Objectively Disordered – Religious Language and LGBT Persons


In light of the recent reaffirmation of the Church’s stance on excluding candidates with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” to the priesthood, I have reflected quite a bit on how our Church’s use of language influences, positively or negatively, issues of social justice. The language of religion, the words and texts used in prayer, in liturgies, and in norms and traditions, has a tremendous impact on how we perceive ourselves, how we relate to God, and how we relate with others. While religious language has the ability to inspire and draw us closer to the Divine, it also has the startling capacity to sow seeds of violence and division, dichotomizing human relationships as us versus them, the saved and the damned, the saints and the sinners, those who are human and those who are inhuman, and who are therefore deserving of whatever dehumanizing violence is thrown their way.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the marginalization and discrimination faced by persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT). This discrimination and violence targeted at LGBT persons render them among the most vulnerable populations worldwide, forcing them to escape their home countries, leaving behind families, loved ones, and their communities in search of safety and acceptance. Migrants and refugees who identify as or express having diverse sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) continue to experience identity-based violence and trauma during and even after their migration experience.

Sadly, it is often religious communities that bear the most responsibility for fanning the flames of injustice towards LGBT persons, which quickly spread past pronouncements regarding clerical formation, beyond the confines of religious institutions and communities of worship, and into secular culture, adversely affecting the lives of our LGBT brothers and sisters in nearly every facet of society. A close analysis of experiences of discrimination and marginalization among LGBT persons, especially those undergoing forced migration, will elucidate the role of religious institutions in promoting and perpetuating the dehumanization and oppression of vulnerable peoples. Furthermore a reflection on the language used by religion, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, to delegitimize and pathologize homosexual or diverse expressions of sexuality or gender identity will enable us to discern aspects of our faith traditions that render us complicit to acts of injustice and violence. However, because ingrained attitudes rarely change overnight, those of us who are members of the institutional Church will need to enact incremental strategic actions, including fearless, prophetic honesty and transparency, in order to affect justice and a new way of relating to our LGBT brothers and sisters.

A Lifetime of Violence – Discrimination and Traumas Facing Sexual Minorities

The violence experienced by LGBT persons or those with a diverse SOGI is a global phenomenon and is inflicted on individuals regardless of race, class, or religious affiliation (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2015). The poor and people of color who identify as LGBT, especially those who are located in geographical areas or cultures with strong patriarchal structures, conservative religious traditions, or emphases on machismo and masculinity, are most likely to experience compounded violence because of the intersectionality of injustice. The pervasiveness of “everyday discrimination” against our LGBT brothers and sisters, “fuelled by entrenched discriminatory attitudes and facilitated by lack of effective anti-discrimination laws that affects LGBT and intersex people everywhere” (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2015), requires many to undergo forced migration and to apply for asylum or refugee status in more accepting countries.

These anti-LGBT attitudes are manifested in the ostracization of LGBT persons from families and loved ones, in policies and practices that bar them from fully participating in social life, such as political offices, religious life, or the workplace, as well as in legislation that unfairly targets sexual minorities, including laws that criminalize homosexual relationships or those that undermine whatever modicum of protections they may have. Additionally, our LGBT migrant and refugee brothers and sisters experience recurring traumatization and violence throughout the length of their migration journey, the resettlement experience, and beyond. The reason is because homophobic and transphobic attitudes are pervasive and are present even in their country of destination, while the physical, psychological, and spiritual scars of LGBT violence often take years to heal.


The effects of identity-based discrimination are profound and attack the person on a variety of levels, throughout their entire life. LGBT persons all over the world have reported experiences of violence that include “verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse and assault, harassment, shunning, spitting, discrimination in housing and employment, destruction of property, blackmail, forced prostitution, forced heterosexual marriage, ‘corrective rape’ and coerced sexual orientation conversion interventions” (Shidlo & Ahola, 2013, p. 9). The violence experienced by LGBT persons is exacerbated by the fact that it is often inflicted by those closest to them, including family members and loved ones, as well as systems and structures that ought to be places of safety and refuge, such as churches and schools (Weber, 2010).

Apart from the physical violence and psychological harm experienced by LGBT persons, anti-LGBT attitudes are also displayed in laws that inflict criminal penalties on same-sex sexual activities or non-heteronormative gender identity expression. Moreover, laws that are meant for general application are often selectively and excessively targeted towards LGBT individuals, thereby exposing them to criminal penalties, including imprisonment and death, effectively undermining their civil and human rights (UNCHR, 2015). Because persons with diverse SOGI endure traumatic experiences throughout their life, the cumulative effects of identity-based violence are often manifested in subtle, insidious ways that continue to inflict harm long after the individual has reached a level of relative safety.

