Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Is Masturbation Worse Than Rape? Thomas Aquinas's Esoteric Writing About Sodomy

Among the sins of lust, according to Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church, the greatest is the "sin against nature," which includes masturbation, homosexual intercourse, bestiality, and any "unnatural, monstrous, or bestial form" of sexual activity--such as fellatio, cunnilingus, or interfemoral or anal sex (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 154, a. 11).  Traditionally, all these forms of non-procreative sex--with orgasmic pleasure achieved outside the coital insertion of a penis in a vagina--have been condemned as sodomy.  Aquinas indicates that the first obvious objection to this is that surely the sins of lust that harm our neighbor--such as adultery and rape--are greater sins than the sins against nature that harm no one (ST, II-II, q. 155, obj. 1).

In response, Aquinas bites the bullet and replies to this objection by insisting: "Just as the ordering of right reason proceeds from man, so the order of nature is from God Himself; wherefore in sins against nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God, the Author of nature" (q. 155, a. 1).  To support this claim, he quotes a passage from Augustine's Confessions (3.8.15), in which Augustine speaks of the "disgraceful acts against nature" (flagitia contra naturam) committed by the people of Sodom (reported in Genesis 19) as a violation of God's law deserving God's punishment by annihilation of the city. Augustine explains:  "the social bond which should exist between God and us is violated when the nature of which he is the author is polluted by a perversion of sexual desire."

Notice what this means: masturbation, fellatio, and cunnilingus are worse than rape!  Most of us--including most Catholics--will find that hard to swallow.  Some readers--myself included--will find Aquinas's reasoning here so implausible that they will suspect that Aquinas himself does not believe it, and that he is engaging in some esoteric writing--suggesting that his exoteric endorsement of the Catholic Church's condemnation of the "vices against nature" is stated in such a way that careful readers will see a secret teaching contradicting the public teaching.  (Previously, I have written posts here and here about Aquinas using secret writing to take the side of reason against revelation while living in a community where the Church enforced belief in revelation.)

This raises at least two questions.  Are there any persuasive arguments for condemning and punishing all forms of sodomy as contrary to natural law?  And if these arguments turn out to be remarkably weak, does that suggest that there might be some hidden motivation in the Catholic Church for professing these arguments--perhaps a hypocritical opposition to homosexuality from homosexual priests who live double lives?

My post here is on the first question.  My next post will be on the second.


THE THOMISTIC NATURAL LAW OF SODOMY

There are three strange features of Aquinas's reply to that objection.  The first is that the quoted passage from Augustine's Confessions does not explicitly identify the "disgraceful acts against nature" committed by the people of Sodom.  The Old Testament is not clear about whether the people of Sodom were punished specifically for homosexuality or for some other misconduct.  Shortly after the passage in the Confessions quoted by Aquinas, Augustine quotes Paul in Romans (1:26) as condemning lust for "that use which is against nature."  But Augustine does not quote the entire passage from Paul here identifying this sin against nature as homosexuality: "Among them women have exchanged the natural use for the use which is against nature; and men too, giving up the natural use of women, burn with lust for one another" (1:26-27).  (This passage from Paul in Romans 1 is noteworthy in that it is the only statement in the Bible that condemns not just gay men but also lesbian women.)

The second strange feature of Aquinas's reply is that he does not challenge the objector's claim that the "vice against nature" does not harm other human beings.  This is a crucial point for determining the legal regulation of sodomy, because since Aquinas says that it is not proper for human law to prohibit all vices, but only to prohibit those vices that are harmful to others--such as murder and theft--it follows implicitly that even if Christians must condemn sodomy morally, they cannot rightly punish it with legal coercion (ST, I-II, q. 96, a. 2).

In the Old Testament, sodomy is punished with death (Leviticus 20:13); and for that reason, sodomy had been a capital crime throughout much of the Christian world until the 19th century.  In the United States, sodomy was a crime in many states up to 2003, when the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas struck down such laws as unconstitutional.

In contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament does not recommend any legal coercive punishment for sodomy, although it does recommend that Christians condemn and punish it as practiced by members of the Christian churches.  Paul teaches the Christians in the Corinthian church that those in the Christian community guilty of sodomy and other sexual immorality must be punished by being banished from the community; but the Christians should not go to the courts in Corinth to seek judgments against these evil-doers (1 Corinthians 5-6).  Sodomites and other such sinners banished from the churches will be punished by God with eternal damnation in the afterlife.

