Pressure Intensifies on Catholic Church to Change Teaching That Homosexuality Is ‘Intrinsically Disordered’

According to analysts, the continuing push to remove this phrasing from the Catechism of the Catholic Church is rooted in a broader campaign to legitimize homosexual acts.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Bishop's Conference in St. Peter's Square on June 27, 2020.
Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Bishop's Conference in St. Peter's Square on June 27, 2020. (photo: Matthias Kopp)

VATICAN CITY — Pressure continues to be exerted on Church leaders to remove the language of Catholic teaching that states that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “under no circumstances can be approved” — pressure that critics believe is part of an effort by some groups and individuals to normalize the sinful behavior within the Church. 

The German bishops, who are in the midst of their two-year Synodal Way that includes a reassessment of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, are the most recent and visible group pushing to alter the teaching with a particular emphasis on changing the language which appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  

Bishop Georg Bätzing, the president of the German bishops’ conference, said in an interview in December that changes were needed to the Catechism regarding homosexuality and specifically that it should express openness to blessings of homosexual unions — a possibility rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last month. 

Father Christoph Behrens, a priest of the German Diocese of Dresden, said he believed the Catechism’s language was “simply embarrassing from my pastoral and theological point of view.” The priest, whose bishop, Heinrich Timmerevers, asked him to set up a ministry for homosexuals in his diocese and who advocated same-sex union blessings last September, added: “One can only hope that not too many people read this nonsense.”

Further calls to change the Catechism’s language have also come from some American Church leaders including Cardinal Joseph Tobin. The archbishop of Newark, New Jersey said in 2019 it the language was “very unfortunate” and added that he hoped the Church would use different words in its discussion of homosexuality that would be “a little less hurtful.”

For many years discussion has focused on Paragraph 2357 of the Catechism that states: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” 

The passage describes homosexual acts, and not the persons themselves, as “intrinsically disordered,” but goes on to state in Paragraph 2358 that homosexual inclination is “objectively disordered” along with other sexual sins (the term “objectively disordered” mysteriously does not appear in Paragraph 2358 of the Catechism published on the Vatican’s website and one has to click on “hide the links to concordance” to see it). 

The motives for removing the language vary with some, especially in Germany, wanting to see a change in the Church’s teaching. These include proponents of the Synodal Path as well as some German ordinaries such as Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, Germany. In February, he suggested in February that Catholics with homosexual inclinations cannot all be expected to live chastely and the Church should adopt a pastoral approach that acknowledges this. 

Others are more ambiguous such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, secretary of the commission that drafted the Catechism in the 1990s, who has said he considers homosexuality to be similar to other sexual sins, such as divorce and remarriage, and so implicitly not an “intrinsic disorder.” At the 2014 Synod on the Family, he said he saw no reason to change the language at that time but noted “there are developments” in Catholic doctrine.  

Similarly, Jesuit Father James Martin has called on the Church to amend the language with which it discusses homosexuality but has stopped short of publicly calling for a change in Church teaching on the matter. In a discussion in 2017, he said that the phrases “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically disordered” had made homosexual people feel “so subhuman,” and he relayed the story of a mother of a homosexual son who once asked him, “Do they understand what that kind of language can do to a 13-year-old boy? It can destroy him.” As an alternative, Father Martin has suggested the phrase “differently ordered” as he believes it could express the concept “more pastorally.”

Others believe a case could possibly be made to change the language while remaining totally faithful to the Church’s teaching on the matter. At the 2015 Synod on the Family, Archbishop Charles Chaput, then the metropolitan of Philadelphia, said he understood the desire to find new, more positive language to deal with the issue, adding that the phrase “intrinsically disordered” may have outlived its usefulness. “That language automatically sets people off, and probably isn’t useful anymore,” he said, while adding that any substitute should not obscure the Church’s view that “same-sex attraction is not part of God’s plan.” 

Still others have also argued that the language of “intrinsic disorder” is problematic as they contend that few people, apart from theologians trained in the scholastic tradition, correctly grasp its meaning. 

But Cardinal Willem Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, told the Register April 13 that although “one could perhaps try to find a formulation that will be better understood by people nowadays,” he personally saw “no need to modify the present formulation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church with regard the morality of homosexual acts.” 

“One cannot escape making clear that sexual acts between people of the same sex are intrinsically evil, as are all sexual acts which are not marital acts and are not open to the gift of motherhood and fatherhood,” explained Cardinal Eijk, a former physician and a current member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Such acts, he continued, diverge from the “total mutual gift in marriage” and are against nature, that is, “against God’s created order,” and are “essentially intrinsically evil acts.” Furthermore, he added that the Church’s teaching also stems from Holy Scripture; that it is “unchangeable” because it’s been taught through the “whole Tradition of the Church and repeatedly by the magisterium.” 

