On Sin and “Mental disorder”

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”.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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3 Responses to On Sin and “Mental disorder”

  1. PM says:

    Spot on. We’ll make a Thomist of you yet!

  2. Matthias says:

    All mental disorders are classifed within the American psychiatric Association’s ‘DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL” which is currently at Edition IV (c or b?) . It is only this year that the issue of hoarding and clutter was classified as a mental disorder,and i think that homosexuality was removed some years ago but i could be wrong on that point.
    But you are absolutely correct ,there is an order to Creation that God made and was pleased with.

  3. Gareth says:


    Here I have a right to respond/clarify as I believe the conversation on the issue becoming so long was partly due to a distortion of what really was being said.

    I never claimed that the Catechism stated or claimed the homosexual inclination was a mental disorder.

    What I said was to lets delve thoroughly into what Catechism says on the matter, put this in perspective and see how this can be related to those Catholics that view the homosexual inclination as being a mental disorder to be considered genuine rather than ‘unfair’/discriminatory’ (which Pere accused such Catholics of).

    Lets begin again: The Catechism states a person’s inclination to homosexual behavior is objectively disordered (objectively morally reprehensible) because such behavior can never lead to a morally licit act.

    It is not morally licit because the procreative and unitive aspects of sexuality are violated by the unnatural acts of homosexuality. This is why the Church teaches that any orientation to this behavior is objectively disordered, i.e., it is an orientation to a misuse of human sexuality, an orientation to acts that are sins against nature and God.

    The unitive aspect is violated because to use an old term ‘the plumbing doesn’t work’, putting it simply – man wasn’t created by God physically for homosexual acts.

    Heterosexual attraction are natural to man and woman and if orientated towards acts within sanctioned means (marriage) can lead to children and family, while homosexual tendencies are unnatural and can never lead to a good moral act whatsoever.

    Putting the above into perspective then: The Church clearly teaches the homosexual condition is neither normal nor natural.

    As such, some Catholics would be inclined to think of the word “orientation” as not only having serious theological, but also psychological implications. The way I personally read the Catechism is that that we are all heterosexual in our God-given nature, though some heterosexuals can have a problem with same-sex attractions.

    As I believe that homosexuality is not part of a person’s nature (backed by the Catechism), given by God, then I also can possibly draw a line to say homosexual inclination must have some psychological overtones as there is absolutely no evidence that there is an innate homosexuality that defines the person with a moral or pyshcholigical finality as per what was held as proper science in the medical/phsycholigcal world (unchallenged for over one hundred years and as previously discussed un-defined for political reasons).

    I would also argue that saying there is nothing both morally or medically wrong with homosexual inclination and accept it as psychologically neutral opens the door to the acceptance of sexual perversion (because as such homosexuality becomes just another ‘preference’) as a civil right or even worse that homosexuality is equivalent to or acceptable as the sexual expression of conjugal love in marriage.

    We are sending a very dangerous message leading to physical as well as spiritual destruction when abnormal human sexuality is viewed as both morally and psychologically normal.

    What I am saying is that what is untoward about viewing an inclination that leads towards to grave sin as not psychologically neutral? Indeed, those inclined to deep alcoholism or pedophilia are still in this day and age not viewed as such.

    Our faith states that the living out of the inclination to homosexual behavior is not an acceptable option, and that the behavior itself is ordered to an intrinsic moral evil – surely some Catholics are justified in saying that proper pastoral care for homosexuals should involve some sort of reparative therapy.

    Catholics that view the homosexual orientation as a mental disorder are not discriminatory (as the Catecism on the issue clearly means invidious discrimination) To hold such a view holds the whole Catechism’s teachings on the issue in full balance – the living out of this inclination to homosexual behavior is never an acceptable option, and that the behavior itself is ordered to an intrinsic moral evil. To fully weigh up what the whole topic in the Catechism is to fully present the whole truth.

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