Why Words Matter When It Comes to Homosexuality

We can all agree that gaining understanding is at a premium when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. So what are we to make of (the words) “homosexual” and “gay”? Are these two words alike? Are they synonymous in meaning? Perhaps they are. Then again, there are such differences in people’s minds when they hear, and speak, and write these words that we do well to examine what we mean when we use each.

The difference between “homosexuality” and “gay” begins not in meaning, but in the kind of word that each is. (This is not a reference to the difference between a noun and an adjective, for we could equally have chosen the adjectival form of “homosexuality.”) The difference between “homosexuality” and “gay” has to do with what is formal (i.e., professional) and what is informal (i.e., common). “Homosexuality” is a professional word—that is, a word suited to a profession. Such words are distinguished by what they convey: (meaning marked by) precision, technicality, official standing. Professional words are usually words that are written. “Gay” is not a professional word. It is an informal word, enjoying altogether popular use. Informal words are common and comfortable, as befits conversation. They have discourse value, as it were. But they are unreliable words when it comes to conveying meaning that is clear, catholic, and abiding.

“Homosexuality” is found in the Catholic Catechism, while “gay” is not. This fact is not surprising since the Catechism contains the official (read: professional) teachings of the Church. Other professions—notably, psychiatry—make use of “homosexuality” in their official documents, and forebear using the colloquial term “gay.” In sum, the most basic reason for the asymmetry between “homosexuality” and “gay” is the difference in the kind of word that each is. One is formal, the other informal.

On to more complex considerations, the likes of which begin in the question of the actual meaning of each word. The Catholic Church’s understanding—which is the understanding that really concerns us—of what is meant by “homosexuality” is as follows:

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. (Catechism, #2357)

While being something of an intellectual abstraction, the word “homosexuality” denotes one thing substantially, one phenomenon of human experience: same-gender eroticism. Granted, the Church distinguishes the aspects of this one thing: “relations” means activity, as Church usage has always indicated; by “sexual” in “sexual attraction” means erotic; “sex” in “same sex” means gender (i.e., male or female). To be sure, these distinctions are helpful in revealing the complexity of the one thing; they are not helpful if disconnected from each other. That is, the distinctions lead to confusion if taken to mean that homosexuality is several things. It is not. In sum, (for the Church) what is meant by “homosexuality” is erotic activity—sourced in an erotic attraction—between two same-gender individuals. Thus do we see in the Church’s sense of “homosexuality” that this word points to one thing (ad rem), even as this “one thing” can be distinguished as action at its end point and as attraction at its source.

The Church is in the business of discerning meaning and gauging value regarding human life and experience. What, then, is the meaning and value of homosexuality? In a word, the Church’s philosophical sense of homosexuality is that it is “disordered”—no matter whether we are speaking of its source or of its endpoint—disordered, because it is opposed to the ordering of the human being in the image of God. Morally speaking, the Church ascribes uniformly negative value to homosexuality, which is wrongdoing as regards activity, and temptation as regards attraction. In sum, for the Church there is nothing of goodness regarding homosexuality, i.e., nothing of goodness in any distinguishable aspect of it, and nothing of goodness in its integral form.

Before we leave these reflections about “homosexuality” as the Church understands the word, it is necessary to affirm three points:

  • The Church never demeans a person under the influence of homosexuality. That is, the Church is always able to see the goodness of “the person” even as this person may be caught up in homosexual thoughts, words, and actions. To the Church, this person is always other and more than the homosexuality that may be a pronounced feature of his existence.
  • Whenever the Church uses (the word) “dignity” in the context of homosexuality, she is positing something that inheres in a person qua person, even as this person is under the influence of homosexuality. The Church never affirms or implies that there is anything of dignity in homosexuality itself. Hence, for the Church to oppose homosexuality is not, thereby, to oppose human dignity.
  • The Church’s understanding of what is meant by “homosexuality” is tightly woven, centering on same-gender eroticism. For the Church, there is no expanded meaning of the word, no meaning apart from this central sense. The importance of the Church’s circumscribed meaning cannot be overstated. Inestimable confusion descends whenever homosexuality is thought to imply something positive in the order of dignity, or aesthetics, or friendship or being itself. Such implications are erroneous.

If what has been written about the Church’s sense of “homosexuality” here strikes the reader as stiff or narrowly conceived, it is perhaps because of the influence of the word “gay” on the reader. “Gay” is a colloquial word. It is the word that public discourse prefers over the word “homosexuality.” But “gay” is a “loose cannon” as words go; it blasts apart the tightly woven (formal) meaning that “homosexuality” conveys. That is, whereas “homosexuality” refers to something which does not belong to the core of the person, “gay” is used to posit something that does implicate core human identity. In common discourse, “gay” refers to a person (in his totality) and/or to a lifestyle (as a feature of civil society).

