Would Thomas Aquinas have accepted SSM?

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Yes, suggests Jody Bottum, in a Commonweal article that has roiled the right-wing Catholic intelligentsia. That the former editor of First Things should go wobbly on marriage was bad enough. That he would enlist the patron saint of Natural Law Catholicism in his betrayal was nothing less than outrageous.

Here’s how Bottum puts it:

Too careful, too honest, simply to condemn everything except the sanctified monogamy that Christianity had given him, Thomas works through an escalating series that ends up preferring the Christian idea of nuptials as the richest, most meaningful form of marriage—without condemning even polygamy as necessarily a violation of the most philosophically abstract application of the natural law.

In this, I think, is a model for how Catholics might think about the world in which legal recognition of same-sex marriage has emerged.

Let’s take a closer look. Thomas considers the issue of polygamy in Question 65 of the Supplement to his Summa Theologica. Is it, he asks, against the natural law to have several wives?

Marriage has as its principal end “the begetting and rearing of children,” and having more than one wife works in that regard. True, polygamy may hinder achievement of marriage’s secondary end — providing a satisfying and harmonious family life (given one husband’s inability “to satisfy the requisitions of several wives” plus the greater likelihood of familial strife — but it does not “wholly destroy” that end. Finally, for Christian believers, polygamy removes the third end of marriage, which is to signify Christ’s relation to the Church.

Thomas’ conclusion: “It is therefore evident from what has been said that plurality of wives is in a way against the law of nature, and in a way not against it.”

How would this work, mutatis mutandis, with respect to same-sex marriage? If SSM doesn’t provide for the begetting of children, it certainly provides for their rearing — and, as Thomas makes clear in Question 41, Article 1 (“Whether matrimony is of natural law”), it is not the begetting but the education and development of children that constitutes the core purpose of the institution.

Regarding the secondary end of of marriage, SSM offers the partners the kind of family life — and “the mutual services which married persons render one another in household matters” — that Thomas, good Aristotelian functionalist that he was, understood as required by human nature. Likewise, SSM provides the one-on-one relationship that can, for Christian believers, signify Christ and the Church.

To be sure, Thomas lived in an age that had a narrower understanding of gender roles than we do; he himself saw household work in gendered terms. But what’s perhaps most notable about his discussion of human affairs is his recognition of the variety of human experience, and hence the legitimacy of different social norms. Asking “whether it was ever lawful to have several wives,” he points out that “human acts must needs vary according to the various conditions of persons, times, and other circumstances.”

In short, unlike his latter-day epigones, St. Thomas saw in natural law not a code of conduct but (up to a point) an enabler of cultural relativism. SSM would, I agree, not have thrown him for a loop.

  • Allan Lille

    There you go grasping at straws again. First of all, Aquinas was against polygamy though he indicates it is against the natural law in one way but not another. The producing of offspring from the heterosexual relations of man and woman are still present in polygamy and in this particular instance, this is not contrary to the natural law. You may want to finish the sentence where Aquinas states, “It (polygamy) hinders it considerably for there cannot easily be peace in a family where several wives are joined to one husband.”
    As to same-sex relations, you may wish to review what Aquinas writes about these relations. His assessment, that homosexuality is an “unnatural vice” is compared with a list of things he refers to as unnatural vices including, bestiality, masturbation and etc. Aquinas references, (Romans 1:27): See for yourself: (Summa, II-II, 154). To interpret Aquinas as somehow a moral relativist and somehow supportive of polygamy is irrational and dishonest.

  • Interesting straws, though, don’t you think? But just to be clear, my point only has to do with natural law, which the Catholic church now appeals to as the basis for opposing SSM in society at large. (That’s Bottum’s point too.) If SSM were judged not to be (completely) condemned by natural law, then there’s reason for the church to back off its public opposition. That’s regardless of its internal position.

  • Cicero

    So you are advocating beastiality also?

  • The Jones

    I find this reasoning to be very weak here.

    Question 65 identified 3 ends of marriage: 1. create children, 2. raise them, and 3. illustrate Christ and the Church. The question says that end 1 is preserved, end 2 is hindered, and end 3 totally destroyed. The point here seems to be that Same Sex Marriage, while it destroys 1 and 3, still may preserve some modicum of 2. Therefore, it is not totally against nature, and therefore, good ol’ Thomas Aquinas might have supported it according to natural law.

    Except this train of thought, as weak as it is, also ignores this part of Question 41, which suggests a linear connection between end 1 and end 2: “Now a child cannot be brought up and instructed unless it have certain and definite parents, and this would not be the case unless there were a tie between the man and a definite woman and it is in this that matrimony consists.”

    Also, the argument presented above states that same-sex marriage preserves the “Christ and the Church” end no. 3, because the number is two, while polygamy doesn’t preserve the “Christ and the Church” end no. 3, because the number is more than two. As if the significance of the relationship between Christ and the Church was only with numbers and had nothing to do with the church being a “bride” and Christ being the “head.” In other words, you have to reduce the entire picture to one of numbers, and ignore the obvious gender questions and the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19 that marriage is a man and woman being united, and not something defined only by number.

    It’s quite a stretch to say that Aquinas found polygamy to be weakly “natural” but he would somehow find Same Sex Marriage to be more “natural” because of the number two. That just doesn’t make sense.

  • Sam M

    Mr Silk, your words are thought-provoking, but isn’t it a bit of intellectual sleight-of-hand to say that the Church appeals to natural law as her particular basis for opposing SSM? It’s certainly the basis for condemning all forms of homosexual genital expression, but the Catholic motivation against SSM is a little more murkily motivated than it’s been made to sound here.

  • tony

    There is no such thing as being partially against the natural law…you are either living in a manner that is oriented towards the dignity of each person or you are not. What you are focusing on is that homosexuality is not against EVERY aspect of the natural law . This isn’t a great distinction. Every act or relationship has positive aspects to it.

    Its kind of hard to take any argument that has to take so “many” quotes out “of” context “too” seriously. You are supposed to be a liberal guy….let the source interpret their own words…provide context.

    Bottum has written a follow up article indicating that he does not support ssm.

  • TK

    I think CS Lewis said something like there is no evil or sin anywhere that didn’t start as a perversion of some good.

    Like any sin, SSM can not be redeemed even a little bit by pointing harder to the original good it twists. . I think Aquinas would say raising kids within SSM increases the scope of the twist and thus actually increases the sin. It doesn’t decrease any sin at all by simply highlighting one of the goods that was twisted .to make a hurtful knot.

    The only good of highlighting the twisted good from whence comes an evil is to show that an untwisting and redemption is still a possibility and still needed. The knot still must be undone however.

    I think Aquinas would have seen SSM as much more twisted than polygamy not less even though SSM too starts with good but is even more of a twist of natural law. SSM like polygamy becomes more of a sin not, less of sin, the more it pretends to be real marriage.. The more wives a polygamist takes the more he sins.and the more he distorts natural law. The more kids a same sex couple adopts the more they sin and distort natural law.. A twisted good must be untwisted to be set straight. Until then twisting harder just makes the knot worse, not better. The more something is twisted the more it hurts those caught up in it, especially the innocent.

    Being a protestant I think Thomas was wrong about how one is able to finally obey natural law or untwist the knot of sin.. But acquiescence to our fallen-state was definitely not Aquinas’s project and even a superficial reading of Aquinas would point that out. How can the author pretend Aquinas may have accepted SSM in anyway?. . Aquinas’s was super harsh toward sin (a distortion of natural law) and not a bit soft especially if the sin could affect others,

    “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good.”

    I absolutely don’t agree with Thomas that sinners should be killed, they should be redeemed. . Jesus died for sinners. and was the friend of sinners.

    But I also absolutely don’t think Aquinas would have had any patience at all with SSM. . He would have called it a sin plain and simple. Something at minimum need be set straight.. One should look elsewhere for support of SSM. than Thomas.. His natural law requires knots be undone not twisted tighter.

  • Robin Garr

    >> right-wing Catholic intelligentsia <<

    Would it be so wrong to crack an oxymoron joke here?