Friday, January 29, 2010

Aquinas and Homosexuality

My Internet friend (and regular contributor to The Open Tabernacle) Phillip Clark has reminded me that today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

In a message on Facebook, Phillip notes that Aquinas was a “brilliant theologian and scholar who contributed immensely to the patrimony and theological integrity of Catholicism.” Yet, says Phillip “he was also a fallible, flawed human like the rest of us, and in some ways, mired the Catholic Church philosophically in misinformed definitions that continue to have implications on the understanding of certain issues – particularly those related to human sexuality – today.”

In his post, Phillip also shared writings of Hans Küng and John McNeill on the legacy of Thomas Aquinas. Following is what McNeill has to say about Aquinas in his book The Church and the Homosexual.


Thomas Aquinas was the only great scholastic theologian to discuss the subject of homosexual practices in any detail. Albert the Great, in a short reference, gives four reasons why this is the most detestable of practices: it proceeds form a burning frenzy; it has a disgusting foulness; those addicted to it seldom succeed in shaking off the vice; and, finally, it is as contagious as any disease, rapidly spreading from one to another.

In contrast to that of Albert, Thomas’ treatment is calm and dispassionate. As in the case of the Fathers, we must place Thomas’ treatment of homosexuality in the context of his treatment of women and of sexuality in general. Woman, he held, was “the inferior workman who prepares the material for the skilled artisan, the male.” He theorizes that since every child born should be male, because the effect should resemble its cause, there must be some etiological explanation for the birth of the inferior female. Such a birth, he claims, need not necessarily be the result of some intrinsic factor--a “defect in active power” or an “indisposition of the material” – but may sometimes arise from an extrinsic accident. He quotes the Philosopher (Aristotle) to the effect that “a moist south wind helps in the generation of females, while a brisk north wind helps in the generation of males.” Thomas’ attitude toward women is best expressed when he says of Eve: “She was not fit to help man except in generation, because another man would have proved more effective help in anything else.”

Concerning human sexuality in general, Aquinas rejects John Scotus’ position that sexual differentiation as such is due to sin, but he agrees with Augustine’s Stoic view that all sexual pleasure is the result of sin. The Stoic influence is evident in the fact that Aquinas deals with the subject of homosexuality in the course of his treatise on the cardinal virtue of temperance. He identifies the vice to this virtue as lust, whose essence is “to exceed the order and mode of reason where venereal acts are concerned.” Any act which is not consistent with the proper end of venereal acts, namely the generation and education of children, necessarily pertains to the vice of lust. The lustful man desires not human generation but venereal pleasure, and it should be noted that this pleasure can be experienced by indulging in acts which do not issue in human procreation. It is precisely this which is sought in the sin against nature.

Thus the first grounds for Thomas’ condemnation of homosexual practices is his belief that they necessarily represent an inordinate selfish seeking of venereal pleasure; and, as we have see, Thomas believed that all such pleasure is the result of sin. What we should note with interest is that there is no mention in this passage of a third possible motive for venereal acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, besides either lust or procreation – namely, the possibility that they might be an expression of genuine interpersonal love. There is no reason to assume that Aquinas had any more awareness than had the Church Fathers of the homosexual condition. Rather it is almost certain that in his reference to homosexual practices he is assuming that these are merely sexual indulgences undertaken from a motive of lust by otherwise heterosexual persons. This is the conclusion drawn by Joseph McCaffrey in his study of Aquinas’ treatment of homosexuality. Having rigidly subordinated the rational and, therefore, moral use of sex in general to one end – procreation – Aquinas assumes that homosexual acts, since they cannot serve that purpose, must be motivated necessarily and exclusively by a drive toward sexual pleasure.

In a response to an objection that if no one is injured by homosexual activities, there is no sin against charity, Aquinas points out that the order of nature is derived from God. Consequently, any contravention of that order is necessarily “an injury done to the Creator.” Thus the most fundamental objection that Aquinas had to homosexual practices was identical to that of the Stoics: they cannot serve the exclusive divine purpose governing the use of all human sexuality, the end of procreation. It would seem that Aquinas, like his Stoic predecessors, never even considered the possibility that human sexual behavior, even in a heterosexual context, never mind a homosexual one, could be morally justified as an expression of human love.

In one relatively unknown but important passage in his Summa Theologica, Thomas speaks of homosexual practices as capable of being “connaturale secundum quid.” He asks the question, When is pleasure “according to nature?” He distinguishes between those pleasures that are according to human nature specifically as rational – such as “the contemplation of truth” – and those pleasures which humans have in common with other animals – such as “veneral activity” (veneorum usus). But he continues: “In the case of both types of pleasure it can happen that what is unnatural simply speaking can be connatural in a certain situation. For it can occur that in a particular individual there can be a breakdown of some natural principle of the species and thus what is contrary to the nature of the species can become by accident natural to this individual [per accidens naturale huic individuo].” Among other examples of this, Thomas explicitly mentions male homosexual activity (in coitu masculorum). Unfortunately, he never explores this distinction further.

To deal exclusively with the passages in which Aquinas speaks explicitly of homosexual practices is somewhat unjust to his influence upon the consequent development of sexual ethics. Although Aquinas himself did not apply his new insights to practical ethical issues, he did lay the philosophical foundation for a personalist ethics. It was not until he reversed the act-potency relationship of Greek philosophy with his central idea of a real distinction between, essence, or nature, as potency and existence as act that a philosophical foundation was laid for understanding human beings as positively individual and unique and therefore, incapable of being legitimately totally relatavized to the ends of the species from an ethical viewpoint. Further, Thomas opened up the possibility of conceiving human nature not as a static given, but as a dynamic teleological process of growth and development. This made possible an understanding of ethical norms as ideal goals governing the development of personal community, rather than just biological nature. But this development had to await the work of philosophers true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Thomistic philosophy. It was not until the rise of modern personalist philosophies of human subjectivity and freedom that an appropriate methodology for an ethical study of human sexuality in a personalist context became available.

– John J. McNeill
The Church and the Homosexual
pp. 95-99

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Blood-Soaked Thread
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology
Bishop Spong: “Homosexuality is Not Unnatural”
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Making Love, Giving Life
The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part II)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Standard for Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 1)
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 2)
Getting It Right


Mareczku said...

That was very interesting. It was sobering to hear Thomas Aquinas' take on women. What is the Church's take on all of this today? How do they square his view on women with current views?

Phillip Clark said...

Thanks for highlighting my note on your blog Michael! I'm sorry I failed to notice it sooner, it was only brought to my attention through Bill commenting on it on Facebook. But I'm so glad that you found it useful to have it on your blog for the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

I was a bit dismayed when I saw that no one had commented on it on Facebook, as I had specifically tagged all the individuals on purpose because I thought that they would all have an interest in it. Then, when I saw no comments I got a little discouraged, but then I thought about how LONG both of the excerpts were and how lots of people my age (my self included on frequent occasions) have very short attention spans.

So, I'm grateful Michael that you took it upon yourself to assimilate it on your blog and allow the people who were meant to and wanted to read it to do so. Thanks!

crystal said...

I have to admit I've never liked Aquinas much. I first learned about him in a college philsosphy class and my teacher dtested him because he so ripped off Aristotle :) I noticed in reading about Vatican II that the Eastern Rite Churches weren't great fans of his either (link).