Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Standard for Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation

I definitely need to update the Wild Reed’s Catholic Biography on LGBT Issues, as there have been a number of books recently published worthy of inclusion. Perhaps the most significant of these is Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler’s The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Georgetown University Press, 2008). With its central thesis being that human flourishing should be the standard for sexual ethics, not openness to procreation, The Sexual Person is shaping up to be as an important a work as Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

In the February 6, 2009 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, Julie Hanlon Rubio reviewed Salzman and Lawler’s book. Although Rubio contends that the authors’ “proposals on cohabitation and artificial means of reproduction require further consideration,” she nevertheless declares that The Sexual Person is “among the most important works in Catholic sexual ethics to emerge in the last two decades.”

Rubio also notes that both Salzman and Lawler “have written extensively on sexual ethics and have a thorough knowledge of current theological debates. They stand firmly within the Catholic tradition even as they argue for significant change.” (Mmm, they sound like my kind of guys!)

According to Rubio, The Sexual Person presents a “clear articulation of a person-centered natural-law ethic that offers Catholics an authentic way to think about sex in relation to their faith.

Following are excerpts from “Sex that Contributes,” Julie Hanlon Rubio’s review of Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler’s The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology.


Salzman and Lawler, both married Catholics, offer a new approach to sexual ethics that questions the adequacy of a traditional sexual morality that says sexual acts must take place within marriage and be open to life. They show that historical critical scholarship raises questions about whether these principles are truly scriptural and truly human.

Although they embrace reasoning from natural law, they argue it is impossible to gain pure knowledge of nature. We can only reflect on our limited human experience of nature, acknowledging that it is always partial, evolving and in need of application. Thus, traditionalist assertions about the unnaturalness of certain sexual actions are flawed.

This book’s authors and other revisionists, on the other hand, offer a more adequate person-centered ethic in which making good sexual decisions means discerning whether or not actions contribute to human flourishing. Sexual acts that are “truly human” must be loving, just, and able to meet the test of “holistic complementarity.” Complementarity is defined in relation to sexual orientation. For persons with a homosexual orientation, sexual relationships with a person of the same sex are complimentary and can be loving, just, and moral.

Personal complementarity is more significant than reproductive complementarity, the capacity to generate new life, because the sexual acts of infertile couples, older couples, couples using contraception, and couples who abstain from sex during fertile times are all equally incapable of generating life. . . . “Making love” contributes to the good of marriage, even if “reproductive complementarity” is not a possibility.

. . . [Salzman and Lawler] have begun exactly the right kind of dialogue about how sexual actions affect real people’s lives. May it continue in peace.

To read Julie Hanlon Rubio’s review in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Making Love, Giving Life
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
“A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics”
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Dan Hanway’s “Fresh Look at a Sensitive Topic”
Robert McClory on Humane Vitae
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace

At The Wild Reed one year ago:
Agreeing with the Vatican
Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Poem

At The Wild Reed two years ago:
CPCSM Co-founder Responds to “Not Catholic” Assertion
Encouraging Words


Phillip Clark said...

This book's been on my "to buy" list for quite some time! Now I know for sure it's worth the pennies! Will definitely have to check it out.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused, Michael, as "human flourishing" is translated from the Greek ethics of Aristotle and has nothing to do with "natural law." Natural law theory has its origins in Stoicism's importation into Christianity, starting with Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century.

Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century defined the Church's sense and use of "natural law" -- NOT to be confused with the "laws of nature" which bears NO resemblance -- in which human reason reflects divine reason that all of nature acts to avoid evil and do good by acting on the teleological purpose one infers from nature towards it one and only final end (the fourth be-cause of Aristotlean Physics, not found in Aristolean Ethics).

But nature does not have teleological purposes, it does not have one and only one final end, and nor do humans. According to mainstream Christianity, human flourishing is a PAGAN concept from Greek ethics, from the Greek word eudaimonia, -- poorly translated as either "happiness," "well-being," or more properly as "human flourishing" -- which does not exist in any Hebrew or Christian Scripture either linguistically or conceptually -- because it is antithetical the Christian kerygma of SALVATION.

