Was Finnis right?

In January Radio 4’s Best of Today reported that students had asked that John Finnis should no longer be permitted to teach as a professor at Oxford University. The grounds were that Professor Finnis, whose speciality is Natural Law, had publically criticised homosexual activity as inherently evil, indeed comparing it to bestiality. His position is set out at some length in an academic article he published in 1995.

Strictly speaking this was correct, but Finnis was not discriminating against homosexuals per se but against the activity of homosexuality itself. Nor was he attacking those states which did not legally forbid homosexual acts. But he was arguing that the intrinsic evil of homosexuality should prevent states from facilitating it or in any way encouraging it.

The paper starts with his claim that the early Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates/Plato), who had no objection to close relationships between grown men and boys, condemned homosexual acts as such. Clearly there were academic arguments with regard to the exact translation of key words. As a lay person I was not finally convinced by either side.

He moves on to the intrinsic nature of sexual intercourse. We are familiar with the two elements of this: the expression of the relationship between man and wife, described as two in one flesh, and the biological function of potential conception. At first sight we might say that these elements are of a different order. Most obviously it is possible to control conception through several different precautions. Why, we might think, should we not be free to avoid conception, when there are sound reasons to do so, while benefiting from the expression of marital love through intercourse.

This objection becomes clearer if we consider a couple who, for responsible reasons, choose to use the safe period. One might argue that this method of control is actually a greater practical interference to the loving embrace, than modern contraceptives. But Finnis, who does not address this particular point, would have answered that artificial contraception changes the nature of the sexual act: the openness to conception, he claimed, is integral and fundamental. But how would this apply to a couple who happen to be infertile: for example, post menopausal? He argues that for sexual intercourse to be the full biological expression of marital oneness, what is ultimately gifted from husband to wife must retain its integral capacity to fertilise whether that can actually occur or not. A barrier on the male side, such as a condom, or a biological barrier on the female side through the pill, is to give the marital embrace with one hand, and remove it with the other.

Finnis is consistent. He does not only criticise homosexuality, he condemns fornication or masturbation – indeed any expression of genital sexual activity which takes place outside marriage. These are all perversions of our sexual nature. But his purpose here was only to explore the extent to which the state can and should avoid the promotion of disordered sexuality for the benefit of the individual and the state itself. That was 1995. How is it nowadays?

You may want to read his actual words. You will benefit from doing so. He writes clearly but comprehensively, and you will need a good hour to read it at https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1208&context=law_faculty_scholarship

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Was Finnis right?

  1. John Thomas says:

    Whatever the correctness or incorrectness of what he says, or if they are, or are not, those of the Establishment which runs things, surely he has a right to say them, and the people at Oxford, who are calling for his dismissal, or whatever, have themselves no right to be in a university, whoever they are, and it is they who should be sacked.

    • Quentin says:

      The claim was that he was calling homosexual people evil. His response was that he held that homosexual acts were evil, but he made no judgment of the moral status of homosexual people.

  2. Nektarios says:

    This trend in universities, both here and more in America is more of radical liberalism, totally intolerant of a different or opposing viewpoint. Professors, as well as students on everything that differs from their viewpoints who oppose their narrative.

    Unfortunately, as these radical fascist liberals are succeeding in shutting down free speech. As they really don’t have an argument of that will stand up to scrutiny, they resort to the cry to fire the Professor from his post.

    Universities are likely in the long run if they permit this fascist behaviour to continue or even be seen to be adopted by the universities, are likely to see Education suffer and an end to the long history and education in this and other countries.

    This response against Prof. Finnis and many other academics today does not come out nothing or deeply held views or understanding, it is yet another tool and tactics that the Globalists are adopting to shut down free speech and control the narrative.
    Some of these Professors and students are paid by the Globalists to cause a riot and gives them a platform, to spew out their fascist bile.

    If this continues academia and education as we know it will end. Oxford and Cambridge will simply be avoided and so mark their death knell along with other universities.
    Time to act Chancellors of Universities around the world or the time for universities and first-class education will be over.

  3. Olive Duddy says:

    I am an old person, they are waiting to murder me.
    I am a woman, considered weak or a harridan
    I am a mother, always in the wrong
    I am white, ouch, the wrong colour
    I am a Doctor, always ready to give the wrong diagnosis and medication and too busy

    Please when can I become persecuted?
    Olive

    ________________________________

    • Nektarios says:

      Olive Duddy

      I see a person you write about in the first person, feels secure and far you think from what I described above, think again!
      I am not trying to scare you or anyone, but I take what you say like a denial that persecution is going on all the time and in the most respected of places.
      If good people do nothing then evil will prevail.

      Do not think they cannot reach and persecute all of us including your good self.

