Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Daniel Helminiak on the Vatican's Natural Law Mistake

One of the great contemporary Catholic thinkers on converging issues of theology, sexuality, and ethics is Daniel Helminiak. He's perhaps best known for his groundbreaking 1994 book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. In two editions it has sold over 100,000 copies and been translated into six languages. The book began as a hobby, with Daniel researching it over a number of years as he worked through his own issues around being both Catholic and gay. In time he sought out a publisher as he wanted to share the solid conclusion of his research: that, taken on its own terms and read against its own historical and cultural context, the Bible simply does not condemn same-sex relationships as we understand them today.

I had the honor of meeting Daniel, in fact hosting him in my home, when CPCSM invited him to the Twin Cities to be part of its inaugural Bill Kummer Forum on April 28-29, 2006.

Right: Standing at right with (from left) Rev. Paul Tucker, Daniel Helminiak, Paul Fleege, and David McCaffrey (CPCSM co-founder). A picture of CPCSM co-founder Bill Kummer (1948-2006) is on the table in front of us.

Daniel's presentation was entitled "Gay Body, Gay Soul: A Catholic LGBTI Perspective on Sexuality, Spirituality and Marriage." Ahead of his visit to the Twin Cities I interviewed Daniel for CPCSM's journal publication, The Rainbow Spirit. (I've since republished this interview at The Wild Reed. To read it, click here.)

One thing I've always appreciated about Daniel's writing is that it's both grounded in scholarship and readily accessible. To convey the former through the latter is a real gift. And Daniel Helminiak has it. A good example of this can be found in this installment of The Wild Reed's "In the Garden of Spirituality" series, in which I share Daniel's thoughts on spirituality and the gay experience.

In today's post, however, the focus is on Daniel's examination of natural law. The idea of natural law remains very topical given the Catholic hierarchy's constant appeal to it so as to justify its intractability regarding openness to new insights and findings on human sexuality, including the reality of homosexuality. As you'll see, Daniel identifies a key mistake made by the Vatican with regards to natural law. It's a mistake, he writes, that "reduce[s] sex to a mere biological function and turn[s] human sexuality into a barnyard-animal affair."

So without further ado, here's an excerpt from Daniel's essay "The Right and Wrong of Sex, Queer and Otherwise." This and other equally important essays comprise Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth (2006), an invaluable anthology of Daniel's writings.


Because of the very nature of things, some things are helpful, and others are harmful; some things are sustaining or upbuilding, and others are destructive; some things alleviate pain and suffering, and others cause them. This difference is what we mean by saying that some things are good and others are evil, and this set of circumstances is the ground of a science-based ethics. The idea is simple, straightforward, and down-to-earth. The idea is that right and wrong are built into the functioning of the universe and human intelligence is able to discern them. Right and wrong are part of the nature of things. The challenge is to determine what exactly is the nature of things.

In this regard, in addition to philosophy, personal experience, and common sense, the social sciences can come to the rescue. Today we know more, by far, about sexuality than ever before in human history. On many sexual questions the hard evidence of extensive research reveals what is helpful or harmful. This very evidence is a basis for determining right and wrong. In this sense, science-based ethics is just another, more accurately descriptive, contemporary name for natural-law ethics. The idea is simply to determine right and wrong on the basis of the evidence.

Granted, the Catholic [hierarchy] has co-opted the notion of natural law and uses it to oppose sexual liberation. In the popular mind, natural law is the name for the Vatican's teaching. However, the Vatican misrepresents natural law. The concept was around before the Vatican existed. Natural-law theory had its earliest beginnings in Sophocle's play Antigone about a woman who appealed to an authority more ancient than kings and defied King Creon's decree that her brother not be buried by burying him. Aristotle understood that authority to be the law common to all peoples (jus naturale: natural law) in contrast to the laws of particular nations (jus gentium). Stoic philosophy elaborated this notion by appeal to the order or Logos that is built into the universe and that human intelligence could discern: to follow this order would be to live reasonably, ethically. Thomas Aquinas provided the most comprehensive summary of this theory, and, thus, it became a hallmark of Catholic ethics. But natural-law theory is hardly the property of the Catholic Church. Virtually all classical moral philosophers have held some theory of natural law.

The Vatican mistake has been to ignore recent developments in the understanding of human sexuality and, with the ancient Aristotelians, Stoics, and Neoplatonists and with the medievalists, to insist that procreation is the essential purpose, the ultimate meaning, of human sexuality. The mistake is to reduce sex to a mere biological function and turn human sexuality into a barnyard-animal affair. To be sure, the Vatican has recently nuanced its position, now acknowledging also an interpersonal, "unitive" dimension of sex. Yet, the Vatican consistently downplays the interpersonal dimensions of sex – as is blatant in its statements against gay marriage – and the Vatican's insistence on openness to procreation in every sexual act remains a central facet of its official teaching that it proclaims as "natural law."

Rejecting a science-based approach to ethics simply because the Vatican misrepresents natural law would be a major mistake on our part. Long-standing natural-law theory is our strongest ally, and we need to claim and clarify it. Only it – the appeal to reasoned conclusions based on scientific evidence – can dispel the clouds that religions, cultures, personal tastes, and arbitrary opinions stir up around sexual ethics.

In fact, scientific research has contributed to our understanding of sexual ethics. The overwhelming bulk of scientific evidence has shown that gay is good, that nothing is inherently harmful or abnormal about homosexuality. Medical research has discovered the cause of AIDS – not homosexuality, but a virus – and has required the use of condoms. Psychological studies show that the distinctive function of human sex is intimacy and relationship, not procreation. On all these fronts, the scientific research supports homosexuality as a fully healthy and fully acceptable natural variation.

Daniel Helminiak, PhD, PhD, LPC
Excerpted from "The Right and Wrong of Sex, Queer and Otherwise"
in Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth
Harrington Park Press, 2006
pp. 91-93

For more on natural-law theory, see 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

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Beyond the Hierarchy: The Blossoming of Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality (Part 1 – Daniel Helminiak)
Quote of the Day – May 16, 2012
Spirituality and the Gay Experience
"Homosexuality is Not Unnatural"
Jim David on the "Actual Benefits of Same-Sex Marriage"
Nathanial Frank on the "Natural Law" Argument Against Marriage Equality
Rediscovering What Has Been Written on Our Hearts from the Very Beginning
Dialoguing with the Archbishop on Natural Law
Quote of the Day – June 15, 2013
The Standard for Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Human Sexuality: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Joan Timmerman on the "Wisdom of the Body"
Be Not Afraid, You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace
Good News on the Road to Emmaus
Marriage: Part of What is Best in Human Nature

Recommended Off-site Link:
Visions of Daniel: The Official Website of Daniel Helminiak

1 comment:

Paula said...

Thanks for this Helminiak, Michael. I remember when CPCSM invited him here. I bought his book on spirituality using Lonergan's framework and it is one of the most useful books I have read.You are right he is very clear--The Human Core of Spirituality. Maybe your readers would like it. It is not about God (theology); it is about the human spirit. I wonder what Daniel has been working on lately?cianswev 2524