“It is not an act of charity to withhold the truth on God’s created order and thus on the moral natural law, because this may hinder people in following Christ,” Cardinal Eijk asserted.  

French philosopher Thibaud Collin said he believed it is “important to retain” the current formulation in the catechism as “sexual relations between two people of the same sex cannot be procreative.” He also stressed that homosexual love is “intrinsically contrary to the virtue of chastity,” as Karol Wojtyla explained in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility

“It is a passion that in fact instrumentalizes the other as an object of enjoyment by focusing on their sexual value alone,” explained Collin who teaches moral and political philosophy at the Collège Stanislas de Paris. 

“The truth can’t be changed,” said Douglas Farrow, professor of theology and ethics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, adding that if the Catechism were to be altered in this area, it would only be to “declare the truth more exactly.” Conversely, he said, “it is no act of charity to say that what is, is not; or that what is not, is. That, rather, is to lie.”

“The only question here is whether this fact — that homosexual acts, like all contraceptive acts, are disordered — should be discreetly hidden from the faithful,” Farrow said. “And what would be the point of that, unless to create room for those who desire to justify such acts to claim that they are not immoral after all, and that it is somehow immoral to say that they are immoral?”

“The wording is simple, factual, not pejorative or merely rhetorical,” he said. “There would be no pressure to change this wording were it not for the effort to change Catholic moral teaching.”

German Catholic writer and sociologist Gabriele Kuby, who has written on the dangers of gender ideology and the global sexual revolution, contended that those who wish to adapt the Church’s teaching to an “anything-goes-standard of the pagan world,” use their intellect to “devise clever arguments” to imply there is no “intrinsic evil” — in other words, “no absolute criteria for good and evil.” But if that were true, “there wouldn’t be a single martyr,” she said. 

Both Kuby and Collin drew attention to enormous and relentless pressure on the Church, both in society and within the Church, to change its teaching as it’s the only institution offering well-founded and rationally argued resistance to the global sexual revolution — the “last bulwark,” said Kuby, which is “crumbling” in the West. Bishops and lay organizations in Germany are leading the way in making the Church “compatible with secular paganism,” Kuby said, and called their Synodal Path “clearly heretical and in open opposition to direction from Rome.” 

Collin said that in the Church, the rejection of Humanae Vitae, Pope St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the Church’s rejection of artificial procreation, is behind the legitimization of homosexuality among many pastors and faithful. “From the moment that procreation and love are disconnected from each other, there is no argument against legitimizing homosexuality,” he explained. 

Collin also gave as a reason for growing acceptance of homosexuality in the Church a “lack of doctrinal formation and/or cowardice” among many clergy and faithful who “no longer understand and respect the moral law,” as well as a “very powerful homosexual lobby in the Church.” Even those who are not part of that lobby are “often unprepared for its demands because they accept the contraceptive mentality,” he said. 

The recent rejection also of St. John Paul II's 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor on the moral teaching of the Church has been another confirmation of this, Collin contended, as well as the recent appointment of Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne as president of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences. Msgr. Bordeyne has expressed views dissenting from Humanae Vitae’s teaching on contraception. 

Kuby and Cardinal Eijk both stressed the importance of combining unity of truth and compassion, with Cardinal Eijk explaining that in addition to the call on the Church to “proclaim the truth” through Christ and so shed light on that which is intrinsically evil, the Church also “respects persons as such who fall short in following her teaching and is ready to offer them every pastoral care they need.” 

“The Church has the task, on the one hand, to proclaim the doctrine and, on the other, to be pastorally close to people,” said the cardinal who faced protests for his adherence to Church teaching on homosexuality when he became a bishop in 1999 (“The Catholic Church has an ethical vision that is not always understood in today’s culture,” he said at the time).

Failure to preach the truth will only cause the Church to become irrelevant, said Kuby, who quoted Matt 5:13 and Christ’s warning of salt losing its savor and making it “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” 

“Sadly, so many of our Church leaders don’t seem to get the message of hundreds of thousands turning their back to the Church every year,” Kuby said. 

“Yes,” she added, “the language should be clear like a diamond.” 

Cardinal Schönborn and three Church figures publicly close to the homosexual community and sympathetic to changing the relevant words of the Catechism were contacted for this article but they either did not respond or declined to comment. 

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