Sunday, June 09, 2019

Aquinas's Esoteric Teaching on Homosexuality as Naturally Unnatural

Pope Francis has opened up a debate within the Catholic Church as to whether homosexuality and same-sex marriage can be tolerated or even blessed by the Church.  On the one side, the anti-Francis priests and prelates insist that the orthodox doctrine of the Church is clear in condemning homosexuality as sodomy--the "vice against nature"--and thus contrary to both natural law and canon law.  On the other side, the pro-Francis priests and prelates suggest that this doctrine might need to be changed so as to recognize the moral dignity of homosexuals.

In his recently published book--In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy--Frederic Martel has made the shocking claim that the great majority of priests and prelates--including those in the Vatican--are homosexuals, and therefore the battle over homosexuality between the anti-Francis conservatives and the pro-Francis liberals is actually a battle "between two homosexualized factions of the Church" (90).  Oddly, then, the conservative Catholics condemning homosexuality display the hypocrisy of "homophobic homosexuals" (51).

Since Thomas Aquinas has long been seen as the authoritative philosopher and theologian for the Catholic Church, it's not surprising that part of this debate over homosexuality has been a debate over how to interpret Aquinas's teaching on the natural law of homosexuality.  What I find fascinating about this is how it reveals the two levels of Aquinas's writing--the surface level that conforms to the popular opinion of Aquinas's time and the hidden level that conveys to the careful reader Aquinas's secret teaching.  The anti-Francis traditionalists can point to Aquinas's exoteric teaching that homosexuality is the "vice against nature."  The pro-Francis liberals can point to Aquinas's esoteric teaching that homosexuality is natural for those individuals with a natural inclination to same-sex love.

Shortly after being elected Pope in 2013, Francis called for Synod on the Family to meet in Rome in 2014-2015.  This synod brought together all of the cardinals and a large number of bishops to debate questions about the doctrines of family--such as how the Church should judge divorce and homosexuality.  Francis asked Lorenzo Baldisseri, an Italian bishop, to organize the preparations for the synod with the help of one of the most gay-friendly cardinals--the German Walter Kasper--who would lead the fight for sexual liberalism against Francis's conservative opponents.

From his interviews with Cardinal Kasper, Martel learned that Francis found a way to enlist Aquinas as a supporter for his pro-gay agenda.  Adriano Oliva is an Italian Dominican living in Paris who is one of the leading scholars on Thomas Aquinas.  He is the president of the Leonine Commission which is the program of the Dominican Order for preparing critical editions of all of the works of Aquinas.  Early in 2015, he sent a letter to Kasper describing his work on a text that would interpret Aquinas as supporting homosexuality as a natural human propensity for some individuals, which might support the Church in recognizing same-sex unions.  Kasper passed the letter onto Pope Francis, who so liked this work that he asked that Oliva's text be distributed to the participants in the synod.  Later that year, Oliva's text was published as a book in French: Amours: L'Eglise, les divorces remarries, les couples homosexuels (Paris: Cerf, 2015).  It has not yet been translated into English.

                                                                                          Adriano Oliva

Although Aquinas is easily quoted as teaching that homosexuality is "against nature," Oliva points to some largely ignored passages in the Summa Theologica (particularly, I-II, q. 31, a. 7), where Aquinas says that the homosexual inclination is natural for homosexual individuals, and so homosexual love is part of the natural law for those inclined by their nature to it.  (Aquinas's works in Latin and English are available online.) In one sense, "nature" is what is common to humans and animals, such as the natural inclinations for the self-preservation of the individual (through eating, drinking, and sleeping) and for the reproduction of the species (through sexual intercourse of male and female that leads to procreation).  From this point of view, the sexual union of men is contrary to the nature of the species as inclined to reproduction.  But it can be "connatural" (connaturale) for those individuals who have a natural desire for same-sex union, just as it is natural for hot water to give heat.  (Connaturale generally has the same meaning as naturale, although connaturale seems to refer to what is "natural" for particular individuals or a group of individuals rather than the whole species.)  So, for those individuals naturally inclined to it, homosexuality is naturally unnatural!

If homosexuality is natural for the homosexual individual, then it would be naturally good for that individual, because, as Aquinas says, "everything to which human beings are inclined by their nature belongs to the natural law" (I-II, q. 94, a. 3), and because "that which is the end of certain natural things cannot be evil in itself, because things that exist naturally are ordered to their end by divine providence" (SCG, 3.126).  Every natural inclination aims at some end that is good.

