Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Reader Responds: There's a Big Difference Between Believing Homosexuality Is Immoral and Claiming It's Clinically Disordered

On Sunday, I noted that the fateful 1986 document on the "pastoral" care of gay people issued by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) arrived on the scene soon after the major psychological and medical professional organizations throughout the developed sector of the world stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. The 1986 document speaks of gay human beings as suffering from a "disordered condition" and a "disordered inclination."

I noted that it seems clear to me that the 1986 document deliberately introduced the language of disorder to refer to gay people and not merely gay acts in direct response to the growing recognition of professional healthcare organizations that there is, in fact, no empirical evidence to correlate a gay sexual orientation with mental disorder. I call the 1986 document fateful, because its new language to speak about homosexual people — those who are intrinsically disordered — has now been incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and is used as a weapon by those determined to marginalize and stigmatize gay folks to bludgeon them with.

Colleen Baker (who maintains the Enlightened Catholicism blog listed in my blog list) responded:

I was in Grad School right after the APAs made their decision to take homosexuality out DSMIII. We debated this decision in both psych classes and ethics classes because it was a real issue for many therapists of the Christian/Catholic bent. In the final analysis the question we had to answer was whether a particular behavior should be listed in a diagnostic manual just because it was considered immoral, as opposed to clinically pathological, by mainstream society. I believe the diagnosis 'nymphomania' was removed at the same time for the same reasons, and that diagnosis pertained strictly to women. 
Just because Phyllis [Zagano] or Steve [Kellmeyer] may believe homosexuality is immoral doesn't mean it's objectively clinically disordered. There is a big difference. Society has frequently succumbed to this temptation to label a perceived immoral behavior as symptomatic of inherently crazy. It's taken the mental health profession a long time to get out of the business of being a moral health profession and into being a more objective mental health profession.

As Colleen notes, there was strong resistance to the choice of the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its diagnostic manual of mental disorders. That resistance was particularly strong among psychologists who held moral objections to homosexuality for religious reasons. 

At all the church-affiliated colleges and universities at which I taught over the years, including a program to train lay ministers in the Catholic church, I've heard reports of faculty members informing students that the APA was hijacked by gay activists when it removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual of mental disorders. Some church-affiliated scholars do not intend to give up their attempt to stigmatize homosexuality (and gay people) by linking a homosexual orientation to mental illness.

But as the APA noted when it chose to remove homosexuality from DSMIII, it did so because one study after another had provided no empirical evidence at all for any correlation of a homosexual orientation to mental illness. As Colleen notes, it's one think to believe that homosexuality is immoral, but it's quite another thing to maintain that it's clinically disordered. The language about intrinsic disorder in Catholic magisterial teaching is poisonous rhetoric, because it muddles the distinction between moral diagnosis of the homosexual "condition" and clinical psychological diagnosis.

It permits a doublespeak that allows one to introduce psychological suspicion when one claims to be about moral analysis alone. And it permits people whose goal is not welcome, inclusion, or love of gay human beings to posture as welcoming, inclusive, and loving even as they lambast the "disorder" of a group of human beings they've uniquely singled out for such loving stigmatization. 

As Colleen says, society has often succumbed to the temptation to label behavior people regard as immoral as crazy. And it's taken the mental health profession a long time to get out of the business of passing on cultural moral prejudices in the name of curing mental illness — but most of us would surely agree that the separation of psychotherapy from preaching has been, all things considered, a positive development.

I find the photo of an old mailbox used widely by blog and news sites, with no clear indication of its original source. If any reader knows the source, I'd be happy to have that information and to acknowledge it here.

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