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):
2) intimacy; and
(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.