live with your soul split from your body and your mind? Reality wins every time; reality is truth.

I add a few observations of my own, in reply to the tired argument I often come across that “disordered” here simply means “not ordered to procreation”.

  • It is obvious that one purpose of sexual intercourse is the physical production of babies – but that is far from its only function in life, as everybody in a sexual relationship knows.
  • Procreation does not end with making babies. It continues with the raising and nurturing of children. To focus obsessively on the link between sexual intercourse and procreation is to demean both.
  • The human race clearly needs procreation to survive, but that does not mean that every adult needs to make babies. Some can also contribute to procreation by raising and nurturing those that others have made, directly as adoptive parents, in the caring professions in which we are so well represented, or indirectly, simply by being responsible and productive adults contributing to the  public good. We all need to eat – but that does not mean we must all become farmers.
  • If it were true that homosexuality is disordered by not being open to procreation – then so is clerical celibacy.

The full series of extracts from Fr O’Sullivan’s “Furrow” article at Boundless Salvation is:

Inclusion – Is Sexuality the Final Frontier?

My own response and reflections  on these themes are at:

Recommended Books:

Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

Alison, James: On Being Liked

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

Alison, James: Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

Farley: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

McNeill, John: The Church and the Homosexual

McNeill, John: Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families, and Friends

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Moore, Gareth: Body in Context: Catholicism and Sex

Moore, Gareth: Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality

Salzmann & Lawler: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology

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