A friend reacted to last week’s post saying “Development is good but when it comes to Natural Law some things ARE carved in stone.” His observation introduces this week’s brief reflection about “Being Natural.”

Catholic moral teaching has traditionally been based on the Natural Law and not directly on Scripture or revelation. The Catholic tradition holds that human reason, by reflecting on human nature, can arrive at true ethical wisdom and knowledge.

In its most general sense, Natural Law concerns the whole order of things that defines us as human persons and contributes to human development. Understanding Natural Law however, should involve historical consciousness: recognizing the developmental and pluralistic character of human experience and expression. Unfortunately that is not always the case. Some approaches to moral issues surrounding human sexuality, for example, fail to give enough importance to historical and cultural developments and place an overemphasis on a physicalism that too readily identifies the moral aspects of the act with the physical aspects. Human sexuality is about much more than just genital activity.

Today we see two approaches to Natural Law: the “classicist” and the “historically conscious.” We need to strive for a balance. The classicist mentality stresses the obligation, perceived by reason, to conform to human nature, which some understand as “carved in stone.” The historically conscious mentality appreciates the developmental and pluralistic character of human experience and expression.

The classicist mentality, for instance, would say that being gay is unnatural, or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered…They are contrary to the Natural Law.” 

The historically conscious mentality would say: We once thought homosexuality was unnatural, but now we understand that some people are naturally gay. Others are naturally heterosexual. They all need our understanding and support.

I remember when one of my former students, a young gay Catholic priest, decided to tell his very classicist bishop that he was gay and needed the bishop’s understanding and personal support. The bishop listened to him and then stood up and yelled at him: “You are a disgusting human being. Get out of my sight. I never want to see you again.” Late one night, a few months later, the young fellow crashed his car into a tree and killed himself.

Fortunately, however, unlike this awfully classicist mitered man, we do have some wonderfully pastoral bishops. On January 25th they issued a statement titled “God Is on Your Side: A Statement from Catholic Bishops on Protecting LGBT Youth.” Their statement says Jesus taught mercy and compassion for all, particularly those who are marginalized and persecuted. “All people of goodwill” the bishops wrote “should help, support, and defend LGBT youth; who attempt suicide at much higher rates than their straight counterparts; who are often homeless because of families who reject them; who are rejected, bullied and harassed; and who are the target of violent acts at alarming rates.” These bishops deserve recognition and support. They are: Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey; Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego; Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona; Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky; Retired Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore; Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan of San Diego.

The classicist, carved-in-stone mentality has indeed created a number of historical moral problems, and not just for gay people. Slavery was once considered natural because some people, like black Africans, were understood as naturally inferior to white Caucasians. Even when I was a high school student in the 1950s a biology teacher had a class presentation on “racial differences.” He produced a chart showing an African head and a Caucasian head. “Please note,” he said, “Africans have smaller brains that are inferior to the brains of us white people.” He also said that African men have much larger genitalia than white men and that they therefore cannot control their sexual urges and have a natural inclination toward dangerous and abnormal sexual behavior.

For centuries, women have suffered greatly because they were considered naturally inferior to men. In many countries, historically, they could not own property and could not vote. In civil society in the USA and in Western Europe today, much of that old pejorative understanding has fortunately disappeared. In fact, as a sign of progress for women, the United States Mint has just announced the designs for the first five coins in the “American Women Quarters Program.” The 2022 coins will honor the achievements of the poet Maya Angelou, the astronaut and physicist Dr. Sally Ride, the Cherokee activist and social worker Wilma Mankiller, the woman’s suffragist and educator Nina Otero-Warren, and the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

In my RCC Christian tradition, however, even today, many bishops remain rigidly classist and follow the teachings of  Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI that women are below men and cannot be ordained as priests because they are not male. I read last week about a US bishop who wants physical examinations of all candidates for priesthood to insure not only that they have male genitalia but also that they have both X and Y chromosomes — proving they are indeed male.

Pope Francis has made some small institutional changes in favor of women but he still agrees with his predecessors that priesthood demands manhood. Ironically most biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity stress today that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone and that women and men, without ordination, did preside at Eucharist in early Christian communities. 

Personally, I greatly support those courageously prophetic Catholic women who, today, ARE in fact priests and bishops. The RCC institutional leadership has sanctioned them, but I find them noteworthy pastoral pioneers.

Concluding my brief reflection about “Being Natural,” —  When it comes to moral decision-making I really would like to see a shift away from a strict Natural Law interpretation to a theological ethics understanding based on love of God and love of neighbor, acknowledging and promoting everyone’s human dignity. Jesus of Nazareth did show the way…

  • Jack

8 thoughts on “Being Natural

  1. It also seems to me that the human idea of “Natural Law” itself changes over time, just as you point out about slavery. Jesus warned us about false prophets. Just because someone says, “It is God’s will,” it doesn’t necessarily mean it. As for women priests, wiping out the actions and accomplishments of women in both Jesus’s ministry and the early years of the Church, says more about the patriarchal attitude than about the women themselves. The argument that Jesus only called men to be Apostles just doesn’t wash for me. Because of the men Jesus selected, does that mean that only after being fishermen and tax collectors can men be ordained?

    1. Or as someone pointed out — due to the constraints of his time, Jesus picked only Jewish men to be his closest disciples. So when did Gentiles become involved in the leadership & presiders in the early church??
      If Gentiles can be ordained, then why not women??

      1. Well, yes indeed. If the classicist bishops – with their fundamentalist biblical interpretation – would be truly “successors of the apostles,” perhaps they should also all be circumcised. Can you imagine the squeals in the Vatican?😁

        Actually we understand today that among the closest disciples of Jesus there were indeed women, like Mary the Magdalene.

  2. Dear Jack,
    Another thoughtful and stimulating message. Did I understand from your second last paragraph that there are, indeed, “legitimately” ordained and recognized female priests? If so, that is a huge step forward and, hopefully, the beginning of a movement toward full inclusion for everyone in the church. Oh, happy day!
    Frank Skeltis

  3. It seems to me that our interpretation of “natural” law (used by the church to determine morality) must change as our knowledge of “nature” changes. But conservatives, whether religious or political, seem to want to hang onto the old regardless of knowledge or evidence to the contrary. I’m glad you listed the bishops who have the more teachable, open attitude toward new knowledge. I have to remind myself that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. But it will not bend at all unless we struggle against injustice and lies to the extent within our power.

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