US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The church might be approaching natural law the wrong way

By Patrick McCormick | Print this pagePrint |
Article Your Faith
Many Catholics aren’t persuaded by the church’s natural law arguments on matters of sex and morality. Maybe it’s time we come up with more reasonable conclusions.

A woman I know quit her job as an administrator in student life at a Catholic university because she could no longer stomach what the church had to say about homosexuality. Her gay son was in his second year as an undergraduate and she found it increasingly impossible to defend or overlook Catholic teachings that described her child—or any other gay student—as someone suffering from an “objective moral disorder.” You can imagine what she thought of our local bishop’s efforts to oppose legislation allowing same-sex marriage, or arguments offered by other Catholic leaders that gay marriage undermines the sanctity of the church’s sacrament. To say the least, she thinks these teachings, based on natural law arguments, are deeply unreasonable.

Other friends of mine (you may have them, too) have been wrestling with reproductive issues, and while they support Catholic teaching on abortion, they are not at all convinced that in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, or sterilization are “intrinsically evil”—meaning they can never, ever be done. And do not get these folks started on the church’s absolute ban on contraception. Not even their parents see the reasonableness of this natural law teaching.

Here is the problem: Pope Paul VI, who wrote his encyclical on the regulation of birth, Humanae Vitae, in 1968, said that the church’s teachings on morality needed to be reasonable. Unlike doctrinal teachings that we accept on faith, moral teachings should be supported by clear and transparent arguments with evidence capable of persuading people of good will. You should not just order Catholics to believe that contraception is always wrong. You need to persuade them, using reason to show the rightness of church teaching. So the pope relied on so-called natural law arguments to defend the church’s ban on contraception. 

Overwhelmingly, however, Catholic theologians, pastors, and laity were not convinced by the natural law arguments in Humanae Vitae. In the nearly half-century that followed, a growing number of Catholics around the world have found church teachings on sexuality, gender, and reproductive technologies unpersuasive and unreasonable. Catholics in the few countries where bishops have published the responses to the Vatican survey preparing for this October’s synod on the family have described church teaching on sexuality as repressive, unrealistic, and disconnected from real-life experience.  

Many Catholics in this country have stopped obeying one or more of these teachings, and millions of others have left the church altogether in dissent. Instead of trying to address the weaknesses in these natural law arguments, until very recently church officials have either simply repeated these unpersuasive arguments or tried punishing or silencing any dissent. None of these approaches have made the teachings seem any more reasonable or convincing. 

Most of the church teachings that many of us find unreasonable or unpersuasive are in the area of sexuality, gender, and reproduction. It is the natural law arguments underlying these teachings that many Catholics find unconvincing because these arguments are based on a narrow understanding of our nature as people. Even the official preparatory document for the upcoming synod acknowledges that for many “the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.”

When my friend is told that her son’s sexual love for his partner is “intrinsically disordered” or “intrinsically evil” because he is not made to procreate with another male, she objects that the love between these two persons is so much bigger and more complex than the question of whether their “parts” fit. When other friends hear that they cannot use in vitro fertilization because sperm and egg must meet naturally (and thus not in a petri dish), they are astounded at this narrow understanding of human sexuality.

According to natural law, we must act in accord with our nature as humans when making moral judgments. And since humans are by nature rational, free, social, and equal creatures made in the image and likeness of God, this means that we must always use our reason to solve moral problems. It also means that we must always and everywhere preserve and protect the sanctity, liberty, and equality of all people, and treat them as ends in themselves and never as mere means. It furthermore means that we must recognize and honor the social ties that bind us to others and defend the social networks and communities that allow persons to flourish.

Natural law obliges us to use reason when solving moral problems and to treat all other humans with respect and dignity. The duty to be reasonable obligates us to look long and hard for the truth, examining all the evidence, listening to all the experts, attending to everyone’s experience, and acknowledging our own mistakes and biases. This is extremely hard and humbling work, which must be done in conversation with others, and which is never finished. Meanwhile, the duty to respect others obliges us to practice justice, to defend a wide range of human rights and liberties, and to honor our obligations to persons and communities everywhere.

There is another, narrower strain of natural law that argues that we must not only act in accord with our nature as humans, but also with our bodies. According to this theory, we must never act in ways that frustrate the natural function of our bodily organs or faculties, because God’s will is clearly inscribed in the working of these faculties. Following this line of natural law reasoning, our faculty of speech was made to express what is in our minds, so it is never permitted to speak a falsehood, even to save a life. Our sexual organs were made to procreate children and bring us into union with our beloved spouse, so it is never permitted to use them in ways that frustrate either of these purposes. So contraception, homosexual acts, sterilization, and in vitro fertilization are always wrong because they do not achieve both of these “natural” goals simultaneously.

The problem with this kind of natural law reasoning, which tends to show up in church teachings on sexuality, is that it overlooks the big picture of our human nature. It confuses the nature of people with the function of their organs. When individuals or couples are trying to figure out what God is expecting of them in their bedroom or marriage, it is simply not enough to know how our organs are supposed to work. We have to pay attention to the bigger picture of our lives and families, and to the circumstances, contexts, and consequences of our actions, not just the function of our sexual faculties.

Another problem with natural law arguments undergirding church teachings on sexuality is that they are usually not presented as open to discussion, nor as the fruit of an open and ongoing search for the truth. Natural law demands that we use reason to resolve moral problems, and reason requires that we weigh all the evidence and arguments. But over the past 50 years very few of the voices raised against the natural law arguments behind church teachings have received a serious hearing. Dissent has been stonewalled. That is no way to persuade or convince.

We need to embrace an approach to moral reasoning that pays more attention to our duty to act in accord with reason. Of course, rejecting this narrow view of natural law does not mean we should simply do as we please in matters of sexuality, or that we should merely follow popular opinion in this area. As Paul VI argued, our moral positions should be based on good arguments and evidence, and we should reach our moral judgments by following reason, not whims or surveys.

Our nature as humans obliges us to use our God-given reason to sort out moral problems in the area of sexuality, and to use this reason in ways that respect the dignity of all people and communities. We need to work together to understand the meanings and purposes of human sexuality and the answers to our moral questions in this area. As noted, natural law demands that we examine all the evidence. That means paying attention to everyone’s experiences, listening to differing and opposing opinions, self-critically examining our own biases, and entering into dialogue with others.

Fortunately, we have a very nice model for this kind of natural law reasoning in the work our church has done in Catholic social teaching, and especially in the pastoral letters the U.S. bishops wrote in the 1980s addressing moral problems related to war and the economy. In The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All, the U.S. bishops entered into a serious dialogue with experts and authorities of every type, listened to differing perspectives, paid close attention to the experience and evidence of everyone involved, consulted the wisdom of scripture and tradition, and engaged the global church.

As a result, Catholics and Americans of every stripe paid close attention to what the bishops had to say, and many in and out of the church were persuaded by their arguments and evidence. These pastoral letters offered a paradigm for how moral reasoning should be done, how arguments and evidence should be marshaled, and—most importantly—how reasoning people should engage in dialogue and discourse so as to make better judgments and to make a stronger case. This is exactly the sort of approach our church needs to embrace in preparing for and carrying out the Synod on the Family, and it is the way we could engage millions of alienated Catholics.

More than anything else, natural law obliges us to be reasonable. It calls us to treat others as reasonable persons by presenting them with clear and persuasive arguments. The same natural law morally binds us to use reason to critically examine our own arguments and to listen to the criticisms and objections of those who disagree with us. It requires us to revisit and rethink our positions in light of new and broader experience and evidence. Natural law compels us to recognize the dignity, equality, and freedom of others.

So we need to move beyond the narrow natural law reasoning behind our church’s largely unpersuasive and often unreasonable teachings on sexuality, gender, and reproduction. In its place we need to adopt the sort of natural law reasoning we often find in Catholic social teachings—a reasoning that seeks to persuade and convince by offering clear and transparent arguments and evidence, a reasoning that is open to dialogue and criticism and willing to learn from new evidence and experience. This sort of natural law reasoning respects our fundamental nature as human persons and does not confuse this nature with the function of our parts.

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 10, pages 34-36).

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