Tag Archives: natural law

John Corvino Responds to “New Natural Law” (Book, and Video)

Central to the orthodox Catholic rejection of homoerotic relationships, and all sexual intercourse not open to procreation, is the natural law theory of the medieval theologian and great doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas. However, there’s a great deal that needs to be said about the distortions of Aquinas’ understanding of natural law to support “traditional” marriage, while suppressing what he wrote about the naturalness of same – sex relationships for those whom modern terminology would describe as having a same – sex orientation.

Aquinas and the Middle Ages were an awfully long time ago, and it’s not surprising that it is now generally acknowledged, by traditional and revisionist moral theologians alike, that there are some problems with his conclusions (for example, that masturbation, which is not open to procreation, is more offensive to God than rape, which is). So some modern day conservative theologians who respect the core of Aquinas’ Natural Law theory have developed what is known as “New Natural Law Theory”.

I’m delighted to have found, via a short post at “Letters to the Catholic Right”, a link to a video series by John Corvino dealing with his book, “What’s Wrong with Homosexuality”.

As a professor of philosophy specialising in ethics and the philosophy of religion, Corvino is well equipped to tackle the problems with natural law theory, and of New Natural Law Theory, as they are regularly applied to debates about marriage equality.

In the Youtube video above, Corvino, introduces his argument.

This is what Amazon has to say about his book:

For the last twenty years, John Corvino–widely known as the author of the weekly column “The Gay Moralist”–has traversed the country responding to moral and religious arguments against same-sex relationships. In this timely book, he shares that experience–addressing the standard objections to homosexuality and offering insight into the culture wars more generally.

Is homosexuality unnatural? Does the Bible condemn it? Are people born gay (and should it matter either way)? Corvino approaches such questions with precision, sensitivity, and good humor. In the process, he makes a fresh case for moral engagement, forcefully rejecting the idea that morality is a “private matter.” This book appears at a time when same-sex marriage is being hotly debated across the U.S. Many people object to such marriage on the grounds that same-sex relationships are immoral, or at least, that they do not deserve the same social recognition as heterosexual relationships. Unfortunately, the traditional rhetoric of gay-rights advocates–which emphasizes privacy and tolerance–fails to meet this objection. Legally speaking, when it comes to marriage, “tolerance” might be enough, Corvino concedes, but socially speaking, marriage requires more. Marriage is more than just a relationship between two individuals, recognized by the state. It is also a relationship between those individuals and a larger community. The fight for same-sex marriage, ultimately, is a fight for full inclusion in the moral fabric. What is needed is a positive case for moral approval–which is what Corvino unabashedly offers here.

Corvino blends a philosopher’s precision with a light touch that is full of humanity and wit. This volume captures the voice of one of the most rational participants in a national debate noted for generating more heat than light.

Books by John Corvino:

What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? 
Debating Same-Sex Marriage  (with Maggie Gallagher)

 

Also related and recommended:

Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay 

Alison, James: On Being Liked 

Alison, James:  Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In

Alison, James: Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century  (University of Chicago Press, 1980) 424 pages

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Glaser, Chris: As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage 

Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament

Jordan, Mark:  Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage

McNeill, John: The Church and the Homosexual

McNeill, John: Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else 

McNeill, John: Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families,  and Friends 

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended  

Recommended Books

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People In Western Europe From The Beginning Of The Christian Era To The Fourteenth Century: Gay … of the Christian Era to the 14th Century
Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality
Oliva, Adriano: Amours : L’église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels (French Edition)

Related Posts

The Natural Law Case for Same – Sex Marriage

In advance of the publication at Commonweal of his post on “A Conservative Catholic’s Case for Same – Sex Marriage“, Joseph Bottum gave an extended interview to the New York Times, in which he discussed the article and issues and around it. When I wrote about this article at QTC two days ago, I concentrated on the story behind the case that he makes, on the evolution in his thinking rather than on the argument itself. I did so, simply because that argument draws heavily on natural law theory, and a distinction Bottum draws between the “thick”, original natural law theory of Aquinas, and the “thin”, or new natural law theory more commonly promoted in modern times. While I have read a fair amount on both, I simply do not feel qualified to comment directly on an area where so many eminent scholars have devoted entire lives of study.

However, I was pleased to find that in the NYT interview that was also published Friday, co-inciding with the main article at Commonweal, there’s an extended summary of Bottum’s application of Natural Law Theory to same – sex marriage.

First, the Times notes the prominence of Natural Law in the arguments against:

Religious Catholics are generally united in their reverence for St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theology dominates Catholic thought. The traditional-marriage movement is led by men like Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, and Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton, Catholics who rely on Aquinas’s reasoning to make the contemporary case for traditional marriage.

After briefly outlining Bottum’s simply pragmatic reasons for a Catholic change of heart, the Times continues with a summary of the Natural Law argument:

Mr. Bottum now believes — here’s where the essay will really outrage fellow churchmen — that Catholics are mistaken to think that natural law requires them to oppose same-sex marriage.

Natural law, as systematically explained by Aquinas in his treatise Summa Theologica, is the will of God as understood by people using their reason. Aquinas extrapolates many principles of natural law, including those of marriage. But Mr. Bottum contends that these rules are not the point.

