Natural Law: Part 3
Vatican II and incorporating modern specialist expertise
In Part 2 we considered the male and female perspectives of Natural Law and the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, and recent learning from experts in evolution.
Here in Part 3, we move on to the Church’s stated position on considering outside expertise and some particular examples – insights from human psychology, secular liberal philosophy, and modern Christian moral theologians, including a Pope. We assess how well the Church’s sexual behaviour teaching copes with the various critiques and its response.
The 2nd Vatican Council directed the Church to look beyond its well established traditions and scriptural interpretations and take account of the expertise available from various fields of learning in the modern world, and use these external insights to review and update its teachings of the Truth, as appropriate.
However this directive appears to be ignored more than followed.
The Church’s most recent formal statement is the 1986 letter to the bishops on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In paragraph 2, this tells us:
However, the Catholic moral viewpoint is founded on human reason illumined by faith and is consciously motivated by the desire to do the will of God our Father. The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.
This is not a satisfactory response to the Vatican II instruction to learn from outside expertise. The key passage is: ‘we can learn from scientific discovery’ but our position means we can ‘transcend the horizons of science and .. be confident that [the Church’s] more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions’.
In other words, we are correct already and simply don’t need to consider anything else or change our teaching as a result of any scientific discovery: “[the Church’s] more global vision does greater justice … “.
Unchanged since 1986 but outside expertise moves on
While the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has not changed its position on the treatment of lesbian and gay people since 1986, much new information has been gathered on the history of homosexuality, its nature and causes, biblical and theological perspectives, and from the empirical sciences.
In many areas covered by the Congregation’s pastoral guidelines, Catholic culture has made major advances (Curb & Manahan, 1985 ; Francoeur, 1988 , 1989 ; Gramick, 1983 , 1988 ; Nugent, 1984 , 1992 ). Those are just the first eight years worth of publications from around the time of its publication in 1986, and very much more has been published since.
The tension between the unchanging formal fixed Church view of homosexuality and the changing worldview, is evident when John R. Quinn, Archbishop of San Francisco, replied to the Curia’s 1986 letter on the pastoral care of homosexuals, with clear frustration:
We cannot fulfill our task [as pastors and bishops] simply by an uncritical application of solutions designed in past ages for problems which have qualitatively changed, or which did not exist in the past. (Quoted in Gramick & Furey, 1988, p. vii) 
He was writing this from San Francisco as thousands of gay men in his city, significant numbers of whom were Catholic, already had HIV infection and were dying of AIDS, before any effective treatment was available. The world for lesbians and gay men had very significantly changed.
No change: a comfort blanket
Plainly the field of sexual morality is one where the Church is reluctant to incorporate external expertise and the weight of modern moral theological and scriptural opinion, preferring instead to keep its comfort blanket of familiar traditions and teachings wrapped tight round its fist.
Catholic theologians are vulnerable when speaking out on these themes: some have been disciplined and others have lost their jobs. Debate and scholarly exploration of ideas is inhibited and closed down. The Church gives little sign of active, responsive listening.
It would be a firm but accurate criticism to say that the Church is being disrespectful to lesbian and gay Catholics by apparently not listening and responding to the wealth of new information and insights available in the 25 years since 1986, contrary to her own Catechism’s instruction to be ‘respectful, compassionate and sensitive’ to lesbian and gay people (in paragraph 2358).
Now it is time to turn our attention to some of the secular experts’ work that ought to have an impact on the Church’s thinking and teaching about sexual morality.
Psychologically natural forms of human sexual expression
Among the disregarded modern secular perspectives is that offered by Thomas Nagel ¹, who denies Aquinas’s central presupposition, that in order to discover what is natural in human sexuality we should focus on what humans and lower animals have in common. Using this approach, Aquinas concluded that the purpose of sexual activity and the sexual organs in humans was procreation, as it is in the lower animals.
Nagel, by contrast, argues that to discover what is distinctive about natural human sexuality, and so be able also to work out what is unnatural or perverted, we should focus instead on what humans and lower animals do not have in common. We should emphasize the ways in which humans are different from animals, the ways in which humans and their sexuality are special.
Thus Nagel argues that human sexuality, whether strictly procreative as required by Aquinas, or expressed in various other ways, is explained by human psychology. For it is human psychology that makes us quite different from other animals, and hence an account of natural human sexuality must acknowledge the uniqueness of human psychology. We have been created with and have evolved with proportionately massive brains compared with all other animals, and this makes us quantitatively and qualitatively different and our human psychology is expressed in distinctly human sexual behaviours.
Aquinas and the Church have ignored these brain and psychological differences from animals.
Mutual sexual interest and arousal
Nagel therefore proposes that psychologically healthy natural human sexual interactions, are all those in which each person responds with sexual arousal to noticing the sexual arousal of the other person. In such an encounter, each person becomes aware of himself or herself and the other person as both the subject and the object of their joint sexual experiences. If mutual arousal and interest is not present, Nagel describes this as perverted, or in Aquinas’s terms, unnatural.
Psychology, not organs, not bodily responses
Nothing in Nagel’s psychological account of the natural and the perverted refers to bodily organs or physiological processes. That is, for a sexual encounter to be natural, it need not be procreative in form, as long as the requisite psychology of mutual recognition and arousal is present. Whether a sexual activity is natural or perverted does not depend, in Nagel’s view, on what organs are used or where they are put, but only on the character of the psychology of the sexual encounter.
Thus Nagel disagrees with Aquinas that homosexual activities, as a specific type of sexual act, are unnatural or perverted, for oral and anal sex may very well be accompanied by the mutual recognition of and response to the other’s sexual arousal.
Thomas Aquinas emphasised the sin in homosexual acts
The change from Aquinas’s judgemental natural law response to every activity that is not strictly procreational, toward an amoral psychological account such as Nagel’s, represents a more widespread modern trend. Aquinas’s moral or religious judgments are replaced by acceptance of behaviours as part of the normal range of human sexual expression, or by medical or psychiatric judgments and interventions. ²
There is no requirement for the Church to accept the specific sexual behaviour conclusions Nagel reaches (mutual interest leading to mutual arousal, whether married or not, followed by any consensual sexual behaviour), but there is a need to address his insight that exploring the perspective of what is different, special and unique about people compared with animals is illuminating. We have a highly intelligent human psychology not found in animal-kind. What does that mean for considering what are appropriate sexual behaviours and relationships for humans? Does it not suggest that human sexual behaviours are likely to be more complex and nuanced?
Could not Nagel’s insights be combined with the unitive, and consensual sexual behaviour be acceptable if that is within a marriage or the lesbian and gay equivalent?
Secular liberal sexual philosophy
Modern secular liberal sexual philosophers now emphasise the values of autonomous choice, self-determination, and pleasure in arriving at moral judgments about sexual behavior, in contrast to the Aquinas tradition that justifies highly restrictive sexual morality limits by reference to Natural Law, God and scripture as the source of those limits.
The secular liberal finds nothing morally wrong, or non-morally bad, about either masturbation or homosexual sexual activity. These might be ‘unnatural’ in the sense of being solitary or less common, but in many if not most cases, they can be carried out without harm being done either to the participants, or to anyone else.
For the secular liberal, anything done voluntarily between two or more people is generally morally permissible. A sexual act would be morally wrong if it were dishonest, coercive, or manipulative, and Natural Law theory would agree with that. However Aquinas would instead start by saying that anything that is not marital vaginal sex open to procreation is fundamentally wrong because it is ‘unnatural’ and against God’s purpose, and no amount of good intentions or other justification can ever eradicate that fatal flaw in any alternate sexual activity.
Modern liberal Catholic moral theologians and others
Modern liberal Catholic moral theologians such as Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler ³, and Sister Margaret Farley , and Dr James B Nickoloff , Bishop Geoffrey Robinson , James Alison , and Joshua Allen , all put a high moral value on consensual sexual activity only within committed permanent relationships, whether heterosexual marriage, lesbian and gay marriage, or lesbian and gay civil partnerships. Within such committed relationships, the emphasis is not on particular sexual acts and what body part goes where, but far more on its unitive value, consent and doing no harm.
Contemporary liberal Anglican, Episcopal and other liberal Christian moral theologians generally share this moral restriction on the use of human sexual faculties to those within committed permanent relationships.
In contrast, contemporary orthodox and evangelical Christian theologians are doctrinaire with tradition and biblical interpretations, decidedly hostile to any homosexual expression, and strict about limiting sex to within married heterosexual relationships, and they oppose adultery and divorce.
It is notable that a great deal more effort is put into condemning any homosexual activity whatsoever, than ever appears to be the case in relation to the much more frequent moral misbehaviours of heterosexuals which demonstrably harm others, such as adultery and divorce. In psychological terms this looks like a near pathological anti-homosexual obsession, scapegoating and displacement.
Oftentimes the Magisterium and others within the Catholic Church lurch into this same condemnatory response to homosexuality, forgetting their Catechism duty to treat lesbians and gay men with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’. Condemnatory sermonising that disregards the Catechism instructions on respect, compassion and sensitivity does not engender respect for the Church among those hurt by this. Frank acknowledgments of error and apologies for the unnecessary offence caused are decidedly rare and this is also un-Christian. Expecting lesbians and gay men to always turn the other cheek in the face of such Church misbehaviour is unreasonable. Such mistreatment, especially when repeated, is psychologically damaging to mental health and well-being.
Aquinas-lite, a contraception OK variant of Natural Law
Natural Law is still alive and well today among some contemporary philosophers of sex, even if the details do not exactly match Aquinas as now taught by the Church. John Finnis   comes very close to a traditional Catholic or orthodox evangelical position. He does not require all vaginal intercourse within marriage to be open to procreation, so contraception is acceptable to Finnis.
However he invokes God and argues that only vaginal intercourse within marriage avoids ‘disintegrity’. Only in marital vaginal sex, as intended by God’s plan, do the couple attain a state of genuine unity: ‘the orgasmic union of the reproductive organs of husband and wife really unites them biologically.’ He says ‘all extramarital sexual gratification’ is morally worthless, even if it is vaginal intercourse within a committed relationship, because the body is then just a tool of sexual satisfaction and, as a result, the person undergoes ‘disintegration.’ ‘One’s choosing self [becomes] the quasi-slave of the experiencing self which is demanding gratification.’
This is almost indistinguishable in practice from Aquinas. This is Aquinas-lite, ignoring Aquinas’s expectation of vaginal sex being for procreation and the contraception ban in In Humanae Vitae. Finnis appears to have conceived this framework to justify maintaining the hegemony of the current orthodox Catholic and evangelical Christian vaginal intercourse-only model for marriage. Finnis’s language is marginally different to Aquinas: ‘disintegrity’ and ‘disintegration’ being his terms to condemn all other sexual activity in place of Aquinas’s ‘unnatural’ or the 1986 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faiths’ choice of the word ‘disordered’. It doesn’t feel any less damning to have that Finnis’s choice of words applied to you.
Love’s the thing
Pope John Paul II, wrote a sexual morality text book as Karol Wojtyla , and said that allowing oneself to be used sexually by another makes an object of oneself, and consent alone is not enough for this to be morally acceptable. ‘Only love can preclude the use of one person by another’ (p. 30), since love is a unification of persons resulting from a mutual gift exchange of their selves.
Note, however, that his idea that a unifying love is the key component that justifies sexual activity (in addition to consent) has an interesting and ironic consequence: gay and lesbian sexual relations should also be permissible if they occur within loving, monogamous homosexual marriages (which is the position advocated by the theologians Patricia Jung and Ralph Smith ).
However at this point in any discussion, defenders of the view that sexual activity is justifiable only within heterosexual marriage (such as Finnis and Wojtyla), commonly resort to Natural Law to rule out homosexual marriage, and to God to rule out all homosexual activity.
This only works if their Scripture interpretations are sound. Demonstrate that traditional scripture interpretations against homosexual sex are unsound, as many scholars have, and they’ll try a flip to quoting Church Tradition. But as many scholars have shown, there was no continuous Christian tradition of homosexuality being a sin, until shortly after St Thomas Aquinas arrived and made it so. The homosexuality is an ‘unnatural vice’ tradition is late (over 1200 years after Jesus) and it was invented, and it stands tottering on shaky Natural Law foundations. [There is a continuous Church tradition of some kind of sexual sin from the earliest days. Sorry I distorted what I meant to say. See Terence’s comment at the end and my response. And Part 4 includes the history of the sexual sin in some detail, and describes how Thomas reinforced this and codified it in the Church’s theology.]
So the holes in the Catholic Church’s defence of its current Natural Law and sexual morality teaching are becoming really obvious. When the Natural Law arguments are under significant sustained critique, they turn to what they say ‘God says’ to rescue their argument. Impasse is often reached soon after this: if you don’t believe (as a secularist), or you’re a Christian who sees the loving Jesus of the Gospels welcoming all people including lesbians and gay men especially when in committed unitive relationships in place of a punishing God, or if you don’t accept the Church’s interpretations of scripture, there is impasse.
Changing Church views
There are signs and sounds of creaking tectonic plates that indicate the Catholic Church is tending to be less dogmatic than it has been in the past and is edging towards finding a fresh way to represent the Truth in its teaching. Terence has posted about how the Vatican hasn’t officially repeated the ‘intrinsically disordered’ phrase recently; and about the nuanced language coming from the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark in the pastoral letter about civil gay marriage, and in the Archbishop of Westminster’s recent reconfirmation of the Soho Masses pastoral ministry for lesbians and gay men.
Significant moral theologians of all sexualities have continued to voice concerns about the Truth of the sexual morality teaching from the Church.
Human cost of waiting
However while waiting for these tectonic plates of sexual morality teaching to shift, the human cost, which is born by lesbians and gay men and not the Church, is significant. We should remember that slaves continued to suffer too in the very slow repositioning of the Church on the slavery issue. The Church should avoid imposing a similar lengthy human cost on further generations of lesbians and gay men.
There has been around 750 years of pain so far since Thomas Aquinas facilitated the first declaration that homosexuality is a sin. The Church’s continuing strictures are significant pressures that reinforce and give authority to lesbian and gay discrimination in law and other mistreatment, they encourage the avoidable spread of HIV/AIDS, and they provoke suicides, especially among lesbian, gay and questioning teenagers.
It has been suggested by theologians that the Church can sin. Sins against slaves and against lesbians and gay men, for not working with due speed to resolve these issues, should be on the Church’s and Magisterium’s conscience, as should those relating to failures to effectively address clerical child abuse. Failing to effectively address clerical child abuse scandalises the world and is a cause of further doubt to Catholics and the world that the Church is speaking the Truth about the proper expression of human sexuality, when the Magisterium’s own involvement in and response to clerical sexual abuse has been so wanting and disordered.
Next Time: Part 4: More holes and weaknesses in Natural Law exposed
Next time, in the final segment, we’ll consider a further range of experts, referenced in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s chapter on Homosexuality and Natural Law. We will conclude with a detailed examination of Thomas Aquinas’s homosexual deception, where he suppressed elements from Aristotle, and mis-stated others, and became a prime cause of the Church making homosexuality a grave sin for the first time.
Further Reading and References
For a thorough study of the approaches to Human Sexuality by the Catholic Church, this is particularly useful: Catholic Culture and Sexuality, by Robert T Francoeur, 2005.
It contains a section ‘Dealing with Homosexuality’.
Robert T. Francoeur, PhD, is co-editor of the international award-winning Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality (Francoeur & Noonan, 2004a), compiled by 280 experts reporting on all aspects of sexual attitudes, values, behaviors, and relationships in 62 countries on seven continents. Trained in Catholic theology, human embryology, and sexology, Francoeur is also recent editor of the Complete Dictionary of Sexology (Francoeur, et al. 1995.and Sex, Love and Marriage in the Twenty-First Century (Francoeur, Cornog & Perper, 1999).
¹ Nagel, Thomas. “Sexual Perversion”, in Alan Soble, ed., The Philosophy of Sex, 3st edition. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997, pp. 9-20. http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H10
² Soble, Alan. Sexual Investigations. New York: New York University Press,1996. (chapter 4)
³ Salzmann, Todd and Lawler, Michael. “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology” Georgetown University Press, 2008 http://press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/sexual-person
 Farley, Margaret. “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics”, Continuum, 2006
 Nickoloff, James. “ ‘Intrinsically Disordered’ :Gay People and the Holiness of the Church” Bannan Institute, Santa Clara University, 2009 http://www.scu.edu/ignatiancenter/faculty/fellowships/upload/f_09_Intrinsically-Disordered.pdf
 Robinson, Geoffrey. “Christian Basis for Teaching on Sex: Sexual Relationships: Where does our Morality come from?” Address to New Ways Ministry Conference, March 2012 http://www.bishopgeoffrobinson.org/Christian%20Basis%20for%20Teaching%20on%20Sex.pdf
 Alison, James. Theology as Survival: an interview with James Alison by Brett Salkeld, 2012 http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng67.html
 Allen, Joshua. Gay Marriage, Natural Law, and Civil Law: Understanding the Locus of Debate; De Libris Arbitrium, Center for Morality in Public Life, January 2011 http://www.cfmpl.org/reviews/2011/01/20/gay-marriage-natural-law-and-civil-law-understanding-the-locus-of-debate/
 Finnis, John. “Law, Morality, and Sexual Orientation” Notre Dame Law Review 69:5 (1994), pp1049-76.
 Finnis, John and Martha Nussbaum. “Is Homosexual Conduct Wrong? A Philosophical Exchange,” in Alan Soble, ed., The Philosophy of Sex, 3rd edition. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997, pp. 89-94.
 Wojtyla, Karol [Pope John Paul II]. Love and Responsibility. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.
 Jung, Patricia, and Ralph Smith. Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993.
 Catholic Culture and Sexuality, by Robert T Francoeur, 2005.
 Curb, R., & Manahan, N. (Eds.). (1985). Lesbian nuns breaking silence. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press.
 Francoeur, R. T. (1988). Two different worlds, Two different moralities. In J. Gramick & P. Furey (Eds.), The Vatican and homosexuality: Reactions to the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons.” New York: Crossroad.
 Francoeur, R. T. (1989). New dimensions in human sexuality. In R. H. Iles (Ed.), The Gospel imperative in the midst of AIDS: Toward a prophetic pastoral theology. Winton, CT: Morehouse Publishing.
 Gramick, J. (Ed.). (1983). Homosexuality and the Catholic Church. Chicago, IL: Thomas More Press.
 Gramick, J., & Furey, P. (Eds.). (1988). The Vatican and homosexuality: Reactions to the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons.” New York: Crossroad.
 Nugent, R. (Ed.). (1984). A challenge to love: Gay and lesbian Catholics in the Church. New York: Crossroad.
 Nugent, R., & Gramick, J. (1992). Building bridges: Gay and lesbian reality and the Catholic Church. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.
- Sex and Catholics: the problems in Natural Law (queeringthechurch.com)
- Sex and Catholics 2: Gender perspectives and Evolution (queeringthechurch.com)
- Natural Law, Pure Reason and Vatican Jargon. (queeringthechurch.com)
- Terry Weldon on Catholic Magisterial Teaching about Human Sexuality: Animal Considerations (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)