Is the Homosexual Tendency a Complex Reality?

The title of this essay asks a question drawn from the literature of a recently concluded conference in Rome. This conference—entitled “Living the Truth in Love”—intended to probe “the complex reality of homosexual tendencies.” The conference was sponsored by Ignatius Press and Courage, an international organization that offers spiritual support to persons with homosexual tendencies. Both respected organizations, as the conference literature has it, sought to reflect on “the bi-millennial wisdom of the Catholic Church.” It is no coincidence that their conference was scheduled to immediately precede the October synod of Catholic bishops that is now convening in Rome to discuss the family in the modern world.

One of the questions raised by the conference was: What is meant by “homosexual tendency”? While this essay intends to answer this question, it is undeniable that homosexual tendency and activity are joined, rather like the endpoints on a finite line. We can distinguish these points even as we see that they are related. Since both “homosexual tendency” and “homosexual activity” have to do with same-sex eroticism, they will be considered inseparable in this essay.

There is a second question this essay seeks to answer: Is the homosexual tendency complex? If we imagine that homosexual tendency is related to homosexual activity, as a cause is related to its effect, then the answer is No. It is really a rather straightforward reality. On the other hand, if we incline more to correlation than to causation—which is to say, if we believe that homosexual tendencies are circumstances that regularly coalesce around incidences of homosexual behavior—then the answer to our question is Yes, homosexual tendency is complex.

In order to explain these two answers, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Church’s understanding of “tendency” has changed—developed—over the past forty years. The most significant change came with the arrival of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the mid-1990s when “homosexual tendencies” emerged as the ecclesial go-to term to identify the antecedent matter of homosexual activity. Up until the time of the Catechism, terms like “orientation” and “inclination” and “condition” had widespread currency. In particular, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made ample use of “orientation” in the 1975 document Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics.

By the 1980s, the use of “homosexual orientation” in secular sources had begun to mean innate and immutable. In response, the Church began to back off the word, replacing it with “inclination,” as can be seen in the 1986 CDF document Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. In any case, the use of different terms to identify the predisposition towards homosexual behavior reveals an evolving understanding of homosexuality on the part of the Catholic magisterium. It is precisely this developing ecclesial understanding that accounts for the two answers offered to the question of whether or not the “homosexual tendency” is complex.

Let us consider the No answer. This No is rooted in the logic of cause-and-effect, whereby homosexual tendency is the cause and homosexual activity is the effect. This logic is itself inherently moral. That is, since homosexual activity is wrong (because it violates the conditions that dignify human sexual activity; such conditions presuppose a man and a woman, and include freedom, fidelity, genuine affect, and openness to creating new life), the cause which precedes this wrong activity as its cause cannot be right. In itself it is a temptation. Seen in the light of the natural moral order, homosexual tendency is not complex. We need not look for its origin beyond the human being in whom it arises. It arises in an individual’s own heart, not as a genuine human affection but as a temptation to commit a sin. Its source is singular. Its direction is twisted. Its outcome is evil. There is nothing complex here. The homosexual tendency is no more and no less than temptation, meant to be resisted.

Now consider the Yes answer to the question of whether “homosexual tendency” is complex. As stated above, there are often circumstantial implications attached to this phrase, the most salient of which is psychological. Indeed, the Catechism speaks of a “psychological genesis” regarding homosexuality (#2357). Is the Catechism incorrect in doing so? After all, haven’t we understood from what has been written here that the source of homosexual activity is “homosexual tendency” understood as the temptation to impurity in the heart of man? How are we to understand the psychological claim the Church makes in the Catechism?

To be sure, the reference to psychology in the Catechism leaps off the page and stands before us like an intruder. It appears to be out of place in the third section (pillar) of the Catechism, which is given over to “offenses against chastity.” Did the editors make a mistake? Likely not. Rather, it appears that the Church appeals to psychology so as to define homosexuality with greater precision and accuracy.

