Rescuing the “Argument from Nature”?

Eve Tushnet, a lesbian-oriented Catholic who accepts Church teaching on celibacy, has posted an interesting rebuttal to an article about gay Catholic theologian James Alison in a recent issue of Commonweal. The article is only available to subscribers, but it appears to reiterate Alison’s frequent argument that new scientific and psychological evidence requires a reassessment of the prohibition on same-sex intimacy. Homosexuality, once seen as some people’s willful rejection of our universally heterosexual nature, more and more appears to be a naturally occurring biological variation. As Alison wrote in this essay from 2007 (emphasis mine):

…[W]e are witnessing the fleshing out in a particular local Church of the mechanisms which the Catholic faith has given us to maintain unity, work through our being scandalized by change, and enabled to learn what is true over a time of discernment. The overarching priority is not to allow scandal at change to block us from receiving the grace which Our Lord seeks to give us through the sacraments. And then to make sure that this grace, and the new life it produces in us is available in ecclesial form so that others can be invited in as well.

I think this has come about because Church authority has become aware that the advent of “matters gay” in recent years may not primarily center on sexual ethics at all. Rather it concerns an emerging anthropological truth about a regular, normal and non-pathological variant within the human condition. In other words, it is not that the Church’s teaching about sexual ethics is being challenged by insufficiently heroic people, but that the field of application of that teaching is being redefined by emerging reality. And of course it is proper to the Catholic faith, where Creation and Salvation are never to be completely separated, that it takes very seriously “what is” as informing “what should be” rather than trying to force “what is” to fit into an understanding of “what should be” derived from other sources.

The first time a soccer player picked up a ball and ran with it, we were clearly talking about a disobedient soccer player, since it is intrinsic to soccer that only the goalie under tightly regulated circumstances can handle the ball. But over time it did become possible to talk about the game of rugby as something where the overall purposes of sports playing, shared with soccer, are faithfully maintained within a different set of practises. My point is that for the referee to blow the whistle on a ball-handler in a soccer game is very proper. And for as long as it is clear that there is only soccer, he is right. However, as it becomes clear that there may also be a game called rugby, he must learn to be very careful indeed, since attempting to referee a rugby match as though it were soccer being played by perverse rule breakers would degenerate into insanity.

To which Eve responds, with some justification, that a lot of things occur in nature that aren’t ideal or ethically defensible (rape, killing, addiction). In a follow-up post, she adds:

…”[N]ature” isn’t obvious. Cultures define what is natural, and those definitions need not match up at all well with your own morality, whether or not you’re an orthodox Catholic. So when you rely on “nature” arguments, you need to be fierce, be careful, and be anything other than complacent; and–my old hobbyhorse–maybe you’d be better off just leaving the “natural” category alone, and making your arguments on other grounds.

I happen to agree, but I don’t think we can leave it at that. We have to contend with the “argument from nature” because St. Paul uses it in Romans 1:26-27. This is the most extended reference to same-sex intimacy in the Bible (not counting ambiguous relationships like David and Jonathan), and arguably the only one that seems to condemn homosexual acts as a general category, rather than specific abusive situations like the rape of captured enemy leaders in Leviticus. The quote below starts at Rom 1:22 because the idol-worshipping context is important:

22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (NIV)

St. Paul is working with a definition of “natural” that is more sophisticated than “something occurring in nature”. As Eve says, the latter definition is so slippery and overbroad that it easily puts a divine imprimatur on our personal desires or the culture’s existing power relations. So it’s not enough to say that homosexual desires are inborn or even that they’re found in other species. But neither is that an irrelevant bit of data. We can’t get away from the fact that in this passage, St. Paul is making empirical claims about the created order and the consequences of ignoring it, claims that are open to disproof.

One component of idolatry, as this passage shows, is a misunderstanding of creatures’ true nature. The Gentiles here mistook animals and humans for God. They were unable to see through the specific instance of God’s creation to the infinite creator they had in common. St. Paul therefore finds it unsurprising that people prone to category confusion would also depart from mainstream heterosexual relations.
Now, is St. Paul here proving, or merely assuming, that heterosexuality is natural for all people? I think that the last sentence of 1:27 makes this an assumption open to disproof, by St. Paul’s own standards.
St. Paul is making a pragmatic argument for what is natural, unlike modern conservatives whose arguments often depend on subjective, essentialist metaphors about what is “truly” masculine or feminine. He reads backward from consequences to explain which human behaviors are properly aligned with reality and our own best interest, and which are not. He could simply have said “Idol worship is wrong because God (or Scripture) forbids it” and left it at that, just as contemporary opponents of gay rights have treated certain texts as self-justifying and demanding blind obedience. But instead, he encourages readers to test his theology against common-sense observation. We can see for ourselves that idol-worship is bad because it leads to disorderly behavior, one example of which is the same-sex intercourse practiced by pagans, and we know that that is bad because the men “received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion”, which perhaps refers to sexually transmitted diseases. 

In this view, what is “natural” for us is what is conducive to human flourishing, according to our nature. This is a smaller category than “anything humans naturally happen to do”, the concept that Eve was rejecting. The confusion about “natural” may stem from the fact that both Jews and Greeks in St. Paul’s time had a teleological understanding of creation, whereas our society is accustomed to see Nature as the realm of blind, amoral, material forces.

Now, if there were discovered, or rather recognized to have always existed, a configuration of same-sex intimate relationships that did not naturally have any negative consequences for the individuals involved or anyone around them, i.e. that produced exactly the same spiritual fruits as heterosexual marriage, when the warping effect of social stigma was removed–what effect would that have on St. Paul’s argument? 

I believe it does no violence to Scripture to limit St. Paul’s example to its facts. This passage is not primarily about homosexuality, but about idol worship, with certain pagan sexual practices being cited as a (random?) example of its unhealthy effects. Same-sex intercourse may well have been “unnatural” (in the sense of “not God’s intention for them”) for the people St. Paul was describing, either because they were seeking a decadent thrill outside their normal inclination, or being promiscuous, or engaging in temple prostitution and pagan fertility rites that denied the true God. His argument does not depend on its being unnatural for all people everywhere, at all times, in every type of relationship. And as I have tried to show above, he would not have deemed it inappropriate to cite sociological evidence in a Scriptural argument, or to consider the real-world effects of a theological position as a guide to its truth or falsehood.