All of this is to say that chronic systemic violence targeted towards LGBT persons or those with diverse gender identities engenders deep-seated psychological traumas that lead to a slew of mental health issues, including but not limited to depression, dissociative, panic, social, and anxiety disorders, substance abuse, intense shame, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD and complex PTSD) and its accompanying symptoms (Shidlo & Ahola, 2013, p. 9). These mental health issues are compounded by the isolation that many LGBT persons experience. Those who are victims of identity-based violence are often unable to turn to family members or loved ones because their families are often responsible for or complicit with the attacks, or because turning to family for solace and protection would mean disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identities. Additionally, social and government agencies, such as police, hospitals, immigration officials, and refugee service providers, are similarly responsible for, complicit with, or indifferent to anti-LGBT violence.

As a result, many LGBT persons experience a retardation of natural internal processes necessary for the integration and maturation of one’s sexuality. LGBT migrants and asylum seekers can also exhibit internalized homophobic attitudes, engagement in heterosexual relationships (including marriage), or non-disclosure of their SOGI. These have tremendous ramifications that could severely undermine one’s refugee-status application. The lack of acknowledgement or disclosure of one’s sexual identity can lead to delays in the reportage of identity-based persecution or can prevent them from taking advantage of legal protections, including asylum, available to persons of diverse SOGI (Portman & Weyl, 2013; Shidlo & Ahola, 2013; UNCHR, 2015). For many LGBT migrants and refugees, the sense of isolation and self-loathing is “self-imposed but it is still a result of the deep-seated fears they continue to harbor” (Portman & Weyl, 2013, p. 44). As we shall see, religious groups, in particular the Catholic Church, are responsible for the continuation of violence targeted towards the LGBT community because “religious groups are the most vocal and active opponents of LGBT rights” (Corrales, 2015, p. 24). Therefore, religiously motivated and legitimized LGBT discrimination is one of the most pressing human rights issues today.

Just Discrimination – A Religious Response

Religion carries a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the violence experienced by LGBT persons worldwide. As mentioned above, the expressions and symptoms for this violence are manifold and have subtle variations depending on the specificities of religious traditions, geographical location, and the dominant culture of a particular group. However, religious motivations for discrimination and violence against LGBT persons and its effects are surprisingly the same. The reasons for this phenomenon are due to the use of religion as a primary assessor of social structures (both religious and non-religious), the role of religion in determining the identities of individuals and groups within that structure, and finally the use of religion to legitimize or delegitimize social relationships even when there is an absence of a strong religious identity (Houtart, 1997). In other words, the prevalence of “everyday discrimination” against the LGBT community is due to fact that it is legitimized and endorsed by religious institutions, which because of their standing in social structures, are viewed for the confirmation of ethics and cultural norms, including those that lie beyond ecclesial jurisdictions. Additionally, religious language is used to validate homophobic, transphobic, and heteronormative postures even among those who may not ascribe to a particular faith tradition.

The insidious nature of religiously motivated and legitimized discrimination against the LGBT community is demonstrated by paradoxical legalese that demonize same-sex attraction and sexual behaviors or non-conforming gender identities while seemingly absolving the institution from responsibility or complicity with violent actions. As it stands, many religious groups teach the trite phrase, “hate the sin, love the sinner.”  For instance, the Roman Catholic Church affirms the dignity of all people before God, including homosexual men and women who “must be treated with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358). As we shall see, despite the seemingly protective tone of this language, the Church’s teachings on homosexuality in fact places LGBT persons in a precarious position, as it claims to uphold their dignity as children of God while exposing them to justified and ecclesially-validated forms of violence and discrimination. Furthermore, the paradoxical subtlety of the Church’s language allows for both “compassionate” and injurious attitudes and actions towards LGBT persons, thereby negating whatever positive or protective gains are made in favor of persons with diverse SOGI while absolving the institutional Church of guilt stemming from any unfavorable treatment inflicted on our LGBT brothers and sisters.

While negative language and attitudes towards same-sex attraction and sexual acts have been present in the Church for centuries, it was not until the publication of Persona Humana in 1975 that the Catholic Church first officially mentioned homosexuality. This was followed a decade later by Homosexualitatis problema in 1986. Written by the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI), Homosexualitatis problema was the first document to label the homosexual orientation as “objectively disordered.” He wrote, “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” (Homosexualitatis problema, 3). Despite the fact that Church’s pathologization of non-heteronormative sexual orientation is limited to homosexuality (i.e. gays and lesbians, as it has not issued an official statement on transgender issues to date), Ratzinger’s labeling of homosexual orientation as “objectively disordered” has been taken to mean all LGBT persons, regardless of specific SOGI. Furthermore, use of this pathological language in reference to diverse sexual orientations and gender identities has grown to include “same-sex genital acts,” which are now viewed as “intrinsically disordered” because they exist outside the bonds of sacramental marriage and therefore preclude the possibility of the procreation (Yip, 1997, p. 169). The Catechism of the Catholic Church currently holds that “basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law” (CCC 2357). The Church’s limited view of human sexuality, which is placed at the service of procreation and confined within the boundaries of sacramental marriage, therefore effectively prohibits LGBT persons from expressing the fullness of their humanity by excluding them from participating in healthy, generative relationships and mutual expressions of love.

