Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fornication and the Natural Law

Someone asked me, based on my post on how people who are already promiscuously fornication should at least protect themselves, how exactly fornication was against the Natural Law in itself.

They could see how something like sodomy or contraception was a logical contradiction in the nature of sexuality, ordered as it is towards procreation, but did not understand how simple fornication, if open to life, could be "unnatural" in itself. They were willing to accept that it was forbidden by a revealed positive Divine Law, but the connection to Natural Law was less clear to them.

Now, the fact that fornication is a mortal sin is binding on Catholics. But that it is so not just because of a positively revealed Divine Law, but because of Natural Law specifically...I do not think is necessarily binding. Catholics are required to accept the moral teaching in itself as taught by the Church, not any particular theory of its epistemic origins. Nevertheless, I do accept the traditional position that fornication is against the Natural Law as opposed to just a positive Divine Law, and I thought my answer as to why might be able to help people answer similar questions/objections.

I started by explaining how there are "primary precepts" and "secondary precepts" of Natural Law. The former refer to things that are absolutely a contradiction in terms (like sodomy, contraception, etc) which even God Himself could not dispense from without contradicting logic/reason. The secondary are against the well-ordering of human life and society, but not so absolutely contradictory or necessary that God couldn't dispense for a good reason (at least according to some theologians).

As Catholic Encyclopedia says:

"As regards the vigour and binding force of these precepts and conclusions, theologians divide them into two classes, primary and secondary. To the first class belong those which must, under all circumstances, be observed if the essential moral order is to be maintained. The secondary precepts are those whose observance contributes to the public and private good and is required for the perfection of moral development, but is not so absolutely necessary to the rationality of conduct that it may not be lawfully omitted under some special conditions. For example, under no circumstances is polyandry compatible with the moral order, while polygamy, though inconsistent with human relations in their proper moral and social development, is not absolutely incompatible with them under less civilized conditions."

Catholic Encyclopedia also discusses how this applies to polygamy and divorce. To be honest, I'm not sure whether "simple fornication" (ie, without contraceptive acts or attitudes) would be in this same category, as in some way's it is simply the inverse of divorce; ie, pre-excluding the indissoluble aspect rather than post-excluding it:

"Neither polygamy nor divorce can be said to be contrary to the primary precepts of nature. The primary end of marriage is compatible with both. But at least they are against the secondary precepts of the natural law: contrary, that is, to what is required for the well-ordering of human life. In these secondary precepts, however, God can dispense for good reason if He sees fit to do so. In so doing He uses His sovereign authority to diminish the right of absolute equality which naturally exists between man and woman with reference to marriage. In this way, without suffering any stain on His holiness, God could permit and sanction polygamy and divorce in the Old Law."

The Catechism explains fornication's connection to the natural law by saying:

"It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children."
Which I think is the important point: sexuality is not just naturally ordered towards procreation considered in a vacuum, in a reductionist way, but towards the Family specifically and everything good for the child to be born. Though whether it is possible that the former (ie, procreation itself) is of the "primary precepts" of the natural law, and the latter (ie, conditions favorable to the child) of the merely secondary...I don't know.

Aquinas explains it in the Summa however with reference to the good of child that could possible be born, whose conception is an implicit possibility in the act:

"The sin of fornication is contrary to the good of the human race, in so far as it is prejudicial to the individual begetting of the one man that may be born."

And also explains that it is not just "procreation" that sexuality is naturally ordered towards, but towards a more holistic "good of the offspring":

"First, in relation to the principal end of matrimony, namely the good of the offspring. For nature intends not only the begetting of offspring, but also its education and development until it reach the perfect state of man as man, and that is the state of virtue. Hence, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 11,12), we derive three things from our parents, namely "existence," "nourishment," and "education." 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."

I think this holistic emphasis is very important. Too often Christians these days, when arguing against homosexual relations or contraception or whatever...fall into the trap of concentrating in a reductionist way on the mere mechanical fact of procreation itself, which I think weakens our position. The view of the nature of human sexuality involving more than just fertilization, but rather being ordered towards the good of the person created for their whole life, is much more holistic. It also helps to answer the sophomoric argument that, "If it's all about procreation, why let old people or the infertile marry?" And a large part of the answer is that it is not "all about" procreation. By being rooted in the natural bond that leads to procreation, such a marriage still creates a union of the sexes that forms the building block of a cohesive society that respects both, and so there is this implicit fertility to such a union even when not explicitly actualized in procreation. For just one example: as a man and woman, they still have everything nature demands to raise a child, even if it is not their own biologically. Too much concentration on the fact of procreation in itself can lead to forgetting the broader point that the union between man and woman is ordered by nature for reasons far beyond the mere moment of fertilization; it's not as if once that is done society could carry on being organized however and raising children in any which way. No, the "natural" extends beyond that, to all of human nature and society.

Now, I do remember reading from some medieval theologians who argued that "simple fornication" was only so strictly forbidden as grave matter by revealed Divine Law, and that among non-Christians, who have only the Natural Law, it might only be a venial sin against the secondary precepts but not the primary.

Nevertheless, Aquinas seems to argue against that opinion:

"Now simple fornication implies an inordinateness that tends to injure the life of the offspring to be born of this union. For we find in all animals where the upbringing of the offspring needs care of both male and female, that these come together not indeterminately, but the male with a certain female, whether one or several; such is the case with all birds: while, on the other hand, among those animals, where the female alone suffices for the offspring's upbringing, the union is indeterminate, as in the case of dogs and like animals. Now it is evident that the upbringing of a human child requires not only the mother's care for his nourishment, but much more the care of his father as guide and guardian, and under whom he progresses in goods both internal and external. Hence human nature rebels against an indeterminate union of the sexes and demands that a man should be united to a determinate woman and should abide with her a long time or even for a whole lifetime. Hence it is that in the human race the male has a natural solicitude for the certainty of offspring, because on him devolves the upbringing of the child: and this certainly would cease if the union of sexes were indeterminate.

This union with a certain definite woman is called matrimony; which for the above reason is said to belong to the natural law. Since, however, the union of the sexes is directed to the common good of the whole human race, and common goods depend on the law for their determination, as stated above (I-II, 90, 2), it follows that this union of man and woman, which is called matrimony, is determined by some law. What this determination is for us will be stated in the Third Part of this work (Supplement,050, seqq.), where we shall treat of the sacrament of matrimony. Wherefore, since fornication is an indeterminate union of the sexes, as something incompatible with matrimony, it is opposed to the good of the child's upbringing, and consequently it is a mortal sin.

Nor does it matter if a man having knowledge of a woman by fornication, make sufficient provision for the upbringing of the child: because a matter that comes under the determination of the law is judged according to what happens in general, and not according to what may happen in a particular case."

Now, Aquinas's opinion here isn't dogma. I might be able buy the argument of those other medieval theologians that the mortal sinfulness of simple fornication is a positively revealed Divine Law for Christians, but that it might be only a venial sin (against the merely secondary precepts of the Natural Law) when it comes to the question of non-Christians who don't have Revelation, who only have the Natural Law. Again, assuming the act was still open to life. But, as I argued in that condom post, except in some sort of concubinage or common-law marriage situation...fornicators usually don't want to get pregnant, they exclude it mentally at least. And at that point...the point is moot anyway. As it is for Christians generally, since we do have Revelation either way.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

I figure non-contraceptive fornication is against the Natural Law for the same reason that marriage is part of Natural Law.

Human children take a lot more time to raise (as a a percentage of total lifespan) than the offspring of any other creature. The psychological need of human children for long periods of stability with their parents is the Natural Law justification of the need for marriage.

Fornication means the possibility of conceiving children that you are not in a stable enough relationship to raise properly. So that's why it is against Natural Law.


Note that caged pet birds will not mate and lay eggs unless you provide them with a nest. Birds are smarter than people, sometimes.