  4. galerimo says:

    Stephen Macado (Princeton University), gives a critically balanced appreciation of Finnis’ and other New Natural Law theorists’ views on this topic.

    But it is just as long and just as academic!

    Finnis provides no evidence in support of his arguments around the nature of homosexual intimacy (promiscuity, inability to maintain long term relationships supportive and nurturing for children etc.) other than his offhand references to ‘the modern gay ideology’.

    Macado argues that the inconsistent treatment of sterile heterosexuals in a committed relationship, compared with homosexuals is the thread that unravels the new natural law’s sexual teaching.

    Here’s the link –

    http://www.princeton.edu/~macedo/Papers/Macedo%20Ag%20Nat%20Law%20Sx%20Mrlty%2096.pdf

  5. David Smith says:

    This brouhaha is, I think, more about defining the nature of the upper end of the official schooling continuum than about arguing morals and ethics. The particular question here seems to be what sort of school Oxford should be. How is that decided, and by whom?

  6. Alasdair says:

    The National Union of Students (NUS) has a “No Platform Policy”. It asserts that no “proscribed person or organisation” (ie persons or organisations with views to which they object) should be given a platform to speak, nor should a union officer share a platform with them even for the purpose of debating against them.
    In the context, the word “platform” can be taken widely to mean any means through which the “proscribed person or organisation” can express their view.

    This is scary stuff.

    • David Smith says:

      Yes, absolutely, unless the NUS is an outlier. If it is, then these people ought to be completely free to push their sorry point, unmolested . If it is part of the education establishment, though, and they’re speaking ex cathedra, be prepared to hide in the underbrush or man the barricades.

      • David Smith says:

        Their web site is kinda clunky:

        https://www.nus.org.uk

        That suggests amateurs, though it could also just be government incompetence.

      • John Nolan says:

        When I was an undergraduate (fifty years ago this year!) you were automatically enrolled in the NUS, the subscription being paid by the local authority. Its left-wing posturing was irrelevant to most of us. The then president was Jack Straw, who was regarded as a bit of a Trot, but went on to become in succession Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor, in which roles he showed himself as moderate, even right of centre.

        Wags even suggested he had the hots for Condoleeza Rice!

  7. Hock says:

    It seems to me as though this blog has been misunderstood in that ( as I understand it,) it is not mainly about the stance of the Students Union but more about the homosexual act that Finnis is concerned with. Hence Quentin’s opening question: ‘Is Finnis Right?’
    Nearly all the responses so far have debated on the Union banning him from their platform. I have not read the points by Finnis but rely on Quentin’s summary that Finnis is not condemning homosexuality but the act generally referred to as ‘Gay Sex.,’ that was once referred to as buggery ( and condemned,) but has now been sanctioned in law.
    The Church takes a similar view, viz. the sex act is sinful but homosexuality is not.
    Modern attitudes to ‘Gay Sex’ have been relaxed to the extent that there is no difference between same sex activity and heterosexual sex (The Church , although we don’t hear it much, if at all,)takes a sinful view of all sex outside of marriage that must be between a man and woman but for same sex participants it is always gravely sinful.
    In other words it is unnatural and against what God ordained for humankind, and for those who practice it , even out of a feeling of expressing love , it is a serious health risk.

  8. John Nolan says:

    There’s no such thing as ‘gay sex’. Brain, heart, liver etc. fulfil their organic function without the inclusion of another person, whereas the reproductive organs require the complementarity of the opposite sex in order to function as nature intended. A belt with two male ends or two female ends will not buckle.

    Assuming that homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral (a position that can be reasonably held), the question is whether the State should promote or encourage them. After all, adultery is not criminal, but there would be raised eyebrows were the State to endorse it.

    The issue of homosexual behaviour among high ranking clergy and the cover-up associated with it has been highlighted by the McCarrick scandal. This has wider implications regarding historical clerical sex abuse, most of which was homosexual in nature. Cardinal Müller has recently addressed this very problem, although Pope Francis would like to blame everything on what he calls ‘clericalism’. It won’t wash.

  9. Hock says:

    John (Nolan) I have not made my position clear obviously. The use of the words ‘Gay Sex’ are used only to describe modern parlance. I have used the more explicit word ‘buggery’ in my response and I have not sought to justify unnatural sex, or sinful sex, in any way.
    I kind of resent your lecture to me. Have you actually read my post or just got ‘hung up’ on the words ‘Gay Sex?’ My last paragraph is clear enough, surely?

    • John Nolan says:

      Hock, why do you assume my comment was addressed to you personally or made reference to what you posted?

      I am as entitled as you are to criticize the expression ‘gay sex’ in modern parlance, and am at a loss to understand why you think I am contradicting you. If I had wanted to lecture you (and I didn’t) I would have used the second person.