Natural law, Mr. Bottum writes, depends for its force on a sense of the mystery of creation, the enchantment of everyday objects, the sacredness of sex. In the West, that climate of belief has been upended: by science, modernism, a Protestant turn away from mysticism, and, most recently, the sexual revolution. The strictures of natural law were meant to structure an enchanted world — but if the enchantment is gone, the law becomes a pointless artifact of a defunct Christian culture.

“And if,” Mr. Bottum writes, “heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women?”

– read the full article at New York Times

Natural Law Part 2: Gender perspectives and evolution

We left two issues on one side for reconsideration later, near the beginning of Part One, evolution and the female perspective. In this part we’ll critically reassess the male perspective, before considering the seriously missing female views, and then move on to examine what needs to be incorporated from our understanding of evolution.

Patriarchy - a penis puts you in charge of the womenfolk - how convenient
The male perspective and the Church’s sexual morality teaching

The Church and Aquinas’s sexual morality teaching comes from a male, patriarchal perspective. It is explicitly so and starts from the use by men of the penis and its supposed proper, natural and moral purpose. We are told nature allows us to deduce the sexual purpose of the penis is for inserting into the vagina for depositing semen for the purpose of procreation. This is backed up by another natural purpose idea, that the male and female sexual bodies are designed to be ‘complementary’ and only with the vaginal use by the penis do human bodies fit ‘naturally’.

Added to this is a significant element of Bible and Christian tradition used to justify and reinforce the very restricted view of acceptable human sexual behaviour. There’s only one plain dish available in the Catholic sexual cafe, even for married couples.

Why does the Prostate Gland have feelings?

Before we consider female perspectives on the Church’s and Aquinas’s teachings on sexual morality, we should briefly pause to deal with another male sexual organ, one which is internal, the prostate gland; this produces some of the fluid within semen¹.

Neither the Church nor Aquinas have ever considered this male sexual organ. It plays an integral part of the male reproductive role, and although it is hidden, it has one highly significant characteristic.

The prostate surface, although internal, is rich in nerve endings and when stimulated this is highly pleasurable. Some people call it the male g-spot. Its surface is not stimulated during Aquinas-approved vaginal penetration. Neither Church nor Aquinas considers its surface sensitivity.
male internal prostate gland
Most gay men know about the prostate’s surface sensitivity from experiences of anal sex: the prostate surface is stimulated by contact with a penis in the anus. There is no biological reason in procreation to justify the design of the prostate gland to incorporate sensitive surface nerve endings.

It appears deliberately designed by God, evolution and nature, to make anal sex pleasurable for homosexual men.

Female perspectives on the Catholic Natural Law of sex

– the Clitoris

Let’s turn to the Aquinas’s and the Church’s teachings and consider these from a female perspective.

Females are distinguished with their own sexual characteristics and possess a clitoris and this is visible. But, despite being visible, it is completely ignored by Aquinas and the Church. It is as if the clitoris doesn’t exist. (Adjacent to the clitoris in most, but not all, women are the female-only Skene’s glands² the equivalent of the male’s prostate; these contribute to vaginal lubrication.)

The significance of the clitoris in natural law terms is that it has no necessary purpose in procreation. It is not required to achieve the fertilisation of the egg, nor to accommodate penetration.

However friction on the clitoris produces pleasure, and pleasure is its biological purpose.
Clitoris anatomy
The Christian theologian Professor Christine Gudorf concludes that the existence of the clitoris in the female body suggests that God intended that the purpose of sexual activity was as much for sexual pleasure for its own sake, as it was for procreation. Therefore, according to Gudorf, pleasurable sexual activity, apart from procreation, does not violate God’s design, is not unnatural, and hence is not necessarily morally wrong, as long as it occurs in the context of a monogamous marriage (Gudorf, Christine. Sex, Body, and Pleasure, Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, 1995 p. 65)³.

Aquinas: females are ‘defective’ males
Aquinas teaches that women are defective males
It is profoundly shocking to modern sensibilities and our sense of gender equality to read Thomas Aquinas’s description of women as the product of a ‘defective’ male seed– he has a male-centred view of creation and life, one where women are naturally subordinate and secondary to men.

We now know a rather contrary account, from scientific human biology, that the true nature of humans is that the female is the standard human prototype, and boys are a natural variant which develops male characteristics from female foundations in the womb.

Adam comes from Eve, is biology’s complete rewriting of the Genesis human creation myth.

Such a fundamental misconception by Aquinas of the nature of female and male, and one that excludes any female perspective, underlies Aquinas’s thinking, reasoning and conclusions.

This raises further doubts about the appropriateness of relying on Aquinas’s ideas and conclusions for the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.

Other female perspectives on Aquinas and the Church’s teachings [4]

– dependence

Women with or without children, who are economically dependent on their husbands, may find themselves in the position of having to engage in sexual activity whether they want to or not, for fear of being abandoned, or physically, or psychologically abused; these women may not be engaging in sexual activity fully voluntarily. The woman who allows herself to be bullied into sex by her husband worries that if she says “no” too often, she will suffer economically, if not also physically and psychologically.

– ‘giving yourself’ in marriage: is this perpetual consent? What about rape?

Does ‘giving yourself’ in marriage mean that wives [or husbands] always and every time have to have sex if their partner wants this? Can there be no rape in a Catholic marriage?

