Can Some Same-Sex Attractions Not Be Disordered?

Are there some same-sex sexual attractions that are not disordered inclinations? Melinda Selmys, among those dubbed the “new homophiles” by Austin Ruse, seems to think so. At the “Spiritual Friendship” blog, Selmys presents this thesis under the title “Still Looking to Desire.”

Now, I consider Melinda and everyone at the “Spiritual Friendship” blog to be my brother or sister in Christ. In fact, if compassion and Christian charity are good indicators, I know the “new homophiles” are closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than I am. So, while I am offering here a corrective about understanding same-sex attraction, it is offered in hopes of further enhancing, rather than diminishing, their commendable service to others in Christ.

That said, I think there are four problems with Selmys’ post:

1. She gives the impression that “homoerotic desires” have no clear remedy.

2. She asserts that the Church teaches that homosexual inclinations are not always objectively disordered but are only disordered “in so far as they concern the desire to have same-sex genital relations.”

3. She appeals to the Genesis example of Eve’s desire for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as an example of “ordered desire” that compares with an “ordered” version of same-sex attraction.

4. She concludes that same-sex attraction is justifiable as a legitimate form of desire for “union” with a person of the same sex in the context of a “vast” communion of persons (the entire human race).

No Remedy for Concupiscence?
Selmys says: “…no amount of theological speculation has ever proved capable of preventing ‘concupiscent movements of the flesh,’ nor can any amount of moralistic diatribe prevent homosexual persons from having homoerotic desires.”

While unwilled sexual impulses can indeed be difficult to address, Selmys seems to run counter to both Aquinas and Blessed Pope John Paul II in basically saying that we’re all stuck with our unwilled and disordered sexual desires. Aquinas says that concupiscence does have a remedy—grace. And in his “Theology of the Body,” Blessed Pope John Paul II says that pursuing “purity of heart” can liberate us from the “domination of concupiscence.”

Habitually seeking the virtue of chastity and pursuing self-mastery through a life of grace can indeed remedy concupiscence—even homoerotic desires. Grace can replace the “disordered” with order. Blessed Pope John Paul II calls this a task “truly worthy of man.”

What Does the Church Teach?
Selmys asserts that “hard-line traditionalists tend to assume that same-sex attraction is fundamentally objectively disordered in all of its aspects.” She attempts to counter this “hard-line” idea by appealing to a 2011 document from the doctrinal commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (“Pastoral Ministry to Young People with Same-Sex Attraction”), claiming that the commission leaves room for ordered same-sex attraction by saying only concupiscent same-sex attraction is disordered.

Does this document say this? No. It says:

2. In this document the expression “person with same-sex attraction” refers to one who feels an erotic and emotional attraction, which is predominant and not merely episodic, towards persons of the same sex, whether with or without sexual relations.

The commission defines “person with same-sex attraction” in a manner that includes not merely a desire for homogenital sex but also the “erotic and emotional attraction” to persons of the same sex. It also says:

6. …While homosexual acts are always objectively wrong, same-sex inclinations are not in themselves sinful or a moral failing. To the extent that a same-sex attraction is not freely chosen, there is no personal culpability in having such an inclination. Nonetheless, when oriented toward genital activity, this inclination is “objectively disordered.”

Selmys concludes from this that same-sex attraction is disordered only when “oriented toward genital activity.” That is, if same-sex attraction is oriented toward something other than genital activity, it can be considered properly “ordered.”

But look again at what the commission says: To the extent that a same-sex attraction [previously defined to include “erotic and emotional attraction”] is not freely chosen, there is no personal culpability in having such an inclination. Thus it’s not sinful to experience such an attraction as long as the attraction is not willed.  But if Selmys is right, then the commission is asserting that such attractions are properly “ordered” as long as they aren’t oriented toward “genital activity,” which raises an all-important question: If such “non-genital-activity-oriented” same-sex attractions are in themselves properly “ordered,” why can’t they be willed without incurring moral guilt?

Selmys is simply wrong on this point—the commission clearly indicates that the “erotic and emotional attraction” that falls under its definition of same-sex attraction is free from personal culpability only if it is not freely willed. And this means that the commission is not making a distinction between ordered and disordered same-sex attractions: rather, like the Church’s Magisterium teaches, all such attractions are disordered.

What About the “Beginning”?
Selmys then invokes the example of Eve in the Genesis account of the fall. She says that Eve “does not have concupiscence clouding her judgement” and thus provides a precedent for understanding that same-sex attraction is no more a “disordered desire” than is Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit.

I see this as a major misunderstanding of temptation and concupiscence. Here concupiscence refers to the wounded human nature’s inability to, interiorly, always keep our appetites and passions subordinated to our intellect and will. Adam and Eve, recipients of the preternatural gift of grace that enabled them to always maintain appetites and passions in accord with reason, had no “concupiscence.” But what does this really mean? It means they were not subject to temptations arising as impulses from any disorder within themselves. This is precisely why the Tempter had to actively tempt Adam and Eve from outside themselves.

Thus Eve’s experience of temptation is still an objective experience of “disordered desire” regardless of whether the origin is from within (like we experience with concupiscence) or from the outside (like we can all experience from external forces just like Adam and Eve—and Jesus–did with Satan). Selmys is wrong to infer that Eve’s experience of external temptation was not an objectively disordered experience simply because it didn’t originate from within (concupiscence).

Is Eros for “the One” or for “the All”?
Selmys sees the example of Eve as leading to the conclusion that it’s okay for a woman to experience sexual attraction to another woman—that desire for union with an attractive woman “in the vast communio personarum” is “not disordered in and of itself” but only becomes disordered when directed toward something “forbidden.”

She is basically concluding that experiencing erotic and emotional attraction toward someone of the same sex is not always forbidden after all. So, if she’s right, then something that isn’t “disordered” can be willed, right? Yet, the bishops’ statement above suggests that one incurs moral guilt for freely choosing to experience erotic and emotional attraction toward someone of the same sex!

Here is the problem: Selmys is opting to appeal to “eros” in a way that goes well beyond anything ever said about it by the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed Pope John Paul II. First, sexual attraction is part of “eros” but is not eros itself. The purpose of sexual attraction (the impulse that arises as a human experience of the sexual values of another) is to help lead us to “the one”—the espoused, the beloved. The purpose of “eros” as a personal experience is to help lead us either to “the one” (our espoused, our beloved) or to help lead us to “The One” (our Bridegroom, Christ).

I cannot agree with Selmys that, when one is predominantly attracted to the sexual values of a person of the same sex as opposed to the opposite sex, we can call such attraction ordered toward the good, the beautiful, the true. Why? Because by definition the attraction is reductively objectifying; and it simultaneously excludes attraction to the opposite sex. As such, Selmys can’t really support the supposed “good” of this attraction by claiming it’s a participation in the communion of persons of “the All” of the human race, so to speak. It’s only a reductive attraction to “the Some,” not “the All.”

Selmys is unfortunately wrong to conclude that the “initial erotic impulse” of same-sex attraction can ever be considered “ordered” and worthy of being “willed.” Catholics need to stand fast in witness to the truth of God’s plan for us that sexual attraction exists to lead us to spouses—either a man’s bride, a woman’s bridegroom, or our eternal Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from a 1528 painting of Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Jim Russell

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Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: dearjimrussell@gmail.com

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