Rebirth of Reason


Sex and St. Thomas
by Fred Seddon

In this paper I propose to examine the entire corpus of St. Thomas Aquinas pursuant to one specific topic in his philosophy of sex: homosexuality.

Let me begin with a note on the method and the discipline of the essay. I will employ the syllogistic method of Aristotle and St. Thomas. The discipline within which I shall restrict my inquiry is natural theology and not that of, say, Christian apologetics or what Lonergan calls systematic theology (337-339). What differentiates the former from the latter is its reliance on observation and reason alone to the exclusion of faith or divine revelation. Hence this essay will consider only those portions of Thomas's corpus that belong to natural theology (Adler 1980, 9-16).

Although the word "homosexuality" does not appear in the entire corpus of St. Thomas, he does have other, alas more ambiguous, expressions for sexual acts performed by members of the same sex. His favorite term seems to be "unnatural vice (or 'crime')." He uses this expression 21 times, but it is not always clear whether he means homosexuality or bestiality. When he defines, or at least describes, the act itself, he employs the word "sodomy" as the definiendum. The definiens is "copulation with an undue sex, male with male, or female with female, this is called the "vice of sodomy" (ST, II-II, 154, 11). But what are Thomas's arguments against sodomy? In only three places, all in the Summa Theologica, does Thomas address this question: I-II, 31, 7; I-II, 94, 3; and II-II, 154, 11-12. Let's now turn to these passages.

ST, I-II, 94, 3

The briefest argument occurs in I-II, 94, 3. Thomas address the question "Whether all acts of virtue are prescribed by the natural law?" In his Reply Obj. 2, he writes:

"By human nature we may mean either that which is proper to man--and in this sense all sins, as being against reason, are also against nature . . . . Or we may mean that nature which is common to man and other animals; and in this sense, certain special sins are said to be against nature; thus contrary to sexual intercourse, which is natural to all animals, is unisexual lust, which has received the special name of the unnatural vice."

Let us call the first nature our "human" nature and the second our "animal" nature. Thomas seems to be saying that sodomy is against our animal nature, and it is against our animal nature because animals do not engage in unisexual activities. If this is so, then a homosexual act is a vice and hence a perversion, not of our human, but of our animal nature. Couching Thomas's argument in a valid syllogistic form we have

All acts against our animal nature are vices
All unisexual acts are against our animal nature
All unisexual acts are vices

Since this is a valid syllogism, the only issue to be determined is the truth of the premises. Let us begin with the major premise. "Animal nature" is too broad a notion. Why? It does not distinguish the individual from the species. Some vices (evil habits) are inimical to us qua individual, e.g., gluttony. If we eat or drink to excess, we will impair our ability to function properly and ultimately to achieve happiness. But sodomy does not impair our ability to function properly qua individual, and Thomas admits as much in the next selection from the Summa that we will consider. So let's postpone further examination of this distinction until later.

What is the justification for the minor premise? Aquinas gives a partial answer to this query in the previous article (94, 2) where he writes that nature has taught reproductive "sexual intercourse" to all animals. This seems to imply, and there is nothing in the corpus to suggest otherwise, that nature has not taught animals unisexual sex. In other words, no animal commits sodomy. If that is what Thomas is implying, then he is in trouble, for that proposition is false. There are several species of animals that engage in unisexual sex. The syllogism would then contain a false minor premise, rendering it unsound. But please note the "if." The minor belongs as much to me as it does to Thomas, and the fault may lie with my interpretation and not with the Angelic Doctor's position. I will try to correct the minor premise below.

Part of the problem lies in Thomas's brevity. When reading the passage quoted above, we must remember that he is merely replying to an objection. In I-II, 31, 7, he is more expansive and it is to that text that I now turn.

