Thirteen theses in defense of so-called heteronormativity and other supposed heresies, from a Christian and specifically Catholic perspective, for the purpose of public debate:
1) Homo sapiens is a sexually dimorphic species that depends for its propagation and socialization on the complementary differences between male and female.
2) Sexual difference, not variation in sexual inclination or “orientation,” is fundamental to the existence and well-being of the human race.
3) A human being comprises body and soul, and human sexual desires are influenced by developments and disorders of both body and soul.
4) Sexual desire, sexual intention, and sexual action must be distinguished, whether for psychological or moral or legal purposes, and each may be well ordered or disordered.
5) Well-ordered sexual intentions have in view goods both of body and of soul, goods that are at once personal and societal.
6) Consideration of these goods ought to respect the conjugal nature and reproductive potential of the most fundamental sexual act.
7) Consideration of these goods ought to respect the highest human good, which is enjoyment of God and of one another in God.
8) All human persons are constitutionally ordered to this highest good and as such are deserving of respect regardless of their desires, intentions, or actions.
9) All persons are capable, by intention or action, of subverting the human vocation and, insofar as they do so, are deserving of disapprobation and well served by appropriate social penalties that do not infringe upon their elemental rights.
10) The full development of a person is possible without sexual intimacy; where sexual intimacy is chosen, the faithful marriage of man and woman provides the only context in which that intimacy can be properly realized and fully expressed.
11) Moreover, the marriage of man and woman, by virtue of the natural law of fecundity, establishes a society more primitive than the state and bears inalienable rights untouchable by the state, which indeed is obligated to offer that society its support.
12) It is therefore right that public policy should encourage the well-being of the natural family unit and discourage activities that fundamentally undermine it, including sexual activities; fornication, for example, whether inter-sex or same-sex, ought to be discouraged in a manner respectful of individual freedom and responsibility.
13) The above claims have public relevance because they concern the public good; they are no more or less discriminatory than other bona fide claims about the public good, and their contraries or alternatives have no greater prima facie claim to public consideration.
Douglas Farrow is professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and a member of First Things’ advisory council.
By Jonathan Rauch
I admire First Things and Douglas Farrow for asking a secular Jewish homosexual gay-marriage supporter, a “SJHGMS,” to respond to his thirteen theses. That shows the kind of commitment to fair-minded discussion that the marriage debate could use more of. But I find myself at a bit of a loss as to how to respond. From the point of view of this SJHGMS, Farrow’s theses are, as Wolfgang Pauli once said, not even wrong. Most of them lack refutable content (what William James called “cash value”), amounting instead to metaphysical propositions that, for the most part, one must take or leave.
Predictably, I leave them. It’s not even that I choose to leave them; it’s that I’m not sure what they mean or how to get a handle on them. For example, I don’t know what sort of evidence or criticism could be brought to bear on Mr. Farrow’s claim that only sexual difference, and not sexual orientation, is fundamental to human well-being. He will forgive me, and other gay people, for not taking his word for this, and for seeing in it little more than an expression of heterosexual self-congratulation.
The epistemological problem with such propositions is that they provide no common purchase for people of diverse standpoints to discuss public policy. If anything, they excuse the proposer from engaging real-world evidence on marriage and family policy or assessing the equality claims of sexual minorities. This way of talking does not serve “the purpose of public debate” very well, which is why I’m glad the debate generally doesn’t sound like Farrow’s list.
My own way of talking approaches marriage as a social institution, not a Platonic form. Marriage is not infinitely malleable, for sure, but it is also not reducible to one perfect idea. It serves multiple ends and constituencies, and its strength comes from being a hybrid of legal and social, secular and religious, public and private. Attempting to reduce it to a single defining purpose (e.g., male-female, one-flesh union) or constituency (e.g., children) makes it weaker, not stronger, by narrowing its base and its meaning. Insisting that it cannot fundamentally change as the world changes likewise weakens it, by making it brittle or irrelevant or both.
