Thursday, December 16, 2004

Homosexuality and Natural Law

[NOTE: This is Part Three of a discussion of scripture and homosexuality, the first part (on the biblical account of Sodom and various interpretations) can be found here; the second part, on Leviticus and St. Paul, can be found here. The text of Nathan Nelson's argument -- which I am responding to -- can be found here].

What About the Natural Law?

The last argument Nathan employs to argue for the repeal of traditional Christian prohibition against homosexual acts pertains to natural law. Once again, I'll introduce Nathan's argument followed directly by my response.

According to Nathan:

The argument [from natural law] is that sex must serve both a unitive and a procreative purpose, and because homosexual sex cannot serve a procreative purpose, it cannot be permitted and gay marriage cannot take place.

It should first of all be noted that this argument is relatively modern. When scripture was seemingly sufficient to condemn homosexuality, this argument was not used. . . . I think it is a genuinely good question to ask if this argument is actually a good argument, or whether or not it is just a substitute argument to fill in where scripture has become deficient?

The story of the destruction of Sodom, which I have dealt with in the first post of this discussion, is extraneous to Judaism's rationale for prohibiting homosexuality. According to our last discussion of Leviticus and St. Paul, the general prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus, set in between prohibitions of adultery, incest and bestiality, was in all likelihood grounded in the Genesis creation account.

Dr. Robert Gagnon explains ("The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues"):

. . . the reason for the prohibition [of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13] is evident from the phrase "lying with a male as though lying with a woman." What is wrong with same-sex intercourse is that it puts another male, at least insofar as the act of sexual intercourse is concerned, in the category of female rather than male.

It was regarded as incompatible with the creation of males and females as distinct and complementary sexual beings, that is, as a violation of God’s design for the created order. Here it is clear that the creation stories in Genesis 1-2, or something like them, are in the background, which in turn indicates that something broader than two isolated prohibitions is at stake: nothing less than the divinely mandated norm for sexual pairing given in creation.

According to Dr. Gagnon, the biblical emphasis on the complementarity of the male and female sexes is not something one can easily dismiss:

. . . the non-procreative character of same-sex intercourse was no more the primary consideration in the rejection than it was for the proscription of bestiality. Incest and adultery, two other sexual acts rejected in Leviticus 18 and 20 are certainly not wrong because they are non-procreative; but neither is the primary reason for their rejection that fact that children might arise. All three are wrong because they constitute sex with another who is either too much of an "other" (sex with an animal) or too much of a "like" (sex with a near kin and sex with a member of the same sex). These are transcultural creation categories, not superstitious dregs from a bygone era.

Those interested in learning more about Jewish tradition's rejection of homosexuality are invited to read "Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality" by Dennis Prager.

Moving on to the New Testament, Dr. Gagnon goes on to illustrate how St. Paul, in his discussion of sexuality and the prohibitions against homosexuality, incest, and other forms of sexual immorality, relies on the Genesis accounts and alludes to Genesis on numerous occasions (Rom 1: 18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9):

Like any other Jew in his day, it was not possible for him to think about sexual immorality apart from such an appeal. In the same way, when Jesus criticized divorce and remarriage he too cited from Genesis 1:27 -- "God made them male and female" -- and Genesis 2:24 -- "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh."

Consequently, any assessment of sexual immorality by Jews and Christians of the first century ultimately had in view the creation stories. It is for this reason that attempts to limit Paul's -- or any other early Jewish or Christian -- critique of same-sex intercourse to particularly exploitative forms is doomed to failure.

The Catholic Church's understanding of sexuality is spelled out in the explication of the Sixth Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [2331 ff.]. Of course, it is not by coincidence that it follows Jewish and early Christian tradition in establishing its teaching on sexuality in the Genesis' account of creation of the first man and woman:

2331 "God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image . . .. God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion."

"God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them"; [Gen: 1:27] He blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and multiply"; [Gen: 1:28] "When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created."

2332 Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.

2333 Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.

2334 "In creating men 'male and female,' God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity." "Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God."

2335 Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way. The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator's generosity and fecundity: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." All human generations proceed from this union.

The Holy Father's Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio ("On The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World") contains a concise and brilliant summary of the proper end of sexuality according to Catholic doctrine:

Consequently, sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally.

This totality which is required by conjugal love also corresponds to the demands of responsible fertility. This fertility is directed to the generation of a human being, and so by its nature it surpasses the purely biological order and involves a whole series of personal values. For the harmonious growth of these values a persevering and unified contribution by both parents is necessary.