Aquinas and Christians traditionally saw a married woman as her husband’s property, for sexual use as and when he wanted. This view swung towards female autonomy only in the 19th and 20th centuries, but very slowly. It was as late as 1991 that marital rape was made a crime in England and Wales.

Many women complain they still lack real sexual autonomy equivalent to men in marriage.

– coercive pressure is morally wrong

The presence of any kind of pressure at all is seen by some women experts as coercive and means there is no voluntary participation in sex, making that sex activity morally objectionable. Charlene Muehlenhard and Jennifer Schrag discuss this in “Nonviolent Sexual Coercion”.

They list, among other things, “status coercion” (when women are coerced into sexual activity or marriage, by a man’s wealth or occupation) and “discrimination against lesbians” (which discrimination compels women into marriage or into having sexual relationships only with men) as forms of coercion that undermine the voluntary participation by women in sexual activity with men.
women under sexual pressure
– are some pressures uncoercive, or morally acceptable?

Some people counter this by saying either that some forms of sexual pressure are not coercive and do not appreciably undermine voluntariness, or that some pressures are coercive but nevertheless are not morally objectionable.

Both these views seem indistinguishable from a male heterosexual apologia for using sexual pressure for the purposes of coercion, and as an excuse or justification for maintaining the present male power advantage to secure sex when a male wants this.

These can only be assessed fairly with the benefit of the views of the more vulnerable person in that situation. Personally, I’d prefer to trust the judgement of relatively vulnerable women facing this situation and say such coercive pressure is morally wrong.


– women’s health and well-being

Consider the situation of women concerned for their future health and well-being (her body’s capacity to gestate, give birth to and nurse a child), her age and the mental and physical resources available to nurture a child / another child through to adulthood. Aquinas and Catholic teaching ban all use of artificial contraception and abortion. Repeated childbearing is physically demanding on the woman’s body, and childbirth is often hazardous without significant affordable medical, obstetric, or midwifery care being available. Maternal death was common among women until the early decades of last century (affecting at least 1 in 10 women) and it is still common in much of the developing world.
98% of Catholics have used birth control
Aquinas’s and the Church view ignores this female health and well-being perspective: when you married you ‘gave yourself’ to your husband. If you die in pregnancy, from childbirth, or postpartum, or of exhaustion, or cannot cope with a disabled child, that’s just the life of a Catholic wife.

It is hard to conclude that women would arrive at the same conclusion as Aquinas and the Church on the consequences of always procreative sexual activity, when it is their lives and health that are at risk. The reality that most Catholic women (over 90%) use ‘artificial’ contraception when this is freely available and that some have abortions, despite the Catholic bans, demonstrates that sex that is always open to conception is not most women’s normal, natural choice.

Women’s sexual activity preferences

The sexual activity allowed to married women and men by Thomas, vaginal penetration open to procreation, is limited. The different attitudes to sexual activity stereotypically found in men and women go unrecognised. A husband of the ‘wam bam thank-you mam’ type, single-mindedly focused on his penetration and his orgasm, would be perfectly acceptable in Thomas’s prescription. That’s not likely to be welcomed by many wives as serving their sexual needs and wishes well.

The needs of women, who typically prefer loving attention to become receptive, are not considered or recognised.   Kissing and cuddling are OK, but fingering or tonguing arguably amount to ‘unnatural’ sex because these are not necessarily making “use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted”  but“by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation” are rendered “unnatural vice”.

Certainly a husband fingering or tonguing his wife to orgasm, masturbation, is “unnatural vice”, even as a warm-up to penetration. And getting much more adventurous than the “missionary position” risks going off-piste for “not observing the natural manner of copulation”, making it “unnatural vice”.

Scepticism: the prostate, clitoris, and transgender people

Today we cannot be at all confident, as Aquinas and the Church were, that God’s plan can be discovered by a straightforward examination of the obvious male and female sexual body parts. The natural law examination and consideration of natural purpose completely missed the clitoris and the surface-sensitive internal male prostate, both of which demand proper respectful consideration from the Church.

Then there is the rich diversity in the bodily and hormonal expressions of gender differences seen in the variety of transgender people [5] [6]. The Church’s current view of transgender differences is ignorant, unscientific, disordered and un-Christian. I will leave transgender issues aside because of their complexity, my lack of expertise and because it is not central to the argument about mainstream male and female sexual expression. It is a vital issue to the people affected, and because the Church’s understanding and teaching in this area is also defective, transgender expressions of sexuality deserve respectful, considered, and separate assessment. I hope to return to this at a later date when I have become better informed.
transgender news
Evolution and natural sexual expression

At the beginning of Part One in this series, we also mentioned and put to one side (along with a female perspective and the ignored male and female sexual organs), the issue of evolution. Evolution was not considered by either Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas in their development of Natural Law in relation to sexual morality, simply because neither was aware of it.

Aristotle, as mentioned earlier, believed the world had always existed as it was, while Aquinas inherited the Biblical creation account of life’s origins. What do we now know from evolution about the development of gender diamorphism, sexual differences and behaviours? How might this modern understanding influence our response to Aquinas and the Church’s teachings about sexual morality?

