AQUINAS AND SEXUAL ETHICS
Aquinas’s thinking remains hugely influential within the Catholic Church. In particular, his ideas concerning sexual ethics still heavily shape Church teaching. It is on these ideas that we focus here. In particular, I will look at Aquinas’s justification for morally condemning homosexual acts.
When homosexuality is judged to be morally wrong, the justification offered is often that homosexuality is, in some sense, “unnatural”. Aquinas develops a sophisticated version of this sort of argument. The roots of the argument lie in thinking of Aristotle, whom Aquinas believes to be scientifically authoritative. Indeed, one of Aquinas’s over-arching aims was to show how Aristotle’s philosophical system is broadly compatible with Christian thought. I begin with a sketch of Aristotle’s scientific conception of the world.
Aristotle’s vision of the world
Man-made objects typically have a purpose. A knife is made to cut, a telephone for speaking to people at a distance, and a car for transporting us about. In the case of knives, telephones and cars, it is clear what their purpose is, as we made them for that purpose. But what about naturally occurring things? Might they, too, have a purpose?
Clearly, some naturally things do have a function. Legs are for walking and running. Teeth are for biting and chewing. Hearts are for pumping blood. But what of clouds, pebbles and mountains? Are they, too, for something?
Aristotle believed that here, too, a purpose can ultimately be found. Clouds exist to produce rain, rain to water plants, and plants to feed animals. In Aristotle’s view, the natural world forms a rational system within which everything has a purpose. Nothing just is – it is always for something. And the ultimate end to which everything is finally geared, according to Aristotle, is man: “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”.
The addition of God
This Aristotelean vision of purpose-driven world – a world that, by applying our power of reasons, we are able to fathom and comprehend – was well-known to and much admired by many medieval Christian thinkers. They considered it involved only one major omission: God. Aquinas took Aristotle’s view of a purpose-driven world and added to it the thought that the purpose each thing possesses is given to it by God.
God’s entire creation, according to Aquinas, is imbued with divine purpose. By examining the world carefully - by uncovering the essential natures of things and the laws determining what they are for - we can discern God’s plan and intentions.
Aquinas extends this view to cover even ourselves. We too, are made by God for a purpose. By examining our essential natures and revealing what we are for, we can discern what God intends us to be. We can arrive at knowledge of what is in keeping with, and what is contrary to, God’s intentions, and so what is morally good and bad.
The claim that morality can, as it were, be “read off” nature in this way is called the theory of “natural law”.
Aquinas on sexual ethics
You can now see how Aquinas’s version of “natural law” theory is likely to have repercussions for sexual ethics. Many parts of our bodies have a purpose. These purposes are, according to Aquinas, God-given. It was God who gave us legs so that we can walk, a tongue so that we can taste and speak, and so on. But then someone who uses their body, or any part of it, contrary to the manner God intended, contravenes “natural law”. To thwart the natural functions that God has given things is act against God’s will. That makes it wrong.
The God-given role of semen
Aquinas notes that semen is plays a role in reproduction. That is its purpose, he supposes. But then any activity that involves thwarting the natural function of semen must be contrary to nature, and thus morally wrong. “It is evident,” says Aquinas,
that every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to man. And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin. Summa Theologica.
But then it follows that those sexual acts that result in the issue of semen where generation is not possible must be sinful. As homosexual acts between males involve thwarting the purpose God has assigned to semen, such acts are “contrary to nature”. If we act in this way, we frustrate the will of God. We sin.
Of course, if Aquinas is correct, it follows that masturbation and contraception are sinful too. This is, of course, the current position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, masturbation, oral sex and contraception. All are sinful.
To date, the Catholic Church continues to oppose the use of condoms even in places like Africa, where they might save countless lives by reducing the spread of HIV and Aids (though there are signs, finally, that the Church may be about to shift its position on this). The roots of the Church’s justification for continuing to forbid the use of condoms lie at least partly in Aquinas’s medieval blending of Christian theology with Aristotle’s science. The use of condoms involves thwarting the natural reproductive function God has assigned to semen.
An initial objection: walking on your hands
One of the more obvious worries you might have about Aquinas’ justification for condemning homosexual acts is this: doesn’t it commit him to morally condemning all sorts of behaviour that is, in fact, entirely blameless? Take walking on your hands. There is nothing morally wrong with that, surely? Circus performers and acrobats do it all the time. No one, not even the staunchest Catholic, condemns them. Yet our hands are not designed to be walked on. So why doesn’t Aquinas condemn the activities of circus folk?
Aquinas is ready for this objection. He admits that it isn’t always wrong to use a body part contrary to its natural function. Walking on your hands is not a sin. But this is because, as Aquinas puts it, “man’s good is not much opposed by such inordinate use.” It is acceptable to use a body part contrary to its natural function if this helps man as a whole, or at least doesn’t frustrate the natural purpose of that whole. Walking on your hands does not frustrate the purpose God has given man, and so it is morally acceptable. But homosexuality does frustrate this purpose. Man is designed by God to procreate. Homosexuality thwarts that function. That makes it morally wrong.
Objections to Aquinas’s sexual ethics
Many other objections have been raised against Aquinas’ sexual ethics, including the following two:
1. Just as occasional bouts of walking on your hands won’t prevent you using them for the purpose they were intended, so occasional bouts of homosexual activity do not prevent a man from using his sexual organs to reproduce normally. Just as I might use my hands normally most of the time, but occasionally engage in a bout of hand-walking, so I might I might use my sexual organs procreativity for the most part, while also engaging in the odd homosexual fling. It is not immediately clear how Aquinas’s argument, as outlined above, allows Aquinas to justify condemning homosexual activity per se, rather than just exclusively homosexual activity. Perhaps Aquinas’s argument might be bolstered by the addition of the premise that God also clearly also intends us to be strictly monogamous.
2. Aquinas’s justification is dependent upon several questionable claims many of us no longer accept. These include:
(i) The claim that God exists. If there is no God, then the suggestion that things possesses purposes that are given by God is false. But then Aquinas’ argument has rational force only if he can show that there are good grounds for supposing God exists. Whether there are such grounds is contentious, to say the least. In the absence of good grounds for supposing God exists, we lack good grounds for accepting Aquinas’ conclusion.
(ii) But in any case, even if there is a God, the claim that those purposes that we find in nature indicate what God desires is questionable. We now know that the universe and all the species in it were not created more or less simultaneously by God just a few thousand years ago, as Aquinas believed. What Aquinas took to be natural functions, roles, dispositions etc. laid down by God at creation were in reality laid down by natural selection over millions of years. And the functions, roles and dispositions that have evolved by natural selection need not be good. Natural selection favours attributes that enhance the ability of organisms to survive and reproduce. And what enhances that ability may well not be morally admirable. For example, we may have evolved a natural disposition to dominate and subjugate others. Such a disposition may well have survival value. But just because this tendency is “natural” for humans in no way entails that it is morally good.
Philosophy is sometimes accused of being a head-in-the-clouds discipline with no relevance to day-to-day life. But if philosophy can show that the moral justifications offered for condemning homosexuality and the use of condoms are, in fact, intellectually bankrupt, then philosophy might prove very useful indeed. It might even contribute towards saving countless lives.