Any sexual act other than one man and one woman engaging in the type of intercourse inherently capable of procreation is an unnatural sexual act.
• Ronald L. Conte Jr.
“May the Marriage Bed Be Immaculate”
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In light of the Irish vote to legalize same-sex marriage, a decision that has its Catholic leaders pondering what the future might hold, I thought we might discuss a few thoughts about traditional Christian teaching on sexuality, in particular the place of “natural law” in understanding sexual morality.
We traditional Christians tend to think our view of morality is a slam-dunk. That nature itself teaches clearly the purposes and goals for sexual relations, and that God’s revelation in the Bible and the Church’s Word and Spirit-prompted traditions are unequivocally compatible with those natural laws. As Peter Leithart writes at First Things: “Through the creation, human beings know the ordinance of God that there is a ‘natural function’ for sexuality.”
In Humane Vitae (1968), the monumental Catholic document about contemporary sexual morality, the Church teaches that moral sexual acts meet three criteria. They must be:
As the Catechism says:
“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.”
This makes sense to me. I count myself traditional when it comes to matters of sexual morality.
But I wonder if appealing to natural law is really the best way to make the traditional point. It seems to me that nature teaches us some things fundamental about biology and reproduction. Male and female bodies complement one another. Human beings reproduce by joining them together in sexual intercourse. If we bring our Creator into the discussion, we might say that God designed our bodies this way for this purpose — this biological, procreative purpose.
We also know that the experience of sexual union can provide great pleasure, enhancing the concept of a unitive function for sex. (More on “pleasure” in a moment.)
I’m not convinced that nature teaches us that sex should be marital. Or that “marital” must involve only one man and one woman, joined together for life. It seems to me that we need more information than what we could get from observing the natural world to come up with that.
Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, thinks the Church may have overplayed her hand with its emphasis on natural law teaching, especially in light of the contemporary debate on same-sex unions.
The problem is that, rightly developed, natural-law thinking seems to support rather than reject the morality of homosexual behavior. Consider this line of thought from John Corvino, a philosopher at Wayne State University: “A gay relationship, like a straight relationship, can be a significant avenue of meaning, growth, and fulfillment. It can realize a variety of genuine human goods; it can bear good fruit. . . . [For both straight and gay couples,] sex is a powerful and unique way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy.” The sort of relationship Corvino describes seems clearly one that would contribute to a couple’s fulfillment as human beings — whether the sex involved is hetero- or homosexual. Isn’t this just what it should mean to live in accord with human nature?
Noting that proponents also use natural law to show the immorality of birth control, masturbation and even non-reproductive sexual acts between heterosexuals, Gutting asks two questions:
First, why, even if nonreproductive sex were somehow less “natural” than reproductive, couldn’t it still play a positive role in a humanly fulfilling life of love between two people of the same sex? Second, why must nonreproductive sex be only for the selfish pleasure of each partner, rather than, as Corvino put it, a way of building, celebrating, and replenishing their shared intimacy?
He is making the argument that the unitive and marital functions of sexuality can be fulfilled in relationships and through practices that are not necessarily procreative. The most conservative Catholic teachers disagree, and deny that any sexual act that leads to orgasm apart from intercourse is legitimate, even for heterosexual married couples. Yet we know that married couples continue their sexual relations long past childbearing years when no procreative purpose is in view, and find ways of pleasuring one another apart from intercourse alone. I suspect that those teachers don’t have a full appreciation of the significance of mutual pleasure in the sexual relationship. As a traditionalist, if I were listing the essential elements of a “moral sexual act,” I would add for mutual pleasure to marital, unitive, and procreative.
This “pleasure principle” is where a closer look at nature and human nature in particular might backfire on the traditional view. For example, because of the male anatomy, sexual intercourse is perfectly designed for male pleasure. This is not the case, however, with women. The anatomy of the female orgasm is focused on the clitoris, which is outside the vagina. The vast majority of women do not experience sexual climax through intercourse, but through direct stimulation of this external organ, and it’s entirely possible that those who do have orgasms during coitus have them because they receive indirect stimulation there. In other words, if sex is for mutual pleasure, then nature provided women with the wrong equipment to receive that pleasure through the procreative act alone.
It is not only nature, but the Bible itself that emphasizes the “mutual pleasure” significance of sex. In fact, one entire book of the Bible is devoted to it: The Song of Songs. This inspired, canonical work celebrates the unitive and mutual pleasure facets of love and sexuality with little emphasis on its marital aspects and no emphasis at all on its procreative possibilities. Maybe this book is one way God laughs at our little moral formulae.
Now, none of this is enough to persuade me to be anything other than the conservative person I am when it comes to sex, marriage, and family. And I have no agenda here of trying to persuade anyone else of anything. All this is simply to say that observations like these make me more cautious about thinking any case for a certain form of morality is strictly black and white, especially when based upon so-called “natural law” teaching.
This also makes me want to take much less of an “us vs. them” approach to talking about sexuality. The fact is, people who do not practice traditional morality may find great meaning, satisfaction, and deep bonds of love in their sexual relationships. For me to simply dismiss those people out there in “the world” as enslaved and bound by selfish desires, seeking their own pleasure at the expense of others, is not an honest portrayal of the people I observe every day. Loving my neighbor means I can learn from my neighbor, appreciate my neighbor, and see the image of God in him or her even though we hold different moral views.
I can maintain my moral beliefs and still confess that things can get a bit murky.
There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Four which I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the middle of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maid.
• Proverbs 30:18-19, NASB