The dichotomization of the LGBT person – the separation of sexual orientation from one’s humanity, of sexual expression from one’s sexuality, and of one’s ability to love from the possibility of being loved by others, by the Church, by oneself, and by God – effectively strips our brothers and sisters of the wholeness that makes them human. This is an act of profound violence and sacrilege, which attacks the very essence of our humanity by undermining the core belief that we are people of intrinsic worth because we have been made in the image of the Divine. Our imago Dei is rendered imperfect, broken, objectively and intrinsically disordered, which must be overcome by self-denial and a life of “disinterested friendship” (CCC 2359). The Church thus presents the LGBT person with a dilemma of biblical proportions. As the theologian James Alison wrote, “It says, love and do not love; be and do not be. The voice of God has been presented as a double bind, which is actually far more dangerous than a simple message of hate, since it destabilizes being into annihilation and thinks that annihilation to be a good thing” (2001, p. 94). The effects of this annihilation are felt worldwide by vulnerable persons in all societies, Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious.


In Latin America, the Catholic Church’s injunction against “unjust discrimination” is manifested in the relatively uncontroversial response to the rise of anti-discrimination laws in majority Catholic countries (Corrales, 2015). This can be seen in countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, which have progressive laws that offer protection for vulnerable individuals of diverse SOGI, including migrants and asylum seekers. Mexico, the country with the second largest Catholic population in the world, has offered protections for sexual minorities since 2003. The country’s Ley federal para prevenir y eliminar la discriminación was one of the first such sweeping anti-discrimination ordinances in Latin America and included sexual orientation and sexual preference among the protected categories. In 2007 and 2014, the law was expanded to include gender identity. Additionally, various Catholic organizations in Mexico, such as women’s or migrants’ shelters managed by the Franciscans, Scalabrinians, and other religious orders, provide care and legal aid for vulnerable groups, including women, children, and LGBT.

However, while government and human rights organizations, including those run by Catholic charities and religious orders, have made important strides in advancing legal protection for LGBT individuals, there still remains a substantial difference in how our LGBT brothers and sisters are treated on a day-to-day basis. Because anti-LGBT sentiments are so deeply rooted in the collective (and religious) psyche, the presence of anti-discrimination laws do little to protect LGBT persons from actual discriminatory attitudes and practices.

Anti-LGBT violence continues despite anti-discrimination laws in the books because the Catholic Church and other religious institutions continue to have anti-LGBT doctrines in their books. The inclusion of the caveat “unjust” when referring to discrimination against LGBT persons lays an implicit acceptance and approval of more subtle socially ingrained forms of violence and marginalization. Just discrimination is still discrimination. Therefore, despite the gains our LGBT brothers and sisters have made, “justified discrimination” by the institutional Church against persons of homosexual orientation or non-conforming gender identity continues to be grounds for approved injustice because “‘Sexual orientation’ does not constitute a quality comparable to race, ethnic background, etc. in respect to non-discrimination. Unlike these, homosexual orientation is an objective disorder and evokes moral concern” (Some Considerations, 1992, p. 10). In other words, despite Catholic countries’ seemingly tepid responses to increasing protections against LGBT discrimination, homophobic and transphobic attitudes that translate to civil and human rights violations will persist unless the Church amends its language towards our LGBT brothers and sisters. In order to do justice for and towards our LGBT bothers and sisters, the Catholic Church must revise its teachings on human sexuality in general and its views on homosexual orientation and gender identity in particular.

Learning to Love – Acknowledging Fault and Moving Towards Reconciliation

The shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016, brought forth a renewed awareness of the role religion has in promoting violence towards the LGBT community, especially those who have fled violence in search of safety and a more accepting community. Many of those killed or injured were immigrants from Latin America, including at least three who were undocumented (Rivas & Fernandez de Castro, 2016). With 50 deaths, this incident marked one of the most violent attacks against LGBT persons in United States history and revealed the intersectionality of hate. In addition to sparking dialogue ranging from gun control, terrorism, Islamophobia, and homophobia, the Pulse shooting also highlighted the unique challenges facing LGBT immigrants, migrants, and refugees, many of whom saw the only community that welcomed them senselessly gunned down.

