There has been a rather long conversation going on in the combox on my last post on “same sex marriage” on the question of whether or not homosexuality (the inclination and the act) can be classed as a “mental disorder” and whether or not to do so is a case of unjust discrimination. I haven’t entered into that discussion, because I don’t think it is awfully profitable.
Partly because what counts as a “mental disorder” is very difficult to define. I’m no psychologist and wouldn’t even pretend to be, but I am aware that many things that today are classed as “mental disorders” were not so understood in the past, and vice versa. It doesn’t really seem to be a very objective category of classification. One should note the difficulty that the legal profession encounters on the plea of “insanity” with regard to capital crimes (well explored here on a past episode of the Philosophers Zone – and I note in passing my extreme sorrow in learning of the death of the host of that program, Alan Saunders). In a sense, are not all people who commit murder in some sense or other “mentally disordered”?
I think too that there is a problem with the discussion if it latches onto the term used in the Catechism which describes certain tendencies or acts to be “disordered”. We need to grasp a sense of what this word means in Catholic theology. It really has nothing to do with “mental disorder”. The media, of course, totally misses this point. Let’s take a look of several examples of the use of the idea of “disorder” in the Catechism:
Paragraph 37 of the Catechism quotes from Pius XII’s Humani Generis to the effect that we human beings display “disordered appetites which are the consequesnces of original sin”.
Paragraph 339 talks about “the particular goodness and perfection of every creature” and the need to avoid “any disordered use of things that would be in contempt of the Creator”.
Often the Catechism uses the word “disorder” with “crime” and “sin” (cf. pp. 598, 827, 1459).
Pararaph 1394 describes “attachment to creatures” as “disordered”.
The “discord” in “relatioships between man and woman” is described as “disordered” in p. 1606. The very next paragraph tells us that this “discord” “does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin”.
Paragraph 1753 talks about acts that are “intrinsically disordered” and which are not made “good or just” by “good intentions”.
Paragraph 1755 talks about “some concrete acts – such as fornication” which are “always wrong to chose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will”. Paragraph 1768 says that “an upright will orders the movements of the senses to the good and to beatitude, an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them.”
And so on. I am only half way through the Catechism at this point, and only just entering on the section about morality. It would be perhaps tedious to continue. What I hope is clear is that when the Catholic Church says that something is “disordered”, it isn’t talking about what psychologists might call “mental disorder”. It certainly doesn’t mean something which is “socially” unacceptable. The idea of what is “ordered” and “disordered” has nothing to do with passing fads of popular mores.
What it has to do with is (something I learnt about in Lutheran theology, namely) the “order of creation”. God created human beings to be in a right relationship with him, with each other, and with the rest of creation. This is “order” as opposed to “chaos”. Human beings are ordered toward God, hence idolatry or attachment to creatures is “disordered”. Male is ordered toward Female, and toward the procreation of children, and hence discord between the sexes or misuse of sexuality outside of marriage is “disordered”. Humanity is ordered toward the created world, and hence when Man acts in a way that abuses God’s creation, be it his body, the body of other human beings, or other created beings, it is disordered.
There is nothing about “mental” states here. It is, rather, a state of the soul. Disorder = sin. Order = righteousness, holiness. In fact, precisely at those points which we would deem “mental” (ie. the will, the passions) we are told that “good intentions” do not make the objectively disordered act “good”.