March 17th, Catholic sexual ethics are as fully reasonable today as they were in the time of St Paul. In fact, the natural law understanding of human fulfillment is inherently intelligible even without a theistic framework. For us what counts about an argument is whether it is sound, i.
If a line of thought about the morality of sex is reasonable today, it was reasonable in the time of Jesus or Plato or Abraham or as far back as we find men and women and their children. This is not surprising, since his whole article never mentions, even by implication, the idea that grounds and unifies the whole set of sex-morality teachings, not only for Catholicism but also for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other great thinkers.
Even apart from any question of its legal status, marriage is a natural form of human association, with its own basic structure and value. It is the sort of loving union inherently oriented to family life; it is the sort of living bond that by its nature would be fulfilled—extended and enriched—by the bearing and rearing of children.
Children by their nature need such familial, parental nurture, support, and guidance; by their coming to be, they make possible the continuance and flourishing of the wider society whose aid and social capital made feasible the wellbeing of their parents and other forebears. Of course, people sometimes band together in other arrangements with a view to child-rearing, and other forms of association can realize other types of non-erotic love.
But only a man and woman together can commit to a loving union of the kind inherently oriented to family life and appropriate to being the mother and the father of their children. What this procreative-parental commitment and union require is an especially deep and far-reaching bond: Because marriage is in these ways i an especially complete loving union ii of the sort oriented to procreation, it is uniquely embodied in sex acts with the same dual nature: Only coital acts—chosen with a will to permanently exclusive marital love—can actualize, express, and allow the husband and wife to more fully experience their marriage—the multi-level physical, emotional, rational-dispositional sharing of life whose foundation and matrix is the biological unity made uniquely possible by sexual-reproductive complementarity.
That explains why historically in our law and in philosophical accounts of the intelligibility of the pertinent legal norms only acts of spouses that fulfill the behavioral conditions of procreation have validly consummated marriage—and they do that whether or not the non-behavioral conditions of procreation happen to obtain. In short, only such sex acts are marital. Paul or Aquinas—or in Plato, Aristotle, Musonius Rufus, and others untouched by Jewish or Christian thought—not because it tries to read premises or conclusions off biological or sociological facts.
Instead, it considers what are the basic forms of human flourishing: The identification of these of course takes into account biological and other cause-and-effect facts. But it is focused not on those but on the intrinsic goodness of the various elements of human fulfillment. We can then reason to the moral goodness and badness of types of choice and act by considering which choices are consistent with love and respect for ourselves and all others in regard to each of these basic dimensions of fulfillment.
That determination of consistency must take into account the fundamental circumstances of all our choices and acts. The basic goods for which we can act are many and various, so we cannot realize them all at once. But they all remain always goods, and each in its own irreplaceable way. So in pursuing some, we ought not to choose to denigrate or damage any of the others. And as they are goods for all people, we ought not to let our choosing be deflected by prejudice, wayward passion, and the like.
Now one of the basic human goods, as each of the thinkers mentioned above—and not just the Catholics or other Christians—understood, is marriage. So sex ethics unfolds by considering the conditions under which choices to engage in sex acts are consistent with the good of marriage.
A few sentences in a short essay such as this one are not enough to show the good sense of this unfolding by defending and deploying its premises in ordered sequence to their conclusions.
But one key to understanding it all is to grasp that—aside from obvious forms of injustice and harm-doing involving sex, especially the various forms of rape and some aspects of incest—every conclusion about wrong kinds of sex act is of the form: All forms of morally bad sex are against human nature because contrary to integral human fulfillment and therefore against reason.
The point of philosophical reflection is to evaluate prospective choices from a critical-rational standpoint in order to assess their compatibility with human fulfilment traced to its ultimate principles in the basic human goods, and considered holistically or integrally. Can Gutting find grounds consistent with his rejection of our views for denying what Updike, Sullivan, and many others claim? But it is not an argument either of us has ever endorsed. The natural-law argument against such acts is essentially the same as against any other kind of non-marital sex—from masturbation to fornication to adultery to bestiality.
But the truly morally significant thing about all non-marital sex acts is that, in diverse forms, they involve disrespect for the basic good of marriage. There are several ways to see this disrespect.
Here, in these next four paragraphs, is one. Similarly, if people are willing to perform a sex act that fails to embody permanent commitment, or a bond that is procreative in type whether or not it is, or can in the circumstances be, procreative in effect , they disable themselves from willing in such a way that their sexual congress can actualize and express the good of marriage, which is inherently permanent and procreative in type.
That is, such approval implies willingness to choose sex under a description e. Any such willingness vitiates an essential condition internal to any realization of the good of marriage and damages that aspect of ourselves—our human nature—that makes us, to quote Aristotle, conjugal beings.
Aristotle is famous for teaching that the human being is by nature a political animal; what is less often recalled is his teaching that human beings are even more fundamentally conjugal than political. So it involves a failure to respect that basic human good; so it involves immorality, whether or not one is married or plans to be. Such contra-marital attitudes easily spread and cause tremendous and quite visible social harm, as the carnage of the Sexual Revolution makes clear—harm measured in broken hearts and homes, fatherless children, and broader related injustices.
Plato, Aristotle, Paul, and everyone in the tradition understood that everyone unwillingly experiences some disordered tendencies towards some non-marital acts, and that some experience disordered tendencies exclusively to non-marital acts. They also understood that many who choose to engage in same-sex sexual relations do not have such an exclusive tendency. Their moral arguments are valid for both and all kinds of persons, though harder for some to live up to than for others.
But the concordance of this revealed faith with the best philosophy untouched by Hebrew sources, as a higher synthesis of the insights of Plato and Aristotle and many others, is just a sign of its perennial validity. Another equally telling sign is its good fruit—the good fruit of its exclusions and its condemnations of certain kinds of choice. These include the protection of children's rights to have a father and a mother exclusively and devotedly theirs, in fruitful families within a civil society that can fulfill the elementary conditions of sustainability: