In an April 17, 2019, interview on the Today Show, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark, profoundly and damagingly misrepresented the teaching of the Catholic Church on a matter of the utmost sensitivity and importance. In reference to Catholic teaching, as set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the objectively disordered nature of homosexual inclinations, Cardinal Tobin said that the Church (to his regret) describes homosexual persons as “intrinsically disordered.” It does no such thing. It does not describe homosexual persons—or any persons—as intrinsically (or objectively) disordered. It is utterly alien to the Church’s anthropology and morality to identify persons with their inclinations and desires. To get this point wrong is to misunderstand—at the root—what Catholicism teaches about the nature and dignity of the human being as a person.
For that reason, it is almost unfathomable that someone of the stature of the Cardinal could make such an error. I hope that he simply misspoke. It’s easy for the tongue to slip, especially under the pressure of a television interview. I’ve had such experiences, so I do not want to condemn the Cardinal or vilify him. But it is important that he correct the error, since it is probable that several million people—Catholics and others—heard him say what he said and could be completely misled by it. It would be awful if devout Catholics thought they should believe that homosexual persons, as persons, are “disordered.” And, of course, for many people, the thought that the Church would teach such a thing would count as evidence that the Church is monstrous.
Of course, the error the Cardinal made is by no means original with him. One has heard it, just as one hears lots of misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Catholic teaching (such as the claim that “Catholics worship Mary”). But it has also frequently been corrected—most recently and decisively by the popular Jesuit writer and personality Fr. James Martin. As it happens, Fr. Martin had himself, in earlier statements, made something quite like the basic error that Cardinal Tobin makes. But last April in an excellent article in the Jesuit magazine America, he set the record straight, marshaling his rightly admired gifts as a communicator to explain in words everyone can understand what the Church actually teaches.
Fr. Martin wrote: “[A]ccording to the traditional interpretation of natural law, homosexual acts are not ordered toward those specific ends [procreation and marital communion] and so they are deemed ‘disordered.’ Thus, ‘under no circumstances can they be approved,’ as the catechism states. Consequent to that, the homosexual orientation itself is viewed as an ‘objective disorder’ since it can lead to ‘disordered’ acts.”
And he went on:
Here we need to make clear that the phrase “objective disorder” does not refer to the person himself or herself but to the orientation. The term is also not a psychological description but comes from the perspective of philosophy and theology. Moreover, it does not detract from the inherent dignity of any human being, since God creates all human beings equal and good.
Read Fr. Martin’s compete article here.
Fr. Martin set a fine example of correcting oneself when one has erred or misspoken, and he has provided a concise, accurate statement of what the Church teaches. I pray that Cardinal Tobin will follow that example. Happily, he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He can simply quote Fr. Martin. The Cardinal owes a correction to the Catholic faithful and, especially, to persons—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—who experience same-sex attraction and need accurate information about the Church's teaching and Christ's love for them.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he teaches constitutional interpretation and philosophy of law.