If human flourishing without gods is possible, as Aristotle insists, then, of what need is the Christian kerygma of salvation by faith, as Aquinas insists. This "problem" is only a difficulty for Christianity if it accepts the Greek eudaimonia, because, accepted, the need for salvation is superfluous and obviated. Perhaps the ABSENCE of the word eudaimonia and its conception from Hebrew and Christian scripture proves this point. Conjointly, the one refutes the other.

Indeed, the notion of human flourishing (eudaimonia) denies God has any part in the way of life (ethos) that Aristotle's Ethics advocates; moreover, if humans can flourish through virtue (arete, also translated as "personal excellence") and avoidance of vice, then humans do not have need of "salvation."

Rather, Christianity claims humans are sinners in need of redemption and cannot act good, because of our sinful conditions -- concepts wholly foreign in Greek ethics. As one reviews Hebrew and Christian literature, one finds a tendency to import Aristotle's ideas as "overlays" on their deficient conceptualization of "sin" and "righteousness," which has absolutely NO relationship or parity with Greek ethics. Indeed, Pastor Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life is modern mega-church's efforts to once again import Aristotle, since the entire notion of "purpose" is ABSENT scripturally and conceptually. Christians claim the "purpose" of the Incarnation and Pascha is SALVATION, not human flourishing. If we can achieve human flourishing, as Aristotle envisioned, we have no need of salvation -- we've attained human flourishing through the excellence of our choices in life.

N.B. "Excellence as a word and concept is wholly FOREIGN to the scriptures and Thomism, wherein the word "perfection" in holiness is used. Yet, "excellence" is the sine qua non of "human flourishing." Thus, if excellence rebounds in human flourishing, the impossible goal of perfection in holiness is a different GOAL altogether.

Moreover, the foundation of human flourishing cannot accept Christian premises, because to do so, is to deny this world "is a veil of tears," and the next world is the only world in which humans flourish. Yet, unless this world is seen through the sinful prism and "veil of tears," then the Christian kerygma is for not. Orthodox Christian teaching DENIES human flourishing in THIS life. Rather, it insists human's true happiness is achieved only in a "state of grace" confident of SALVATION and an inheritance into the kingdom of heaven.

When Aquinas imported Aristotlean ideas into Christianity, it was with considerable liberty and frequent philosophical abuse. A good example is the Church's "natural law theory," which Aristotle never gave any thought to. Humans, while certainly integral with nature, do not act according to the physical world (Gk; physis), but according to instrumental action (Gk: practical thinking, or phronesis), in which individuals learn prudence from those other individuals who live it, relying on the course of action lying in a mean, not obedience to any laws, commands, or revelation.

That action lying in a mean -- which has NO correspondence in the Abrahamic traditions -- is personal excellence avoiding the extremes of excess and defect (called "vice") and is the basis of Greek virtue ethics ALONE -- NONE of these words, concepts, or formulations can be found in any Abrahamic religion or tradition -- not even a "resemblance." That does not mean that Aquinas' efforts to import Greek ethics onto Judeo-Christian OBEDIENCE was without its own dubious brilliance, but it was a total distortion of Aristotle's Ethics, by also importing Aristotle's Physics as conjointly applicable in human CHOICES. Aristotle would have been horrified by the conflation.

How would we know? Because, the four natural "be-causes" from his physics to explain natural phenomena follow from DEDUCTIVE premises to a NECESSARY conclusion, while human instrumental action follows from human CHOICES about practical reason. In practical reasoning (what we today call "instrumental action") one premise is universal, the other premise is particular, and the conclusions (pl.) that follow are TENTATIVE. Before modern logic, the first approach was known as a formal syllogism, while the latter was a practical syllogism -- a distinction with immense importance that the Church conflates as virtually the same.

Aquinas, however, insists BOTH operate in human choices, which means that the the "four be-causes" are included in the practical decision making. Doing this allows Aquinas to CONFORM to biblical morality, which Aristotle did not, and would not, do. Aquinas' conflation IS and REMAINS the Church's "natural law theory," (NLT) and only the Roman Catholic Church continues to use it, despite the incoherence and fact/value fallacy.