Catholicism understands “core human identity” to mean the human person as unique and unrepeatable and at the same time made in the image of God. Given this understanding, Catholics—rightfully—reason that ‘gay’ is an objectionable word when, by its usage, this word states or implies that the God who has a hand in fashioning the core identity of every person has placed gay at this core. God has not done so. What is meant by “gay” is never at the core of a human life, no matter what is alleged to the contrary. But because what is meant by “gay” is widely perceived to inhere in human life ab initio, there is hesitation on the part of Catholics to use the word “gay.” This hesitation is prudent, but it can work against a Catholic who wishes to encounter the culture, i.e., to enter into intelligent dialogue with someone about homosexuality. Such dialogue is invariably marked by the word “gay.” How is a Catholic to engage in such dialogue?

Some Catholics—notably those in the organization Courage—refrain from using the word “gay.” They refrain from such usage because they do not wish to imply, as popular usage implies, that homosexuality is a matter of core human identity. Courage speaks of [an individual having a] “same-sex attraction.” In doing so Courage avoids the objective error of linking homosexuality to core identity.

Use of “gay” is not about to pass out of existence, though some are determined not to speak this word. Is it possible for Catholics to engage in conversation with others about homosexuality? To do so without either speaking erroneously or formally (read stiffly)? To use the word ‘gay’? What would this Catholic engagement entail—what kind of language?

The (spoken) language that is called for, the language regarding homosexuality that reflects reality, and respects the Faith, is language that differentiates between who a person is at his core, and what a person has within himself, albeit not at his core. Language that does so is fit use for a Catholic in conversation about homosexuality. What is this language? Answer: “got gay,” as in the statement, “Paul has got gay.”

Plainly, with respect to God and man, “gay” cannot refer to who the person is. The English language verb “is” always, at minimum, implies something about core identity. Yet what is meant by “gay” is not at the core of human identity. So Catholics need to avoid using “is gay,” as in the statement, “Paul is gay.” Instead, Catholics ought to say—if we wish to stay in the conversation and, at that, to refresh this conversation—“got gay.” (We could digress here in the direction of reflections on the relatively inflexible nature of the verb “to be” in the English language as compared with this verb in other languages. But to do so would be to prolong an already lengthy essay.)

A Catholic says “got gay.” Indeed, anyone wishing to speak accurately (i.e., objectively, realistically, truthfully) and respectfully of the dignity of a person under the influence of homosexuality will use the language “got gay.” Homosexuality—which is what this person has—is a condition, and not a permanent part of his being. What is to be avoided at every moment is the inaccurate and (objectively, if not intentionally) dignity-demeaning statement that this person “is gay.” No matter how deeply homosexuality is embedded within the person, he is not a homosexual. No matter what he may say of himself, he is not a homosexual. (Of course those who make this statement are somewhat excused for making it, in view of the limiting nature of the English language verb “to be.”)

At this point, we are able to bridge the divide in meaning between what the professional word “homosexuality” conveys and what the colloquial word “gay” conveys. We bridge this divide when we are careful in our use of these words, careful to ensure the one thing that is being referenced, namely same-gender eroticism. Both words have to do with this one thing, not a multiplicity of things. Here, it is “gay” moreso than “homosexuality” that can confuse, because the ordinary use of “gay” can contain multiple (unfounded) references to matters that are relational, aesthetic, even ontic. But if we are careful in our use of “gay,” then we will not fail to convey that it is essentially same-gender eroticism about which we are speaking. Indeed, when we are careful in what we write (“homosexuality”) and in what we speak (“gay”), we reveal the connection between both words. They are, in fact, synonyms. Each refers to an erotic passion toward someone of the same gender, and each can be distinguished as to beginning point (i.e., attraction) and to end point (i.e., activity). Each refers to a conditional reality, not to a permanent reality; that is, each refers to what a person has (which is potentially eradicable), not who a person genuinely is (which is ineradicable). Moreover, no matter the meaning that someone wishes to give to “gay,” this (alleged) meaning cannot be allowed to obscure the basic sense that the word holds, namely same-gender eroticism.

In light of the considerations and distinctions in this writing, it might be time well spent in critiquing the psychological profession’s understanding of homosexuality, or in scrutinizing Pope Francis’s gone-viral use of “gay” from the summer of 2013, or in examining the phrase “same-sex attraction” (which some in the Church use when engaging with individuals struggling with homosexuality), or in critiquing the (erroneous) claim that some in the Church make of a positive significance for a feature of gay experience. These are separate topics for future exploration. For now, it is simply time to write “has homosexuality” and to say “got gay.” Anything else comes from the one who sows confusion.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)

John Collins

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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).

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