To those epistemological and substantive complaints, I’m sad to add a moral one by noting that Farrow has written homosexuals out of his moral universe. Any sexual expression of love between me and my life partner (now husband), Michael, is mere fornication that should be socially discouraged? Does Farrow have any idea how much gay people have suffered from “social discouragement”? (And, no, there is no “respectful” way to do it.) How much stigma and torment our love has borne? I wish I could help him and others who talk this way to see why, to a gay American in 2012, their approach seems not only unpersuasive but also callous.
—Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor for
National Journal and the Atlantic, a guest scholar at
the Brookings Institution, and a vice president of
the Independent Gay Forum.
By Paige Hochschild
Douglas Farrow’s theses constitute a defense of marriage as an institution that orders persons to the common good, arising from the natural differences of male and female, the complementarity of which is crucial for the fulfillment of the individual’s good. Sexual difference, he claims, and not inclination or desire, is foundational for the “existence and well-being of the human race.”
Some argue for gay marriage as a fundamental political and moral right by essentializing sexual desire, making it the dominant factor determining a person’s being and well-being. The concept of fulfillment intrinsic to that view is not easily integrated with a concept such as the “public good.” Conservative defenders of gay marriage like Jonathan Rauch observe the personal and social stability that comes with legalizing gay relationships.
However, it is not clear how essential sex is to these relationships, now that it serves chiefly to align political identities. The sense of “public good” at work in this conception is at best the laudable, but surely inadequate, coincidence of the romantic fulfillment of many individuals. This essentializing of sexual desire oversimplifies human persons and their proper end, and excludes the possibility that complementarity reveals something basically human.
Catholic thinkers are almost as guilty of essentializing sexual desire when they fail to reject the deep current in the tradition that sees women primarily in terms of sexual utility. As a consequence, sexual complementarity is either distorted or over-simplified. Catholic “New Feminism,” with deep foundations in late-twentieth-century theology, defends the reality of sexual difference, and this is good. But the complementary relation between male and female is explained by layers of metaphor planted in the ground of the essential desire of the woman for her man.
Where should we locate sexual difference in the human person, philosophically speaking? The Catholic philosopher John M. Rist, in his recent book What Is Truth?, summarizes two narratives dominant in the tradition. One locates sex difference in the body and not the soul, giving rise to a dualist ascetical theology; the other locates sex difference in the soul-body composite precisely because of the deep, natural unity of body and soul.
St. Thomas Aquinas prefers the latter, more Aristotelian picture. He therefore says we must look at woman in two ways: in herself (as a spiritual being, made for God) and in relation to man (as a biological entity made for man, in a way that man is not made for her, for the purpose of reproduction).
The “two ways of looking” at woman opens the possibility of real tension between an earthly and a supernatural vocation. For Rist, the more Thomistic narrative is clearly preferable because it allows sexual difference to be more than merely bodily. But he doubts the usefulness of either traditional narrative, given that the worldly ordering of woman to man for the sake of sexual utility is elaborated with reference to her relative weakness, her moral inferiority, her tendency to be ruled by the emotions (thus tending more easily to vice), and above all, her relative passivity.
“New Feminism” avoids the problem by taking the metaphysical language of the tradition—supposing it to be a clear exposition of the biblical complementarity of Christ and the Church—and giving the terms new meanings. Woman is raised up, like Christ himself, precisely in her passivity and receptivity to the Father. What is weakness is, through Christ, moral superiority, even “genius.” Woman becomes, in relation to man, an icon and example of real Christian loving.
We must do good theological anthropology, speaking meaningfully of complementarity in defense of the good of heterosexual marriage. But this must be done with philosophical care and honest examination of the tradition. This will then provide us with a language that allows us to reflect more realistically, more pastorally, on married life.
—Paige Hochschild is assistant professor of theology
at Mount St. Mary’s University.
By Russell D. Moore
I agree with virtually everything in this fine manifesto, but I would like to amend my “amen” with an “and yet.” Douglas Farrow is certainly right to ground a vision of human sexuality in the created order and to distinguish between the means of human flourishing and individual human desires or orientations. He also is correct to argue that marriage, and the sexual difference on which it is built, is grounded in a natural order bearing rights and responsibilities the state should recognize but does not bestow and thus cannot redefine.
