Last time we looked at Aquinas’ explanation of the problem of evil, Free Will, and Metaphysics. Continuing on, today we’ll see his thoughts on law and morality, as well as… sex (eek!).
Chapter 5: Law and Morality
“Men can fashion patterns of thought, but God himself arranged the natural order.“
As noted, God has a plan for everything – every single thing – in creation. Aquinas wrote, “The whole community of the Universe is governed by divine reason.” This plan, the ends that all things are created for, Aquinas calls “the eternal law.” This definition contains not only the moral law (the 10 commandments, etc.) but the physical law as well (physics, thermodynamics, and so on) as well as others. Only God can know the whole of the eternal law. A law is “only binding on an entity when the law is made known to that object.” Aquinas defines the portion of the eternal law that can be known by reason (and is binding on humans) as the “natural law.”
We can’t know the rest of the eternal law (the non-natural part) so there is no point in spending time on it. It is believed that God bestows this knowledge on blessed humans when they die – the beatific vision – but this is by revelation and not by reason. The natural law, however, is something we can know and should work to uncover, such as through science and through the moral law (for example, by theologians and philosophers). We must discover the essence of morality. Aquinas notes that “since God is the source of the essence of all things, one morally must pursue those actions that promote and avoid those actions that oppose an entity’s essence.” Examples are destroying an animals habitat so it cannot pursue its place in God’s plan or refusing to allow others to eat properly. “The moral good becomes, quite simply, that which is in accord with the order created by God (and hence in accord with reason); the moral evil becomes that which opposes this order.”
Aquinas notes that yes, moral truths are in the Bible – but one can also find these moral truths by using reason. “If one, by means of reason, taps into and conforms to the moral law of God, one is morally in the right. If one acts contrary to reason and hence against the natural law of God, one is morally wrong.”
To find the moral good, both intellect and reason are needed. Intellect, “the intuitive faculty drawn to non-empirical truths, discovers the proper end in a given situation.” It establishes first principles like good should be done and evil avoided (In math, the axioms). Reason tells us how to get to that proper end by using practical experiences. For example, looking at lying and seeing it is harmful, you can see that not lying leads to doing good and avoiding evil.
Aquinas uses the example of community. “Human beings only fully flourish when they live in community and…such flourishing is a good thing that should be pursued.” Both reason and intellect prove this conclusion – intellect notes that interacting with others leads to a better life than just being a hermit, and reason finds the means – treat others well, don’t be a jerk, etc. the fact that this method seems like something we always do is evidence of how influential Aquinas was on Western tradition. Aquinas also notes that the Bible is flawless and will never be contradicted by reason.
Aquinas is an optimist about human nature – we are programmed to seek the good, and we have reason and intellect to help us find it. This is contrary to Augustine and many Christians today, who feel that we are corrupt and will always pursue sin. Aquinas, though, says that even though “original sin corrupts our once pure reason so that at times we choose the wrong means to the good…the good is still the thing we seek.” Even bad people want peace and security, they just do bad things to get them. “That humans are good, that they can usually be trusted, and the ability to find the truth are all ideas put forth by Aquinas that would later become hallmarks of the Enlightenment.”
Another important consequence of this argument is that it provides a “common basis” for everyone to discuss moral issues. The Bible has no meaning to atheists, Jews, Muslims, and so on. Aquinas writes, “It follows therefore that natural law in its first common principles is the same among all men, both as to validity and recognition. It is “written on the hearts” of all people and is a way for everyone to agree on ethics no matter what their religion or belief. This later became the basis of international law.
Finally, this gives us a way to discuss issues not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, such as nuclear weapons or cloning. Sola Scriptura doesn’t help here. Roman Catholics, drawing on Aquinas’ tradition, use reason and the natural law to discuss these topics. The author uses environmental issues as an example. Yes, animals serve a purpose as food, and it’s okay to hunt for that purpose – but not for sport. Destroying an animal’s habitat so that it cannot pursue its role in God’s plan is morally wrong as well. Instead, it is our job to protect and even encourage them to be able to pursue their role in creation. (Scott note: This is what stewardship of creation really means) Aquinas did not address this, but his framework of the natural law is flexible enough to be used for these types of issues.
This applies to human rights as well. It is the natural law, not written laws (the positive law), that Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Other moral documents such as UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Nuremburg War-Crimes Codes, and the Geneva Convention, are also based on the natural law.
Chapter 6: The Ins and Outs of Sex
Aquinas’ views on sexuality are very influential even today – and this despite the fact that he was a lifelong celibate.
He starts, as above, by asking what is the ultimate end of sex? In addition to procreation, Aquinas identifies two other essential purposes: To strengthen the marriage bond, and for pleasure. He noted that man and woman seem to be designed to “fit” together physically, as well. This was surely not an accident, he reasoned, but instead meant that it must be part of the essence of sex.
Augustine, writing earlier, had stated that before the Fall, sex was a purely rational act that brought no pleasure and was just matter of fact. Due to original sin, passion and pleasure were introduced and sex became an act of self-love, because one did it for pleasure. Sex is then the way original sin was passed from generation to generation – and this is why Jesus was born of a virgin (no semen involved).
Aquinas disagreed. To not take pleasure, to him, was a sin, and is part of God’s plan for sex. He wrote, “The exceeding pleasure experienced in the sex act, so long as it is in harmony with reason, does not destroy the balance of virtue.” Note, however, that the other purposes of sex must be satisfied – procreation and unity with one’s spouse. These three purposes form the basis of Catholic belief and many other Christians’ beliefs as well.
So, per Aquinas, anytime we deviate from one of these three ends of sex, we have sinned. The seriousness of the sin depends on how far we have deviated from those ends. The ends are ranked by Aquinas thus:
- Marriage bond
- 3. Pleasure
First, the “sins against right reason”: Fornication is the least serious sexual sin. His reasoning: Pleasure and conception are both possible, but it doesn’t strengthen the marital bond since they are not married. Adultery is next; it too allows pleasure and could result in conception, but it is worse than fornication in that it damages a marital bond. Rape is worse; while it allows for conception it does not strengthen a marital bond and it does not allow for pleasure for at least one partner (note that it also commits the sin of violence).
Worse than these are the “sins against nature,” namely masturbation, sodomy, and homosexuality. Masturbation is the least severe of these three – It cannot produce offspring, and it does not strengthen a marital bond, but at least it allows for pleasure. (Note that though this is considered to be a more serious sexual sin than rape, rape is the worse sin because of the sin of violence it includes). This, also, is why Catholics consider masturbation to be such a serious sin. Because masturbation is needed for artificial insemination, Catholics are often opposed to that as well. Cloning will be a case that will affect this belief, most likely.
Sodomy is the next worst – and not just for homosexuals, but for a man with a woman as well. This is because it involves two people (not just one, like masturbation) both avoiding conception. Also, Aquinas found it questionable whether or not it strengthened the marital bond. Birth control is also considered a sin by the Catholic church because it deliberately avoids conception, one of the three Divine ends of sex. Naturally, this is a huge reason Catholics condemn homosexuality – not only because conception in not possible, but (until recently) it didn’t strengthen a marital bond because gays couldn’t marry.
Recently, though, people have used Aquinas to defend homosexuality. Robert Wood: if homosexuality is genetic, then wouldn’t that mean it was part of God’s plan and therefore natural? Wood argues that it may have been a built-in form of population control.
The fact that they cannot conceive is another reason, though, and this is also a challenge – can couples no longer able to conceive have sex? They cannot meet one of the basic purposes (conception), so should they abstain?
In the 1930s, Pope Pius ruled that these couples could have sex – they can have a pro-creative intent and hope for a miracle. As long as they want to have children, they have met the pro-creative intent. So, Renick asks, can the same not apply to homosexuals? Can they hope for a miracle too, and thus meet the intent and not sin?
Pope Paul, in Humanae Vitae, 1968, stated that the rhythm method was allowed to be used – and thus a procreative intent is not always necessary in every sexual act in marriage (they are using a natural method of birth control rather than a man-made form of it). This ruling is, of course, still controversial.
So, Aquinas’ arguments continue to be influential here as well. Beyond the Bible, the laws of nature apply to sex, and thus should be obeyed.