Ironically, the meaning of “homosexuality” has proven elusive to psychology. Some twenty years before the Catechism, the psychology profession in the United States totally reversed itself regarding its estimation of homosexuality. Prior to 1973, psychology deemed homosexuality to be an illness, but after 1973 this profession (albeit not every psychologist) officially embraced homosexuality, viewing it as a normal variant of human sexual expression. Yet, no major new therapeutic evidence had emerged to warrant this reversal in psychology’s understanding of homosexuality. The cause of the reversal was political pressure within the discipline. Homosexuality has been a divisive issue for the psychology profession ever since.

In providing a definition of “homosexuality” in the Catechism (#2357), the Church made it possible for supporters and critics to better understand her teaching. Plainly, the Church did psychology a service by defining and evaluating homosexuality. Moreover, to aver—as the Church does in her Catechism—that there is a psychological explanation for the antecedent stages of homosexuality is to rescue us from the misunderstandings that have followed in the wake of psychology’s 1973 gaffe. One such misunderstanding even made its way into the English-language draft of the Catechism. We will identify this misunderstanding shortly. First, we turn to a part of the Catechism that demonstrates the Church’s capacity to shepherd human understanding and otherwise to enable the profession of psychology to return to its original estimation of homosexuality as problematic.

Number 2358 of the Catechism revolves around “homosexual tendency” and the persons in whom it is manifest. It is the first part of this section that is germane to our discussion:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.

The homosexual inclination or tendency is “objectively disordered.” This pithy phrase helps us all (including the profession of psychology) to understand both the homosexual tendency and those in its grip. The Church simply and wisely declares that “this inclination” (i.e., homosexual tendency) is “objectively disordered”—that is, out of alignment with the human being made in God’s image. As is evident here, the Catechism provides an evaluation in keeping with the Church’s competency—received from Christ—to correctly estimate the phenomena of the world in light of the God-given order of creation. The Church’s evaluation here is rendered in the language of human wisdom, namely philosophy, which is the language that the Church has ever used to express its beliefs and teachings.

The phrase “objectively disordered” is significant because it replaced an earlier statement in the English language draft of the Catechism that said, “They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial.” This earlier statement is the misunderstanding referred to above. The statement did not find its way into the officially promulgated Catechism because it exculpates individuals from responsibility for their homosexual condition and their homosexual activity. After all, not to choose the condition is not to be responsible for it, and not to be responsible for it is not to be responsible for the behavior that follows from it. But this logic of exculpation contradicts the freedom man has to resist homosexual temptation. It contradicts free will—itself a sign of man’s likeness to God. Accordingly, the Church wisely replaced the phrase with a more accurate one.

There is a question that remains regarding “homosexual tendency.” This is the question of whether there is psychological matter built into the tendency. It appears that there is, for the Catechism records the following:

Its [homosexuality’s] psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. (#2357)

It seems from this statement that the Church is acknowledging a psychological cause for homosexuality. But this is only apparent, not real. As we have understood, what causes homosexual activity is temptation arising in the heart of man. By making this statement, the Church is acknowledging that there is psychological matter that precedes and highly correlates with the temptation to homosexual activity. It is not itself the cause of homosexuality. It is nevertheless real, and attendant upon much of homosexual experience, even as it is shrouded by this experience. In brief, this psychological matter amounts to a wounded affect within a person. As to why the Catechism contains this statement, one might suggest that its inclusion reflects the Church’s merciful treatment of an important profession that has lost its way regarding its understanding of homosexuality.

Having established that there is psychological matter that highly correlates with homosexuality, we are in a position to make a prediction. We can predict that the official conference proceedings emerging from Rome will oscillate like a pendulum between the Yes and the No answers that have been sounded here concerning whether or not “homosexual tendency” is complex. Yes, there is complexity, if we allow the correlational sense psychology can supply. No, there is not complexity, if we stick to the causal sense that Catholic morality supplies.

John Collins


John Collins is superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Santa Rosa (California). He has been in this position for the past 16 years and has worked in Catholic school education for an aggregate of 36 years. When he is not doing his superintendent job, he is tending to his marriage of 30 years and his five children. Also, he is active as the coordinator for the Courage chapter in the Diocese of Santa Rosa. He holds a doctorate in Catholic school leadership from the University of San Francisco (1995).