In the following excerpt (the first of two) Crompton examines the "theological assault" on homosexuality, indeed on human sexuality in general, that is the understanding of natural law formulated by theologian Thomas Aquinas. It's an understanding that is built, in part, on the third century Roman jurist Ulpian. As Crompton notes, Aquinas' magisterial work Summa Theologiae, which wedded Catholic theology with Aristotle, systematized and rationalized the church's long-held opinions on (and thus hostility towards) any form of non-procreative sexual expression, including homosexuality. It's an "assault" that continues to this day as the Ulpianic-Thomistic conception of natural law remains the underlying philosophical and theological presuppositions for the Vatican's teaching on human sexuality.
Of course, in light of human experience and the findings of science, these presuppositions and the teachings that stem from them are now widely recognized as erroneous and inadequate. They also remain potentially fatal – especially for LGBT people. After all, for centuries, homosexuals were publicly put to death in horrendous ways for living lives contrary to what was deemed "natural" by the church's clerical caste. As Crompton notes in his book's preface, "A candid examination [indicates] that, from the very birth of Christianity, a hatred existed fully comparable to the hatred directed at pagans and Jews in the first millennium and at heretics, Jews, and witches in the first seven centuries of the second. Certainly, the resulting deaths were in this case fewer, but the rhetorical condemnations were violent in the extreme and chillingly insistent on the need for the death penalty." Today the hierarchy's homo-negativity impacts LGBT people, and youth in particular, in more subtle though no less potentially fatal ways.
I share this excerpt from Homosexuality and Civilization as part of The Wild Reed's ongoing exploration of natural-law theory. For alternatives to the Ulpianic-Thomistic approach, see The Wild Reed's series, "Beyond the Hierarchy: Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality."
In 1120 a joint council of church and state held in the Near East was an ominous harbinger of the future. Crusading Norman and French knights had carved out a kingdom in the Holy Land after their capture of Jerusalem in 1099, but their position there was hardly secure. Gormund, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, lamented that beleaguered Christians dared not go even a mile outside the towns they occupied. In 1119 forces under Roger of Antioch had suffered an especially devastating defeat on the so-called Field of Blood, a reversal that seems to have kindled the same kind of siege mentality that had infected Carolingian society three centuries earlier.
Church and state now cooperated in a council that met at Nablus, a historic town thirty miles north of Jerusalem, with a mixed population of Franks, Samaritans, and Muslims. Though the meeting ranked formally as a church council, it was in fact a quasi-political assembly of ecclesiastical and secular officeholders, presided over jointly by King Baldwin III and Gormund. As at the Council of Paris, military anxieties led to harsh morals legislation and several statutes on homosexuality. Active and passive partners were both to be burned. Male rape victims were spared only if they had "cried out loudly," but they still had to perform a religious penance; if a man was raped twice, he might be burned as a consenting sodomite. Self-confessed sodomites were to do penance for the first offense and to be exiled after a second confession. It has been conjectured that concerns about same-sex relations in the Holy Land sprang from several sources: their well-publicized prevalence among the Normans, the fear that crusaders would adopt the freer mores of the Islamic East, and the scarcity of Christian women.
A council held in far-off Palestine would, of course, be remote from the centers of European affairs. But the Third Lateran Council, which met in Rome in 1179, also raised the issue of homosexuality. Convened by Alexander III to deal with his conflict with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, it was the grandest council the Latin church had yet seen. It addressed the growing threat of heresy, made new rules for papal elections, decreed that no one might (like John of Orléans) be made a bishop before the age of thirty, and issued decrees on sodomy. Canon 11 declared that married clergy should lose their benefices and that priests "involved in that incontinence which is against nature" should be deposed from clerical office and relegated to a monastery to do penance.
By this decree errant priests were hidden from public view and spared secular punishment. Laymen faced a much more severe fate, since the same canon provided that they should be "excommunicated and completely isolated from contact with believers." In the medieval world, excommunication could have dire consequences. In Denmark, Aragon, and the German empire, for instance, it could mean a sentence of death if the secular authorities chose to act.
Far more important, however, than such canons in definitively fixing the church's stance on homosexuality was a magisterial work, completed in 1267-1273, which sought to reconcile faith and reason by wedding Catholic theology with Aristotle. this was the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Though he had earlier been suspected of heresy, Thomas was finally canonized in the fourteenth century, and in 1879 his writings were recognized by Leo XIII as the official philosophy of the Catholic Church. There is, however, nothing innovative about Aquinas' judgment of homosexuality; here the Summa systematizes and rationalizes long-held opinions.
The distinguishing feature of the Summa is its attempt to justify traditional Christian morality by an appeal to natural law. Thus, Aquinas both embraces Old Testament standards and develops a philosophical point of view he thinks has validity quite apart from scripture. Accordingly, he classifies "unnatural" sex acts into four categories according to their seriousness. First is "solitary sin" or masturbation; second, heterosexual intercourse in the "wrong vessel" (that is, anal or oral intercourse) or in the wrong position; third "sodomy," that is, relations with the wrong sex; and finally, most sinful of all, bestiality.
Aquinas' condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural rests on two principles of natural law, both as ancient as Plato's Laws. The first was the theory that animals do not engage in same-sex behavior, and the second was the fact that it is non-procreative. The doctrine of natural law has been enshrined in Roman law by the third-century jurist Ulpian, who in a passage incorporated into Justinian's Digest had defined natural law as "what nature has taught all animals." "This law," Ulpian declares, "is not unique to the human race but common to all animals born on land or sea and to birds as well. From it comes the union of male and female which we call marriage, as well as the procreation of children and their proper rearing. We see in fact that all other animals, even wild beasts, are regulated bu understanding of this law." Though Ulpian speaks only of heterosexual pairings, Aquinas, in the Summa, turns his definition into an implicit condemnation of homosexuality, declaring that some "special sins are against nature, as, for instance, those that run counter to the intercourse of male and female natural to animals, and so are peculiarly qualified as unnatural vices."
All this points to a broader question, again as old as the Greeks: is it really appropriate to take animals as our models? Animal behavior may be admirable or horrifying. Whatever our concern for other species, most people would regard most human achievements as something distinct from animal behavior. Charles Curran, commenting on the use of the Ulpianic-Thomistic conception of natural law in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on contraception, has suggested that "a proper understanding of the human should start with that which is proper to humans . . . Ulpian's concept of natural law logically falsifies the understanding of the human." Obviously, an appeal to animal behavior as a guide to morals under the rubric of natural law is open to a multitude of reservations.
Today, modern biological science has raised another objection. Extensive research has shown that same-sex behavior is quite common in the animal world. Zoologists publishing in scientific journals have documented same-sex activity among more than 450 species "in every major geographical region and in every major animal group." These include groups as diverse as gorillas, elephants, lions, dolphins, antelopes, kangaroos, llamas, warthogs, gulls, and turtles. Indeed, the "natural" world seems deliberately designed to confound natural-law moralists, for not only do hundreds of species engage in every kind of same-sex eroticism but more than one-third form male or female couples, bond as devoted pairs, and on occasion feed, protect, and rear young.
NEXT: Part II
For more on natural law at The Wild Reed see:
• Aquinas and Homosexuality
• Daniel Helminiak on the Vatican's Natural Law Mistake
• Nathanial Frank on the "Natural Law" Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage
• Homosexuality is Not Unnatural
• Rediscovering What Has Been Written on Our Hearts from the Very Beginning
• Dialoguing with the Archbishop on Natural Law
• Spirituality and the Gay Experience
• Joan Timmerman and the "Wisdom of the Body"
• Good News on the Road to Emmaus
• Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
• Liberated to Be Together
• The Blood-Soaked Thread
See also The Wild Reed series, “Perspectives on Natural Law,” featuring the insights of:
• Herbert McCabe, OP
• Judith Web Kay
• Daniel Helminiak
• Garry Wills
• Gregory Baum
• William C. McDonough