How should we think about sex? – 2

Two weeks ago I speculated on some attitudes towards sexuality within the Church. And excellent and helpful comments ensued. But I was aware that I was confining myself to a relatively straightforward aspect: our recognition – with or without the Church’s help – of the ways in which sexuality could be used in an unloving fashion. Here I want to look at the knottier question of the intrinsic nature of human sexuality laid down by God.

Imagine for a moment that you are exploring the far corners of an attic in an old house, and that you come across a piece of machinery which you don’t recognise. It’s heavy, it has a handle to turn, and it has numbers that can be set and changed. By observation of how its parts work, and by experiment, you eventually discover that it is a mechanical calculator with which quite complex multiplication and division can be done. You now know what its maker designed it for. Of course, being an inanimate possession, you are free to use it as you wish – for its maker’s purpose perhaps, or as a curiosity to display, or an effective door stop.

Now transfer that example to sexuality. It doesn’t take a genius to work out in an analogous way the purpose of our sexual equipment. The biology shows clearly that it is structurally ordered toward the conception of new members of the species, and that the parts are fitted for congress between male and female. We may find further – with experience – that the sexual drive urges us towards congress, and so conception; and that it also has the tendency to bind the participants into a long term relationship which enables them to support each other in practical and psychological ways through the task of parenthood.

Here the analogy with the calculator breaks down. We are not objects which we possess and can dispose of as we wish. Our human nature is given to us by God, the divine maker. So we are obliged to use our sexuality according to the nature he gave us. And it pays us to do so because – as Aristotle said and Aquinas confirmed – in order for an entity to flourish it must work in accord with its nature.

This analysis of vice and virtue through physical nature has traditionally been given preeminence in moral theology. Thus, for example,  Aquinas says, “In every genus, worst of all is the corruption of the principle on which the rest depend. Now the principles of reason are those things that are according to nature, because reason presupposes things as determined by nature, before disposing of other things according as it is fitting…in matters of action it is most grave and shameful to act against things as determined by nature. Therefore, since by the unnatural vices man transgresses that which has been determined by nature with regard to the use of venereal actions, it follows that in this matter this sin is gravest of all.”

This does not refer merely to “venereal actions”, although this is where it is most frequently encountered. It applies for instance to physical mutilation, or to telling lies – where, if you take this approach, you are abusing the purpose of the God-given power of speech which no motivation, however compelling,  can excuse .

This deduction of intrinsic moral status from a primarily physical point of view still reflects the official position although its alleged shortcomings have made it increasingly unpopular. One reason is that its unconditionality leads to moral positions which are counterintuitive. For example, a strict application would forbid the donation of a kidney between living people; the Catechism makes it clear that not even the avoidance of grave injustice to a third party can justify a lie – although deceit can be used in other ways, and – the most topical example – the prohibition of condoms for a married couple who are serodiscordant.

A second reason for unpopularity is that the biological criterion of morality alone fails to do justice to the whole of human nature. This was more understandable in Aquinas’s day when we knew so little about the psychological aspects of the human being. So when we ask ourselves what course of action should we follow or avoid so that we can flourish in the way that God intended it is not surprising that the 21st century answer differs in some aspects from the 13th.

I certainly would not argue that physical biology is a useless guide. It will always be a strong indicator of the way in which we should behave. Thus the power of speech, needed for us to fulfil our natures as social beings, indicates that truth-telling is of the highest importance but not necessarily without the possibility of exceptions. The sexual organs still indicate that flourishing is best achieved through heterosexual behaviour linked to generation and the commitment of marriage.

Perhaps our focus should move away from looking at all the things which we get wrong, and be applied to the positive values. That way we speak to man’s aspirations rather than to his fears. What is historically certain is that our continued cataloguing of sexual sin has not led to more orthodox behaviour. But it has led to our ill repute, and our rejection in the market place. I will settle for John XXIII’s remarks at the beginning of the Council: “Nowadays, however, the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations…”

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Bio-ethics, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to How should we think about sex? – 2

  1. claret says:

