Fr. Martin’s Grammar Problem

Sometimes I think all that is needed is a good course on grammar. At least, that is my first thought in reading an article about Fr. James Martin and his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. (Fr. Martin recently won the “Bridge Building Award” from New Ways Ministry, a group which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in 2010 could not legitimately speak for Catholics because it denied key aspects of Church teaching.) I am not a theologian, so my point (at least here) is not to argue with Fr. Martin’s plan. I do, however, teach grammar, and, while no expert, I do see a grammatical flaw in one of his proposals.

Why should the grammar matter? Because, as I tell my students, we think in words; therefore, the words we use, and how we use them, orders—or disorders—our thinking. (I knew we had lost the political battle on same-sex “marriage” when we started arguing for “traditional marriage.” To qualify a noun by an adjective—“traditional” marriage—concedes that there are other types of that noun. No one talks about “traditional triangles.”)

The proposal I have problems with is Fr. Martin’s suggestion in an interview that the Church change her definition of the homosexual inclination from “objectively disordered” to “differently ordered.” (The relevant paragraph in the Catechism is 2357, which earlier declares that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”) We need to pay attention because “differently ordered” is going to become the new “buzz phrase” on this issue in the Church and elsewhere. It will be used by many to justify many things that should not be justified. But, again, poor grammar leads to poor thinking. (And let’s be clear that we are talking about “acts” and “inclinations” and not persons.)

Fr. Martin is, I believe, trying to equate the two phrases, preferring “differently ordered” because “objectively disordered” is, in his words, “needlessly hurtful.” The problem is, the two phrases cannot be equated. First, a little grammar: a noun is a person, place or thing; an adjective modifies or describes a noun; an adverb, among other things, modifies an adjective. In the sentence “The play was very good,” play is the noun, good is the adjective, and very is the adverb. In our example, we are talking about the noun phrase “homosexual inclination.” Both the Church and Fr. Martin want to describe that noun with an adjective that is then modified by an adverb.

First, the two adjectives: one says the acts are “disordered” the other says the acts are “ordered.” Those two words—“disordered” and “ordered” are the antithesis of each other.  To say that the same act is “disordered” and “ordered” is like saying the same act is “dishonest” and “honest” or “disproportionate” and “proportionate. To quote the great theologian P. G. Wodehouse: “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” No, sorry, it doesn’t work.

Then we come to the adverbs “objectively” and “differently.” Here is where I think Fr. Martin’s case falters a bit more. This isn’t even a question of “apples and oranges” but of “apples and tire-irons.” The word “objectively” comes from the noun “object” meaning “purpose” or “goal,” as in “the objective of the exercise was to prepare him for the test.” What the Church is saying (what she has said for two thousand years, and what the general morality of mankind has said since the beginning), is that homosexual inclinations and acts are disordered in their very purpose. Why? Because the sexual act has two purposes, unitive and procreative (cf. CCC 2363). Now, however one may argue that homosexual acts are unitive (not my purpose here), they are biologically impossible of being procreative. The organs with which these acts are performed are, after all, called the reproductive system. It’s like trying to “play a violin” but with just two bows; there’s no music.

Fr. Martin wants to use the adverb “differently,” which means “otherwise” or “in a different manner.” So Fr. Martin’s phrase means that homosexual acts have a purpose that is “otherwise” or “not the same as” heterosexual acts. This is where the grammar weakens Fr. Martin’s argument significantly, for what is that purpose of homosexual acts that is “otherwise” or “not the same as” heterosexual acts? That’s an interesting question, but in any event it cannot be the same objective as the Church says the sexual act must have.

So the Church is saying that the homosexual inclination and act are disordered in their very purpose; Fr. Martin wants to say that they are ordered to a different purpose. How are those two definitions the same?

Further, Fr. Martin’s phrase fails in itself, even without comparing it to the Church’s definition. We are talking about a moral act; a moral act must have a moral consequence. That consequence must be judged: good or bad.  To say that such an act is “ordered differently” gives it no definition and no judgment at all. Just about any moral act could be defined, justified or excused as “ordered differently,” even pedophilia.

Fr. Martin says he was inspired to write the book after the shootings in an Orlando nightclub in 2016. Those shootings were objectively disordered. Does Fr. Martin want to say that they were differently ordered?

Finally, Fr. Martin wants to use the phrase “differently ordered” because to call the acts “objectively disordered” is “needlessly hurtful.” “Hurtful,” yes, I can see that. “Needlessly”? I don’t know. Sometimes you need to hurt to heal. If my friend is committing adultery, I need to tell him he is committing adultery, and that may, probably will, hurt; but it’s not going to help to tell him that his sexual acts are simply “differently ordered.”

“Building bridges” is a nice phrase. Bridges, though, are built toward something, some objective, if you will. And I’m not certain that Fr. Martin and the LGBT community have the same objective that the Church does. In any event, poor grammar won’t help.

Robert B. Greving


Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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