Paul writes: "For what is it to me to judge those outside?  Is it not for you to judge those inside?  But God is to judge those outside" (1 Cor. 5:12-13).  Here is the New Testament scriptural basis for a Christian libertarianism, which enforces Christian morality among those within the voluntary association of the Christian churches, but which does not coercively enforce this morality through law.  So as long as sexual immorality like sodomy does not harm others, it can be permitted by human law, with the understanding that it will be judged by God in the afterlife.  (I have written about this Christian Lockean libertarianism here, here., and here.)  Aquinas seems to agree with this.

And yet even if sodomy is harmless, Aquinas indicates, it is worse than harmful sexual sins like rape, because sodomy is against the order of nature and thus an injury done to God as the Author of nature.  But this is a third strange feature of Aquinas's reply to the objection, because he must assume a sexual teleology of procreation that is too narrow to account for the full range of human sexual nature.

John Corvino has made this point well in his book What's Wrong with Homosexuality?  He very briefly explains this in a video here.  Here is a longer (1 hour) video with his famous lecture "What's Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?"



Homosexuality and other forms of sodomy, Aquinas claims, are all "unnatural," because they cannot result in procreation.  Just as eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, and feet are for walking, genitals are for procreating.  It is immoral to use one's genitals to achieve orgasmic pleasure without achieving procreation, because that violates the natural purpose of those organs.

Aquinas does recognize that nature is variable in that human body parts can have multiple uses, so that one can properly use a body part for something other than its primary natural purpose.  For example, one can choose to walk on one's hands.  But still, Aquinas observes, in walking on one one's hands, "man's good is not much opposed by such inordinate use" (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.122.9).  By contrast, it might seem that sodomy undermines the natural human good of procreation.  "Every emission of semen in such a way that generation cannot follow is contrary to the good of man" (SCG, 3.122.5).

There are three obvious problems with this reasoning, however.  The first problem is that sexual pleasure can serve some natural ends other than procreation.  Aquinas himself concedes this when he says that marriage is naturally directed not only to procreation but also to the conjugal bonding of the couple.  Heterosexual couples often have sex so that mutual pleasure strengthens their bond to one another, even when they don't want to procreate or cannot procreate; and to do this, they might engage in non-coital sexual acts such as fellatio, cunnilingus, or interfemoral sex. This being true, homosexual acts can promote this same natural end by reinforcing the intimate bonding of homosexual couples.  To deny this, one would have to argue either that conjugal bonding without procreation is not a natural human good or that gay men and lesbian women cannot achieve this good.

The second problem with the claim that sodomite sexual acts cannot achieve procreation is that couples can contribute to the procreation and rearing of children through adoption or in vitro fertilization, even though the adoptive couple has not produced the children through coital intercourse.  Consequently, gay and lesbian couples can achieve both of the natural ends of marriage--conjugal bonding and parental care.
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The third problem is that those who choose not to directly procreate themselves are not necessarily undermining the good of procreation.  After all, Aquinas himself was a celibate monk, and he claimed that those who chose celibacy might have a "natural temperament" for celibacy.  So refraining from procreating does not deny the natural good of procreation.

These obvious problems with the Thomistic natural law of sodomy as against nature have led some proponents of natural law to propose an alternative--the "new natural law."


THE NEW NATURAL LAW OF MARRIAGE AND SODOMY

Robert George of Princeton University is one of the leading proponents of the "new natural law."  He has indicated that the Thomistic natural law argument against sodomy as unnatural fails:  "It is often assumed in treatments of sexual ethics that the central argument from natural law theory against non-marital sexual acts is simply that such acts are unnatural, that is, contrary to the direction inscribed in the reproductive or procreative power.  This argument, often described as the 'perverted faculty argument,' is easily disposed of" (1999, 161).  He explains: "It is not clear, for example, that acting against the orientation of a biological power is necessarily wrong, nor is it clear that somomitical and other non-marital acts are really contrary to that direction" (1999, 181, n. 2).