    The ‘Ill repute and rejection’ that Quentin speaks of is perhaps something to be valued rather than compromised.
    What is lacking is a more forthright and unashamed proclamation of the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics instead of ‘running scared.’
    I am amazed that the lie about the Catholic Church and condoms in Africa goes so unchallenged and so the ‘ill-repute’ gathers credence from a lie.
    We should be repeating just how Aids entered into humanity. It was not through the lack of condoms but arose out of sexually deviant behaviour by homosexuals and it then found its way, as it inevitably would, into the hetrosexual world through the contaminated blood of those who engage in sodomy and those who also engage in the sexually deviant behaviour labelled as ‘bi-sexuals.’
    Would the world just stick to the very basics of Catholic teaching of sexual relationships being exclusive to married life between one man and one woman until death do them part to the exclusion of all others, for the primary purpose of creation of new life.
    Instead we find ourselves in a morass of alpogetics where we somehow accept responsibility for the Aids epidemic, especially in Africa which is not even a Catholic continent.
    No wonder Stephen Fry and Christiopher Hitchens were able so easily to wipe the floor with the ‘Catholic Two’ and lay the blame at the door of the Church for the spread of Aids in Africa during the recent ‘debate’, on the Catholic Church (not) being a force for good in the world.
    Just because people choose not to live within the rules that would eleminate all sexual diseases along with a whole host of other evils then that is their ‘choice’ to risk the evils that come inevitably from such alternative sexual lifestyles but what the Church offers is real sexual health not just a glib title. The sexual health that the Church should be shouting from the rooftops is a health that means an end to sexual diseases, to deviant practises, to abortion , to broken families.
    Why does the Church remain so silent and defeatist? The Church is God’s instrument on earth. We speak with a very uncertain voice on his behalf.

  2. I wonder whether a degree of empathy is appropriate here. Having counselled homosexuals in the past, and counting a number among my personal friends, I hope that I have some insight.
    Many male homosexuals instinctively draw back with a sense of disgust at the thought of a sexual connection with a woman. It seems to be very similar to the repugnance that a heterosexual feels towards a same sex connection.
    We do not know what causes homosexuality – although I have written a little on this question. (put “homosexuality” into the search box).
    I find that many homosexuals would give their eye teeth to have a different orientation – and suffer much from their internal insecurities, and much from the condemnation they receive (or feel they receive) from others.
    I have to say that I do not think that I would cope at all well with being homosexual, and I greatly admire those who can or do. By my judgment “theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.

  3. claret says:

    I too greatly admire those men who feel a sexual orientation towards their own sex but choose to adhere to the difficult choice of leading chaste lives.
    I admire even more those hetrosexuals who adhere to the choice of sexual union being exclusive to the person they are married to.

  4. Ion Zone says:

    I’m afraid it did not arise from another disease or through homosexuality being bad, gays don’t actually have control over whom they fall in love with any more than we do, and gay love is not an act of evil. HIV spreads through a number of factors, blood being one, sexual activity another, and on that front promiscuity is to blame, but mainly heterosexual promiscuity. Calling Aids a gay disease is completely false.

    Gayness is down to genetic conditions that prevent or diminish one or both of two bursts of testosterone in the womb, the first of which sets brain gender, the second sexuality. Gay children are, effectively, treated like their opposite gender in the womb, which is why lesbianism is much less common than male homosexuality, they have to be given testosterone accidentally. People with Gender-dysphoria, the full transsexuals are people who didn’t get the first burst at all, or in the case of females, got it by mistake.

    In the case of God, I ask you to find me in either the Bible or Koran where Jesus, Muhammed, or God say homosexuality is a sin. A few priests have said it, the most famous reference, you shall not lie with another man or an animal, is in Leviticus, which came from the same Levite culture that crucified Jesus for saying things they did not want to hear.

    And here is another three facts many hard-line anti-gays will not like to hear. First, there is no such thing as a perfectly straight man, men are pushed away from liking their own gender, but as mentioned, the default state for the brain is that it is attracted to men, it is only testosterone causing the hypothalamus to grow which pushes you away from that, and it will only grow so far. Second, being near the central divide is intrinsicly linked to creativity. Most artists, musicians, poets, sit close to it, if not they are on it as bisexuals or past it as homosexuals, and that is if they are not women. Third, and this one may feel like an attack, though it is not, people who are aggressive towards homosexuals are often covering up for being gay themselves, or at least close, and I’ve seen this in action.

