Getting Natural Law and Sexual Ethics Right

By The Cranky Thomist

The Cranky ThomistFinally! From a Notre Dame professor no less. Unraveling the Church Ban on Gay Sex.

He is right. St. Thomas Aquinas made natural law a significant part of his moral philosophy. In his thought, natural law is driven by the primary principle of doing good and avoiding evil. The entire structure of morality, the intent of divine and natural law, as well as the virtues and grace, are all directed toward reasoning about which behaviors can move humans toward the love of God and toward the love of fellow creatures in charity. Morality consists of reason planning action so that good may be done and evil avoided. What is right is based upon what is good.

The primary law, upon which all other laws are based, is that good be done (i.e., flourishing into the love of God and the love of fellow creatures in charity) and evil avoided. Morality and law are thus drawn from that which makes humans grow toward the good.

“Since good is grasped as always desirable, the first premise in reason’s planning of action is that good is to be done and evil avoided. And on this are based all the other injunctions of the law in us by nature, which command us to do whatever reason, when planning action, naturally grasps to be good for man, whatever man naturally seeks as a goal” (Summa Theologica, 1a2ae. 94. 2).

Aquinas pointed out three derivatives of this natural law, seeing us first as living beings, then as physical creatures, and finally as reasoning creatures.

First, we must conserve human life and oppose death. Then, we must do whatever accords with our physical nature, which is what we have in common with other animals (e.g., having sex, raising children). Finally, we must do whatever accords with our rational nature, the thing that distinguishes us as human (“to know the truth about God, for example, and to live a social life; so the law in us by nature commands whatever is relevant to such inclinations, like avoiding ignorance and not offending those we live with” (Summa Theologica, 1a2ae. 94. 2).

Since natural law is based upon practical reasoning and our understanding of the reality around us, Aquinas believed it was knowable by all and applicable to all (with the caveat that it is humans doing the thinking).

As Gary Gutting says, “the church needs to undertake a thorough rethinking of its teachings on sexual ethics, including premarital sex, masturbation and remarriage after divorce. In every case, the old arguments no longer work (if they ever did), and a vast number of Catholics reject the teachings. It’s time for the church to realize that its sexual ethics are philosophically untenable and theologically unnecessary.”