My “and yet” comes with the theses’ limitation to the natural order. I do not, make no mistake, object to natural-law reasoning or argumentation. There is, in C. S. Lewis’ words, a “Tao” recognizable by every person. Indeed, the Holy Scriptures themselves maintain that there are things that we, in J. Budziszewski’s words, “can’t not know.” In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes that “nature itself” teaches certain aspects of sexual differentiation. Moreover, Farrow is right that there is a public good involved in recognizing the dignity of marriage, one that gives, as he puts it, “public relevance” to these arguments regardless of whether one agrees with any claim to revelation.
The theses themselves aren’t limited to merely natural goods, but point to God. In this, Farrow is obviously not using “God” as a generic metaphor for “the Ultimate” but is speaking of a personal Creator who is to be “enjoyed” and through whom enjoyment of others is possible. This being the case, I would want to add to Farrow’s theses a distinctively Christian urgency for why the Christian Church must bear witness to these things.
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, in his recent work on the dignity of humanity, Man, the Image of God, notes that one of the statements from Vatican II most often quoted by Pope Benedict XVI is this: “It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man becomes clear.” This is certainly true when it comes to marriage and sexuality. The Torah and Jesus himself ground sexual and marital fidelity in the creation design.
But, in the unveiling of the gospel mystery, the apostles then reveal precisely why this design is so cosmically crucial. The one-flesh union of marriage is patterned after an archetype, that of Christ and his church. A disruption of the marital design harms human flourishing, to be sure, but also defaces the icon of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our neighbors of no religion and of different religions need not respond, of course, to a call to gospel mystery. We can present to them a case, on their own terms, as to why jettisoning normative marriage is harmful. But it seems to me that we harm the cause of public debate and reason if we do not attend to what’s at stake in Christian theology itself as we do so.
We speak publicly of healthy marriages because we love our neighbors and seek their well-being. But we must recognize that at stake is also the very mystery that defines our existence as a church: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
—Russell D. Moore is the dean of the School of Theology
and professor of Christian theology and ethics
at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
By Sherman Jackson
Douglas Farrow’s “Thirteen Theses” presented me with a dilemma of sorts. This was created not so much by any moral ambiguity in his professions per se (though some inspired less certainty than others) but by two features of my own interpretive hardwiring as a Muslim.
The first relates to a certain vigilance vis-à-vis any statement that purports to be normative: Is it a statement of fact, morality, or politics? Is “the faithful marriage of man and woman provides the only context in which that [sexual] intimacy can be properly realized and fully expressed” a statement of fact? Or is it a moral claim? Or is it a political platform instructing us on what types of relationships the state should tolerate?
As a statement of fact, I doubt this can be empirically substantiated. I agree, however, as a matter of moral conviction, that marriage is the only context in which sexual intimacy should be enjoyed, and I believe that marriage itself is incapable of legitimating all sexual arrangements. Yet I disagree that the state should refuse to tolerate intimacy expressed through any medium other than monogamous, heterosexual marriage. In Islam, non-Muslims (and, indeed, Muslims) have a qualified “right” to act “immorally.” Similarly, and with appropriate qualification, our liberal democratic American state is supposed to have no morality of its own that it can invoke above and beyond the so-called will of the people.
The second feature of my interpretive hardwiring relates to theology and its ongoing tango with liberalism. Crudely stated, do the dictates of right reason always reflect the concrete will of God? Or is God possessed of “character” and a “sovereign freedom” by virtue of which God might prefer the a-reasonable or less reasonable to the supremely reasonable? When Farrow speaks, for example, of “the public good,” are the dictates of reason so exclusive and univocal that we could not imagine equally reasonable means of serving this interest? Might not less rational or even a-rational arrangements prove equally God-pleasing, or at least capable of averting divine dissatisfaction?
Reason—and, if I understand Farrow correctly, perhaps I should say Rawlsian reason—may demand a public maximum (i.e., that we be most reasonable in our public justifications) while allowing a private minimum (i.e., that we may be as unreasonable as we like in our private preferences). But does religion necessarily proceed on the same calculus? If so, how is it to aid us in reconciling our morally frail, religiously minimalist, private selves with the maximalist moral dictates of a society committed to the supremely rational?
I do not wish to be misunderstood here. It was the rule rather than the exception that I found myself in agreement with Farrow’s assertions (especially theses eleven and thirteen). But I remain hesitant about the implications of giving them full assent as universally valid norms to be uniformly applied to everyone. Ultimately, I suspect, there is no universal morality that all of us will recognize as such, and it is only the legal monism of the modern state that compels us to look for such. I, for one, welcome the day when we are secure enough to abandon this search and open ourselves to the possibility of political structures that can accommodate multiple communal claims to absolute moral truth.
—Sherman Jackson is King Faisal Chair of
Islamic Thought and Culture at the
University of Southern California.
By Amy Wax
As a card-carrying member of the secular right, my response to these thirteen theses is necessarily mixed. Given my lack of faith, the key question is whether religious and non-religious supporters of traditional institutions like marriage can find common ground or, indeed, whether there is any coherent non-faith-based case to be made for social conservatism.
These theses suggest a few key features that secular and religious supporters of traditional values share. First is the assumption that man is by nature fallen. Second is an understanding that each living person must sacrifice for the sake of future generations. For the secular traditionalist, man is inherently weak and imperfect. Although capable of high ideals and a transcendent vision, he is sometimes destined to fall short. For the Christian, man is inherently sinful. For both sensibilities, perfection is unattainable, man’s reach will exceed his grasp, and utopia can never be achieved on earth. However idyllic the conditions, evil is lurking.
The question is: What kind of society will bring us closer to the good? Traditionalists of all stripes, I think, believe that clear, coherent, bright-line rules work best. For the religious, commands for living come from God. For non-believers, longstanding practices that have stood the test of time deserve deference. This is especially so in the areas of sexuality, reproduction, and family life, where temptations are strong and our tendency to pursue our desires at others’ expense ever-present. The distinguished British conservative jurist, Lord Patrick Devlin, said that fornication should be regarded as a natural weakness that can never be rooted out, but must be kept within bounds. Devlin knew that sin would never be eliminated. But he also understood that a clear statement of expectations, and common standards of respectable conduct, would help minimize occasions for sin. Categorical precepts best guide our behavior, and thus keep transgression within bounds.
On this view, moral absolutes are necessary and desirable, regardless of whether and when they are broken. Although habitual flouting can weaken rules, the hope is that bad habits never get out of hand. The critical objective is to prevent a lapse from becoming a way of life. Clear commands accomplish this more effectively than the vague precepts of moral individualism.
This vision stands in contrast to the more enlightened position that regular violations argue for doing away with the rule or at least qualifying it significantly. On this view, a rule is only as good as the number of people who keep it, and hypocrisy (espousing a precept while flouting it oneself) is ridiculous and morally bankrupt. Violators forfeit the right to endorse moral rules or impose them on others. On this conception, goodness is achieved not by aspiring to an unattainable ideal but by creating social conditions that remove all occasion for sin. This position secular and religious traditionalists know to be fantastic. Social reform can never eliminate transgression, and sin will always be with us.
What about our vision of the future? Our society is now awash in presentism, evinced by our celebration of a form of marriage that is intrinsically sterile, our diminishing willingness to bear and raise children, and the wanton irresponsibility of reckless entitlement spending and debt.
These trends are antithetical to the traditionalist view, whether secular or religious, which sees present generations as stewards of the future. The covenant between the born and unborn grows weaker, and our sense of responsibility toward lives not yet lived is fading. The principles embodied in these thirteen theses seek to hold back that tide.
—Amy Wax is the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law
at the University of Pennsylvania.
