Writing in this year’s January-February edition of the New Humanist, Jason Wakefield lists and rebuts 31 “homophobic” arguments commonly made against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Some he brands “insidiously homophobic,” since they have a deceptive veneer of reasonableness. One such “insidious” argument is that homosexual couples “cannot have children and so should not be allowed to marry.” Wakefield retorts that elderly or infertile heterosexual couples likewise cannot have children and asks rhetorically whether they too should not be allowed to marry. He warns his readers not to be duped by the air of fair-minded sobriety with which “religious campaigners” put forward this and other speciously reasonable arguments. Such arguments are mere rationalizations, and their proponents wolves in sheep’s clothing. He goes so far as to claim that it is “entirely justified” to call all “proactive opponents” of the legal recognition of same-sex marriage “bigots” and “homophobes.” Wakefield is unusually outspoken, but many supporters of “marriage equality” share his sentiments. (Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed something similar, albeit in more moderate language, in his majority opinion in U.S. vs. Windsor.) The argument he so easily rebuts, that homosexual couples “cannot have children and so should not be allowed to marry,” is a truncated and distorted version of an argument that, rightly formulated, seems to me sound. However, in view of the widespread belief that only homophobic bigotry could motivate opposition to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, I shall not straightaway attempt a full and exact statement of this argument. I shall instead begin by saying something about myself, the circumstances under which I came to take an interest in same-sex marriage, and how my thinking about it developed. I hope in this way to put readers concerned with motives in a better position to judge mine.
I first gave serious thought to the subject of same-sex marriage four years ago. At the time I had long considered myself exclusively homosexual and had only recently broken up with my partner of nearly five years, largely as a result of the strain (familiar to so many in today’s world) of trying to sustain a long-distance relationship. Though my ex-partner and I had hoped to be together all our lives, we had only rarely discussed the possibility of marrying, should the option ever be open to us. I think the idea held some appeal for him; it held little, if any, for me. Marriage equality was not then the burning political issue it has since become and I had no strong feelings about it one way or another. Like Wakefield, I suspected that opposition to it was motivated chiefly by repugnance to homosexuality as such. However, unlike Wakefield, I was inclined to distinguish between sheer “homophobia”—dislike or hatred of homosexuals—on the one hand, and moral condemnation of homosexual acts, on the other. Some think this distinction unimportant, or even unreal. It is true that people who condemn homosexual acts often harbor feelings of visceral antagonism toward those who engage in them, and it goes without saying that this is no accident. All the same, my own experience had taught me the importance of the distinction. Like all homosexuals, I knew the sting of hearing offhand caustic remarks, sometimes touched with real malice, about “fags” and “poofs.” I had on one occasion been at the receiving end of vitriolic verbal abuse punctuated with graphic allusions to homosexual practices, which, the day after, I could not recall without feeling sick. These were examples of homophobia. By contrast, an old and good friend who was also a devout and staunchly orthodox Catholic had continued to treat me with unfeigned respect and kindness after I had told him of my being in a homosexual relationship, without ever condoning the relationship or wishing me well in it. Again, one of the best teachers I have ever had (someone who is not in any usual sense “religious”) has made it clear in his writings, though not, to my knowledge, in his classes, that he regards homosexual acts as immoral, yet it would never have occurred to me to call him “homophobic.”
This is not to say that I considered moral condemnation of homosexual acts innocuous. On the contrary, I considered it potentially devastating in its consequences, perhaps more so than raw homophobia. An acquaintance of my Catholic friend, himself also Catholic, had once spoken in my hearing about homosexuals needing to “have their heads bashed in.” He was joking, or half-joking, but his remark was still an unpleasant reminder of the brutality that homosexual men and women have suffered, and sometimes still suffer, at the hands of those raised to believe that homosexual acts are immoral. I was also familiar with accounts of vulnerable homosexual teenagers, especially boys, being driven to suicide by shame at their own desires and dread of admitting them to their family and friends. Thoughts of such things haunted me when I read or heard earnest, unimpassioned condemnations of homosexual acts by apparently well-intentioned moralists. Nonetheless, I found it impossible to believe that all who profess to hate the sin without hating the sinner are simply malicious, stupid, thoughtless or self-deceived. I was thus in a quandary. This was one reason that I began to think seriously about same-sex marriage in the wake of my relationship’s collapse. I wanted better to understand the thinking of apparently good-hearted and intelligent people who condemn not just same-sex marriage but homosexual practice as such.