This interpretation of Aquinas supporting a gay Thomism provoked a furious rebuttal from traditionalist Thomistic scholars.  Five Dominicans--three from the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, and two from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.--published a disdainful attack (published here in First Things).  They accused Oliva of misreading Aquinas in the most absurd ways.  So, for example, in considering the passage Oliva cites as supporting homosexual acts as natural (I-II, q. 31, a. 7), they explain:
"it can happen that what is unnatural for human beings in general can turn out to be somewhat 'natural' for certain individuals, because their nature has been altered.  For example, some sick persons enjoy eating earth.  This is not really natural for them, Aquinas explains, but is more properly understood as a corruption of their nature.  What is unnatural for most (eating earth) becomes 'natural' for them, but only in a qualified way."
"Aquinas then states that due to bad 'customs' or habits, some men eventually find delight in eating human beings, or in sexual union with animals or other men (coitu bestiarum aut maculorum).  So, for some people, cannibalism, bestiality, or homosexual intercourse can become pleasurable as quasi-natural, because past sinful acts distort their nature."
"Oliva celebrates this text.  He thinks it shows that homosexual acts are natural for homosexual persons.  And what is natural must be good!  Also, for Oliva, Aquinas places the origin of the inclination for gay sex in the soul of the homosexual person.  That is, this inclination comes from the most intimate part of his being, and it moves all the way to sexual union.  Oliva concludes that we can distinguish between gay sex sought simply for physical pleasure, and the tender gay sex that comes from the homosexual person's most intimate self.  Indeed, homosexual persons are called to live out the inclination which is natural for them, namely, in fidelity to another person of the same sex, and enjoying sexual acts not primarily for pleasure but as expressions of love.  The Church should bless such unions." 
 "Now if, as Oliva proposes, Thomas means that the homosexual inclination comes from the most intimate part of the person's soul, then the same reading must apply to Aquinas's mention of cannibalism and bestiality.  Yet this is clearly absurd.  Aquinas cannot mean that cannibals and practitioners of bestiality are following the inclinations of their most intimate selves.  That is precisely why Thomas mentions custom. . . . Oliva's claim that, for Thomas, some persons are born with a homosexual soul, is outrageous as a matter of textual interpretation.  It would mean that, for Aquinas, others are born with cannibalistic souls, and others with souls geared to practice bestiality."
But notice what the Dominicans have done here.  They cannot deny that Aquinas in this passage really does say that homosexuality is natural--or connatural--for some individuals, and that's what Oliva stresses.  But then they point out that in the context of the whole passage, Aquinas's teaching here is incoherent.  Homosexuality is natural for some individuals, but it's also unnatural, because it's actually a corruption of their nature by custom, as is the case for cannibalism and bestiality.  So, homosexuality cannot be natural after all, but only "quasi-natural" or natural "only in a qualified way."

(For the argument that this passage is coherent if one properly understands what is meant by the "connaturality" of homosexuality, see a paper by J. Budziszewski on "The Natural, The Connatural, and The Unnatural."  I must admit that I am struggling to answer his argument.)

When a careful thinker and writer like Aquinas writes an incoherent passage, we have to wonder why.  Maybe he just fell here into sloppy writing.  Or maybe he intentionally wrote this incoherent passage so as to convey different meanings to different readers.  Most of his readers--like the five Dominican fathers--will see him accepting the popular opinion of medieval Christians that condemns homosexuality as being just as unnatural in its corruption as cannibalism and bestiality.  But a few careful readers--like Oliva--will suspect that Aquinas is casting doubt on this popular opinion (even as he appears to endorse it) by saying that homosexuality can be natural for some people, while protecting himself from persecution by hiding this secret teaching from his popular readers.

The problem with esoteric writing, however, is that when it's successful, it's almost impossible to prove to those readers not inclined to look for it.  The best that one can do is to point to a pattern of writing that hints at a secret teaching that is unpopular for the writer's general audience, which must be hidden from their view, while being revealed to a few careful readers inclined to doubt popular opinions.  (I have written a series of posts on esoteric writing here and here.)

Consider this passage:  "certain special sins are said to be against nature, and so against the commingling of male and female, which is natural for all animals, is the sleeping together of men, which is specially said to be the vice against nature" (I-II, q. 94, a. 3, ad 2).  Immediately after this passage, Aquinas writes: "because of the diverse conditions of human beings, it happens that some acts are virtuous for some people, as proportionate and suitable for them, which are nonetheless vicious for others, as disproportionate for them" (ad 3).

So, having just said that homosexuality is "said to be" the "vice against nature," he then says that what is a vice for some people can be a virtue for others, if it is proportionate to their individual temperament.  Should the careful reader consider the possibility that while homosexuality is "said to be" unnatural by most people, who are naturally heterosexual, homosexuality can be naturally virtuous for those individuals naturally inclined to it?  That's the conclusion drawn by John Boswell writing about this passage: "In the end Aquinas admits more or less frankly that his categorization of homosexual acts as 'unnatural' is a concession to popular sentiment and parlance" (Christianity, Social Tolerance3, and Homosexuality [University of Chicago Press, 1980], 328).

Consider also how when Aquinas says that homosexuality is against nature because it violates the natural law of procreation, he contradicts what he says in defense of virginity as a virtue for those who choose to remain celibate (like himself) because this suits their natural temperament (II-II, q. 152, a. 2).  To the question of whether virginity is unlawful, Aquinas answers no.  The first objection to his answer is that virginity is unlawful because it violates the natural law of procreation as necessary for the preservation of the species.  Here is his reply to this objection:
"A duty may be of two sorts: it may be enjoined on the individual, and such a duty cannot be ignored without sin.  Or it may be enjoined upon a multitude; in this case, no individual in the multitude is obligated to fulfill the duty . . . . The commandment regarding procreation applies to the human race as a whole. . . . It is therefore sufficient for the race if some people undertake to reproduce physically."
Similarly, Aquinas argues that while natural law dictates marriage directed to reproduction and the rearing of children as a natural good for most people, because this is a general inclination, nevertheless some individuals will have a natural temperament that suits them for a life of celibacy, which need not impede the natural good of reproduction as long as most people marry and have children (ST, suppl., q. 41, aa. 1-2).  Aquinas leaves his careful reader to apply this to homosexuality and conclude that same-sex coupling does not impede reproduction by heterosexual couples, and thus does not violate the natural law of reproduction.  In this way, homosexuality is naturally unnatural.

In the nest post, I will have more to say about Martel's book on the Catholic priesthood and Vatican as the world's largest homosexual organization.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always read this passage of Aquinas as esoterically allowing for the variation which effects a small part of the population. I don’t think it can be dismissed as anything else.