Theologian: Natural Law Affirms Marriage Equality and LGBT Rights

ethicsbooksMarriage equality’s expansion has left its Christian opponents on the defensive.  As their arguments from Scripture fail, they have more and more,employed natural law theory in their opposing critiques.

U. S. Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Antonin Scalia relied upon natural law arguments for their dissents to the Obergefell decision legalizing same-gender marriage across the United States, and top anti-LGBT figures have all but abandoned more religiously based strategies in favor of natural law arguments.

Ethicist Daniel Morris, a lecturer at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, writing in Political Theology Today, said arguments based in natural law against same-gender marriages and relationships call for reflection, and ultimately refutation. Morris’ audience is Christians generally, but his reflection is extremely worthwhile for Catholics because so much of the Church’s sexual morality is based in natural law theory.

Natural law theory, Morris explained, is premised upon the idea that human beings as rational animals can observe the created order, and then from such observations, they  develop moral norms. Applying this process, Morris developed a novel perspective:

“It is not at all clear to me that the natural law must lead one to oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In fact, I want to suggest that the basic premises of the natural law can lead us to endorse same-sex marriage as a matter of legal policy.”

Morris begins to reverse the arguments of equality opponents by examining families with LGBT children, Morris observes that it is not homosexuality but homophobia which threatens these households:

“This fear of homosexuality destroys families by causing conflict between parents and children. Nuclear families are torn apart when children realize that they have same-sex attractions or that they deviate from commonly-accepted standards of masculinity and femininity in any way. Realizing this, children face the terrible decision: they can either keep their secrets to themselves, or they can reveal them to parents who may condemn them. Indeed, many parents do condemn and ostracize children who fail to live up to social norms surrounding sex and gender. . .This phenomenon ought to be of great concern to any natural law thinker, given that the basic premises of the natural law prioritize whole, unified, and loving nuclear families.”

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Daniel Morris

Opponents rely upon a “selective and incoherent evaluation of the nuclear family,” but for Morris that does not mean the family ceases to be a good which LGBT advocates can affirm. Indeed, he holds that the flourishing of families is a good which actually advances the acceptance of LGBT people and their relationships. When a child comes out, Morris said, families generally have three options: reparative therapy, expulsion, or acceptance.

Reparative therapies are “widely discredited,” considered by most to be ineffective and harmful. Issues within families “cannot be solved by forcing kids to conform to hetero-normative social custom,” a reality verified by the social sciences and human experience. These fields are “two sources that natural law thinking can accommodate,” Morris noted, and therefore natural law theory cannot support this option.

Expulsion from families is troubling if, as natural law theorists suggest, families are essential for the flourishing of individuals and societies. But Morris said he has “never read a natural law case against this sad reality,” and there is scant recognition by such theorists that “parental homophobia bears significant blame for destroying families.” The damage to families and dissolution to relationships caused by expelling a child is not supported by natural law theory, which seeks to affirm and to solidify family.

Acceptance, as families report, is “the most effective way to reunite families torn apart” by a child’s coming out. It requires affirming the child’s identity without negatively moralizing, and being in solidarity with the child when they encounter prejudices outside the family. This acceptance can be healing even after parents may have rejected their child. He writes:

“One would think that natural law ethicists would welcome such acceptance, as it promises to reunite estranged families, and whole, loving families are—at least ostensibly—of great value to natural law theorists. And yet, one looks in vain for such theorists to advocate parental acceptance of gay kids in the interests of keeping families together. Natural law thinkers may not want to admit that accepting homosexual kids is better for families than condemning such kids because such an admission would lead to major revisions of basic natural law ideas about human sexuality. Recognizing that we may have been wrong in discerning the natural order of human sexuality can be a difficult thing to do.”

But since acceptance is clearly the natural law’s choice for families, this raises the further question of what constitutes acceptance when it comes to homosexuality and marriage. Morris identifies among the more refined natural law opponents of marriage equality a strong desire to seem accepting of gay people and their relationships, while separating the question of marriage. Morris critiqued such arguments, which “still constitute homophobia,” writing:

“The problem with their argument, though, is that they cannot both accept same-sex attraction and relationships while also denying the legal right for people in such relationships to marry. Despite the fact that they want to appear ‘accepting,’ the moral reality. . .is that same-sex love is inferior to heterosexual love for the purposes of sustaining families and society. As natural law thinkers, they base this judgment on the possibility of procreation. . .

“Denigrating same-sex activity in this way reaffirms the idea that homosexual love is inferior to heterosexual love. Add to this denigration the condescending argument that same-sex partners should think of themselves only as ‘friends,’ and the conclusion that these partners should not be given the right to marry, and it becomes clear that, protestations aside, the authors view homosexuality as inherently inferior.”

Homosexuality cannot be second class in a true family acceptance model, he argues.  Acceptance is the good which families with LGBT members must seek because it strengthens families which are themselves goods. Therefore, Morris concluded, the Obergefell decision should be welcomed by natural law thinkers:

“This is because, consistent with a natural law account of legislation, the civic law can train us in the virtues necessary to participate well in social life, including family life. In the natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas, one of the effects of the human law is to make people good (ST I-II, 92).

“On the specific question of homosexuality and familial stability that I have been addressing here, the relevant virtue is parental acceptance of a child’s same-sex attraction, toward the good end of familial reconciliation. Following the Supreme Court’s elimination of state bans on same-sex marriage, I predict that many parents will come to accept their children’s sexual identities and families will recover from estrangement.”

Morris also cited the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of homosexuality as mental illness as a similar moment after which families became more accepting.

Ultimately, Morris points to a more radical shift that must occur for natural law thinkers because the experiences and insights of LGBT people and their families must be brought to bear when reflecting upon the natural order to ascertain morality. Humility is required to admit inconsistencies–and even mistakes–so that revisions encompassing these additional experiences and insights may be produced. Morris writes:

“The easiest ways for natural law theorists to achieve greater coherence on these questions will be to abandon their reverence for anatomical complementarity and to relax the ethical requirement that sexual partners intend procreation for sex to be permissible. . .

“Such recognition would not weaken the natural law’s moral authority. On the contrary, it would gain integrity by demonstrating enough humility to admit fallibility. The only thing natural law accounts of human sexuality have to lose is their dual status as the last holdout against marriage equality and as the last voice against the full dignity of people who do not conform to heternormative social standards.”

Natural law theory has been used for a long time by Catholic Church leaders and theologians who reject LGBT people’s identities and their relationships. Engaging the theory and the anti-gay or anti-transgender arguments derived from it is not always easy, even while Catholics know from their lives and consciences that the arguments are wrong. Morris’ piece contributes to a growing body of research and writing that reclaims natural law theory as a tradition used to advance social justice and, as such, the rights of LGBT people and their families. You can read Morris’ piece in full by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

5 replies
  1. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Bravo for Daniel Morris to take Natural Law theory serious enough to point out its weaknesses. Natural Law teaching has its place in positing moral decision making as reflection upon human behaviour in our growth in becoming good, as he says re. St. Thomas. Natural Law theory seems to me to be a primitive form of doing science and as such its job of forming the moral self is compromised. Although doing pure science is a fiction, there is always a necessity for moral reflection ie the traditional role of Natural Law but Natural Law is inadequate when it ignores both modern science and experience. Perhaps it is long past overdue to retire traditional Natural Law thinking for today’s knowledge and experience and wisdom as the Development of Doctrine (Newman) has evolved Natural Law today.


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