    There is still a great fear of gayness, but why? It isn’t really any different if you get beyond the production of babies. You could call gays “God’s freelance adoption agency”. Homosexuality is not a disease or, to follow the outdated medical classification, a syndrome or madness – and most gays really can’t understand why people are picking on them for something they can’t do a damn thing about. For this very reason depression and suicide is endemic. And the Church goes and tells them that God hates them, so well that’s great isn’t it, so many turn against the Church, or decide they hate God right back, which brings us to Steven Fry, gay, and a bitter atheist because he sees that the Church, and therefore God, hates him. He would give you a more eloquent and educated reason, but, when you get down to it, it would be a load of huff to cover the real betrayal.

  5. Ion Zone says:

    (Correction) Information on homosexuality represents the best and most plausible theory at the current time and the testosterone connection is considered quite strong.

  6. RMBlaber says:

    Speaking as a ‘sexual deviant’, I want to say just one thing to ‘claret’ (ignoring his spelling mistakes). It is people like him that have, in effect, slammed the door of the Church in my face and told me I am not welcome.

    What is it about ‘sodomy’ that is so wrong, might I ask? Why should ‘claret’ find what I might choose to do with another consenting adult male in private so offensive?

    He says he ‘greatly admires’ those gays who choose to remain celibate. Well, that’s alright, then, because I have been – for the last 30 years! I have been celibate because I thought that my religion demanded it, as a moral duty – as an Evangelical because of what the Bible said, and as a Catholic because of what the Church teaches, deferring in each case to a heteronomous (in the Kantian sense) authority.

    The trouble is, I no longer believe in either of these authorities, or any other religious soi-disant authority, for that matter. The basis for my celibacy has seemed to me to be increasingly questionable over the past few years. The Catholic Church argues that sexual activity must be confined to heterosexual, sacramental marriage, and then be open to the purpose of procreation (this in spite of the pressure of the planet’s growing human population on its resources and capacity to eliminate waste), but cannot justify this imperative or its refusal to allow the separation of sexuality’s procreative, unitive and hedonic functions, other than by recourse to alleged ‘natural law’ (about which no-one else is agreed) or divine revelation, of which it alone, by its own proclamation, is the sole interpreter.

    I will have no more truck with any of it. The door can stay shut – I will not be knocking on it again.

  7. claret says:

    It is perhaps unfortunate , but exclusivley of my own making, that this ‘debate’ has taken the form that it has.
    However now we are going down that path and I have put myself in the firing line allow me at least to attempt ‘a reply’.
    A number of points have been raised. Firstly there is no evidence whatsoever of a ‘gay gene’ so as to assert beyond doubt that people are born that way and this is despite all the efforts to identify one.
    There can be many reasons for it but the accident of birth has not been proved to be one of them.
    Jesus did not condemn homosexuality because there was no such word to identify what we have ‘labelled’ homosexual with for the past 150 years or so. Surely such behaviour did exist at the time of Jesus and he condemned that behaviour when he condemned adultery, fornication etc. Such condemnation. of course, was applicable to all humans who engaged in such practices.
    (He did not condemn bestiality either, no-one would argue
    that point as reason to permit it.)
    I was around when Aids was first ‘discovered’ and it was known then as the ‘gay disease’ and it did not spread into the wider world for quite some time afterwards, largely as I recall from the contaminated blood of Aids infected blood donors and from the sexual activity of what we term bi-sexuals.
    Where I do believe the Church has gone wrong is to join in the ‘labelling’ of people. Human sexuality covers a wide spectrum of sexual behaviour and when we start to put people into boxes then we are in trouble. We see it now with discrimination and the ever growing list of people who feel thay are discriminated against in relation to how they perceive their sexuality. So we have now added a ‘L’ to the ‘G’ and a ‘B’ to both of them followed by a ‘T’ a little later and the latest is a ‘Q’ for Questioning! What next I wonder, perhaps a ‘U’ for unsure.
    When the Church stuck to the basic principle of sexual behaviour as defined in my first post and that everything outside of it was sinful then there was no blurring of the edges.
    Even now there are groups campaiging for sex with children to
    be permissible under the law, to have more than one wife to be permissible under the law of the UK, to do all sorts of things that are surely sexually motivated but this does not make them OK as they are not part of God’s plan for creation and inevitably lead to disease, social discord, unhappiness, and a whole list of evils.
    I hope, RMBLabber, I have spelt everything to your satisfaction..