Life evolved from primordial slime and found evolutionary advantage in two genders because this is highly effective at mixing genes and especially in producing advantageous adaptations. Evolution has the additional advantages of recombinational DNA repair and through processing a very large brain. There are two significant issues with large brains, the first that our babies are born very immature (to be able to pass through the pelvis) and need a very long period of nurturing by adults, not necessarily the parents, to gain size and reach sexual maturity, and secondly humans, with the high intelligence that comes from having a big brain, have more complex forms of social organisation and interaction than any other creature.

From observing animal species, evolution has taught us that species providing extended parental care after the birth of their offspring have the potential to overcome the sex differences in parental investment (the amount of energy that each parent contributes to each offspring), and this can lead to flexibility in, and even the reversal of, gender roles.

-promoting hybrid vigor.

Advanced complexity results in gender role flexibility

Humans evolved as the most advanced placental mammal, posse

Gender stereotypes and ignoring sexual behaviour diversity

A great deal is still not fully unexplained about the diversity of human behaviour and we must be wary, firstly, of explanations that invoke stereotypical gender roles and secondly, realise how individuals who do not fit the norm and popular narratives are routinely ignored.

Aristotle and Aquinas are a warning to us of this because both expressed a patriarchal view of human society and gender interactions.
sexuality and gender role distinctions in the bible
Homosexuals and transexuals are good examples of being omitted from the mainstream story society tells itself about male and female human nature, and have been persistently denigrated in the Christian and Abrahamic traditions. Yet there are other human societies where homosexual and gender-role-defying people are prized, as shamans, healers and notably as religious exemplars.

Contemporary evolutionary biologists see diversity as ‘natural’

The work of contemporary evolutionary biologists, like Joan Roughgarden, is illuminating. She sees the tremendous diversity in human and animal genders and sexualities, not as something that has to be explained away to fit the dogma of binary gender and sexual selection, but as the “natural” order of things, and this perspective is gaining wide acceptance. Her book, The Genial Gene is a fascinating alternate vision of the evolution of sex.
Sexual Diversity Guide book
Competition between the sexes is no longer at the centre of natural selection, but is replaced by social forces in families and communities of animals.

Her theory of social selection fills many of the gaps in theories of sexual selection, from explaining the existence of homosexuality, transexuality and other intermediate genders and sexualities, to the mathematical impossibility of females being able to calculate genetic superiority in nearly identical males, and the lack of a correlation between secondary sex characteristics and fitness.

Evolutionary biology’s lessons for society and the Church

The Church needs to reflect on the emerging understanding that evolution has handed humans a unique and diverse set of cards, and with our huge intelligence, we should be very wary of the simplistic ‘natural’ behaviour analysis and strictly limited gender roles and acceptable sexual morality, as found in Aquinas and the Church’s teaching of Natural Law for sexual behaviour.

Instead the available evidence and current evolutionary biology understanding tells us the Church is surely in error about the beauty seen in the diversity of God’s human creation, as expressed through human evolution and development.

 

Church and external expertise

What does all this signify and how do we incorporate this wealth of knowledge into an appropriate view of the diversity of expression and ‘proper’ use for the human sexual faculties in the 21st century?

There is a vast wealth of external expertise in many fields, that the Church has not fully opened its eyes and mind to in the fields of gender and sexual expression. The Church cannot discern the Truth it should transmit properly and broadcast this to the world, if it continues to ignore large parts of modern understanding and insights about sex and relationships. It undermines people’s faith in the Truth the Church teaches, to ignore and not publicly address such contemporary human knowledge and insights.

Involve, Consult, Reason, Explain, Persuade lay people

The Church needs to persuade, reason and explain its sexual morality teachings for these to be publicly credible, especially because this is in an area of life where the Church has lost, through the clerical sexual abuse scandal, much of its moral authority in sexual matters.

When it does not do so, as it did not for contraception in Humanae Vitae, the bulk of the faithful simply decides to reasons things out for itself and decides in the light of its own informed conscience. More than 90% of Catholics use contraception that the Church teaches is forbidden.

Sexual morality is an area where the lay faithful have experience and some expertise, unlike celibate clergy bound by promises of chastity. The disconnect between Church and laity in sexual morality accounts for much of the moral relativism about which the Church complains so bitterly. It has the potential remedy in its own hands.

Scepticism about Aquinas’s competence to discern Truth from the natural world

It is time for the Church to embrace a healthy scepticism about the Truth of Aquinas’s prescriptions for human sexual behaviour based on his attempt to discern the intentions of God from his simplistic understanding of biological evidence in the natural world. Natural Law, with the addition of misapplied historical tradition and scriptural interpretations, appears unfit for transmitting God’s Truth for proper human sexual expression in committed relationships.

Next Post: 3: modern specialists

The next post, third in this series of four, will consider some of the modern specialist knowledge and insights into sexual behaviour and morals that are now available. For example people are endowed with large brains and great intelligence, and are capable of a complex range of subtle behaviours, but the Church appears to disregard significant insights of psychology in human sexual expression.

Both Catholic and secular modern moral theologians are often highly critical of the Church’s teachings on sex and relationships because the understanding of natural law and scriptural interpretations are flawed and inadequate.