      It’s not I who is ‘hung up’.

  10. Alasdair says:

    In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul seems to identify several groups for equal condemnation
    :- the sexually immoral, the idolaters, the adulterers, the men who have sex with men, the thieves, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, and the swindlers.
    Homosexuals are mentioned but are not singled out for special treatment! – “For ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory”.

  11. Alasdair says:

    I recently had a conversation with a Syrian refugee who is applying for Netherlands citizenship – a 5 year process.
    She told me that one of the questions on a test she had to do, read as follows (in Dutch).
    “If you see two men walking along the street holding hands, should you:-
    a) shout at them and tell them to stop?
    b) phone the police?
    c) do nothing?”
    Regardless of whatever her actual views are, she knew which answer was expected!

  12. Iona says:

    Is it exclusively male homosexual acts that are being considered – either by Finnis (I haven’t read his article – yet) or by the contributors so far to this discussion? Sexual acts between two women were never illegal (as were those between two men); also they are considerably less dangerous to the health of the participants. It seems that they are regarded rather differently. St. Paul condemns such acts along with sex acts between men (can’t give chapter and verse, but it’s not in the passage quoted above by Alasdair).

    • Alasdair says:

      The chapter and verse is Romans ch1,v26.

    • David Smith says:

      “Sexual acts between two women were never illegal (as were those between two men); also they are considerably less dangerous to the health of the participants.”

      Indeed. They’re two essentially different things. For one thing, the male sex act is active and the female sex act is passive. Dogs and whales are both mammals, but except for that, they’re totally different creatures.

      Humans misuse language a lot. Our minds need to name things, and we often do that lazily, using one word where two would be more exact. Sometimes we do that analogically, to make a point or even to proselytize, to create a similarity where little exists except in our minds.

      Finnis spends a lot of his article recounting how the ancients – Plutarch, Agustine, Socrates, Plato – felt and thought about male-to-male sex. For most people, I think, there’s something inherently and deeply disgusting about anal intercourse. That the powers that be in the Western world today have chosen to pretend that it’s perfectly fine if not completely normal is a nice illustration of the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Why they do that could be a fascinating study in human behavior.

    • Quentin says:

      Some confusion is caused by pronunciation. Homo is often mistakenly pronounced as in ‘home’. This suggests homo in Latin which means ‘man’. It should be pronounced as in ‘tom’, which, through the Greek, correctly relates to ‘same’. ‘Homosexual’ in fact covers both genders.

  13. Nektarios says:

    Was Professor Finnis right?
    As a Christian, that is not the real question. the real question is was what the Professor saying pleasing to God the Father?. The answer, according to God’s inspired Word is yes.
    In our lives, it is not what we think and what we do of ourselves that is important, but whether what we think and do is pleasing to the Father.

    If one is not truly a Christian, such do not really care what pleases God the Father, but a born again, a regenerated soul does.

  14. Quodvultdeus says:

    In order not to be “long and just as academic!” (cf. Galerimo) I will quote an opinion about one college in Ohio i read this morning. The author seems to be a simple common sense person. NB. That college is an alma mater of my nephew.
    “The campus is beautiful, however when I came to visit, most students were just plain rude and they claim something they are not [= tolerant], i.e. if you are part of the LGBTQ, why would you hit on someone from the opposite sex? etc. ”

    For me this way of behaviour is a new face of something that revealed itself in the 20th c. in Russia and East Europe as bolshevism. In the peak of bolshevism, during comerade Stalin’s rule, one could not pursue an academic career if he or she openly disagreed with the world view of comerade Lenin or grandpa Karl Marx. I think also of the bitter educational fruit of cultured German nation, by no means marginal, called Hitlerjugend.

    Christian fundamentalists with Torquemada as their leader are but rookies compared to the diffenders of homosexuality. Thank God, Christ will have the last word in the course of the world.

  15. Alasdair says:

    On the topic of tolerance:
    Towards the end of the era when homosexuality was widely frowned upon, many of us, perhaps the majority, displayed a tolerant attitude. Now that homosexuality has “equal status with heterosexuality”, any utterance against homosexuality is not tolerated. Those whom we tolerated are themselves intolerant. Therefore we now live in a less tolerant age.

    • Nektarios says:

      It would seem that those among the Christian Church that exercised tolerance, were not wise, for it is laid bare in Romans chapter one what like they are.
      Churches are dividing on this homosexual issues which the Church leaders scared of the law of man and the knock-on effect have given in.