  8. RMBlaber says:

    ‘Claret’ is incorrect. The word ‘homosexuality’ may be relatively recent – it was first employed in the 1895 English translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s _Psychopathia Sexualis_ (1886), and again by Havelock Ellis and John Adington Symonds in their _Sexual Inversion_ (1897). There were, however, Greek words available to Jesus of Nazareth, had He chosen to employ them, including, for example, the Koiné Greek term which is to be found in Rom.1:27, ???????, from which we derive our vulgarism, ‘arse’. Other possibilities include ????????? (Gal.5:19) and ????????????? (Rev.21:8).

    As for the ‘gay gene’ – while there may not be a single gene responsible for sexual orientation (as indeed, how could there be?) that does not gainsay the possibility of a biological cause. MRI comparisons of the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men and women show distinct anatomical differences, with gay men having similar right-hemisphere-biased asymmetry to heterosexual women, and lesbian women having similar left-hemisphere-biased asymmetry to heterosexual men. Other differences have been detected, for example in the size of the suprachiasmatic nucleus between hetero- and homosexual men.

    If I could choose to be straight, ‘claret’, don’t you think I would? My gayness is no more a matter of choice than my disabilities are. Indeed, in the face of blind, hate-filled prejudice, it is the source of additional social handicap and stigma – and our society is not quite as enlightened or as liberal as it would like to portray itself, or believe itself, to be.

    I can see perfectly valid eugenic reasons (among others) for my not reproducing – not passing on my DNA to subsequent generations – but I do not see why that should result in my having to be excluded from the possibility of love, or sexual pleasure. St Augustine’s view of ‘post-lapsarian’ sex as something dirty and disgusting, that should only be permitted for the purpose of procreation, is a Dark Age relic that should have been discarded a long time ago. Its latter-day apologists, like ‘claret’, would probably find ‘concupiscence’ difficult to spell, let alone define, but it seems outmoded theology and shopworn philosophy has a natural home in the Roman Catholic Church.

    Talking of spelling, I would appreciate it if ‘claret’ did not call me ‘RMBLabber’.

  9. Daisy says:

    Claret is right to point out that we should not necessarily have expected Jesus to condemn homosexuality directly. The nearest he gets is the woman taken in adultery to whom he said “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” While it depends on the circumstance I think that adultery is a far worse sin. It requires the breaking of a solemn promise, and can lead to great unhappiness for several people – including the children of a broken marriage, who may suffer for life. Yet we find adulterers in every walk of life – often admired, often in positions of trust and influence. They do not walk under that shade of giggling disapproval which still affects homosexuals.
    If Christians know nothing else surely they know how to discriminate on the basis of love.

  10. Ion Zone says:

    I should imagine that he said something positive, if anything at all. After all, this is Jesus: not generally associated with nasty condemnations.

    Anyway, twelve disciples, thousands and thousands of people coming to listen to him. There would have been hundreds of gays and bisexuals present – it wasn’t exactly unknown, Julius Caesar himself was famously described as being “A man to the ladies, and a lady to the men”, many of the Greek gods freely seduced attractive men and women (particularly the blond one).

    Here is a classical Greek picture; Achilles bandaging the wounds of Patroclos. We all know where this is going.

    (link in case thumbnail doesn’t work)


    Men are not so defined about sexuality, if not for social conditioning, about a third, at my guess, would slightly bi to gay. It is not true, though, to say that homophobia is the fault of Christianity, men are, often, also repulsed or frightened by the idea of being, submissive, to another man, which means that most cultures have experienced some sort of scorn for the submissive gay (it works a bit like a hierarchy, from what I gather), including Shinto Japan.

  11. Iona says:

    I should be grateful, “Ion Zone”, if you would give me a reference to the research which establishes – or suggests, whichever it is – that genetic conditions (via testosterone bursts experienced in the womb) are responsible for making some men gay, and some women lesbian. I didn’t think it was so clear-cut, and should like to read the evidence for myself.

    RMBlaber, you describe anatomical differences between the brains of adult homo- and hetero-sexuals, the implication being that people are “made” the way they are by their brain anatomy. But the causality could be the other way around. Persistent use of a particular area of the brain tends to develop it (cf. London taxi-drivers, whose knowledge of London’s geography is reflected in highly-developed areas of the brain dealing with space and direction).

    Do people really have a “right” to sexual pleasure? – a lot of people manage without it, either through their own decision or through circumstances forcing abstinence on them, – the severely physically disabled, for example.

    I have checked all my spellings, and hope I haven’t missed anything.