Does the Natural Law teaching of the Church on sexual morality stand up to the modern insights of psychology and the criticisms of moral theologians and ethicists?

footnotes and sources

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostate

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skene%27s_gland

³ http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H12

[4] http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/ Philosophy of Sexuality

http://www.iep.utm.edu/natlaw/ Natural Law

http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H16 Consent is Sufficient – specific

http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H17 What is voluntary? – coercion

[5] Sexual Diversity and Catholicism : toward the development of moral theology; Professor Patricia Beattie Young with Joseph A Coray, editor(s), 2001, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA

[6] More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church, 2011

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...Chris Morley’s complete series on natural law

 

Recommended Books

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People In Western Europe From The Beginning Of The Christian Era To The Fourteenth Century: Gay … of the Christian Era to the 14th Century
Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality
Oliva, Adriano: Amours : L’église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels (French Edition)

Related Posts

Sex and Catholics: the Problems in Natural Law (1)

(Guest post by Christopher Morley)
Something called ‘Natural Law’ sets the ground rules for all Catholic teachings about sex. Natural Law means the only Catholic approved sex is vaginal intercourse that can lead to procreation, and only when it is between a married woman and man couple. Any other sex at all is prohibited as ‘unnatural’ and the Church usually says it is a mortal sin. Many people search their informed conscience and disagree with both teachings and sinfulness. The common use of ‘artificial’ contraception within most Catholic marriages in the developed world is just one example of this.
Ancient origins of Natural Law

The Natural Law rules about sex for Catholics are truly ancient: mostly they come from St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and he got a lot of his ideas from ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle, around 1,500 years earlier, a few hundred years BC. Interesting fact: ancient Greek texts had just come to Christian Europe’s attention because they were rescued from oblivion by Islamic scholars.

Aquinas and his homosexual deception

Another little known fact – Aquinas cheated and bent what Aristotle said about innate, natural homosexual behaviour, to help justify his and the Church’s condemnation of all homosexual behaviour. Aquinas, instead of talking of innate behaviour, said homosexual behaviour was something people acquired which then becomes ‘second nature’ to them – in other words Aquinas made it something people choose, instead of being born with. A choice is deliberate, so his twisting of Aristotle’s facts and reasoning helped the Church to call homosexual behaviour a deliberate sin, and Aquinas made it the particularly grave sin of ‘unnatural vice’. We’ll examine exactly how Aquinas performed this deception trick in Part Four of this series of posts on Natural Law.

St. Thomas Aquinas thinking as he writes in a book

Challenges to Natural Law: cracks in the dam

It is no surprise that something so ancient and so strict about how humans may sexually express our love is being seriously challenged in the 21st century. The Natural Law dam that is Catholic sex teaching is showing some serious cracks. Because Catholic Natural Law bans any lesbian and gay sexual expression, lesbians and gay men in particular have been asking tough questions about how sound the Church’s teaching really is. Many of us are not convinced at all by the Church’s wobbly defence of its Natural Law basis. Heterosexual women and men too have disputed the contraception ban especially, since the 1960s. Altogether there’s very many frustrated and unhappy Catholics who are urging a major sexual morality rethink, including expert Catholic moral theologians and ethicists. Outside the Church, even secular natural law theorists are struggling to hold the creaking Natural Law sexual morality edifice in one piece. It’s past its sell-by date.

Natural Law explored and tested : Part One of Four

This is the first of four posts, and the series will investigate the strange and unfamiliar world of Catholic Natural Law. We’ll find out why its rules about sex are so strict. We’ll reveal its male viewpoint and discover that significant things about women’s bodies, needs and ideas are simply ignored by the Church. All kinds of experts and thinkers have been turning inside out the Catholic teachings on sex and Natural Law, and very few are convinced by what they find. Catholic teaching on sex and relationships is a mess and a lot of senior people now realise this. Changing the Church’s sexual teaching is inevitable, but won’t come easily or quickly. But there are signs that change is on its way.

Catholic moral theologians’ ideas explored

This ‘Natural law’ and sex series ties in with posts from Terence about Catholic moral theologians discussing lesbian and gay sexuality. We’ve heard about the ideas of:

Dr James B Nickoloff, is an openly gay Catholic theologian who tells it straight. It’s not lesbians and gay men who are ‘intrinsically disordered’ but Catholic sexual teaching on lesbian and gay relationships. He tells us his idea of what the path ahead looks like for lesbians and gay men in the Church.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson tells us the teaching for heterosexuals must change before it can change for lesbian and gay people. He wants the Church to shift the sexual rules from an obsession with sex acts, to focusing on the people, relationships and doing no harm.

James Alison is a priest and theologian who is openly gay and keen to help the Church get out of its rut of inexcusably blaming lesbians and gay men.

There are also heterosexual Catholic ethicists writing on similar themes: Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler, who wrote ‘The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology’, and
Sister Margaret Farley, author of ‘Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics’, among other moral ethicists.

This homophobic tweet about Natural Law got a San Antonio coffee shop into trouble

‘Disordered’, wrong teachings, in need of significant review

Each of these experts in their own way have criticised the Church’s teaching on sexual morality as ‘disordered’, wrong, and badly in need of thorough updating and review, for everyone, heterosexuals and lesbians and gay men.

Aquinas: ‘Doctor of the Church’

The Natural Law and theological influence of St Thomas Aquinas, who is a ‘Doctor of the Church’, gives his ancient work particular authority in the Church canon and tradition. His contribution and the high esteem in which he is held by the Church is a major reason why it is especially slow and reluctant to review and change traditional teaching and interpretations of scripture on sexual morals. You have to be pretty brave to say St Thomas got things wrong, when he has a title of distinction for getting theology right. But that’s what more and more experts, and lay people, are doing.

Every time the Pope or Bishops talk about lesbian and gay sexuality and gay marriage as ‘unnatural’ or ‘intrinsically disordered’ in Pastoral letters, Vatican documents and the Catechism, that’s a reference to Natural Law. Why is most contraception called ‘artificial’ contraception by the Church (no doctors use that phrase)? That’s because using contraception is ‘unnatural’ according to the Church, it’s against Natural Law, because it blocks natural procreation.

Natural Law

St Thomas Aquinas on Law

Natural law is deductive, based on the idea that everything in the world has its own natural purpose, and that we can work out the purpose of things through observing, reasoning and deducing things, like a detective. Thomas for example says, about the sex that is permissible:

Wherefore it is no sin if one, by the dictate of reason, makes use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted, provided this end be something truly good.

Natural law deduces that fulfilling the proper natural purpose of our human design is the only ‘good’ use of our human faculties, and any misuse, contrary to their natural purpose, will be against natural law. Noses are for breathing and smelling things like roses, not for snorting cocaine.

So our moral rules are derived from the nature of the world and the nature of human beings. Since humans are by nature rational beings, we should behave in ways that conform to our sensible, rational nature. Thus, Aquinas and the Church derive natural law and moral rules from the inherent nature of human beings.

Homosexuality in nature

However defenders of orthodox interpretations of Natural Law insist that it does not mean everything “as found in nature”. So the same sex behaviour that is widely seen in all kinds of creatures in the natural world is not proof that this is natural for some humans too. Some even contend that ‘homosexuality in animals is a myth’, such as the conservative Dr Antonio Pardo, a Spanish professor of Bioethics. He argues that there is no such thing as homosexual behaviour in nature, and while some animal behaviours just look homosexual, these can all be explained by dominance and the strong sexual urge. Few bioethicists who’ve studied the phenomenon share his opinion.

biological exuberance book cover

His contention that all animal same sex behaviour is explained by dominance and the sex urge, simply disregards the breadth and depth of the available zoological evidence and the diversity of reasons why different creatures engage in a huge variety of non-procreative sexual behaviours, and why same sex animal couples raise young. Only some of the animal diversity of sexual exuberance can be characterised as homosexual, and ‘dominance’ is clearly not the real explanation. See this detailed, illustrated discussion, by Terence last week.

Another favourite dismissive argument is that (to use human behaviour labels) incest, cannibalism and rape are also found among animals, and those are immoral for humans and so too must be all homosexual behaviour. That’s a weak argument because it ignores the reality of the very specific all-encompassing Catholic prohibition on all sex, including among heterosexuals, which is not strictly marital vaginal penetration open to procreation. However we know very many human societies, including historial and current Christian societies, have or had no such taboos on other heterosexual behaviours, and some human societies find no problem in homosexual expression. Most people can see a clear category difference between causing harm to others (rape, cannibalism), and taking irrational risks of genetic abnormalities appearing in the longer term (incest), and the mutual loving of chosen life partners (homosexuality).

Arguing humans can only enjoy a one dish sexual menu (marital vaginal penetration for procreation only) because that is all that can be justified from the evidence of nature and ‘right reason’ is just bizarre. Different human societies in different places and times have their individual sexual moral codes of behaviour, all much more varied. These are all part of natural human social diversity. Attempting to exclude homosexual expression as uniquely transgressive for all humans makes no logical sense. Even Aristotle did not exclude homosexual expression as unnatural in law.

Khnumhotep and his male partner Niankhknum approx 2500BC

This bar on homosexual expression and all heterosexual sexual activity that is not marital vaginal penetration for procreation, is all the creation of Aquinas and his successors, using reasoning that is directed to a series of ends found by reference to pre-existing misinterpretations of Old and New Testament scripture and of Church tradition.

The evidence was selected, sometimes twisted from Aristotle’s original, and Thomas’s reasoning happened to suit particular and preferred Catholic conclusions.

English translations of Thomas’s writings on sex

First in these translations of Aquinas is what he has to say on ‘unnatural vice‘; this is much broader than simply lesbian and gay sexual expression, and includes heterosexual sex that is “not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation,” and masturbation and bestiality. These are all grave sins in Aquinas’s mind. Few people these days can accept that masturbation is in the gravest category of sins. If that’s OK, what does that mean for the rest on Aquinas’s grave list?

The key passage dealing with lesbian and gay sex, masturbation, bestiality and unnatural heterosexual sex is this:

As stated above (A6,9) wherever there occurs a special kind of deformity whereby the venereal act is rendered unbecoming, there is a determinate species of lust. This may occur in two ways: First, through being contrary to right reason, and this is common to all lustful vices; secondly, because, in addition, it is contrary to the natural order of the venereal act as becoming to the human race: and this is called “the unnatural vice.” This may happen in several ways. First, by procuring pollution, without any copulation, for the sake of venereal pleasure: this pertains to the sin of “uncleanness” which some call “effeminacy.”[=masturbation] Secondly, by copulation with a thing of undue species, and this is called “bestiality.” Thirdly, by copulation with an undue sex, male with male, or female with female, as the Apostle states (Rm. 1:27): and this is called the “vice of sodomy.” Fourthly, by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation. [=non-procreative heterosexual sex acts]

The second is about sex in general, including fornication, incest, adultery, rape etc.