By Paul Griffiths
I agree with Douglas Farrow’s first two theses—that homo sapiens is a sexually dimorphic species and so characterized more by differences between male and female than by variation—but with the qualification that these sound like empirical claims, and it is perfectly conceivable that advances in reproductive technology might make sexual dimorphism and difference irrelevant. Better, then, to frame these theses in the subjunctive.
I agree without reservation to theses three through five, and I also agree with thesis six (“Consideration of these goods ought to respect the conjugal nature and reproductive potential of the most fundamental sexual act”) but with worries about what “most fundamental” means, and unclarity about what “conjugal nature and reproductive potential” means. Human sexual desire exceeds, radically, interest in and concern for the reproductive, as is evident from the Christian understanding of it as participatory in Christ’s love for the Church, and as is also evident from any superficial study of its phenomenology. It includes, and properly so, interest in receiving oneself as lover by being loved. Hyper-concern with the reproductive runs the serious risk of occluding this. Perhaps “conjugal nature” covers this very large territory, but it’s not clear that it does.
I rejoin Farrow for theses seven through nine, but have a serious reservation about thesis ten. Here he argues that “the faithful marriage of man and woman provides the only context in which [human sexuality] can be properly realized and fully expressed.”
This thesis needs to acknowledge that there are or may be many partial expressions of the goods proper to human sexuality outside the faithful marriage of man and woman and that sexual expression within the context of marriage may be deeply damaged and profoundly improper, up to and including rape and other forms of sexual violence. Not to acknowledge these truths risks a theologically inadequate optimism about sex within marriage, along with a blind denial of sexual goods outside marriage.
I part again from Farrow on the last clause of thesis eleven, in which he states that the political community is obligated to offer its support to marriage. There is, perhaps, in the order of being such an obligation, but it is certainly not apparent to all ordinarily rational people.
Farrow assumes here, and in theses twelve and thirteen, that the views expressed in the first eleven theses are sufficiently evident to the ordinarily rational person today. Yet ours is a pagan late-capitalist democracy ordered to idolatry of the market, and so there is little hope that Farrow’s Christian propositions can be appealed to in support of public-policy positions opposing, say, homosexual marriage.
In such a situation, the claims of twelve and thirteen seem to many arbitrary and ungrounded—much as their contradictories probably seem to Farrow. This has nothing to do with truth; it has to do with what it is prudent and possible to advocate in our situation. To say what twelve and thirteen say to the pagans of our time is to act like the monoglot Englishman traveling abroad who, when faced with incomprehension by the locals, speaks English louder. It doesn’t help. This won’t help, either. It makes the Church look ridiculous.
So I suggest the following thesis: It is time for the Church to treat North American positive law about the contractual form called marriage—a contract dissolvable at the will of either partner—as it already treats North American positive law about the availability of contraception: that is, as something to be tolerated, identified with clarity for what it is, and a golden opportunity for clarifying the truth to the faithful.
—Paul Griffiths is Warren Chair of Catholic Theology
at Duke Divinity School.
By David Blankenhorn
With admirable clarity, these theses adumbrate the orthodox Christian, and particularly Catholic, understanding of the goods of sexuality and marriage. They combine natural-law reasoning and theological claims; fully appreciating them likely requires both the cardinal and theological virtues. In my view, their primary utility will be further to educate and motivate those who already in essence agree with them.
But are these formulations likely to encourage skeptics to rethink old positions? I doubt it. Douglas Farrow’s theses both reflect and presuppose a comprehensive system of thought: a philosophy in which all values are rank-ordered and fit seamlessly together, producing a worldview in which each aspect reinforces all others and that is finally at least largely impervious to empirical challenge. Such a comprehensive system of thought does not really invite or even permit the outsider to tinker with it, or to pull out one piece only for closer inspection, or to conclude, “Yes to this, but no to that, please.”
Of course, I bring my own biases to the table. I am a philosophical liberal, a marriage nut, and a wobbly, mostly wannabe, Christian. I agree virtually without reservation with Farrow on theses one, two, four, six, nine, eleven, and twelve. For the others, I have considerable respect and at least some sympathy—but somewhere along the winding trail from natural law to theological doctrine, he and I part company (though I’d happily tag along as what the Communists used to call a fellow traveler, if he’d tolerate the company).