  12. Iona, for Heavens sake don’t worry about spelling. Half my misspellings come about because I am a 2 fingered typist, and keep missing the keys. If I have a complex post I do it first in a word processor simply because it’s easier to revise. But it automatically gets spell checked. Which is convenient.

  13. snafu says:

    RMBlaber – you have my every compassion and sympathy for how you’ve been treated over the years. Doesn’t fix or change anything, and reading on you’ll find I’m not responsible for your suffering, but I don’t want you to think you’re engaged in these arguments alone.

    I’m a joyful, heterosexual, married, faithful atheist. I happen to think that the notion that gay sex is evil is pretty silly nonsense. Of course, such a view is totally incompatible with Church teaching; so much the poorer for the Church.

    I find it interesting that the point about natural law has not been debated more in this thread: the Church claims not only its existence, but also authority to interpret it. The problem is that virtually no-one seems to agree where it matters most – on the difficult corners where a little reflection has shown traditional teachings to be little more than mediaeval superstition.

    Indeed, regular surveys show the Church can’t even convince all of its English priests of the teachings on homosexuality and contraception. So, where does that leave the magisterium? It can’t change its traditions, so it just restates them. In the West, at least, large numbers of priests move heaven and earth to play down these teachings in their public role. There’s some verbal sniping in the blogosphere from conservatives, but it convinces few of the validity of their arguments (witness this thread).

    I have no convincing answers for what Catholics (or other Christians) should do. From my perspective the conservative position is “correct” (i.e. in full accord with tradition), but clearly utterly false. The liberal position is inconsistent. Of course, being fallible beings, we all have our inconsistencies, but this one would be too prominent for me to live with. And I’m not even gay!

    Maybe it’s because I lack the slightest inkling of something you call faith.

  14. snafu says:

    PS – I think this snippet of Quentin’s highlights something important as he rolls this conundrum around.

    The sexual organs still indicate that flourishing is best achieved through heterosexual behaviour linked to generation and the commitment of marriage.

    No, I don’t think the sexual organs indicate this at all.

    Firstly, the inference is a bit laughable. Hume and Voltaire are banging their heads together in frustration at this point: if I claimed wearing glasses was immoral, because it involved an unnatural use of your nose, would you think I had a good thesis? After all, your nose is clearly designed for smelling. Balancing lenses on it is a grotesque violation of natural law. Be careful of claiming that the “good” result of enabling proper function of your eyes outweighs the “bad” result of misusing your nose – that’s consequentialist error you’re propagating there!

    Secondly, this “best achieved” stuff strikes me as a little disingenuous. The problem isn’t that the Church teaches that one form of sexual behaviuor is the best way of flourishing. The problem is that the Church teaches that deviations from this behaviour are intrinsically evil, and partaking in them risks you burning in hell for all eternity.

    I apologise for wording it strongly, but I honestly don’t believe talking of how best to flourish resolves the problem: that being that certain acts (which I’m not alone in finding innocuous) potentially deserve eternal punishment.

  15. Ion Zone says:

    This whole ‘Homosexuality is evil’ thing is one of the larger reasons why some people think the Church is outdated and obsessed by sex.

    “Iona”, I’m afraid I can’t supply most of the diagrams, illustrations, but here is a small selection of articles on the subject.

  16. Ion Zone says:

    “The sexual organs still indicate that flourishing is best achieved through heterosexual behaviour linked to generation and the commitment of marriage.”

    Actually, a theory I have is that the make body is set up for both, though any explanation of why would be a little bit graphic!

  17. Iona says:

    Ion Zone, thank you for your references, all of which I have now read. I think they may raise more questions than they answer, but one thing that strikes me immediately is that labelling a condition as “natural” or “unnatural” does not say anything about whether it is desirable, beneficial, to be tolerated/encouraged or combated, either to the individual whose condition it is or to the society of which s/he is part. For example, some individuals may naturally be more likely to become addicted to a variety of substances than others, but for their own health and the good of their families it would be better they should fight against this tendency rather than say “well, folks, that’s just how I am” and light up another joint or pour another glass of whisky.

    As for your comment about what the male body may be set up for, I’m not asking for graphic details, but I suspect you’d find the argument harder to make in the case of the female body!

  18. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin, Perhaps someone will be able to show their expertise as a Lawyer and shed some light on it.

  19. st.joseph says:

    Sorry my mistake, Quentin see this reply on Heathen at the gate

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