The only "place" in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage, the covenant of conjugal love freely and consciously chosen, whereby man and woman accept the intimate community of life and love willed by God Himself(23) which only in this light manifests its true meaning. The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator. A person's freedom, far from being restricted by this fidelity, is secured against every form of subjectivism or relativism and is made a sharer in creative Wisdom.

(Note: those interested in exploring the Holy Father's vision of marriage and human sexuality in light of the Gospel are encouraged to read Christopher West, who has done much to popularize the Pope's thought on this subject).

Nathan describes the Church's emphasis on the unitive and procreative elements of sexuality as "relatively modern," employed by the Church only after it was deemed that scriptural passages alone were not sufficient to defend prohibitions against homosexuality. But as we have seen, the Church's teaching on sexuality is thoroughly scriptural, and its appeal to Genesis can be traced back to St. Paul, Jesus, and the beginning of Jewish interpretation of Genesis. In answer to Nathan's question: "What came first, the opposition to homosexuality or the argument that opposes it?" -- it would seem to be the latter: Christians take their cue from St. Paul and Jesus, who in turn take their cue from the Jewish scriptures. If Nathan wishes to dispute the prohibition with homosexuality, his beef appears to be with the book of Genesis itself.

* * *

A further argument from Nathan:

Secondly, the argument from natural law is no longer consistent, especially since the promulgation of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. . . . Provisions are made by the Church all the time to remove the procreative purpose from marriage and sexuality. Followed to its logical conclusion, the procreative argument from natural law should forbid anyone who cannot procreate from marrying or having sex, but it doesn't. . . .

Given that exceptions are made for people in their biological circumstances [post-menopause, infertility, etc.], and given that exceptions are even made for couples for financial situations, doesn't it follow that an exception could be made for homosexuals -- especially if homosexuality is genetic?

Think about it. How is a homosexual couple different from an infertile couple that is permitted to marry? How is a homosexual woman different from a post-menopausal woman, who is permitted to marry? Why is it not okay to allow homosexuals to marry and not procreate, if it is okay to allow heterosexuals to marry and not procreate in some situations? The only argument is because this involves people of the same sex, and that is not sufficient to make a procreative argument from the natural law.

I'm going to take a wild guess: Nathan has been reading Andrew Sullivan.

The answer, I think, can be discovered in Janet Smith's explanation of the difference between Natural Family Planning and artificial contraception ("Natural Family Planning and Self Mastery"):

There is an odd phrase used currently to describe sex without contraception: such sex is called "unprotected" sex. This phrase may help us here. Those using NFP are having unprotected" sex; though the couple may be quite certain that they cannot conceive at this point, they have done nothing to close out the possibility of a child. A woman does not make herself periodically infertile, nature does; thus, in having sex during the infertile periods, she has not done anything to close out the possibility of having children; nature closes that possibility. And, since she has no obligation to have sex, in not having sex during her fertile period, she also does no wrong in abstaining. To use the phrase of the pope, the couple using NFP is not telling a lie with their bodies; they are still allowing sex its full, natural meaning. In short, the naturalness of NFP is obvious: It recognizes fertility as a good and does nothing to deny this good; it operates fully in accord with the laws of nature, which are the laws of God.

A post-menopausal woman would be in the category of one rendered infertile by the natural progress of nature, and a couple using NFP to regulate the births of their children are also implicitly "recognizing fertility as a good and doing nothing to deny this good." (Christopher West explains the difference between respect for fertility via NFP and the falsifying of sexual union via contraception in "God, Sex, and Babies: What the Church Really Teaches about Responsible Parenthood" This Rock Vol. 14, No. 9, Nov. 2003).

Where homosexual acts differ from the above is this: to the extent that the homosexual condition is not deliberately willed, it is not a sin. However, if one grants the Church's position that the divinely-instituted purpose of sex is the expression of married love between male and female and the generation of new life, one must conclude that homosexual activity deliberately willed constitutes grave sin, because by its very nature it is not oriented towards procreation. It is ontologically disordered. (James Akin clarifies this in the section on "homosexuality and infertility" in a discussion earlier this month).

To "make a exception" as Nathan suggests, the Catholic Church would have to abandon its affirmation of the creation account in Genesis, the basis for the Judeo-Christian understanding of sexuality.

Nathan concludes:

In light of all this, I respectfully disagree with the Church's teaching on homosexuality and gay marriage because I do not believe that truth can be based upon misinterpretation and inconsistent philosophy. I believe that what has been revealed in modern times is that there is nothing in scripture or authentic Church tradition that condemns homosexuality or prohibits same-sex marriage.

I have attempted to demonstrate otherwise -- I'll let my readers be the judge.


  • Nathan's response is here.
  • My response, and last post in this series, is here.

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