The sharing of this excerpt is timely given the recent news that John C. Nienstedt, Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, has forced the resignation of Jamie Moore, a local parish music director, after it became known that Moore had entered a civil marriage with his male partner. In attempting to defend his actions, Nienstedt, who, among other things, is facing calls for his own resignation over his handling of clergy sex abuse complaints, insists that he is simply upholding the teaching of the church on marriage, which for the clerical leadership of the church are the same as the teaching on sexuality. After all, this leadership doesn't actually have a sexual theology, i.e., a way of taking about the gift of human sexuality that acknowledges and honors its intrinsic diversity. Rather, it has a very narrow theology (and thus teaching) on marriage based, as Crompton correctly identifies, on the Ulpianic-Thomistic understanding of natural law. Members of the church's clerical leadership would have us believe that they and they alone are the sole interpreters and guardians of this understanding and the theology and teachings that stem from it. Furthermore, these teachings are declared to have come from Christ himself. Accordingly, they are said to be eternal and thus unchangeable. Such ignorance and hubris!
As Crompton (and others) have clearly documented, teachings based on this interpretation of so-called natural law have in fact evolved and changed. For example, Crompton notes below that "the fathers of the church and medieval theologians [once] fiercely condemned usury (that is, any charging of interest) as a mortal sin, employing the same rhetoric used against homosexuality." Yet now, as we all know, the Vatican has its own interest-charging bank! Nienstedt and his ilk would do well to reflect upon Crompton's words: "Far from being an immutable, unchanging, and eternal standard, natural-law philosophy has accommodated itself to the prejudices of particular ages, often lending them a factitious air of philosophical respectability."
The other route by which Aquinas arrives at his category of "unnatural sins" is philosophical rather than zoological. It derives from Aristotle's doctrine of "final causes," that is, those ends or purposes for the sake of which things or activities exist. According to this view, as food exists for the preservation of the individual, so sex exists for the preservation of the races. Thus, sex must always serve its proper "natural" end, and all non-procreative sexual acts are "unnatural."
Aquinas, in addition, endorses Augustine's opinion that homosexuality is the "worst" of sexual sins. To make his point perfectly clear, Aquinas poses a question: are not rape and adultery worse than unnatural acts, since they harm other persons, while consensual sins against nature do not? The answer is unequivocal: the four non-procreative forms of sex are worse, since – though not harmful to others – they are sins directly against God himself as the creator of nature. According to this logic, rape, which may at least lead to pregnancy, becomes a less serious sin than masturbation. And what of contraception? Would marital intercourse using artificial birth control be an unnatural act? Aquinas does not raise the question in Summa, but earlier he so classified it in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. By this reasoning, conjugal sex with contraception must be ranked as an unnatural sin only one degree less serious than homosexual behavior.
Moreover, as [theologian Charles] Curran has pointed out, natural-law theory is not "a monolithic philosophical system agreed upon body of ethical content existing from the beginning of time." The concept of natural law is exceedingly ambiguous and has been given radically different interpretations at different times by different thinkers. Behaviors as diverse as shaving the beard, using anesthesia in childbirth, and flying have on occasion been labeled unnatural. To take one example: in the seventh circle of his "Inferno" Dante dramatizes the punishment of men guilty of "violence against nature," or, as he alternatively puts it, "the "sins of Sodom and Cahors." Readers familiar with Sodom's lurid reputation may well wonder what took place in the Provencal city of Cahors. The fact is that Cahors was a financial center, and its unnatural sin was usury.
Dante's judgment rested on a well-established medieval doctrine. Aristotle had called usury unnatural, since money should not breed money. Drawing on the Levitical prohibition (25:36-37) against interest, the fathers of the church and medieval theologians fiercely condemned usury (that is, any charging of interest) as a mortal sin, employing the same rhetoric used against homosexuality. Thus, [Panormitanus] a fifteenth-century canonist could write: "Whenever humans sin against nature, whether in sexual intercourse, worshiping idols, or any other unnatural act, the church may always exercise its jurisdiction. [So some have held] that the church could prosecute usurers and not thieves and robbers, because usurers violate nature by making money grow which would not increase naturally." Catholic theologians did not seriously challenge the church's traditional view of usury until the eighteenth century; and the canon law making the charging of interest a mortal sin was not dropped until 1917. Throughout history people have branded a multitude of behaviors as "unnatural." This has sometimes meant no more than that they disliked them on whatever grounds, serious or trivial. Far from being an immutable, unchanging, and eternal standard, natural-law philosophy has accommodated itself to the prejudices of particular ages, often lending them a factitious air of philosophical respectability.
For more on natural law at The Wild Reed see:
• Louis Crompton on the "Theological Assault" of the Ulpianic-Thomistic Conception of Natural Law (Part I)
• Aquinas and Homosexuality
• Daniel Helminiak on the Vatican's Natural Law Mistake
• Nathanial Frank on the "Natural Law" Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage
• Homosexuality is Not Unnatural
• Rediscovering What Has Been Written on Our Hearts from the Very Beginning
• Dialoguing with the Archbishop on Natural Law
• Spirituality and the Gay Experience
• Joan Timmerman and the "Wisdom of the Body"
• Good News on the Road to Emmaus
• Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
• Liberated to Be Together
• The Blood-Soaked Thread
See also The Wild Reed series, “Perspectives on Natural Law,” featuring the insights of:
• Herbert McCabe, OP
• Judith Web Kay
• Daniel Helminiak
• Garry Wills
• Gregory Baum
• William C. McDonough
Related Off-site Links:
Archbishop Nienstedt, Firing of Gay Catholic Employees, and Upholding Teachings of the Church: Critical Reflection – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, September 25, 2014).
In Minnesota and Montana Dismissals, Hypocrisy Abounds – Bob Shine (Bondings 2.0, September 25, 2014).
"I Thought I Could Be A Gay Jesuit Priest. I Can’t Believe How Wrong I Was" – Ben Brenkert (The Washington Post, September 17, 2014).
Jesuit Leaves Church After Firings – Nicholas Sciarappa (National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2014).
Homosexual Relationships: Another Look – Bill Hunt (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 8, 2012).
Image: Detail of "Two Men Kissing" (Bacio fra due uomini) by Bartolomeo Cesi (c. 1600).