The key passage about permissible heterosexual sex is here:

I answer that: A sin, in human acts, is that which is against the order of reason. Now the order of reason consists in its ordering everything to its end in a fitting manner. Wherefore it is no sin if one, by the dictate of reason, makes use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted, provided this end be something truly good. Now just as the preservation of the bodily nature of one individual is a true good, so, too, is the preservation of the nature of the human species a very great good. And just as the use of food is directed to the preservation of life in the individual, so is the use of venereal acts directed to the preservation of the whole human race. Hence Augustine says (De Bono Conjug. xvi): “What food is to a man’s well being, such is sexual intercourse to the welfare of the whole human race.” Wherefore just as the use of food can be without sin, if it be taken in due manner and order, as required for the welfare of the body, so also the use of venereal acts can be without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation. [= vaginal penetration open to fertilisation]

Aquinas's cure for sorrows

Ancient Greek misreadings of nature

Scholars like James Boswell and other academics clearly trace Aquinas’s ideas back to Aristotle’s own misreadings of the sexual behaviour of animals. Other scholars point to Aquinas’s misrepresentation of Aristotle’s findings on human homosexual expression.

Ignorance of evolution and the female perspective

The ancient Greek roots of Natural Law and Aquinas’s contributions in the 13th century mean none of them knew anything about the processes of evolution which influence sexual behaviour throughout nature, and they also all saw things solely from a male perspective. We’ll come back to their ignorance of evolution and the male-only perspective later, because these are the origin of some big cracks in the natural law moral dam.

Aquinas, Creation and God

While Aristotle didn’t believe in any creation by a god (he believed the world had always existed) and simply used reasoning from observation of nature and form to deduce everything’s purpose, Aquinas believed in God’s creation. For Thomas the creator God was involved in designing the natural purpose of all things and the Bible helped him decide that natural purpose. So Catholic Natural Law is an odd mixture of nature’s supposed purposes, with the addition of Bible and God, whenever Aquinas needed to import these to buttress a version of Natural Law to suit him and the Church.

Body Parts decide the natural law of human sexuality

In considering human sexuality, the starting point is the purpose of various body parts. The purpose of eyes is to see, and you can deduce this from close examination of their parts and connections to the brain. The purpose of lungs is to breathe air and so oxygenate the blood and then expel waste carbon dioxide.

In this natural purpose design view, the penis has a dual purpose, excretion and procreation. In procreation it is designed to penetrate the vagina and deposit semen, in order to fertilise a woman’s egg.

medieval manuscript sex illustration

Any other usage of the lungs than to breathe would be unnatural and irrational, and therefore morally wrong, as this is not part of God’s creation design for the lungs. Using the lungs to sniff glue to get high, or to smoke, or depriving the lungs of fresh air for the risky thrill of asphixiation, are neither natural nor rational, not part of their design purpose.

By the same token, using the penis purely for pleasure as in masturbation, or for penetration of other orifices, as in oral or anal sex is, in the Church’s strict conception of the natural purpose of things, neither natural nor rational. The Church teaches that natural and rational sexual faculty use is strictly intended by God only for procreation. Church teaching that limits sex to procreative vaginal sex within a married couple is tradition and scripture-based, with a Natural Law cloak of simplistic use of interlocking body parts. It wilfully ignores widespread natural human and animal sexual behaviours that are clearly not for procreation. It ignores Aristotle’s uncritical words about the sexual activities of innately homosexual men.

A Guilt Free CD

God and the Bible imported into natural law

Although it is called natural law, because God was the creator / designer of everything, Aquinas and the Church often import God and the Bible into nature to buttress their natural sexual morality conclusions, to justify excluding some uses of our sexual faculties which they designate as ‘unnatural’. It would be more honest for the Church to say unprocreative non-marital uses are un-Godly or un-Biblical, rather than un-Natural, against ‘natural law’. The fusion and confusion of natural and doctrinal, makes challenging the Church’s version of ‘natural law’ frustrating.

St Thomas Aquinas was in at least one key instance a naughty deceptive moral theologian, because he buried and distorted some key passages in Aristotle to suit the Church and his own anti-gay hostility, in order to render homosexual activity ‘unnatural’.

Slippery as eels

The deliberate blurring of the boundaries between what humans can reason solely from nature, and God’s presumed intentions for his human creation, makes the Church’s so-called ‘natural law’ limits on sexual behaviour problematic. God and interpretations of the Bible are imported to justify some behavioural rules that can’t be inferred by reason alone from observing nature and through pure reasoning to decide what would be ‘right conduct’. But the Church nonetheless calls this fusion ‘natural law’.

