Objectively Disordered?

Sometime after I received my diagnosis, a thought struck me. It is official Catholic teaching that a person experiencing homosexual tendencies is ‘objectively disordered‘. Should the same label be applied to a person on the autistic spectrum?

Why does this arcane topic concern me? It’s because of the church’s principle that an objectively disordered person should not seek ordination unless they have overcome the disorder. In 2005, the Vatican issued a document about the ordination of homosexuals which was not a total bar, but required the aspirant to honestly no longer ‘present deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ to qualify. This leaves an ambiguity. The document explicitly identifies the case where the tendencies were a phase which a person has grown beyond after adolescence, but leaves open the unspoken case where the deep-seated tendencies are still present but the aspirant has gained sufficient self-mastery to ensure that these tendencies are no longer ‘presented’.

The key word here is ‘disordered’, which implies a concept of natural order. This leads us to two underlying questions: what would we mean by a ‘normal’ human being, and therefore what do we mean by a ‘human being’? As a scientific question, this is a special case of the very large question of ‘what is a species’.

To forestall comments, I acknowledge and accept that theologically, human beings are ontologically different from mere animals. But this does not invalidate the biological approach, which can only analyse and recognise the continuum between the human species and other species.

As we now understand genetics, the basic unit of living creatures is the gene, a string of chemicals (using an alphabet of just four molecules, coded A, C, G and T) which instructs a living cell to make something or do something. A particular combination of genes (a genotype) results in a particular kind of creature (a phenotype). When a phenotype can exist and thrive successfully in its environment, the genotype (which always suffers random errors when reproduction takes place) tends to stay stable. Unsuccessful tweaks die out quickly from the gene pool. Sometimes, a random change produces a new phenotype which, even if only subtly different from the old pattern, is slightly more successful in the same environment, and thus evolution occurs.

A ‘species’ is how we refer to a stable pattern of genotype and phenotype. Within this, we will find plenty of in-species variation. So among the various apes and primates, the stable pattern of ‘no tail, big brain, walks upright, not very hairy’ characterises the human species. Traits like the colour of hair, skin or eyes are in-species variations.

If we measure a lot of individual adult humans, we will find natural variation in properties such as height, foot size and athletic ability. On each of these measures we can define what an ‘average’ human being is like; there will be outliers with extremely large or small values far from the average.

Less commonly, we will find variations not merely of degree but of pattern. A person might be born with an extra finger, only one kidney, or the plumbing of the heart reversed. These differences might be due to a genetic error, or a glitch in the way the body laid down its template while forming as a foetus.

Because the Bible speaks of God forming creatures in their ‘kinds’ (and the very word ‘creature’ implies ‘something created’) there is a long heritage of thinking of a ‘kind’ or ‘species’ as something fixed for all time. But in the light of modern genetics, we can only describe a species as a currently-stable pattern of genotype and phenotype – there is no sense that the pattern ‘ought’ to be a certain way. Now the term ‘disorder’ literally implies failing to live up to the pattern which ‘ought’ to be there (philosophical disorder) but can also colloquially mean ‘something that impairs body function’ (practical disorder).

A reversed heart is clearly a practical disorder, and will prove fatal without surgery.

A missing kidney is only revealed as a practical disorder if the function of the remaining organ begins to fail.

If it moves smoothly together with the other fingers, it’s not clear if having an extra finger is a ‘practical disorder’; it may indeed provide extra ability at tasks such as playing the piano! Its presence may cause a social handicap if the individual is identified socially and penalised for being ‘different’. Whether we consider it a philosophical disorder depends on whether having five digits on each hand is intrinsic or incidental to human nature…

What, then, about homosexual tendencies or autistic traits? Are these variations within the ‘normal range’ of human variation?

In the past it may have been naively thought that all persons were either clearly heterosexual or clearly homosexual in orientation. Nowadays it is acknowledged that there are different degrees of orientation. Autistic traits also exist on a spectrum. The average human (in the mathematical sense, for which you can use mean, median or mode) is neither homosexual nor autistic. But there will be humans whose orientation is mostly or entirely of same-sex attraction, and as a shorthand label, we call these people ‘homosexual’; similarly there are degrees of autism which makes it sensible to use labels such as  ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ and ‘low-functioning autism’.

Are people with strongly homosexual tendencies objectively disordered? They are also objectively far-from-average. But here theology intervenes. There is a strong narrative running through the Old and New Testaments that God’s plan is for men to marry women and for such couples to be fruitful. This indicates a divinely-instituted order within which men and women are either to refrain from sexual intimacy, or marry an opposite-sex partner. So a person of homosexual tendencies is ‘philosophically disordered’ with respect to the divinely revealed plan. Whether or not this is a ‘practical disorder’ depends largely on the prevailing attitudes of society.

Are people with Asperger’s objectively disordered? They are objectively far-from-average, and therefore likely to be socially handicapped. Given the way human society works, this constitutes a practical disorder. Given the mix of typical autistic traits (honesty, integrity and social awkwardness) there are traits which point towards good philosophical order as well as those which point away, so, in my opinion, high functioning autism does not constitute philosophical disorder.

Clergy Support

Parish ministry can be a rather lonely occupation. We carry it out as celibate men, rarely assisted by a resident curate these days. We co-operate with key lay people in the parish, but must keep an appropriate pastoral distance. As one of my seminary professors said: “I fail my parishioners if I make them my friends.”

There is no shortage of support available. I can go to my spiritual director. I can go to the counsellor who gives me supervision. I can go to one of my priest colleagues for advice on handling a tricky pastoral situation, or to the Bishop or Vicar General for a sufficiently serious matter. But all of these require me to take the initiative.

I once worked, as a layman, with a priest who started airing his troubles to me one day. I tried to excuse the source of his troubles, but he responded in frustration with: “All I’m looking for is a little affirmation!” Now I am beginning to understand his point of view.

Who, in the Church, is responsible for coming to me and affirming me? Why can’t some senior priest in the diocese come to me 3 or 4 times a year, take me out to dinner, ask how parish ministry is going, and share the wisdom of his experience? I have asked my dean to do this, but he said it wasn’t his job. My current and previous bishops have agreed that this sort of support structure would be a good idea, but done nothing to implement it. But any such arrangement would only be affirming to me if I was supported by the right sort of the Three Kinds of Priests – the one who is a disciple. Otherwise we would have a fundamental disagreement about what the aim of priestly ministry was.

There are some support groups around. There’s a local chapter of the Steubenville-related Fraternity of Priests. I enjoyed the shared adoration and the lunches, but the third hour, being part of a group conversation of priests who were generally humanitarians rather than disciples, would drag me down rather than build me up, so I stopped going. There was also a ‘young clergy’ meal twice a year, but again, I don’t thrive so well in groups of differently-minded priests. Rather, the one thing that would communicate powerfully to me that I was cared for by the church at large would be a little bit of personal attention from a critical friend who shared the vision of being a disciple, while casting a discerning eye over my take on how to lead a parish to discipleship.

There are wonderful church documents on how the Bishop is to be a loving father to his priests. As clergy, it is a no-brainer that we are called to ‘love one another’. Why are we so appallingly bad at doing so in practice?