ST, I-II, 31, 7

The question Thomas is addressing in I-II, 31, 7 is "Whether any pleasure is not natural?" He argues that unnatural pleasures do exist:

"I answer that, We speak of that as being natural, which is in accord with nature, as stated in [Aristotle's] Physics, ii, 1. Now, in man, nature can be taken in two ways. First, inasmuch as intellect and reason is the principal part of man's nature, since in respect thereof he has his own specific nature. And in this sense, those pleasures may be called natural to man, which are derived from things pertaining to man in respect of his reason: for instance, it is natural to man to take pleasure in contemplating the truth and in doing works of virtue. Secondly, nature in man may be taken as contrasted with reason, and as denoting that which is common to man and other animals, especially that part of man which does not obey reason. And in this sense, that which pertains to the preservation of the body, either as regards the individual, as food, drink, sleep, and the like, or as regards the species, as sexual intercourse, are said to afford man natural pleasure."

I-II, 31, 7 delineates two sources of animal pleasure; one which preserves our body and another which preserves our species. Food, drink, and sleep in the right amounts give us pleasure and further our physical survival. If we don't eat, drink, or sleep, we will die. Notice, however, one can't say the same about heterosexual intercourse. If an individual does not engage in heterosexual intercourse, the individual does not die. In order to demonstrate harm, Aquinas must make the move from harm to the individual to harm to the species. If no one engages in heterosexual intercourse, then the species will die out.

But this strategy presents at least three difficulties. First, how can Thomas justify it? He seems to be saying that sodomy is a vice because if everyone did it, the species would die out. But such an argument has the following implication: if everyone doesn't do it, then sodomy is not a vice. Or more accurately, and granting Thomas's assumption that we must keep the species in existence, as long as we achieve zero or positive population growth, then sodomy is not a vice. But what a strange notion of morality. Vice and virtue should not depend on daily (or at intervals of a decade, as the U.S. government does) census taking.

Could Thomas be helped by employing Aristotle's Golden Mean principle? Hardly. The golden mean would merely tell us that the important thing vis-a-vis sodomy is do it in moderation, with the right person at the right time for the right reason. And Thomas doesn't want to embrace that conclusion. But Aristotle proffers another alternative. Perhaps sodomy is like "adultery, theft, and murder" (NE, II, 1107a11) in that it does not admit of a mean. But that would involve rejecting the Golden Mean doctrine and leave us without a principle with which to condemn sodomy.

A second difficulty pertains to celibacy. The argument against homosexuality applies mutatis mutandis (and very little of that) to celibacy. It doesn't take a mother of four to figure out what would happen to the human species if we were all celibate. And the fact that Aquinas has an argument for celibacy is no help here, since his argument cuts both ways. Consider just one such argument from Summa Contra Gentiles (hereafter SCG) 3b, 136:

"For divine providence has bestowed on man all things necessary for the whole species: and yet it is not necessary that each man use each one of those things. Thus man has been given the art of building, the strength to fight: yet there is no need for every man to be a builder or a soldier. In like manner, though man has received from God the power and means of procreation, there is no need for every man to attend to the act of procreating."

Here one needn't do any substitution at all in order to obtain a pro-sodomy conclusion. The last sentence of the quoted passage could easily be read as a rebuttal by Thomas against those who would attempt to condemn sodomy by reference to the necessity to preserve the species. Just because "man has received from God the power and the means of procreation, there is no need for every man to attend to the act of procreating." Hence sodomy (or celibacy) is not unnatural.

Finally, even if we grant all that Aquinas needs in order to make the argument work, it has limited range, i.e., it would only apply to sodomy under two further assumptions: (1) that the homosexuals referred to were exclusive homosexuals; bisexuals and homosexuals who occasionally fathered children, would obviously be outside the scope of this argument since both classes produce children; (2) the argument would have purchase against exclusive homosexuality only if the entire human race were to turn to that practice. The species would be in little danger no matter what proportion of the population were exclusive homosexuals as long as the number of children produced by the non-exclusive homosexual class equaled or exceeded the death rate. As Aquinas says in the last line of the passage just quoted, "there is no need for every man to attend to the act of procreating."

