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Many lay Catholics taking part in the Vatican’s survey will have struggled with the questions concerning natural law and sex and relationships. Here, a theologian explains Aquinas’ thinking and dismisses some myths in the process
In the Vatican’s questionnaire, ample reference is made to natural law, an idea commonly associated specifically, if not exclusively, with Catholic moral theology. But natural law is one of the oldest and, until relatively recently, most influential ideas in moral and political thought.
However much disagreement there might be about specifics, we seem unable to dispense with the notion that some things are natural or appropriate to human life. And nowhere is this more so than in the context of family relations, sexuality and medical practice.
Again, only relatively recently, dating from the early modern period, has the idea of natural law come under suspicion, especially among theologians. But the first stirrings of that suspicion were felt in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries when voluntarist thinkers such as the Franciscans, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and William of Ockham (1285-1349), downplayed our ability to grasp the truth about reality with our minds, on the basis that the order of things was established by the sovereignly free and therefore arbitrary will of God, thus putting it beyond our understanding, and calling instead for acceptance and obedience. According to these thinkers, moral principles were decreed by God such that, if God were to decree that adultery is acceptable, so be it. Something is good or bad, on this view, simply because of God’s fiat.
Later, in the early modern period among secular political thinkers such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), an entirely secular, non-theological concept of natural law emerged, enshrining for the first time human and political rights but also leading to a quasi-mathematical calculus for demonstrating moral principles. This extreme rationalism led to absurdity and a wholly justified discrediting of natural law theory, as it had come to be formulated.
The medieval notion of natural law could not have been more different. It was firmly embedded in an explicitly theological context, in which the concept of nature itself was theological. Natural law provided an indispensable framework within which it was possible to judge and evaluate changes in the understanding of marriage, economics and much else associated with the rapid expansion of the new cities in medieval Europe. Natural law as understood by such thinkers as St Thomas Aquinas is still relevant for contemporary thought.
Aquinas’ account of natural law takes the raw material of morality to be the human nature with which we have been endowed by God: and the point of moral reflection is to discern ways in which this nature might flourish. For Aquinas, flourishing and true happiness are the same thing; so the first question of ethics asks about what makes human beings genuinely and lastingly happy.
That starting point predetermines, as the Dominican Brian Davies says, an ethics of opportunity rather than obedience. The implications of this distinction between obligation and happiness as the starting points of ethics are vast. Each gives rise to an entirely different moral outlook: happiness leads to talk of virtues, obligation to talk of duties. If morality concerns the quest for fulfilment by seeking what is genuinely good for us and thereby answers to our most basic needs, the door is open for talk of communion and wholeness, love and friendship.
In so far as it figures at all, obedience follows from and serves love. To focus on obligation, on the other hand, implies an arbitrary and external principle of action in which conformity to law is the all-important goal. In this account, love is subordinated to obedience, and the door is open for an unhealthy and unhelpful concentration on sin and what is to be avoided, rather than on goodness and what we are to do and become.
Aquinas takes his cue from the fact that we human beings have certain shared, natural inclinations to certain goals or ends, which are specific to our nature. One of them is our desire for understanding and truth, in pursuit of which our reason is prominent. Natural law for Aquinas is not so much a theory, and certainly not a device, for making moral decisions: rather it is a way of asserting that human nature is, in principle, however difficult to ascertain in practice, objectively knowable; and that our reason is central to the task of understanding our nature and what fulfils it or diminishes it.
Many who criticise natural law point to its inflated claims to a quasi-mathematical certainty but neither Aristotle nor Aquinas would have claimed that such a degree of certitude is possible. Aquinas, for instance, is clear that though there will always be agreement on the most fundamental, primary principles of natural law – the preservation of life, reproduction, nurture and education of offspring, and knowing the truth and God – the secondary precepts, in which we seek to discern what actually is applicable in any given case, will always be subject to error and disagreement, requiring, as they do, lived experience and the exercise of reason, the two ingredients of human wisdom. “Therefore judgement concerning individual cases must be left to the prudence of each person,” says Aquinas.
One misdirected criticism of natural law is that it concentrates too much on what we have in common with other animals, failing to acknowledge those aspects of our human nature that distinguish us, namely culture, society and a whole host of other factors belonging to human beings as social and political creatures. But the medieval notion of what it is to be human could not be detached from the idea that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, which is the theological grounding for our social natures. Aquinas was clear that natural law referred to our existence in society and community, as much as our instincts shared with other animals.
But even viewed in this richly theological context, Aquinas was clear that reason and experience, which the natural law account of morality promotes, are not enough, if we are to attain final and complete happiness. For this, God’s grace is needed. Aquinas speaks of the Old Law, meaning the Torah, the law of God from Moses. With the coming of Christ, there is a transition to what he calls the New Law or the Law of the Gospel. “The New Law consists chiefly in the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is shown forth by faith working through love,” he says.
The papal questionnaire raises the question of natural law specifically in question two, dealing with sexual ethics and the family. It is here that the medieval notion of natural law is most helpful in gaining clarity in the face of much misunderstanding.
There are many ways of misunderstanding both sexuality and sex, but two stand out. The first is prudery and prudishness, which is so often laid at the feet of Catholics. On this view, sex is far too messy to be an important part of our lives, and it certainly has nothing to do with our spiritual lives. Admittedly, this has been the understanding of many religious sects in history, including some based on Christian heresies; but it is a view that leads, at best, to missed opportunities for human flourishing and, at worst, to neurosis, hypocrisy and hardness of heart. Whatever individual Christians may have thought and taught, Christianity as such does not deny the intrinsic goodness of our sexuality. Christian mystics have freely and famously used the language of erotic love and sexual metaphor to describe the communion with God to which Christians believe all human beings are called.
If the first misunderstanding fails to register the importance of sexuality, the second makes of it an idol. Our age is undeniably genitally fixated and the conflation of sexuality and having sex is one of the outcomes. The confusion is a failure of imagination as much as anything else and it has led to thinly concealed boredom, instead of mutual delight and life-giving intimacy. In an oddly paradoxical twist, permissiveness and prudishness arrive at the same impoverishment.
Our sexuality is intrinsic to our natures as human beings and it follows that sex can never be insignificant, no matter how casually we may try to treat it: it will always either enhance our lives or diminish them. In a committed, exclusive and permanent relationship, it can be life-giving in every sense, leading to lifelong trust and love. Conversely, casual or “recreational” sex trivialises trust and alienates us from one another.
Sex is safest (in the fullest sense and not just “hygienic”) in the context of a permanent, exclusive and committed relationship, open to the possibility of new life, in which the free gift of shared intimacy is not inhibited by a desire to avoid the consequences of commitment in both biological and psychological terms.
A final point: chastity is not primarily concerned with sex, but with all our relationships. It mainly concerns reverence and respect for others. To be chaste is to relate to others freely, respectfully and with integrity, without manipulating or invading their freedom to be themselves. It is to treat other people as ends and never means, relating to them in themselves and for themselves.
Of course, chastity is particularly important in the area of sex because, more easily than many of our other appetites, it can lead us to offend against another’s good by crossing boundaries. But we should never lose sight of the fact that to fear and dislike sex is as much a negation of chastity as to abuse it for selfish gratification. Chastity challenges prudery as much as promiscuity.