Naturally I wanted to believe that moral condemnation of homosexual acts is deeply misguided, whatever its motives. Strange as it may sound, however, I was not confident of this. I do not mean that I had nagging feelings of guilt about my own desires and choices, or that I had been unwillingly impressed by arguments for the immorality of homosexual acts. Rather, the very idea of calling a loving couple’s consensual sexual acts immoral had always been alien to my sensibilities. Precisely for this reason, I could no more positively reject the idea than accept it. I could only, as it were, stare blankly at it. Before I could be confident of its being misguided, I needed to make the idea real to myself.
If two men or two women celebrate their love for each other sexually, what, if anything, importantly distinguishes their act from that of a man and a woman who do likewise? This question was my starting point. A possible answer occurred to me immediately: that coitus can lead to pregnancy, while no homosexual act can. This is, indeed, so obvious that it may seem trivial. But it did not, on this occasion, seem trivial to me. On the contrary, for the first time in my life it struck me as profoundly important. I was of course already familiar with the argument that, since the sexual organs have a natural, procreative “function,” homosexual acts are “unnatural” and hence wrong. I had also encountered the related, vaguer argument that, even apart from their procreative function, the male and female sexual organs are naturally “fitted” or “geared” to each other and that homosexual acts are therefore, again, “unnatural,” hence wrong. Neither of these arguments had ever greatly impressed me. But although it is fashionable in many circles to ridicule them, I think it is dishonest to suggest that they are patently ridiculous. A homosexual friend once remarked to me, in an unguarded moment, that the male body was “not designed” for anal intercourse. Outside of gender studies seminars, few would disagree. Similarly, unless it is a mistake to believe that any bodily organs have natural functions—a wildly implausible idea—it would be obtuse to deny that a natural function of the sexual organs is procreation. (This is why they are called “genitals.”) To be sure, nothing directly follows from either of these facts about the morality of homosexual acts. I shall later argue that the procreative function of the sexual organs does have a bearing on the morality of homosexual acts. However, what first struck me four years ago was not that these acts fail to fulfill a natural function of the sexual organs. It was rather that their lack of procreative potential deprives homosexual acts of a natural meaning that coitus has, or at least can have.
A man and a woman engage in coitus, the woman falls pregnant and, nine months later, she gives birth. Together the couple have brought a new human being into the world, of their own flesh and blood. Having a child is so commonplace an event that we rarely reflect on how momentous it is. The couple may not intend or even welcome it, but this does not diminish the unique wonder of procreation. It seemed obvious to me that the generation of new human life is not, so to speak, a mere side effect of coitus. That an act of loving bodily union should lead to the conception of a child composed of material from both parents’ bodies—a child with whom, in turn, the parents normally wish to share their love—is surely more than a brute biological fact. It is fitting, seemly, that things should be this way. The procreative potential of coitus bespeaks an apparent order that is at once biological and spiritual. Of course, not all pregnancies result from coitus between people who love each other. Nor does coitus in most cases actually lead to pregnancy. Nonetheless, it is hard to take seriously the suggestion that, when it does, this is no more than an instance of cause and effect, like rain after condensation. Pregnancy is an effect that reveals part of the intrinsic meaning of its cause.
I have spoken of the apparent “order” manifested in the causal connection between loving bodily union and conception, and of the “meaning” of coitus. These expressions may occasion some misgivings. To speak of “order” may seem to imply intelligent design. I shall say more about this later, but for now I will say only that we may acknowledge an instance of apparent natural order without regarding it as evidence of design. The word “meaning,” on the other hand, may in this context strike some readers as merely emotive. At the very least, it may seem unhelpfully vague. I admit that its precise force is difficult to grasp. When I sought to express what impressed me so strongly about the connection between coitus and procreation, it was the first word that occurred to me, and I still think it apt. And while claims about the “meaning” of human acts may be somewhat obscure, they are not flatly unintelligible.