      • Quodvultdeus says:

        Apostle Paul in the same letter says “Give a welcome to anyone whose faith is not strong, but do not get into arguments about doubtful points.” (Rm 14,1) I could not believe when I first read that in some countries of Christian tradition, like in the UK, homosexuality as such was penalised by civil law. It is still so in some countries in Africa. I understand, from what I read in the media that one could go to prison not for abusing someone, which would be just, but by the very fact of revealing himself as homosexual. There seems to have been forced hormon therapy. If it is true, it is natural that now they are striking back. Christian mind does not act and think in a way to use violence. Christ’s Kingdom is not from this world.Yes, the Canon Law shows how to deal with those who do not follow the morality of Christ – when to exclude them from sacramental communion. But that is an economy of grace to follow the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 7:6, rather than the way of Inquisition tribunal wanting to make sure everyone goes to heaven.

  16. Nektarios says:

    Quodvultdeus

    The truth of the matter is very few these days among my Christian brethren have strong faith.
    Then we have to be very particular by what we mean by strong faith?

    Here in the UK, it would appear you are just a teeny-weenie bit behind the times as the main Christian institutions have caved into homosexuality. Now Church leaders can be homosexual and are, so promoting it and disapproving of anyone who does not go along with it. It makes Church-life as such rather difficult, to say the least, and not harmonious at all.

    Ecclesiastic rules such as Canon Law, sorry to correct you, but is not the morality of Christ, even if we knew what that was in Christ perfectly and performed it day to day which none apart from Christ has, for we are sinful in our nature. Yes and we believers will sin, will fall down now and again. God will not leave them in that state for they are His children. They are heaven bound.

    Canon Law is just an ecclesiastical means not to spiritual perfection as such, but simply a dull conformity to Church dictates.
    It is an ecclesiastic power game ruling over the Church as lords which they have no biblical warrant to do, but to be only a servant priesthood.

    It was clear in the early Christian Church who belonged to Christ and who did not. The followed the OT. The teaching of Christ and the Apostolic doctrine, teaching and practice.

  17. John Nolan says:

    Quodvult,

    Homosexuality as such was never criminalized. No one was jailed for revealing that he was a homosexual. No-one was forced to have hormone therapy, although it could be offered as an alternative to prison – this happened to the mathematician Alan Turing. A less eminent person would have been jailed, since Turing’s offence involved a minor and so was regarded as particularly heinous.

    Homosexual activity was against the law, including ‘cottaging’ (soliciting for sex in public lavatories) which claimed some prominent victims, including the actor Sir John Gielgud. It is still prohibited under section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

    In 1957 the Wolfenden Report recommended decriminalizing homosexual conduct, but was not acted upon since the government decided (correctly) that public opinion would be hostile to it. The Wolfenden Committee also reported on prostitution, and the Street Offences Act of 1958, which prevented prostitutes from plying their trade in public, resulted from its recommendation.

    In 1967 homosexual acts between consenting adults in private ceased to be illegal in England and Wales (1980 in Scotland) but heterosexual sodomy, even in marriage, remained a criminal offence for many years after that.

    • Alasdair says:

      In September 2009, the then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a posthumous apology to Alan Turing, in parliament. He rightly described Turing as a war hero.
      In a similar vein Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister in November 2017 offered an unequivocal apology to gay men convicted of sexual offences in Scotland that are no longer illegal.
      These events, and many others like them, illustrate dramatic changes in secular society over a relatively short period of time.
      By and large I agree that it is not the function of the law of the land to uphold God’s laws. To that extent I am a secularist.

      • John Nolan says:

        Interestingly, Turing’s offence would still have been criminal until 1994, when the age of homosexual consent was reduced from 21 to 18. Turing’s partner was 19 at the time of the offence, and was treated as a victim.

        These retrospective public apologies are pointless and silly.

    • Coconuts says:

      Wasn’t it acts of sodomy specifically that were illegal and criminalised, as opposed to homosexual activity as such? I could be wrong here but I think homosexual activity between women particularly was never illegal, just considered morally wrong or unnatural.

      • John Nolan says:

        Coconuts

        You are quite right. In the eighteenth century Royal Navy sodomy was the only offence always punished by death (mutiny or striking a superior officer were technically capital offences but were usually dealt with leniently or even overlooked). Two sailors from HMS Bellerophon were indeed hanged after court martial, but evidence from the trial makes it clear that the bar for proof was set very high – the miscreants had to be actually caught in the act.

        It would have been difficult to conceal on a wooden man o’war and the naval historian NAM Rodger mentions how disgust at the practice was widespread in the Service, and cases were rare.

        Quentin will be able to give details of the Labouchere amendment to the 1885 Act which widened the scope of homosexual activity and did for Oscar Wilde. How a man of genius and fastidious taste like Wilde, married to a beautiful woman, should have sought out the company of grubby rent-boys is a mystery to me, and underlines the gulf between those of us who are not homosexual and those who are.

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