Why the Catholic Position on Homosexual Marriage Is Not Mere Bigotry (But Still Is Mistaken)

by Gene Callahan

“Summum autem bonum si ignoratur, vivendi rationem ignorari necesse est.”* — Cicero

My friend Roger Koppl, in a recent discussion on this blog, contended that the only reason anyone might object to legalizing gay marriage is “bigotry.” Now, it is always a good bit o’ fun to insult one’s political opponents like this, but it may not always be helpful. So, I wish to take a moment here to demonstrate that at least the Catholic position contra gay marriage is not based on mere bigotry.

We must first start with Aristotle. For him, each part of the κοσμοσ (cosmos) has its proper τελοσ (telos), or end. What is the ultimate good concerning any thing or activity is that it reach its proper τελοσ.

Aristotle’s follower, Thomas Aquinas, applied Aristotilean ethical reasoning to the topic of sex. Per Aquinas, sex has a threefold purpose, to produce (in order of importance):
1) procreation;
2) intimacy; and
3) pleasure.

(And yes, folks, Aquinas thought that all three parts were good — he was not a prude.)

Now, Aquinas’s next move is to insist that sex, to be virtuous, has to achieve all of these purposes. For instance, in the Catholic understanding of this issue, artificial insemination is wrong, even if the husband is the sperm donor, because it fails to fulfill at least purpose 3) and perhaps purpose 2). (Note that the Catholic view, far from being against sexual pleasure, holds that it is a sin to have sex that is not pleasurable!)

Now, we have laid the groundwork for our main theme: Per Aquinas, sodomy is a sin because it fails to achieve 1). It is worth pointing out that sodomy between heterosexual, even married, couples, in this view, is every bit as much of a sin as homosexuality. Thus, we see that, in the Catholic position, what is sinful about homosexuality has nothing to do with the fact that it takes place between two people of the same sex (except for peripherally, in that that fact prevents procreation) — it is the fact that it ignores the most important end of sex just as does oral sex (to orgasm) between a man and wife. The latter could even be considered a greater sin, in that the homosexual couple could at least defend their act to, e.g., Aquinas, by saying, “Hey, we’d make kids if only we could — it’s not our fault that biology does not allow us to do so.” The married couple, on the other hand, are in a position where, biologically, they could produce children, but they are deliberately thwarting the achievement of that most important sexual end.

Now, as I said earlier, I don’t think Aquinas got this right, and here’s why: It is not, in general, wrong to use things in a way other than that for which they were intended, so long as that new purpose is not intrinsically wrong in and of itself. Consider a hammer, the τελοσ of which is to drive nails. Is it wrong for me to use it to break up the ice block in my freezer? “Yes,” we might admit to Aquinas, “the best use for a hammer is to drive nails, and, all things being equal, it would be better to use an ice pick to break up this ice sculpture my cube-making machine has produced. But I have no ice pick, I need the cubes now, and the time I would spend shopping for a pick is better spent playing with my kids. Therefore, it’s best, given the circumstance, that I use the hammer.”

Now, it certainly would be wrong for me to use my hammer to stave in someone’s head for fun, but that is not because that use is contrary to the purpose of the hammer, but because it is wrong even if I do it with a club intended for that purpose!

And so it is, as I see it, with sex. “Yes,” the homosexual might concur with Aquinas, “ideally, sex will achieve all three of its purposes. But things are never ideal except in the Kingdom of Heaven, and in my case, I’m a) not attracted to women and b) am in love with a man. Surely, it’s better that I achieve purposes 2) and 3) then none of them at all, which is the only alternative in my case.”

Similarly, the married couple might respond to The Other Philosopher, ” “Sure, we’d like to achieve all three of your purposes, in the abstract. But in our concrete circumstances, having another child is something we don’t think we can afford — rather than giving two children good upbringings, we’d wind up giving three impoverished upbringings. Because of that, we’re supposed to forget about achieving 2) and 3) as well?!”

In conclusion: the Catholic position on homosexual marriage, although, as I see it, mistaken, is surely not a product of mere bigotry, but is based on sophisticated ethical reasoning, even if, perhaps, it goes astray in the end. (And that’s not a pun!)

* – If one does not know his highest good, it is impossible for him to live rationally.

18 thoughts on “Why the Catholic Position on Homosexual Marriage Is Not Mere Bigotry (But Still Is Mistaken)

  1. Homosexual or heterosexual marriage?

    With my wife, I’d settle for any kind of a sexual marriage.

    There is a corollary in economics to this moral and legal controversy.