I agree that arguments contrary to Farrow’s “have no greater prima facie claim to public consideration” than do his. But so what? That formally correct fact won’t matter much, so long as Farrow does not adequately trouble himself to translate his particular religious arguments into general public arguments.
An example of a religious argument in favor of Sunday closing laws is “God commands us to honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” An example of translating that belief into a public argument is “Observing the Sabbath is important enough to people of faith to outweigh the objections of some unbelievers.” Substantively, in terms of the practical policy question at hand, the two formulations are nearly identical. But in terms of effective communication in the public square, the second one is better. It’s better because the first formulation is accessible only to believers and does not acknowledge values pluralism, whereas the second is accessible to all persons and acknowledges values pluralism.
Today’s marriage debate is almost entirely about values in conflict, not values in harmony. No one can effectively join that debate without confronting this fact. But Farrow’s propositions sidestep the challenge almost entirely, offering us less a transparent argument than a set of interlocking definitions. The critical mass of skeptics, seekers, and the undecided have little access to this type of presentation. We should not be surprised or disappointed when their main response is “Huh?”
—David Blankenhorn is president of the
Institute for American Values and
author of The Future of Marriage.
By Eve Tushnet
Douglas Farrow’s “Thirteen Theses” speak of sexual and public morality on the most universal level possible. This may account for a certain antiseptic sting to his words. While we are all called first to relationship with God, and then to a particular vocation, we’re not called as generic-human. We’re called by name. You can tell people that their way of life is wrong, that it’s unsustainable, that it’s damaging, and, even if they agree with you, they will not be able to change if they can’t imagine a different way of life. We are currently suffering from a profound failure of imagination. We do not lack lists of rules. We lack a belief that we can live by these rules without losing the love and care for one another that help us lead fully human lives. Farrow gives us bright black-and-white lines, but they’re lines painted on a deserted highway.
For me, as a lesbian Catholic with no discernible call to monastic life, the absence within the Christian churches of a deep understanding of the human need for vocation is glaringly obvious. Too many gay Christians grow up learning that there’s simply a blank space where God’s vision for their future should be. There’s a list of do-nots and a free-floating sense of shameful disorder, but no image of a path in life on which God might call and lead them. But this void in our culture damages everyone.
Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, in their recent book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, describe what’s been called the “Second Demographic Transition”: low fertility, plummeting marriage rates, and an increasing percentage of children born out of wedlock. The winners from a secular perspective—mainly the rich and well-educated, who are more likely to marry and to practice a religion—choose their own adventure, reaping the benefits of freedom and mobility. The losers get lost, drifting without familial support. In this world, no one is called to a life of sacrifice; they either choose the life they want and claim it, or long for it and never find it. The purpose and meaning of one’s life in both cases is generated by the individual rather than coming as a call from God.
So here are a few initial theses of my own, on the vocations crisis which has spurred Farrow to write his theses.
A vocation is a call to pour out your life in loving service. Everyone has a vocation in this sense. Some are called to pour out that love directly to God. Most of us, not being hermits, also are called to love and serve others: a parish priest his parishioners, a cloistered nun her community, a wife her husband, a father his children. Beyond these perhaps-obvious vocations, there are vocations to serve those in need, to serve one’s friends with the depth of love Christ showed to his own friends, to care for aging parents, perhaps even an artistic vocation to serve God and one’s audience by presenting beauty and sublimity.
What isn’t in this framework, by the way, is the solution some Christians have suggested for the problem of late-onset marriage: a “vocation to singleness.” Vocation, as I understand it, is the rope tying people to God and one another. A “vocation to singleness” is a rope tied only on one end.
Each vocation has its own characteristic loneliness—a crown of thorns as well as a crown of stars. Loneliness is an intrinsic element of marriage. It’s intrinsic to the life of a religious community. For me, there’s the difficulty and unaccountability of living alone and the poignance of watching my friends marry. None of these lonelinesses are signs of failure as long as you are still willing to extend yourself in love toward God and others.
