Thursday, August 21, 2014

How natural law could favour homosexual acts

This is my answer to Marc Barnes post on homosexuality,

It seems to me that Marc Barnes might be answering to weaker (and somehow stereotyped) arguments instead of to the stronger case one might find. In particular I would like to comment on his reading of Paul in Romans, and on the natural law. So this is my answer to Marc Barnes:

Prologue: the silence of Jesus

As you mention, it is true that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, or about rape, or genocide, or suicide, or paedophilia, or crystal meth; and that it would be silly to assume Jesus approval for everything he doesn't mention. However, all this is already know by the well minded and intelligent people on the pro-homosexual side of the argument, so there might be more to the argument than what meets the eye.

I believe that the silence of Jesus is a good point on which to start the discussion about homosexuality. Jesus was quite vocal about issues which he seemed to consider important: hypocrisy, for example, or lack of commitment to righteousness, or the failure to embrace outcasts and foreigners. That Jesus was not at all vocal about homosexual acts suggests that the particular issue about sex between men (or women) was not at the core of his doctrine. It may follow from his teachings that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil, but whether it follows or not is a matter for further interpretation.

For some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that have perceived the Church basically as being a bunch of people obsessed about sex and about prohibiting same gender relationships, the fact that Jesus was silent about homosexual acts comes as a good news. In the same way, for some LGBT people, the ones hate themselves for being queer, the fact that Jesus didn't speak a world of hate to them should also comes as a good news.

To summarize this section. The silence of Jesus can be a positive point to be made, as it tells us that the first word of Jesus to us, is not about sex. From this it can be learned, that the first word from the Church to LGBT people is not (and should not be) about sex. For many people this is good news.

Part 1: homogenital acts and the natural law in Paul
A careful reading of the argument you develop from the letter of Paul to the Romans (chapter 1) seems to go as follows:

    a)  Paul is not talking about same-sex committed relationships but about same sex genital acts
    b)  Paul claims that same-sex genial acts are contrary to the natural law
    c)  Acting contrary to the natural law is always sinful
    d)  Therefore, same-sex genital acts are sinful even if performed within a committed relationship.
I think that the problem with your argument is an equivocation of terms. It seems you are using here the concept of natural law as it was used in the middle ages and famously championed by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). I would claim that this understanding of natural law cannot simply be forced onto the term "unnatural" [para physin] that Paul uses in his letter. In other words, to understand Paul's actual argument, we need to stablish what *Paul* means by the term "unnatural."

The best way to know the meaning of a word is to study its use in context. There are several times where Paul uses the term natural/unnatural, which include the following:

             Letter to the Romans chapter 11:13b 23a,24
             Now I am speaking to you Gentiles, ... [regarding Israel] God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature [kata physin] a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature [para physin], into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural [kata physin] branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
             Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11:14-15
             Does not nature [physis] itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him,  but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?          

             Letter to the Romans, chapter 1:26b-27 (which is what we are discussing here)
            Their women exchanged natural [physiken] intercourse for unnatural [para physin] , and in the same way also the men, giving up natural [physiken] intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.

From this we learn that the term "contrary to nature" or "unnatural" [paraphysin] is a term that 
       *  can be applied to some kind of intercourse
       *  can be applied to something that God can do.
and that "nature" [physis] is a term that 
       *  denotes the rational basis for knowing that having long hair is degrading for men.

It seems to me then that the appropriate the meaning for the Greek words for "nature" [physis] or "natural" [kata physis, physiken] should be related to something as it is *expected* to be, that is, that which is apparently common-sensical, the socially standard. In the same way, the term unnatural [para physin] in Paul would be related to something that appears contrary to what is expected of it: non-standard, uncommon, even socially unacceptable, but not necessarily morally bad (since God can do it, and God is Good)

Part 2: homogenital acts and the natural law   
I hope I have shown that Paul cannot be used to prove that homogenital acts are always sinful. Maybe you have read into Paul a different argument, an argument that the Church seems to make, and that I want to explore now.
Once again, the argument:

    a)  Let's focus not on same-sex committed relationships but about same sex genital acts
    b)  Same-sex genial acts are contrary to the natural law
    c)  Acting contrary to the natural law is always sinful
    d)  Therefore, same-sex genital acts are sinful even if performed within a committed relationship.

I don't think that focusing on same-genital acts without taking into account their context is a good starting point in a discussion, but this is what is advocated in point a), which seems inappropriate to me for the following reasons:
1- Pastorally, moral issues are commonly discussed within a context. Not allowing for the context to enter into this particular discussion, while at the same time keeping attention to context as an integral part of other pastoral discussion, seems difficult to justify a priori.
2 - It might be true that same sex genital acts are always wrong regardless of the context, but this independence from the context should be the result of the argument, to be found in the conclusions, rather than in the premises.
3 - I suspect that it is impossible to talk about natural law disregarding the context as a starting point since natural law, by definition, requires the use of reason and the actual observation of the world. Basically, without observation (and thus without at least in some sense, a context) we cannot know the natural end of beings. Natural law seems to require then, some sort of consideration for the context.

So, what is natural law?
Using some quotations from your blog, I would explain it in the following way:
Natural law comes from Aristotelian metaphysics. It is the idea that all things and all organisms have a natural end (telos), which can be deduced from reason and observation. "Situations and actions can be decided as contrary to an organism’s natural end based on their effects upon that organism", and consequently should be avoided. "For example, putting a rosebush in a closet leads to the withering of the rosebush. To wither is not the natural end of the rosebush. In fact, inherent in the rosebush’s biology is its natural goal of growth and reproduction. Therefore, rosebushes should not be placed in closets." In the same way. "Humans are meant to be happy. Good actions will ultimately make human beings happy, bad actions won’t. If an action is seen to be detrimental to the human person — that is, if it ultimately leads to unhappiness — then that action can be defined as contrary to our nature," and thus should be avoided.

In other words, arguments about natural law, are arguments about flourishing, about what a good life is meant to be. Situations and actions that are detrimental to the flourishing of the human being (and thus its end) are to be avoided, while actions that foster it are to be promoted.

The question is therefore the following: do same-sex genital acts (in a committed long term relationship) foster or diminish the flourishing of the human person?

And previously, or simultaneously, we could also ask: do same gender committed relationships foster or diminish the flourishing of the human person?
The natural end of a person is union with God, which is happiness. The well being of a person, the fact that it is growing into happiness, into its natural end, is shown by the fruits of the Spirit, which (according to Paul in his letter to the Galatians) are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." This is what flourishing looks like for a human being.
Paul's words are moving and beautiful, but they are not the source of our understanding of natural law. To the contrary, for Aristotle and Aquinas, and for the Church's teaching on natural law today, what constitutes human flourishing is not a matter of divine revelation, but a matter of observation and reasoning. That is why, once the principle that every being has a natural end is accepted, then natural law becomes the framework to argue morality in the public forum, where not everyone is a follower of Jesus.

Now, do same-gender committed relationships foster or hinder a growth in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

And, in particular, does sex within same-gender committed relationships foster or hinder a growth in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
My answer is that yes, same-gender committed relationships foster and help in the flourishing of LGBT people, and this is the reason I support them. I came to this conclusion from my experience; from knowing loving and caring people in relationships who have shown me this.
Yours in Christ,


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