Thus, by NLT, homophilia, abortion, contraception, masturbation, condoms, etc., are all gravely immoral because they interfere with the Church's sole "natural final ends." (Hint: No such exists.)

Besides the obvious fact that neither nature nor humans act for "natural final ends," nature definitely does not behave as if it were a human organism, or as some have insisted, the anthropomorphism of natural processes. Since "natural final ends," can have only ONE such destination (how can TWO or THREE final ends be conjointly final ends?), my serious post on men using their penises to BOTH impregnate women's vaginae and urinate violates the Church's own NLT. You thought I was jesting, perhaps, because is is patently silly. Yes, it is silly, and no, I was not jesting. It is precisely HOW the Church thinks.

In conclusion, I find it terribly odd that you revel in your dissent on Church discipline and doctrine, yet, you retain and promote the archaic and absurd notion of "natural law." In a word: There is no natural law, only laws of nature. And, opening the door to human flourishing closes the door to salvation. Even Aquinas understood that.

Sherry Peyton said...

I thought you might find this link of interest. It seems the Anglican Theological Union devoted its entire issue Summer 08 to Homosexuality from the paper done by Richard A. Norris. You can read it in it's entirety online:

Thanks so much for your blog. I learn something every visit!

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Gay Species,

Thanks for your detailed and thought-provoking response.

It seems to me that your thesis is largely based on the premise that Salzman and Lawler base their understanding of human flourishing on the Greek ethics of Aristotle.

Not having read their book, I can't say if that indeed is the case.

Also, if Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century could "define" the Church's sense of natural law why can't this concept be further developed and defined by the contemporary Church - a process that may involve rejecting aspects of previous understanding?

There's something almost fatalistic about your understanding of the concept - like it's been locked into a certain time and expression and can never change. That's at odds with the living Catholic faith I know and experience.



Anonymous said...

I've read the book. In very short, its not based on Aristotle's Ethics or ethics.

Mark A.

CDE said...

I'm going to avoid the esoteric discussion of natural law and just ask a couple of questions.

What does human flourishing mean? I especially wonder what it means in the concrete, since it seems to take priority over human life.

I mean, if just one of my ancestors -- at any point over the centuries -- had chosen human flourishing over procreation, I wouldn't exist.

crystal said...

Speaking of Anglicans, I saw an interesting lecture by Keith Ward - There's nowt so queer as folk - Gender and sexuality

Anonymous said...

Hi Gay Species,

I wonder where you were taught this version of natural law theory and Thomist ethics. I highly recommend you read Ralph McInerny's Ethica Thomistica and Jean Porter's Reason as Nature.
The reason for my recommendation is to make you see that your assumption that there is a clear distinction between rules and law on the one hand and ethics on the other hand is problematic. Think only of negative rules (precepts) such as the prohibition of murder (killing the innocent). Even Aristotle knew that murder is always wrong and yet he held a eudaemonist virtue ethics. Consider the case of someone who murders others at random, out of pleasure. Would you really want to say that this person is leading a happy life or is flourishing? If not, you may want to reconsider your statement that eudaimonia has 'nothing to do with "natural law"'?
Reading McInerny and Porter may also help you to see that there are different orders of flourishing. The pagan authors such as Aristotle had only a faint glimpse of the supernatural flourishing that lies in the contemplation and love of divine nature. Aristotle's ethics and politics are primarily concerned with peace and justice, not with knowing and loving God. He saw, however, that living in a peaceful and just society is necessary to have the leisure and calm to study God.
For the Christian appropriation of Aristotle it is important to distinguish between moral virtues and theological virtues. The moral virtues (temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence) were known to the ancient philosophers. They are acquired virtues, we can develop them through education and our own efforts. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are infused virtues. They are a gift of God's grace. The ancient philosophers lacked (revealed) knowledge of grace as God's supernatural gift that, according to Catholic teaching, assists us to attain our supernatural destiny. You can also learn about this simply by reading Aquinas' Summa Theologiae.