Sunday, December 21, 2008

Perspectives on Natural Law

Part 3: Daniel Helminiak

Following is a third perspective on the concept of natural law from the compilation of perspectives that the leadership of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) recently sent to Archbishop John Nienstedt and the priests of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (For why we shared these perspectives, click here.)

This particular perspective is from theologian and author Daniel Helminiak and is excerpted from an interview I conducted with Daniel for the Spring 2006 issue of CPCSM’s journal publication, the Rainbow Spirit.


The [Roman] Catholic Church has commandeered the notion of natural law and made it a synonym for the supposition that the purpose of sex is procreation. Then, some other use of sex is supposedly a “violation of natural law.”

But natural law has been around much longer than the Catholic Church. Its roots are in the deepest strata of Western civilization. Its real meaning is simply this: We are capable of understanding how things function, and ethical living is simply to follow those ways. To follow natural law is, as it were, to follow the directions that came with the item. Now, when it comes to sex, the question of the day is this: What is the nature of sex? What is the purpose and function of sex?

To be sure, procreation is an inherent aspect of sexuality. But there is more to sex than that, especially when we look at sex in human beings. Procreation is an animal function. In humans sex is taken up into a new array of purposes. Human sex involves emotional bonding and the dreams and promises of lovers. That is to say, beyond the physical, human sex also involves the psychological and the spiritual. (I see “dreams and promises,” or ideals, and beliefs and ethics – all ways of suggesting meaning and value – as spiritual matters.) So having sex (physical) seduces lovers (emotional) into dreaming dreams and making promises (spiritual). The trend of sex is toward higher things. And since the spiritual dimension of human sexual sharing is the highest and most significant, it is what determines the unique nature of human sexuality, so it is what must be preserved in every case. Not procreation, but genuine care and loving are the non-negotiables of human sex.

Contemporary social science suggests and supports the interpretation of sex that I have just sketched. Science is the method of our age for discovering the nature of things. This point is obvious in the physical sciences. Physics and chemistry have opened undreamed-of possibility for us – because we have come to understand the true nature of things. Francis Bacon pointed out that nature can only be controlled by being obeyed. The same applies to the social sciences although in their case the questions are much more difficult and finding consensus takes more effort. Even so, it is science that will tell us the nature of things, and science is not whimsical. Its conclusions do not depend on inspiration or supposed revelation. Science depends on demonstrable evidence; it is a self-correcting enterprise. Our best bet today is to rely on science to discern “the nature of things.”

Thus, I say that natural law is the best way to go when debate about sexual ethics arises. What is the “best available opinion of the day” about sex? Invoke it when you want to know how one should use sex. The ethical way is to use sex as it was made to be used, and we know how it was made to be used by studying it. All the studies, for example, support homosexuality as a widespread normal variation in God’s creation. In this sense, homosexuality is natural. It is part of the nature of things. In humans in a novel way, it expresses the essential of sex: interpersonal bonding. So engaging in it could hardly be wrong per se.

- Excerpted from “A New Way of Envisioning Wholeness: A Conversation with Daniel Helminiak” by Michael J. Bayly, Rainbow Spirit, Spring 2006.

NEXT: Part 4: Garry Wills

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 1 - Herbert McCabe, OP
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 2 - Judith Web Kay


Anonymous said...

What is the purpose of "interpersonal bonding?" Is it an end in itself?

Michael J. Bayly said...

I'd say flourishing - both individual and communal.



Anonymous said... do you build a moral theology, and an accompanying ethics, on the phrase "compatible with human individual and communal flourishing?" I'm not saying you can't; quite the contrary, it sounds like you could. I wonder who's doing this?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi adcontrarium,

You might want to start with Margaret Farley's Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics - a review of which can be found here.