    Just as we have the attempted blurring of the distinction between homo and hetero marriage, we have the attempted blurring of the distintion between logic and mathematics.

    I suspect that they are both a part of the overall aim of the Left, for a perfect world, with nothing between the social engineers and the human putty in their hands, no more traditional authority or conventional morality, law or property rights, schools or churches, nor even family, and certainly no more guns.

    Gun control, gay marriage, and the oneness of logic and mathematics: all of a piece, the breakdown of all the old bulwarks of society, law, morality, and reason, science, and economics, paving the way for our brave new world.

  2. There is no biological intentionality.

    What you’ve taken the time and effort to explain is precisely why the Church maintains a bigoted position: that is, they have certain moral beliefs founded irrationally (or at the very least, with a lack thereof – which is no different than simple prejudice).

  3. I should say, rather, that they have certain moral beliefs that (while they may be founded rationally) are contrary to scientific or empirical truths that are plainly contrary to their beliefs. Thus, they maintain them irrationally.

  4. Kelly: Empirical and scientific claims are about how the world is. Moral beliefs are not beliefs about how the world is. Claims from one class cannot be contrary to claims from the other class cebause they are not even be about the same thing!

  5. Then how does Aquinas deduce what the ‘proper’ end of sexuality is?

    It’s plain that it’s through observation. In fact, much of the argument for ‘natural law’ arises out of the force of ‘mere observation’. Likewise in the case of the Church – an institution that presumes to know the proper end of sexuality ends up making moral decisions partially on the evidence of nature (the other source of evidence, faith, and ‘simply knowing’ is too patently absurd for anyone to believe these days).

    I’m an ex-Catholic, so that may explain my antagonizing attitude – though I don’t mean it personally.

  6. Gene,

    I don’t think I said, “the only reason anyone might object to legalizing gay marriage is ‘bigotry.’ ” And certainly I did not deny that one might have reasonably sophisticated reasons for thinking that only heterosexual marriages are “true” or morally legitimate or whatever. The Catholic arguments you rehearse explain why one might think gay marriage is a sin. I would like to point out, however, that for persons who go for such arguments, pre-marital sex is a sin too. Who among them says we must outlaw premarital sex? Some would say secular marriages are sinful. Again, who among them would say we must therefore outlaw secular marriage, or call it something other than marriage? The question of bigotry arises in the context of such apparent inconsistencies of argument.

    I think you need to distinguish between a religion-based view on the morality of gay marriage and a religion-based view on whether it should be legal. If you say secular marriage should not be outlawed, but gay marriage should be, then you have a heavy burden of proof to show that you are not inconsistent. And if we who favor gay marriage cow to the mere abhorrence of others for gay marriage, *then* (as I have argued) we are cowing to bigotry. I don’t see how that statement is the same as saying the only possible objection to leglaizing gay marriage is bigotry. Most certainly it is not the same as saying that the only possible objection to gay marriage as such is bigotry.

    On the other post you seemed to say that I was exhibiting a “liberal” tolerance for everything *but* religion. I deny it and I repeat my question to you from the other post: How is it intolerant of me to reject the bigotry of some against others who are made to suffer because of an unchosen condition?

  7. “Moral beliefs are not beliefs about how the world is.”

    James, I’ll just point out that this is certainly not the view of Aristotle or Aquinas!

  8. “There is no biological intentionality.”

    While this is dogmatically asserted by many evolutionists, one can hardly find them string more than a couple of paragraphs together without invoking… biological intentionality!

    So I’d say, dogmatic assertions to the contrary, the evidence is still on the side of Aristotle here.

  9. Thanks for clarifying, Roger. I see your point better now. But:

    “I think you need to distinguish between a religion-based view on the morality of gay marriage and a religion-based view on whether it should be legal. If you say secular marriage should not be outlawed, but gay marriage should be, then you have a heavy burden of proof to show that you are not inconsistent.”

    1) The talk of “outlawing” gay marriage is a little misleading, I think. The formation of corporations by six-year-old children is not “outlawed,” it’s simply not sanctioned in the legislation granting special privileges to a certain business form. (So that six-year-old children can sit in the front lawn and declare “We are a corporation,” and act like one at their lemonade stand if they want — they just don’t get the legal privileges of incorporation.) Similarly, for gay marriage — homosexuals can go through every aspect of a marriage ceremony and even stop having sex like a married couple afterwards, if they wish — right now, they aren’t entitled to the legal privileges that the State grants to legally married couples.

    And I agree they ought to be — but what’s going on is not the same as “outlawing.”