The fear and loneliness of love can be borne more easily when our vocations are publicly acknowledged and honored. When people feel that their sacrifices are ignored or mocked, it’s much harder to continue. Over the past century, marriage, priesthood and religious life, and friendship have all lost a great deal of societal honor. The sacrifices are just as necessary as they always were. If we want people to make them, though, we need to honor them.
—Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer whose work
has appeared in Commonweal,
National Review, and the Washington Blade.
By Thomas Joseph White
Where should we locate the deepest core of the contemporary crisis in marriage? The fundamental problem is found not in the realm of the political, or even in peoples’ sexual practices. Throughout history, conventional sexual practices have very often failed to live up to objective moral norms. This issue today, rather, has to do with speculative reason, which concerns the structure of reality and the order of truth as such.
The problem in contemporary culture is that a large proportion of society is increasingly blind to the fundamental structure of human nature and to the ethical character of human sexuality. In fact, the prevalent vision of sexuality peddled is primarily aesthetic. Sexual experiences are something like listening to one’s favorite songs or taking trips to the art gallery. The only remaining ethical norm is one of procedural liberalism. All is permitted as long as no one gets hurt and everything is consensual.
What Douglas Farrow’s thirteen theses indicate (suggesting thereby a more developed argument) is that this is too thin a notion of ethics to sustain a healthy ethos of marriage and, over time, a functional culture. For human beings come from and are loved and educated in the human heterosexual family. Is that a bigoted or sectarian claim? In fact, Farrow’s list of fundamental truths points eloquently to the basic ontological foundations for human reproduction and the ethical education of children in society, and from these he reasonably draws a normative social claim: Heterosexual marriage open to the transmission of life is the morally normative context of human sexuality.
This view stems from natural realism: There is a unity between human sexuality and reproduction. The purposeful choice to sever that unity is always morally problematic. It has negative consequences for the moral character and ethical development of individuals, families, and societies, necessarily and inevitably. Over time, the separation of the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality leads to the progressive rise of the “nightmare menu”: on one side, ways to reproduce without recourse to sexuality (screening to selectively reduce the inconvenient), and on the other, ways to seek sexual union without reproduction, altering socially and legally our definitions of sexuality and marriage.
The root of the problem is contraception. Contraception itself is a practice, but its deeper effect is found in the order of speculative reason and the perception of truth itself. The contraceptive culture renders obscure our very understanding of the nature of human sexuality in its biological, ethical, and inevitably political dimensions. This affirmation may seem too “philosophical” and therefore inopportune to us politically. Both the left and the right want to find a form of discourse free from much theoretical reasoning about human nature. That is naïve. Politics is short-sighted, and any lasting victory for an ethical form of society requires that we nurture and develop theoretical insight into the foundations of human nature and ethics.
Farrow is pointing us to insights that can be further developed by argument and illustration. Such is the kind of reasoning that needs to be advanced in the public square: not an argument from sectarian exceptionalism or the unique privileges of a private religious conscience, but arguments from the inalterable structure of things. Christians can rightly speak in this case of natural-law theory, but we should also speak without shame of biblical revelation. The two overlap: Biblical revelation comes to the aid of fallen, ailing human reason and helps orient and elevate it. As a culture turns away from Judeo-Christian revelation, public reason is impoverished, not improved.
Farrow’s style has a touch of the Barthian about it, with something of the rhetorical flavor of the Barmen Declaration. But his reasoning stands to correct the deficits of an isolationist fideism. We need to make public arguments that touch directly upon the truth about human nature as available to human reason. That is itself a corrective to the effects of sin, and it can be a form of argument derived from and subject to the work of the grace of God.
Pope Paul VI called the Church “expert in humanity” when it came to underscoring the dignity of the human person in the modern world. We would do well to consult the Church’s teaching anew if we would seek to reclaim today an authentic humana vita.
—Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute
at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.