Is Homosexuality a Psychological Disorder?

“Is homosexuality a psychological disorder? And could it be cured?”

These are the “dead-horse” questions that blogger Melinda Selmys mentions as she takes exception to the substance of a Crisis Magazine article on homosexuality—Mark Latkovic’s “Using Modern Science to Treat Homosexuality.” Selmys considers this question—“homosexuality as mental illness”—as tantamount to a lifeless horse brought back to race again.

Selmys claims in her post that the “psychopathologization of homosexuality” is incompatible with the Christian view. Unfortunately, Selmys’ flimsy claims are obscuring some crucial elements of Catholic teaching about the human person and homosexuality, and must be addressed.

What Is “Normal”?
Selmys flatly asserts that she “won’t use the word normal” in reference to “heterosexual functioning” as Latkovic did when framing his assertion that “[t]oday, of course, the majority of psychologists and mental health care professionals deny that there is anything abnormal about homosexuality.”

She goes on to claim that “[t]he biggest problem with this article … is that it confuses the historical teaching of the psychological establishment with the historical teaching of Christianity.”

By pitting the “concept of homosexuality” as arising from “modern psychology” against her claim that Church teaching prior to this was all about “sins” and “acts” rather than persons, she seems to accuse Latkovic of embracing the modern-psych view of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” as “discreet sexual species of person.” That is, anyone who makes the claim that one element of same-sex attraction is psychological disorder (as Latkovic does) is effectively siding with a non-Christian understanding of the human person.

Selmys’s claim is, frankly, silly. The mere fact that even the Catechism takes for granted that same-sex attraction has a still-mysterious and only-partially-explained “psychological genesis” (CCC 2357) is nowhere to be found in Selmys’ critique. A Catholic is quite right to view a persistent same-sex attraction as being associated with some form of psychological disorder.

The Church’s ‘No’ to Orientation Ideology
Selmys further attempts to use a magisterial quote to argue against what the secular culture would call “heteronormativity”—a buy-in to a relativization of God’s plan for sexuality with every other culturally constructed “sexual identity” label. The 1986 CDF document “On the Pastoral Care of Homsexual Persons” includes this quote (#16):

The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.

Selmys replies:

You kind of can’t have your cake and eat it here. The document does not say “there is only one orientation: heterosexual” it says “the Church … refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual.’ ” The point here is not that the Church insists on erasing gay identities, but rather that the Church refuses (at least in theory) to distinguish between persons on the basis of their sexual orientation. This statement not only rejects an ontological understanding of homosexuality, it also rejects the overt privileging of the heterosexual as some kind of superior caste.

Selmys is egregiously wrong in her interpretation of this text. But part of the error rests in the English translation of the official Latin text. Why? Because the word translated into English as “orientation” is the Latin “propensionis”—which is more aptly translated as “propensity,” “tendency,” or “inclination.” Of the eight occurrences of the Latin term, it’s translated as “tendency” once, “inclination” three times, “orientation” three times, and omitted once from translation (“propensione homosexuali” rendered as “homosexual person” in English).

This is important to note because the Church does not in fact utilize the concept of “orientation” at all in its most theologically precise and official Latin texts. Inclination, tendency, propensity, yes. The English translator did us no favors by using the “identity” term of “orientation” in that text. It has apparently left Selmys and others with a mistaken impression that the Church—like culture—actually does embrace what should be called the culture’s “orientation ideology.” Indeed, the point of the CDF quote is precisely to reject the culture’s concept of “sexual identity” and orientation is not in keeping with the dignity of the human person. This is hugely important.

Yet Selmys adds further confusion by claiming the quote “rejects the overt privileging of the heterosexual as some kind of superior caste.” She confuses apples for oranges here—of course all persons are viewed by the Church with equal dignity. But the Church acknowledges the goodness of only sexuality (not homosexuality) in her teaching. Persons are all equally children of God. Homosexuality, however, remains a deficit, an objectively disordered inclination.

Acknowledging the ‘Spousal Meaning of the Body’
Latkovic identifies one aspect of the “disability” of homosexuality as being “the inability to establish a true marital relationship with a person of the opposite sex.” Selmys responds:

It’s assumed here that the ability to marry is fundamental to healthy psychological functioning, and that anything else constitutes a disability. In the light of Catholic tradition, this is simply an absurd statement. Throughout most of the history of the Church the unmarried state has been consistently praised over and above the married state, so much so that many of the Saints have treated even the inclination to marry as a kind of spiritual or mental weakness. Now, I do think that it’s a very great good that the Church has largely moved beyond that kind of thinking—but to claim that its precise inverse is the “historical teaching” of Christianity is simply risible.

But Latkovic’s assessment is far from “risible”—rather, it’s rooted in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, who saw the great good of the “spousal meaning of the body” as essential to the human person, both in marriage and in the renunciation of marriage through celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. Selmys sets up an utter straw man here. God’s plan for us “body-souls” is clearly expressed in our identities as man or woman and our capacities to be total self-gifts as husbands and wives. Latkovic’s assertions are quite correct.

Change or Chastity?
Selmys’s continuing rejection of homosexuality as “disability” or “psychological disorder” sets up her rejection of seeking psychological help, which she seems to absolutize under the label of “orientation change.” By lumping all efforts at psychological treatment under the rubric of “orientation change,” her claim becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If “orientation” is the all-important identity marker that must be changed, then it’s total failure if psychological help doesn’t make one “heterosexual.”

But the Church’s anthropology exists apart from the social constructs of “orientation” or “orientation change.” Rather, the authentically Catholic understanding that underlies psychological counseling for same-sex attraction is simpler: chastity. While Selmys even mentions Fr. Paul Check and the Courage apostolate, whose mission is chastity and not “orientation change,” she cannot seem to see that there really is a need for psychological help even in the realm of seeking chastity in the midst of same-sex attraction.

Selmys will use words like “weakness,” “obstacle,” and “limitation,” in apparent reference to same-sex attraction, but not “disability.” Instead of connecting the dots, she concludes: “Ultimately, the psychopathologization of homosexuality does not follow from traditional Christian anthropology, and it is harmful, not helpful, in terms of ministry to gay people.”

But this is false. Homosexuality is in the mind of the Church a form of “pathology,” spiritually and psychologically. Our authentically Catholic anthropology makes this self-evident. Latkovic’s original essay gets this right.

Selmys urges us to abandon and finally bury this “particular dead horse.” The only problem is that this horse is still very much alive—and it’s the one that we Catholics rode in on.

Deacon Jim Russell


Deacon Jim Russell serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective.