A Theology of Human Sexuality Based on Natural Law Ethics

Leonardo da Vinci: The Proportions of the Human Figure (Vitruvian Manek) (1490; Pen, ink and watercolour over metalpoint) Attribution: Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less

Leonardo da Vinci: The Proportions of the Human Figure (Vitruvian Manek) (1490; Pen, ink and watercolour over metalpoint) Attribution: Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less

by Jayson M. Brunelle, M.Ed., CAGS

The Church’s teachings on sexual morality are supported by the philosophical foundation of natural law ethics, which is a most common-sensical, teleological, goal/purpose-oriented system of ethics, first articulated by Aristotle, adopted by Aquinas, reconciled with Christian theology, and, ultimately, accepted by the Magisterium as likely the most philosophically sound foundation for its understanding and rational explanation of the moral teachings promoted by the Church of Christ.  In a nutshell, natural law is an ethical philosophy which is largely based on the human person’s understanding of that which is truly perfective of his or her human nature, a nature that he shares with all other human persons, coupled with the reality of the teleological, goal/purpose-oriented nature of human acts.  Thus, from a theological vantage point, the moral commands according to which we, as Christians, are expected to live our lives, are entirely rational, purposeful, and spring from the very essence, nature and composition of the human person.  Thus, moral actions are those human acts that are committed knowingly and willingly, which are authentically perfective of our nature as human persons, and which are carried out for a specific purpose or goal which, in itself, is morally upright.

Thus, we, as human persons who possess the rational faculty of intellect, are clearly aware that committing any of the seven deadly sins (even if we have not had the good fortune of a basic training in theology, and, therefore, do not know, explicitly, what the seven deadly sins are by rote memorization) constitutes irrational behavior that will inevitably result in some form of malady, as it is a precept of right reasoning that vice is its own punishment, and virtue, its own reward.

Applying natural law ethics to human sexuality, it is not difficult to see why the Church teaches what it does concerning morally licit sexual activity.  First, human persons need to be understood as the body-soul composites that they are.  Thus, the truly moral conjugal act constitutes  the highest external and physical manifestation of that internal, committed union between husband and wife, who have made a total, complete and exclusive gift of themselves to each other via a reciprocal and  public exchange of vows.  This union of husband and wife constitutes an authentic “good,” which truly is perfective of the respective natures of the newly married couple.  Moreover, this  interior committment of unconditional human love, which, through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, strives to become divinized and raised beyond the purely natural to the supernatural level,  must additionally be  physically, outwardly and bodily consummated via the conjugal, marital act, which is also, and necessarily, an authentic good, for, as stated above, the human person truly is a body-soul composite.  

Human sexuality speaks the language of committed love; for, the spouses, in giving themselves to each other physically, are communicating to each other, via body language, what they have already promised to each other on their wedding day.  The conjugal act constitutes the physical, bodily manifestation of the totality of the gift of self that both spouses have made to each other through their exchange of vows.  Thus, they give everything they are and have to each other, exclusively, holding nothing back.  This is precisely why the Church is opposed to artificial means of birth control.  For, the use of such methods of artificial contraception literally puts up a physical barrier, preventing  an authentic, true and complete self donation in the physical sense; for persons, as body-soul composite beings, must allow for a complete and unimpeded gift of self not only spiritually, but physically as well.  For, it is a fundamental axiom of the Church’s moral teachings that love is fruitful.  The human family is truly a reflection of the Divine Family of the Trinity, in that the two, in becoming one, become three; that is, the love between the spouses, not unlike the Divine Love between the Father and the Son, is so real, so metaphysically and ontologically profound, that it actually blossoms into new life that is reflective of the union from whence it emerged.  In the case of the human family, the love between the spouses is personified in the person of their child.  In the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, which is the Divine Love of God, is the Divine Personification of the Love between the Father and the Son. 

This brings me to the teleological purposes for and goals of human sexuality.  I spoke earlier about how committed human love, and the consummation of such love via the conjugal act between a married man and woman constitutes an authentic good which is truly perfective of the respective human nature’s of the spouses.  Moreover, the conjugal act, to be moral, must be purposeful and/or goal oriented.  As it turns out, there are two purposes or goals of committed human love: namely, (1) authentic union, or love, and (2) openness to new life, or procreation.  Thus, the unitive and procreative (love and life) dimensions of human sexuality are the teleological goals that must remain authentic and intact in order for the conjugal act to be morally licit.

Having said this, it should come as no surprise that any sexual act that is not in conformity with the two-fold teleological purpose of human sexuality as viewed and understood by natural law ethics would not constitute a morally licit human act.  Thus, this teleological axiom serves as the sound criterion by which various human sexual practices are deemed either moral or immoral, ethical or unethical.  Thus, Sacred Tradition, which is the Living Tradition of the Church, guided and directed, as it is, by the Spirit of God, has located in natural law ethics sound philosophical axioms that shine the natural lights of human reason on the Church’s moral theology and confirm the Church in the truth of its teachings, especially as these latter are applied to the ever-changing and evolving world of reproductive science and technology. 

Having established the twin-fold criterion by which the morality of various human sexual activities may be assessed, it is now possible to understand clearly why the Church teaches what it does regarding sexual morality.  In essence, any human sexual activity that fails to live up to the two-fold purpose and goal of procreation (or a genuine openness to and possibility of  new life, which can only be a consequence of sexual copulation between a male and a female of the human species) and union (committed, married love, which, on a purely biological note, releases the hormone, oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone,” which facilitates an emotional bond amongst the partners), would, therefore, be considered immoral. 

Based on this simple and straightforward principle of teleology,  much of our secular society’s “commonly practised” and “socially acceptable” sexual activities, despite the reality that they are, indeed, commonly practised, socially accepted and even promoted and encouraged as goods to be sought after, are inherently immoral, on account of these activities not meeting that twin-fold, teleological criterion by which the morality of said activities is assessed and ascertained.  Examples of commonly practised sexual activities that do not conform to the moral requirements of natural law ethics and, for that reason, are considered by the Church to be objectively immoral are: (1) sexual activity prior to marriage; (2) extra-marital sexual activity; (3) solitary sexual activity; (4) sexual activity between persons of the same gender; (5) intentional arousal of the sexual appetite through the viewing of graphic sexual imagery (intentionally viewing any form of pornography, even if there is no “physical activity” on the part of the viewer as a consequence of having viewed said materials; (6) not keeping custody of the eyes;(7) giving into, and/or entertaining, as opposed to shunning, lustful thoughts.

Yet, any consideration of morality in general, or sexual morality in particular, would be incomplete without at least a cursory treatment of the fundamental and necessary distinction between the objective nature of the act and the subjective culpability of the individual committing the act.  Quite often, my mother calls me to ask if something she has done is a mortal sin or a venial sin.  While her question presupposes the very real distinction between mortal sin and venial sin, she, not unlike many lay Catholics of her generation, fails to grasp the distinction between the objective gravity of the act and the subjective culpability of the individual committing the act.  In reality, she’s one of numerous victims of a confusion of theological terminology that was rather popular throughout the pre-Vatican II era.  It seems to this author that prior to Vatican II, the good sisters who taught CCD classes would draw a vertical line down the chalkboard, creating two columns.  At the top of the first column they wrote, “Mortal Sins,” while the other column was topped off with,”Venial Sins.”  It seems as though the sisters proceeded to list all of the “mortal sins” in one column, and the less serious, venial sins in the second.  

The confusion, in this author’s estimation, sprang from an ignorance of the complexity of the psychology of the decision-making process.  It seems that the prevailing belief, prior to the Council, was that the only persons who were affected by the impediments to the full exercise of freewill were bona fide, certifiable “lunatics;” that is, persons who were mad and had lost their sanity.  Aside from these poor souls, it was believed that everyone always acted with full consent of the will.  

Happily, we now possess a much greater appreciation for the complexity of the human psyche, and the reality that neuroticism, one of the “Big Five” personality traits, is a continuum; that is, we’re not dealing with an all or nothing situation here, i.e., sane vs. insane.  Instead, each persons mental health, and, as a consequence, their ability to act with greater or lesser degrees of freedom, lies somewhere on a continuum.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies four impediments to acting with full consent of the will: habit, fear, extreme emotion and external coercion.  Thus, if any of these mitigating factors are present, the person is not acting with full consent of his or her will, and, therefore, cannot have committed a mortal sin.

Further, traditional moral theology additionally makes a theoretical distinction between the object of an act, the intention behind the performance of the act, and the circumstances surrounding the act.  According to this formula, all three aspects of the act must be deemed “good” in order for the act, as a whole, to be “good.”   

While I believe that what I have written thus far is, indeed, a fairly accurate reflection of the Church’s philosophical and theological understanding of and teachings regarding the issue of sexual ethics and morality, the Church, in its pastoral outreach, is not insensitive to the genuine needs of her members who, from their own phenomenological life experience, and within their deepest selves, experience a real, genuine sexual attraction to persons of their own gender.  It cannot be stressed enough that there is absolutely no sin whatsoever in the experience of this sense of attraction (provided it is not indulged or acted upon) for, this is how God has chosen to create certain persons who unmistakably bear His own image and likeness.  Being born with a sexual attraction to persons of the same gender is an experience of life that God, in His infinite, inscrutable and unknowable wisdom, has desired for certain persons, not unlike God’s desire that one individual be born with blonde hair and blue eyes, and another with a dark skin, brown hair and eyes.  Why?  Why does anything happen the way it does?  Why does God choose as He chooses?  These are some of those perennial questions that have baffled and confounded the greatest of human minds, at least during their existence on this planet earth.  We, as human persons who possess the spiritual, rational faculties of intellect and will, know so very much and so very little simultaneously.  As human persons who are conscious of our own consciousness, aware of our own awareness – this, from a metaphysical and epistemological standpoint, is an absolutely astounding, incomprehensible reality.  Moreover, we all, each and every one, possess and grasp that most fundamental and self-evident moral imperative: do good and avoid evil.  One can deny and defy every possible authority with the sole exception of one’s own conscience.  To one’s own conscience one must be obedient, if one is to possess any peace of mind whatever.  With this fundamental reality in mind, I shall conclude this brief essay on morality, specifically, sexual morality.    For, few moral issues provoke as much controversy and disagreement as those which pertain to the arena of human sexuality, despite what this author believes to be the fundamentally sound reasoning of natural law ethics.

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