What remains of our original syllogism? Recall that first we had

(1) All acts against our animal nature are vices
(2) All unisexual acts are against our animal nature
(3) All unisexual acts are vices

In order to save the syllogism we must make some changes. Consider (1) the major premise. Why does Aquinas refer to what we have in common with animals as a basis for a moral argument? He constantly tells us of the manifest differences between man and beast and charges humans with the responsibility of acting in accordance with their rational nature. Why this switch to "act like the animals"? The short answer to the question is that it was "in the air." With the urbanization that began to accelerate in the middle of the 11th century, Christians began to look upon nature not as something nasty, brutish and short, but as idyllic. It took time for the consciousness of humans to adjust itself to this new way of viewing nature in general and animals in particular. For centuries people held, without realizing the tension, the view that animal behavior was to be imitated alongside the view that man was higher on the chain of being than mere animals and hence they were not to be imitated. Vincent of Beauvais innocently contradicts himself when he writes in his Speculum Doctrinale that animals do not practice homosexuality and that men who do are just like animals!

I disagree, however, with John Boswell's claim that Thomas is guilty of equivocation with respect to his position, since as we have seen above, he differentiates between man as rational and man as animal. In this he simply follows Aristotle. In other words, Thomas can urge men to act according to their nature, say, to think and plan ahead, and yet be speaking univocally when he warns against sodomy. Boswell attempts to lay the following Beauvais-like confusion on Thomas's "act and don't act like animals." I read Thomas as saying, act like a human in those actions that differentiate humans from animals but in those actions we have in common with the animals, it may sometimes be appropriate to act like the animals. There may be errors in Thomas's argument, but the fallacy of equivocation is not one of them.

But, pace Boswell, if we let the term "animal nature" remain, we must qualify it. As we have seen, the argument was meant to apply to our animal nature from the point of view of the species, not the individual. Using the adjectival form of species we produce

(1a) All acts against our specific animal nature are vices.

Given Thomas's distinctions, we can now see that gluttony is a vice because it is against our individual animal nature, whereas sodomy is a vice because it is against our specific animal nature. So much for the major premise.

Next we must modify the minor term "unisexual acts." Since animals do engage in sodomy, we must look for a type of sodomy that animals do not engage in. As far as I know, they do not engage in life-long exclusive sodomy. Using this adjective we produce

(2a) All life-long exclusive unisexual acts are against our specific animal nature

And combining (2a) with (1a) we have

(1a) All acts against our specific animal nature are vices
(2a) All life-long exclusive unisexual acts are against our specific animal nature
(3a) All life-long exclusive unisexual acts are vices

But even this syllogism isn't safe against all readings. Surely there are no life-long homosexual acts qua acts. It isn't the act of sodomy that is dangerous; rather it's exclusive and permanent sodomy, or habitual exclusive sodomy engaged in by the entire human species that is the problem. Apparently the word "acts" in the minor term has to be replaced. But I can see no way to replace it without destroying the entire minor premise. If I try "acts when performed by the entire human race," then I am at a loss to see how this goes against our "specific animal nature." If the entire human race does x, that is normally taken, at least by anti-culture-relativists types, as evidence that we are dealing with something that is culture-transcending, i.e., the result of nature, not culture. Sodomy, on this premise, would be natural! The very condition that we require in order to make the premise true and render sodomy a vice, i.e., its universal practice, would render it natural and hence not a vice.

One further difficulty remains. Even if we could get around the "acts" problem mentioned in the last paragraph, the syllogism would be equally potent against habitual exclusive celibacy (and lifelong virginity). I can think of no adjustment to Aquinas's argument that will preserve celibacy as a virtue and yet constitute sodomy as a vice.

In conclusion, I can find no way of saving Thomas's argument against sodomy within the confines of natural theology.

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