Yet to say that pregnancy and childbirth are mere incidental consequences of coitus, intended or not, welcomed or not, hence to deny that they reveal something about the act’s intrinsic meaning, is in effect to treat coitus as a means to the end of reproduction—one with which we could dispense, with the aid of technology. Aldous Huxley envisaged this possibility in Brave New World. His utopia has abolished conception in utero and entrusted the generation of new life to Hatcheries and Conditioning Centers, where fetuses mature in “decanting bottles.” Sex no longer serves a reproductive function and the very word “mother” arouses embarrassment and revulsion. If we are appalled at these arrangements, as Huxley intended, we should ask ourselves why. Disregarding their authoritarian enforcement and their sheer antiseptic grimness, they have a clear rationale. As well as serving to control population size, they do away with the severe costs of natural procreation: the inconvenience of pregnancy, the pain of labor and the attendant risks to the woman’s health. True, they also destroy the family, but we can easily conceive of less radical arrangements, whereby couples give their sperm and ova to lab technicians, who manufacture children that are then returned to their parents to be raised. Such arrangements may be technically feasible in the wealthier parts of the world within the next few decades. If the intrinsic meaning of coitus is only the celebration of conjugal love, there seems to be no reason to object to its separation from procreation, if effective contraceptives and alternative means of reproduction exist. Indeed, given the costs of natural procreation, perhaps it would even be irresponsible not to sever the two in this way. Is it mere sentimentalism or lack of imagination that makes us contemplate a formal severance of coitus and procreation, if not with horror, at any rate with unease?
I found myself unable to deny that the procreative potential of coitus imbues it with a unique and profound meaning, one that no homosexual sex act can have. Nonetheless, it was not clear to me that this showed anything about the morality of homosexual sex acts performed by loving and faithful partners. Just because such acts lack this meaning, it does not follow that they are not good in their own way. Surely they are just as much expressions of love and mutual commitment as those of heterosexual partners. For this reason, the lack of procreative potential in homosexual sex acts did not seem to me obviously relevant to the subject of same-sex marriage. If there is nothing immoral in such acts, there can hardly be anything immoral in two men or two women solemnly contracting to remain faithful and devoted to each other till death—and same-sex marriage would presumably consist in no more than this. I should at this point remark that I gave virtually no thought at this time to marriage, in contradistinction to sexual relations and procreation. Even four years later, the precise meaning of marriage is not wholly clear to me. However, it seems clear to me now—and I think I dimly recognized this even four years ago—that the question of the morality of homosexual practice is directly relevant to the question of whether governments should legally recognize same-sex marriage. If homosexual practice is immoral, then solemnly contracting to enter into a lifelong homosexual union is assuredly immoral. Some might argue that, just as governments reasonably tolerate other immoral behavior (such as lying), so too they can reasonably recognize same-sex marriage, even if it is immoral. But the analogy is false. Certainly governments can reasonably tolerate both homosexual practice and mutual pledges by homosexual partners to remain faithful and devoted to each other till death, just as they can reasonably tolerate private citizens describing such partners as “married.” But legal recognition is a different matter. It is by no means obvious that governments should either recognize or refuse to recognize any kind of marriage, whether “traditional” or otherwise. (They neither recognize nor refuse to recognize lifelong friendships, for instance.) Legal recognition has an unavoidable symbolic, as well as a merely practical, dimension. If a government legally recognizes same-sex marriage, it thereby implicitly affirms the moral legitimacy of homosexual practice.
My reflections four years ago led me no further than I have so far indicated. While they did not convince me that there is any clear, plausible moral objection either to homosexual practice or to same-sex marriage, they did leave me with a lingering sense of disquiet. I was still unashamedly attracted to other men and I had not abandoned hope of some day resuming my former relationship, but I was unsettled. In retrospect, I would say I was unprepared to think through all the implications of affirming that the natural connection between coitus and procreation demands our respect and perhaps our reverence. To speak in this way is to imply that, regardless of our wishes or even our needs, nature’s arrangements with regard to procreation have for us a certain moral authority. But this seems unintelligible unless nature’s arrangements more generally have for us some sort of moral authority.
Though rare today, belief in the existence of such an order has a long and venerable history. Both Plato and Aristotle looked to nature as in some sense a standard for moral judgment. The Stoics sought to live “according to nature.” Medieval theologians identified the moral law with the “natural law,” as contemporary Catholic theologians still do. Even today, when a “disenchanted” view of the natural world goes largely unquestioned, appeals to nature as a standard for moral judgment have undeniable rhetorical power. We can readily appreciate, for example, why the ghost of old Hamlet describes his own murder, at his brother’s hand, not only as “most foul,” but also as “most unnatural.” And if we do affirm the existence of a natural moral order, the suggestion that the natural procreative function of the sexual organs also has intrinsic moral significance begins to look more plausible. Perhaps nature has established in coitus a connection, demanding a certain respect, between sexual pleasure, the celebration of love, and the begetting of offspring. One might concede this much but argue that the natural order in coitus is irrelevant to homosexual practice. Homosexuals would perhaps be glad to combine sexual pleasure and the celebration of love with the begetting of offspring, but they cannot do so. While it might be wrong for heterosexual couples formally to sever coitus from procreation, it could not be wrong for homosexual couples to engage in sex acts that are by nature unapt for procreation. However, if the natural procreative function of the sexual organs demands our respect, no less than the natural connection of the three elements in coitus, it follows that a homosexual couple’s sex acts cannot be anything other than an abuse of their sexual organs. That homosexual desire in many cases has a genetic or hormonal etiology and is therefore itself, in one clear sense, “natural,” makes no difference. As Aristotle observed, nature sometimes “blunders,” often with tragic results. Psychopathic personality traits may in some cases be due to low cortisol levels or lesions on the orbitofrontal cortex, and these are certainly “natural.” Nonetheless, if they are among the causal conditions for a person’s harboring a desire to inflict pain or worse on his fellow creatures, they are just as certainly natural defects. A “natural” desire to abuse one’s procreative capacity is equally a natural defect. The reality of “natural defects” does not tell against, but rather underscores, the existence of a natural order. In seeking sexual pleasure and loving union in a way intrinsically unapt for procreation, homosexuals do violence to this order—violence essentially the same in kind as that perpetrated by Huxley’s fictional eugenicists.
I am aware that this train of thought will strike many as outrageous. To begin with, the idea that there is a “natural moral order” may seem absurd. Whether we like it or not, surely the natural world is fundamentally no more than a vast quantum of energy in constant flux, with no intrinsic “meaning.” In any case, the suggestion that natural arrangements in general reflect an all-encompassing moral order seems quite implausible on the face of it. Do the collisions of asteroid belts or the collapses of far-distant stars have moral significance? Even if we consider only living beings, their parts, and their immediate natural environs, the suggestion seems far-fetched. Earthquakes and cyclones destroy thousands of lives and are no less “natural” than the climatic conditions that first make those lives possible. Terminal cancers are as much natural growths as vital organs. When female spiders eat their mates after copulation, or when cuckoos destroy other birds’ young and deceive the parent birds into rearing them, nature is assuredly running its common course. Can we really descry a moral order in such arrangements? Ridiculing the Stoics for seeking to live “according to nature,” Nietzsche characterized nature as “boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain”—and was he not right?
Quite apart from the dubiousness of appealing to nature as a moral standard in the first place, the argument just sketched about the procreative function of the sexual organs might seem to prove too much. If sexual pleasure and loving intimacy are not to be separated from procreation, then not only are homosexual sex acts wrong, but so are all heterosexual sex acts other than coitus, to say nothing of solitary masturbation. Even coitus, it would seem, is wrong if the couple practices contraception, or if one of the partners is infertile or sterile. Would any reasonable human being accept these consequences? But a fully disenchanted view of nature involves difficulties of its own. If all that exists is energy in flux, morality can have no foundation in the nature of things. Nietzsche saw this clearly. In flatly declaring that “there are no moral facts,” he was merely acknowledging a necessary corollary of the view that nature is “boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration.” To be sure, he also speaks of human beings “creating” meaning. “Evaluation is creation,” his Zarathustra grandly declares. When people today speak of “creating” or “making” meaning, they pay knowing or unknowing tribute to the seductive power of Nietzschean rhetoric. But the notion that human beings “create” meaning is, I believe, simply false to our daily experience. Suppose we hear of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades and are awestruck at his courage. If we call his act noble, are we “creating” meaning? Are we not rather recognizing it? Again, when we call the actions of serial killers and child molesters evil, are we not simply acknowledging a fact? It may seem more plausible to say that, when we see a snow-capped mountain peak bathed in late-afternoon sunlight and exclaim “How beautiful!” we are “creating” meaning—yet this is assuredly not what we take ourselves to be doing. We think that what we see is beautiful. We take ourselves to be responding to natural beauty, and we would likely feel that someone who could look on the same scene with complete indifference would be missing something. Quite generally, when we speak of goodness, wickedness and beauty, we take ourselves to be responding, and responding appropriately, to features of the world we inhabit. We discover meaning; we do not create or “project” it. (This is not to deny that our capacity to discern meaning is fallible and needs cultivation, as Plato and Aristotle both stressed.) Therefore if morality is not a mere illusion, it must have some foundation in nature.
Here it may be objected that morality surely has its foundation in reason, not in nature. Man’s autonomous reason, it may be said, elevates him above the merely natural and is the source not only of morality but of all that goes under the name of “culture.” I suspect that this Kantian or Hegelian view is at bottom barely distinguishable from the Nietzschean view that human beings “create” value, inasmuch as it treats reason, in Kant’s words, as “self-legislating” and hence as making meaning, rather than discovering it. In any case, to say that morality has its foundation in reason is only to repeat that it has its foundation in nature, since reason too belongs to man’s nature. I would add that, morality aside, the very existence of mind and reason are difficult to explain if one accepts a disenchanted view of nature. That the blind motion of elementary particles could give rise to the capacity, in certain organisms, to know and understand the world out of which they have emerged, seems incomprehensible. The problem is often obscured today by loose talk of organisms acquiring ever greater “complexity” in the course of evolutionary history, as if this sufficed to explain the emergence of consciousness. Yet the distinction between the conscious and the non-conscious is not, on the face of it, a matter of degree, but of kind. Neurophysiological complexity may be a precondition for thought, but it is far from clear how it could explain it.
When I first thought seriously about same-sex marriage, I had already for some time been preoccupied with the question of how mind and morality can belong to the natural world. Indeed, this was itself an additional reason for my giving thought to sexuality and its “natural” meaning. A year later, I was firmly convinced that a disenchanted view of nature is untenable, given the existence of mind and morality. Arguments to the contrary seemed to me, by this time, little more than sophistic evasions. But I had also begun to think that it cannot make sense to speak of a natural moral order unless one is prepared to acknowledge this order as the work of (supernatural) design. I said earlier that one may acknowledge an instance of apparent natural order as such without regarding it as evidence of design. I had by this point gradually (and reluctantly) come to doubt whether natural order could possibly be more than merely apparent if it were not the work of a designer. I had also begun to think that, if mind cannot emerge from non-mind, and if nothing comes from nothing, then one has no choice but to believe in the existence of a non-human—or rather superhuman—mind that is somehow the origin of human minds. In short, I was leaning toward theism. And the following year, after much brooding and not a little agonizing, I converted to Catholicism.
I have given only the most cursory indication of the reasons that, humanly speaking, led me to take this step. I have passed over many possible objections to the arguments summarily rehearsed in the preceding paragraphs, and I have said nothing about why I was drawn to Catholicism, rather than to any other form of theism. I may have given the impression that my conversion was a merely intellectual af- fair, when of course it was not. As with many converts, friendship with believers played an important role. I owed much to the old friend mentioned earlier, and still more to another, dearly beloved friend of more recent years, whose support at the time of my conversion meant more to me than I can say. Among the inevitable stresses and strains of conversion, none was more painful for me than that of explaining my decision to my former partner. I had come to believe that, to the extent that our relationship had been one of more than deep affection and mutual care, it had been gravely wrong on both our parts. Telling him so was the hardest thing I have ever had to do or, I hope, ever will have to do. I count it as one of God’s mercies that, badly hurt as my ex-partner was, he has remained a close friend.
The idea of a natural moral order undeniably presents difficulties. From a theistic perspective, however, these difficulties are not obviously intractable. The starry heavens above me, no less than the moral law within me, may fill my mind with awe, whose rightful object is Him who made both. The austere grandeur of inanimate nature serves to glorify the Creator, as does the moral order manifested in the human frame. The apparent brutality and waste in the animal kingdom admittedly remains perturbing, as does the misery that seems endemic to human life. The reality of natural defects or “blunders” itself seems difficult to reconcile with the existence of a benevolent creator. If one believes in the fall of man, one may regard defects and corruptions in human nature as incidental to our fallen state, and the near-ubiquity of suffering as serving a punitive and corrective purpose. The problem of evil (in the broadest sense) arises for any cosmology that acknowledges its existence at all. Christian theism indeed brings this problem into stark relief, since it boldly affirms that, notwithstanding the reality of evil, God is all-good and all-powerful. Whatever its difficulties, however, I had come to believe, as I say, that the only logical alternative to theism is a bald “naturalism” that denies the reality of good and evil altogether.
I earlier remarked that the argument from the procreative function and meaning of coitus might seem to prove too much. Since I have mentioned my conversion to Catholicism, readers will not be surprised that I accept that argument’s implications regarding contraception, non-coital sex and masturbation. Catholic moral teaching in general purports to be rationally defensible and the fundament of Catholic sexual ethics is the principle, laid down in the famous (or infamous) 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, that the unitive and procreative meanings of sexual intercourse are not to be separated. (I might say in passing that, at the time that I first thought hard about homosexuality and procreation, I knew nothing of this encyclical beyond its name and its ban on contraception.) The Church teaches that sexual intercourse is only licit within marriage—a teaching that I presently accept on faith, since, as mentioned earlier, I am not as clear about the meaning of marriage as I would need to be in order to accept any such teaching on merely rational grounds. The Church does not, of course, prohibit couples to marry who are incapable of childbearing; nor, subject to certain conditions, does it prohibit marital coitus during infertile periods. It is a fair question why not. In recent debates about same-sex marriage, the most prominent Catholic defenders of “traditional” marriage have been the so-called “new natural lawyers,” John Finnis, Robert P. George, Patrick Lee and others, who argue for an essential connection between marriage and procreation. Their most thoughtful critics, such as Andrew Koppelman and John Corvino, have claimed—I think rightly—that they fail adequately to explain why, given their principles, infertility is not an obstacle to marriage. As we have seen, Jason Wakefield (the same-sex marriage proponent with whom I began) puts the same question to the supposed “bigots” and “homophobes” who argue that procreation is in some sense essential to marriage.
What distinguishes the “new” natural lawyers from more traditional natural law theorists is their refusal to appeal to the natural “function” or teleology of the human reproductive system. This refusal is motivated partly by the wish to avoid reasoning fallaciously from an “is” to an “ought” (the biological function of the genitals is procreation, therefore one ought not engage in sex acts intrinsically unapt for procreation) and partly, I suspect, by unwillingness to enter deeply into metaphysical questions. I believe it is this refusal to appeal to the procreative function of the genitals that ultimately accounts for the inadequacy of their efforts to justify the marriage of infertile couples.
Catholic apologists should not disguise from themselves or from others the real difficulties in defending this aspect of Catholic moral teaching. In a 1964 exchange about contraception with the liberalizing Dominican Herbert McCabe, the philosopher and convert Elizabeth Anscombe openly acknowledged that it is far from obvious how to justify the marriage of elderly women on the principles of traditional Catholic sexual morality. However, precisely if one grants that nature’s arrangements have a certain moral authority, one may reasonably infer two things from the biological facts. Firstly, though coitus is naturally connected to procreation in a general way and derives its meaning in part from this connection, nonetheless the human reproductive system is not so designed that coitus should usually, or even often, lead to conception. Therefore, secondly, one does not act against nature if one engages in non- contraceptive coitus, knowing that conception is unlikely to occur, or even certain not to occur. The infertile periods in women of childbearing age, the rarity of conception even after coitus during fertile periods, the onset of menopause and, despite all these, the lack of seasonal variation in human sexual desire, together leave little room for doubt that the natural moral order does not demand of spouses that they restrict sexual intercourse to periods when they can be reasonably confident of its leading to conception. And if sexual intercourse that will probably or certainly not lead to conception is licit in principle, it is at least plausible to think that, by extension, the marriage of men and women naturally incapable of having children is also licit. This is compatible with recognizing that the biological function of coitus and of sexual pleasure is procreation, that the connection of the three must be respected and that, hence, willfully to sever this connection is to violate the natural moral order.
This thumbnail sketch of Catholic sexual ethics and what I take to be its rationale obviously leaves many questions and possible objections unanswered. The major stumbling block for many is of course the very idea that natural arrangements might have for us a certain moral authority. (Provided they do, the inference from “is” to “ought” need not be fallacious.) I have sought to explain how I came to take this idea seriously and why I still see no reasonable alternative, short of outright nihilism, to some form of natural law theory. Not all contemporary thinkers who take a similar view are Catholic natural lawyers. Leon Kass and Philippa Foot, for instance, both acknowledge the need for ethics to be grounded in some way in nature. I have suggested that the idea of a natural moral order is ultimately untenable without theism, because meaningful “order” presupposes design, and hence a designer. However, an atheistic natural law ethics is not patently incoherent, and a natural law defense of “traditional” marriage need not and should not appeal to theistic, let alone specifically Christian, premises.
It might seem that all I have said only goes to show that Jason Wakefield is right after all. My argument against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage is simply an argument for the immorality of homosexual practice and, in fact, I have said comparatively little about marriage. Does this not confirm Wakefield’s charge that opposition to same-sex marriage is inherently homophobic?
I have suggested that one should distinguish between homophobia and moral condemnation of homosexual practice, something Wakefield would likely deny. Wakefield is, however, right at least to this extent: the argument that homosexual partnerships do not deserve to be called “marriages” because homosexual sex acts are intrinsically unapt for procreation cannot be formulated in such a way as to allow for the marriage of elderly or infertile heterosexual couples unless it appeals to the procreative function of the genitals; and, in making this appeal, one unavoidably commits oneself to the immorality of homosexual sex acts. In truth, one commits oneself to a great deal more than this. A consistent sexual ethic based on recognition of the procreative function and meaning of sex is far more severe than most people today, homosexual or heterosexual, are prepared to tolerate. It is useless for principled opponents of same-sex marriage to pretend otherwise. The merely “conservative” argument that we should not tamper with a time-honored institution is both intellectually unsatisfactory and rhetorically weak, and arguments drawing on sociological studies of same-sex parenting are, I think, inconclusive at best. If one wishes to make a principled case against same-sex marriage that will hold water, one must in effect mount an all-out assault on the sexual mores that have been dominant in the West for the better part of the last half-century. This being so, the campaign in the U.S. against same-sex marriage seems to me likely to fail, at least in the short term. In writing this piece, my primary intention has not in fact been to aid this campaign, worthy though I think it is. I have chiefly wished to address people in certain respects like myself—that is, people with strong homosexual yearnings who nonetheless realize that opposition to same-sex marriage and moral condemnation of homosexual practice need not be motivated by blind prejudice or sheer hate. I have implied that to refrain from seeking gratification or loving intimacy with a same-sex partner is reasonable. That doing so is difficult and fraught with pain I do not deny, especially if one’s desires are exclusively homosexual. Reason has only limited power over the passions. Nonetheless, I would urge people with homosexual desires who are not wholly unmoved by what I have said consciously to resist the fashionable and cruel myth that the passions, and sexual desire in particular, simply cannot be controlled or moderated by reason. Every responsible adult knows that they can. Whether the argument I have made from the procreative function and meaning of sex is indeed reasonable is of course another matter. I have acknowledged that, as a natural law argument, it rests on a view of “nature” that raises numerous questions, some of which I cannot answer. I might add that, at the time I first resolved not to seek or hope for future homosexual gratification, the details of this argument were far from clear to me, though I had no doubt of its basic soundness. To act on only partially clarified insight is not the same as to make a leap of faith. To be sure, if someone is contemplating a step that may involve sacrificing one of this life’s greatest joys, he or she will reasonably want as much clarity as possible. I hope this piece may be of some aid to such a person.
This piece appeared as part of The Point’s issue 7 symposium on marriage. To read the rest of the symposium, please subscribe or ask for The Point at your local independent bookstore.