Art of Shapeshifting book

The Church does not use or recognise a 21st century scientific understanding of the natural world and evolution, but sticks with a Bible-infused 13th century conception of nature. This makes a rational discussion of sexual morality with the Church a problem, because ‘nature’ keeps shapeshifting between a quasi-scientific natural world view, and a theological, bible-based conception of the world of nature. In the middle of a piece of nature-based natural law, suddenly the Bible or God are produced out of a hat. The Aquinas model of natural law with added Bible and God means the Church sets the rules and so tries to win every argument, because whenever it is losing on nature grounds, it calls on its traditional interpretation of the bible and theology to rescue it.

What’s next in Part Two?
Next time, we will consider how the Church’s sexual teachings are distorted because they only look through male eyes.

We will carefully consider male and female sexual body parts which Aquinas and the Church ignore, and contemplate Natural Law through women’s eyes, for a really fresh perspective. It’s very satisfying seeing things differently.

More about Aquinas and Natural Law ethics

Natural Law and Homosexuality in the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Farley, Margaret. “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” Continuum, 2006

 

A Masturbation Conversation

We continue to live in the late Soviet period of Catholicism. They pretend to make sense; we pretend to believe them.

-Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish

When I suggested yesterday that we should be talking seriously about masturbation, I was not aware that Andrew Sullivan had done exactly that in a post at The Daily Dish back in January (“How Natural Is Masturbation?”), with a couple of follow-up posts to report on reader comments.

Here are some pertinent extracts:

Now there’s a topic for some interesting dialogue. The Catholic church proclaims that wanking is as serious a sin as gay sex because all sexuality is designed to be exclusively procreative – both as a matter of divine will but also, critically, because this is readily apparent to anyone by reason alone.

(This claim of justification by “reason alone” is a favourite in Church documents and of church spokesmen – but frequently signals that there is no justification whatever outside the closed reasoning of the Vatican mind, not apparent to outsiders.)

Shaw was certainly right in saying that 99 percent of men masturbate and 1 percent are liars. I once caused a little stir at Notre Dame by pointing out that every priest in the audience was masturbator, as of course they all were.

(One could reasonably dispute Sullivan’s precise figures here – but I am certain they are in the right ball-park).

From a reader:

Recently scientists have determined that, at least in a man’s older years, masturbation seems to have some preventative properties in relation to prostate cancer. Indeed, some doctors are now prescribing “masturbation therapy” to men over fifty. If further research sufficiently determines the health benefits of masturbation, will the Catholic Church endorse it on that basis? Even more importantly, can I get a return on the several hours of Hail Marys I said in penance in my teenage years?

And an observation which is relevant to so much of the orthodox sexual ethics:

Nature is an elastic concept. The Church’s grasp of it remains umbilically linked to the biology of the thirteenth century. And its allegedly celibate clerisy is the only group allowed to examine it. Hence what most adult, intelligent human beings regard as the hilarity of the hierarchy’s claptrap.

At least one reader was appalled.

I think your beliefs about masturbation are largely at odds with traditional Christian teaching. I’m surprised someone as smart as you are would not think more critically about this issue, especially since you are a self-described Christian.

Sullivan’s reply is that his argument is in fact deeply rooted in orhodox theology:

My reader misses the focus of my posts, which was on the arguments of the new natural law. This …..posits, after Aquinas and Aristotle, that nature, as observed by reason alone, tells us something about the purpose of human behavior and life. When something is as ubiquitous as masturbation, when we now understand that massive over-production of sperm is in fact an evolutionary strategy to maximize chances of reproduction, and when we also notice that even in a marital, procreative relationship, a wife’s nine months of pregnancy renders all that spousal sperm incapable of producing children … then one wonders why rubbing one out from time to time is so unnatural.

From another reader, an important danger in the doctrine:

Telling teenagers in particular that both premarital sex and masturbation are sin, while providing no outlet for their proverbial raging hormones other than the delayed gratification of an ill-prepared prepared rush into marriage in their early twenties, sets an impossible and unhealthy standard.

Is the doctrine thereby contributing to disastrous marriages? And from one more reader, some thoughts based on real experience, not mere cerebral speculation:

The real objection the Church has isn’t that you are indulging in a lie. It is that you are indulging. The pleasure of any sexual activity, solo or otherwise, is a very inconvenient reality for the Church. One that priests are no better at denying themselves of than the rest of us. As much as the rational side of us might want to define sex as a utilitarian function, used only for procreation, no amount of scholarship can change the fact that it’s fun, that it feels good. That, at its best, it is ecstatic. Certainly not the kind of thing you want people engaging in if you’re trying to get them to forget about this world and focus on the next one.

On a personal note, my first wife, raised Catholic, had a great deal of guilt and anxiety about sex, and we had a truly awful sex life. Masturbation, although at times something of an indulgent vice, was also an activity I credit with keeping me somewhat sane through a highly frustrating time of my life, sexually speaking.

I can think of some Irish priests that maybe should have done a little more fantasizing and masturbating. Maybe not a long term answer, and certainly less fulfilling on so many levels than good sex mutually shared. But surely better that than preying on acolytes.

The Catholic Church originally instituted its policy of compulsory clerical celibacy in part as a means of control. It thereby created a two-tier caste system, whereby the supposedly celibate clergy were thereby perceived as morally superior – and the rest of the population, living sexual lives, were constantly faced with the prospect of falling into states of sin, which had perforce to be confessed to a priest for absolution.

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