    2) I’m sure there are many Catholics who think “It’s too bad this secular marriage thing got going — but that’s too far gone to do anything about. But maybe we can stop this from going any further.

    In any case, I see Mario’s point as being, “There are a legal and a religious term tangled up here, and that’s causing a lot of our problem — let’s disentangle them, and use one word for the legal arrangements and another for the religious arrangements.”

    I still regard this as an eminently sensible suggestion, as I’m sure there are many people who have no objection to gay couples having the legal benefits of marriage, but are stuck on the notion that “marriage” is a sacred institution, etc. So separate the two!

  10. If a evolutionary biologist says something like “the animal’s long neck has the function of helping it get food from high trees,” there is no implication that it might not also have another function. Or, if in some individual cases, the animal found all sorts of low hanging fruit, the long neck might be superfluous or actually get in the way (make it more difficult to get that fruit).

    But, more importantly, the animal does not in fact have complex goals like human beings have. Part of human nature is to alter our human nature — in other words, there is a plasticity to our nature and hence our ends. Of course, we all want to be happy but we don’t agree on what that means and, even if we did, we could find different ways of getting there.

    I think the “natural law” way of thinking is the result of an intellectual muddle derived in part from a view of the universe that is too simple. I have not found it a productive way of thinking — at least in its classical form.

  11. Dr. Rizzo writes: “I think the ‘natural law’ way of thinking is the result of an intellectual muddle derived in part from a view of the universe that is too simple. I have not found it a productive way of thinking — at least in its classical form.”

    Whoa! No natural law, no Austrian economics!

    For example, here’s Murray Rothschild in Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective:

    “[T]he most important contribution of Stoic thought was in ethical, political and legal philosophy, for it was the Stoics who first developed and systematized, especially in the legal sphere, the concept and the philosophy of natural law. It was precisely because Plato and Aristotle were circumscribed politically by the Greek polis that their moral and legal philosophy became closely intertwined with the Greek city-state. For the Socratics, the city-state, not the individual, was the locus of human virtue. But the destruction or subjugation of the Greek polis after Aristotle freed the thought of the Stoics from its admixture with politics. The Stoics were therefore free to use their reason to set forth a doctrine of natural law focusing not on the polis but on each individual, and not on each state but on all states everywhere. In short, in the hands of the Stoics, natural law became absolute and universal, transcending political barriers or fleeting limitations of time and place. Law and ethics, the principles of justice, became transcultural and transnational,
    applying to all human beings everywhere. And since every man possesses the faculty of reason, he can employ right reason to understand the truths of the natural law. The important implication for politics is that the natural law, the just and proper moral law discovered by man’s right reason, can and should be used to engage in a moral critique of the positive man-made laws of any
    state or polis. For the first time, positive law became continually subject to a
    transcendent critique based on the universal and eternal nature of man.” (p. 21)

    “Though the Roman Empire collapsed in the fourth and fifth centuries, its legal heritage continued, as embodied in two great collections of the Roman law: influential
    in the West, the Theodosian Code, promulgated by the Emperor Theodosius
    in 438 AD and in the East the great four-volume Corpus Juris Civilis, promulgated
    by the Byzantine Christian Emperor Justinian in the 530s.

    “Both collections emphasized strongly that the ‘just’ price (justum pretium) was simply any price arrived at by free and voluntary bargaining between buyer and seller. Each man has the right to do what he wants with his property, and therefore has the right to make contracts to give away, buy, or sell such property; hence, whatever price is freely arrived at is ‘just’.” (p. 31)

    What Cicero and the Roman jurists began, some of medieval theologians continued:

    “[I]n the important Summa of 1188 of Huguccio, professor at Bologna, later chosen
    bishop of Ferrara…Huguccio began a radical reconstruction of Patristic teachings
    about private property. From the time of Huguccio, private property was to
    be considered a sacrosanct right derived from the natural law. The property of
    individuals and communities was, at least in principle, supposed to be free
    from arbitrary invasion on the part of the state. As ‘moderator and arbiter’ of
    his own goods, an individual owner could use and dispose of them as he saw fit, provided that he did not violate general legal rules.” (p. 38)

    “Reacting against the Franciscans, Pope John XXII issued his famous bull Quia vir reprobus (1329). Quia asserted trenchantly that God’s dominion over the earth was reflected in man’s dominion or property over his material possessions. Property rights, therefore, were not, as even Aquinas had believed, a product of positive law or social convention; they were rooted in
    man’s nature, as created by divine law. Property rights were therefore natural
    and coextensive with man’s actions in the material world.” (p. 59)

    Statists in the late medieval, as now, justified their encroachments by attacks on private property as a natural right:

    “Along with the rise of the absolute state, theories of absolutism arose and began to throw natural law doctrines into the shade. The adoption of natural law theory, after all, meant that the state was bound to limit itself to the dictates of the natural or the divine law. But new political theorists arose, asserting the dominance of the temporal over the spiritual, and of the state’s positive law over the natural or divine order.” (p.71)

    When Rothbard comes to Adam Smith’s immediate predecessors, he writes:

    “Economics, or political economy, was taught as a subset of a course in moral philosophy, and thus the analysis of trade and the economy was embedded in a groundwork and treatment of natural law. In many ways, the
    eighteenth century Scottish professors followed the post-medieval and late Spanish scholastic method of including economic analysis as one segment of an integrated tome covering ethics, natural law, jurisprudence, ontology, and theology as well as economics proper.” (p. 417)

    I don’t see how Austrian economics can be sundered from its natural law origins. Statist justifications for the supremacy of positive law have always started out as attacks on natural law presumptions. The United States, as history’s first classical liberal republic was founded on declaratory natural law principles.

  12. Richard,

    This is a big issue for a blog discussion.

    Suffice it to say that natural law/ natural right theories produced a lot of good ideas for the intellectual development and history of classical liberalism. At one time in human intellectual history, natural law was the carrier of ideas of spontaneous order. But there are a lot of more modern approaches that demonstrate the existence of self-generating orders. (Hayek discussed them as far back as the late 1960s.)

    The desirability of such orders is another question. Natural law theories get into a real mess here because of their confusing discussions of the relationship between fact and value.

    My basic point is that simply because a framework was useful in the past does not mean that it continues to be useful forever more. The Ptolemaic view of the planetary system was — and still is — useful for some purposes. But there are better ways of looking at the the universe.

    So while I do not deny that there is value is understanding natural law theory for intellectual history, I wouldn’t use this framework for teaching economics today or for resolving ethical issues.

    Incidentally, as one of my posts some time back indicates, Cicero is one of my intellectual-historical heroes. And I think Pufendorf is perhaps the best natural law theorist because he does not see a big conflict between natural law and consequentialism.

    I also think that John Finnis and Robert George are good examples of the intellectual disaster that is modern natural law theory and ethics.

  13. I really don’t care what the catholic church thinks about anything. I am not a member. What I do care about is their attempts to force their views on non-members. And as a member of the human race, I object to their irresponsible advocacy of unregulated population growth.

  14. Kelly:

    If you were indicating that Catholic thinking on gay marriage fails on its own natural law terms, I didn’t realize it. I thought you were claiming that you personally believe that there are empirical facts that imply gay marriage is morally acceptable.


    Yes, some of the natural law view of ethics is derived from empirical fact, but not all. If that were the case, natural law thinkers would admit, perhaps grudgingly, that moral principles are contingent. But for some reason the natural law view seems to be perfectly correlated with the position that moral principles are necessarily true. Were all natural law theorists wrong?

  15. As Mario suggests, this discussion ultimately is about natural law. I recently attended a conference on natural law & economics at Princeton and can say we had lively productive discussions on numerous issues. My assigned topic was to address natural law & money and found the writings of the late Spanish Scholastics surprisingly relevant to today’s debates. Hayek was very taken with that school even as he himself resisted acknowleding the obvious connection between his own theory of social order and the natural law tradition. I’ll make one substative point. In the natural law tradition, all universal statements are also empirical statements. There is no disjunction.

  16. “Whoa! No natural law, no Austrian economics!”

    Richard, as much as I appreciate the Aristotilean viewpoint, I think your statement is just historically inaccurate — after all, Mises was a harsh critic of natural law thinking, and you surely don’t want to deny he was an Austrian economist, do you? Perhaps you would contend that he was an Austrian economist who was seriously mistaken on this point, but clearly his example demonstrates that natural law ethics and Austrian economics are not intrinsically bound together.

  17. Mises actually both embraced and rejected natural law thinking. He accepted it for positive analysis, while rejecting it for normative reasoning. His distinction was a fine one. Hayek is an even more comlex story. I have argued that Menger was an Aristotelian and belongs in the natural law tradition. The question is the relationship between ethics and economics more generally.

  18. I agree that Finnis is a train wreck. I haven’t read enough George to comment on him.

    Finnis violates the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid) and thus fares poorly against Jefferson’s straightforward “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — from which I would argue both private property and Hayek’s preference for spontaneously emerging orders (market, common law, etc.) can be derived, in opposition to positive law (the statist diktats of legislatures).

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