So, the Thomistic argument against sodomy is "easily disposed of," because it is not clear that non-procreative sex is necessarily wrong or really contrary to procreation.  As an alternative to this argument, George follows those like Germain Grisez and John Finnis in arguing that sodomy is wrong because it violates marriage as a "basic good" of human life.

Following Grisez's lead, Finnis in 1980 (in Natural Law and Natural Rights) proposed a list of seven "basic goods" or "basic values" that could be self-evidently known by intuition as the basic aspects of human well-being:  life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability (friendship), practical reasonableness, and religion (Finnis 1980, 86-90).

This list resembles what Aquinas identifies as the "natural inclinations" of human nature or what I identify as the 20 "natural desires."  But unlike Aquinas and myself, Finnis is a Kantian rationalist who wants these basic goods to be known by pure reason alone without any grounding in the natural inclinations or desires of human nature.  For that reason, Finnis does not even like the idea of "natural law": he speaks of "the rather unhappy term 'natural law,'" because he wants a natural law without nature (1980, 374).  He wants to move from Thomistic naturalism to Kantian rationalism.  (I have criticized the Kantianism of the new natural law here.)

Notice that the list of seven basic goods does not include procreative sex or marriage.  Finnis indicated that sexual intercourse could fall under more than one of these goods: "as a human action, pursuit and realization of value, sexual intercourse may be play, and/or expression of love or friendship, and/or an effort to procreate" (1980, 86).  This suggests that non-procreative sex could satisfy one or more of the basic human goods.  But, then, years later, after the first edition of Natural Law and Natural Rights, Finnis added "marriage" to his list of "basic goods," so that he could criticize homosexuality as a violation of this basic good (Finnis 1996; 2011, 446-48).

According to the new natural lawyers, marriage as a basic good is a comprehensive "two-in-one-flesh" union of a male and female, for whom their coital penis-in-vagina sex renders them literally a single organic reproductive whole.  Consequently, the sexual union of a same-sex couple cannot ever be a "real marriage," because they can never experience that penis-in-vagina coital union for reproduction.

There are some obvious objections to this reasoning, which I have brought up in some previous posts hereherehere, and here.

The most common objection is that if the new natural lawyers were right, sterile heterosexual couples could not have a "real marriage," because they cannot reproduce.  The reply to this objection is that a heterosexual married couple do have a "real marriage," even if they are sterile, because their sexual acts can still be "of the reproductive type."  This is said to be analogous to a baseball team that never wins a game: this is still a baseball team because it is oriented to the goal of winning, even if it always loses.

The fallacy in this analogy, however, is that it does not distinguish between a goal that does not occur, although people are intentionally seeking it, and a goal that cannot occur, so that no one aware of its impossibility can intentionally seek it.  A losing baseball team can continue trying to win, as long as winning is a possibility.  But if the team knows that winning is impossible, they cannot honestly strive for this.  Similarly, an infertile heterosexual couple who knows that they are infertile cannot honestly try to procreate; and so if they engage in sexual acts, this must be for some end other than reproduction.

Moreover, why should we say that coital union--penis-in-vagina--is the only human good that human beings can achieve through sex?  Why can't both heterosexual and homosexual couples express their love for one another and build their conjugal bond through mutual pleasure-giving without coital union?

Can't we also assume that most of those people who might adopt the new natural law argument for "real marriage" cannot consistently adhere to it?  They will appeal to the argument for the sake of condemning same-sex coupling.  But they won't accept the argument's claim that heterosexual couples who engage in contraception, masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, and interfemoral sex are engaging in sodomy.  Isn't that because they recognize that sexual activity serves human goods other than reproduction through coitus?

If the arguments for the Catholic Church's condemnation of sodomy are so weak that even most Catholics do not believe them, we must wonder whether there is some hidden motivation for the Church's position.  Recently, Pope Francis hinted at the answer: "Behind rigidity there is always something hidden, in many cases a double life."  I will pursue this thought in the next post.


REFERENCES

Corvino, John. 2013. What's Wrong with Homosexuality? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Finnis, John. 1980. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Finnis, John. 1996. "Is Natural Law Theory Compatible with Limited Government?" In Robert George, ed., Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality, 1-26. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Finnis, John. 2011. Natural Law and Natural Rights. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George, Robert P. 1999. In Defense of Natural Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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