In a letter published immediately after the shooting, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida expressed his sorrow at the loss of life and acknowledged the role of religion and religious language in inciting hate crimes against the LGBT community. “Sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence” (Lynch, 2016). This mea culpa was echoed by several other bishops, including then-Chicago Archbishop Cupich, Bishop McElroy of San Diego, and Cardinal O’Malley of Boston. Other Church leaders expressed grief and condolences without any explicit references to the identity of the community targeted by the attack, the location of the shooting, or the motivations behind it. This latter group prolonged the dehumanizing violence of Orlando by stripping the LGBT community of its worth, deeming it undeserving of mention and the dignity of a name, while absolving the very group complicit in such violence by a white-wash of sympathies and well-wishes.


In order for the Catholic Church to truly rectify its complicity with the violence and injustices leveled against the LGBT community, a wholesale reevaluation of its stance on homosexuality, the dignity of individual persons, and “unjust discrimination” is required. While such a radical shift is unlikely to happen in one fell swoop, the Church, as a corporate institution and as the people of God, can implement actions that can help to incrementally erode centuries of discriminatory practices and attitudes, leveraging its resources and position of privilege within society to affect true change for marginalized individuals, while not completely abandoning or contradicting the entirety of its teachings on human sexuality.

A reevaluation of the language it uses to describe persons of diverse sexual orientation is an important place to start. Retrograde pathologizing language, such as “objectively disordered,” must be expunged from its teaching documents and replaced with language that is congruent with contemporary scientific understandings of human sexuality and gender identity, as well as in keeping with the Church’s call to reflect the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, who welcomed all, most especially the marginalized. Judgmental and condemnatory language can be abandoned to focus more on acts of justice, mercy, and Christian charity, while a recognition of the diversity of the people of God can do much to further one’s capacity to welcome and embrace difference.

For our LGBT migrant and refugee brothers and sisters, the Church can offer much-needed community by explicitly opening the doors of its vast network of immigrant outreach programs to persons with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Our welcome can help to integrate LGBT persons fleeing violence and persecution with their new communities, thereby alleviating some of the trauma and isolation encountered during the migration and resettlement experience, while creating an environment suitable for human flourishing and social transformation. Also, because many non-LGBT immigrants exhibit ingrained discriminatory attitudes, the Church can use its influence to begin affecting necessary conscientization and to place a renewed focus on its injunction to do mercy and justice, especially towards sexual minorities. This can engender increased awareness within the community and can foster a more open, welcoming attitude towards those who are fleeing violence and hate.

For those of us who are gay and lesbian clergy and religious, an acknowledgement of our own sexual orientation could do much to erode the deep-seated bigotry and internalized homophobia that run through the Church. Perhaps more productive than expectantly waiting for the conversion of the Magisterium, the coming-out of gay Catholic priests, brothers, and nuns can be a major catalyst in challenging the institution’s assumptions about the ontological makeup of the people of God. Naturally, this will be met with much resistance and will come at a great cost – these individuals will face rejection and persecution from their religious congregations and communities, and in the case of ordination-track students with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” possible expulsion from seminaries (The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, 2016).

Such is the cost of being prophetic – those of us who assume the mantle of privilege that comes with a religious office can do much to affect justice and build the kingdom by standing in solidarity with our vulnerable brothers and sisters. In fact, this behavior is not heroic; it is merely in keeping with the daily struggles of non-clerical LGBT persons. Far from being above and beyond our religious duty, honesty and transparency about our own sexual orientation is in keeping with the integrity required of one’s life in religion. It is only this fearless, prophetic honesty and transparency about who we are as children of God that can empower and foster justice for our brothers and sisters, and which finally “can move us into becoming someone loved who can learn to love honestly and openly and speak and perform creative words of love into the heart of another human being” (Alison, 2001, p. 214).

The experience of LGBT migrants and refugees therefore reveals something of the complex intersection of the injustice, hate, and violence encountered by LGBT persons all over the world. Anti-LGBT discrimination, ranging from ingrained homophobic attitudes to laws and policies designed to exclude and diminish individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, insidiously erodes the dignity and humanity of our brothers and sisters while building systems of injustice and oppression. An acknowledgment of our Church’s complicity and responsibility in perpetuating and legitimizing this violence will be necessary to begin the long and difficult process of reconciliation and can help to elucidate the ways in which we can begin to make amends to those whom we have victimized and dehumanized. In this process of restoration, we as Church will undoubtedly encounter some hidden objectively disordered truths about ourselves, but perhaps we can also find some of the humanity we have lost along the way.


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