Let’s Not Be Reasonable

Fr. James Martin
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A good description of the devil is “one who comes along when I’m very tired and suggests something very reasonable that I know I shouldn’t do.” This came to mind when seeing the responses to the recent Vatican reiteration of the Church’s teaching on homosexual acts. Some dismissed it; some of us were pleasantly surprised. Many, however, who do not (necessarily?) want to change the teaching, once again expressed pique at the words “inherently disordered” to define homosexual tendencies. 

Fr. James Martin, for example, wants to change “intrinsically disordered” to “differently ordered.” Cardinal Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, says the language in the Catechism is “very unfortunate” and “hurtful.” Even Archbishop Emeritus Chaput of Philadelphia has said the language “sets people off” and “isn’t useful.” 

I addressed the grammatical problems of Fr. Martin’s argument in a previous article. Regarding Cardinal Tobin and Archbishop Chaput, there is no doubt that certain persons are hurt and set off by the language. But is that the fault of the language (and, by extension, the Church)? In these situations, we need to look carefully at the words used, the context, and the intent. Vagueness and pusillanimity in speech can also be hurtful. We can sin by omission in our speech. In dealing with homosexuality, I think that is where the problem lies and why I also think the language the Church uses is necessary.  

The problem started when we stopped using the word “homosexual” and started using the word “gay” and “gay lifestyle.” “Homosexual” was—is—an adjective often used as a substantive (a noun), much like the word “diabetic.” (We can say of a person, “He is diabetic” or “He is a diabetic.” We could say of a person, “He—or she—is homosexual” or “is a homosexual.”) “Gay,” though, is less accurate than “homosexual” and, therefore, has become more problematic. 

If we ask the average person “Do ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ mean the same thing?” I think the initial answer would be “Yes.” But then there would be a pause, perhaps a blink or two, and then, “Well, no, not really.” For if the two words were once true synonyms, they aren’t anymore, especially in the ruling woke culture. “Gay” now carries a connotation of “liberated” or “free”; “sensitive,” “caring,” and “artistic.” Gays have special “gifts.” It has become almost “chic.” It is not unlike what has happened to the word “irreverent,” which once meant simply “not reverent; not respectful,” but now means “spunky” or “exuberant”; almost comic.  To be “irreverent” was once bad because we used to revere things; now that we don’t revere anything, to call someone irreverent can be a compliment.   

This is why we need the seeming bluntness of the Church’s language, because this is where the unsavory, perhaps diabolical, aspects of the use of the word “gay” have come into play. The phrase “inherently disordered” is a precise description of the homosexual act. The danger of changing the language is that, without such precision, we could be misleading others into sin. This is the trap for many young people and for many homosexuals. 

For the young in our celebrity-driven world, there is a strong lure to be “special,” perhaps extraordinary, and therefore celebrated. This is especially true for those who, for whatever reason, are at the periphery of social acceptance. Who doesn’t want to be noticed, to be told he or she is “special” and just needs to be understood? The person with homosexual tendencies is no longer confronted with a straightforward question of the morality of his actions, but rather has to wrestle with being “free” (as opposed to “enslaved”?) and “special.” Which would you choose? The Church’s language, like the language of any good mother and teacher when dealing with sin, is a fresh wind that blows away the fog. 

Some want a more “pastoral” language and approach because they know many living in “committed and loving” homosexual relationships. That is reasonable, but it is beside the point. I know persons who are in “faithful and loving” adulterous relationships. The point is not whether any relationship is “committed and loving” but whether it is right or wrong; sinful or chaste. They need the word “adultery” thrown in their faces like a bucket of cold water in hopes of waking them from their sin and seeing the danger they are in. 

It might be beneficial to recall the first rule of the discernment of spirits as set forth by St. Ignatius of Loyola. It states that when a person is moving away from God, the devil’s main tactic is to soothe him; to feed him with many plausible reasons why his sinful choices aren’t sinful. This is especially true with sins of passion, of which sexual sins are the most reasonably unreasonable. Many in these situations are like the teenager who asks “How far can I go?” If you ask the question, you’re going too far. As St. Philip Neri said, “In these matters, it is the coward who flees who wins.” Yes, those with homosexual tendencies need sympathy, but they don’t need ambiguity. 

Changing the language would, I daresay, bring comfort to those with homosexual tendencies. It may bring a sigh of relief to them and some of their families. It would also entrap many into a destructive spiral and bring grief and anguish to parents when their child tells them that “Father So-and-So” said this is “who he is.” Like the politicians living in affluent suburbs or the celebrities living in gated communities calling for defunding the police, I wonder how many of those calling for a change in the language have lived with the anguish of seeing a loved one become enmeshed in a “gay lifestyle.” I also have to say we would have saved ourselves much trouble if more bishops would have been—would be—more forthright when dealing with members of the clergy in this matter. 

Some others say the phrase “inherently disordered” should be changed because it is difficult to explain. That depends. If by “difficult to explain” you mean “difficult to make clear,” I disagree; to many it seems self-evident, while to others a little unravelling would do the trick. That is one purpose of a seminary. But if by “difficult to explain” you mean “difficult to say to a confused culture whose motto about sexuality is ‘anything goes,’” then I agree. Yet part of the job description of a priest or bishop is to say these difficult things. If you don’t want difficult, then please don’t say anything about poverty (or much else in the Gospel). 

Tact can be a virtue and euphemisms have their place. In areas of sin, however, our words should be like the surgeon’s stroke—bold, sharp, and accurate. It may seem harsh to yell “Stop!” to a person about to put his hand into a cobra’s nest, but a more understanding approach will have more dire consequences. 

[Photo Credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sheen Center]

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Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. 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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