ramble through the bronx

yes, this here is ramble through the bronx, the continuing musings of a graduate student* who should be writing her dissertation, but honestly, living in new york city there's really so much else to do...

* and her commenting friends. And guest blogger.
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Friday, November 24, 2006

The purpose of human life is to be happy, to flourish.

Dear friends, bear with me as I work through some of this stuff. This is going to include some basic philosophy, which I know is boring to many of you, but will lead to some specific comments about Catholic teachings on gay marriage, which I know you enjoy picking on.

Natural law theory is the dominant philosophical position within Catholic social thought. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. presupposes it as the way to understand moral theory in general.

Basically, it works like this -- divine law (which is eternal) can either be natural or revealed. Revealed law is pretty much what you'd expect -- it's given to us by relevation, through the scriptures. The content and nature of revealed law are therefore open to scriptural interpretation, historical criticism, and other forms of careful reading -- there's a huge issue there of how this is to be done, of course, and Catholics and Protestants will have very different stances on this. Further, there's the issue of the Old Testament Law (mostly in the Ten Commandments) and the New Testament Law (the "New Covenant", the "new commandment" of Jesus, to love one another as God loves us). I am not trained in theology or scriptural studies and so won't begin to go into those issues. But basically, revealed law, by its nature, is speaking to those within a particular faith tradition. You have to already have faith in God before you can hear revealed law as speaking to you. You obviously can't cite Scripture as a normative moral authority to those who do not already accept it as such.

Natural law, on the other hand, is way trickier. Natural law theory states, basically that there is such a thing as the "natural law." The natural law is called the natural law because it presumes that there is such a thing as human nature, and that by virtue of being human, there is a certain way of proceeding that will be good for us.

The Catechism cites Aquinas: "The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation." (Aquinas, Dec. praec. I; Cathechism #1955).

The Catechism goes on, at #1956: "The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties." (Interestingly, in support of this claim, the Catechism cites the non-Christian Cicero. The idea of the 'natural law' is thus not necessarily just part of Christian philosophy -- it just got picked up as A Good Idea by folks like Aquinas).

The idea of the natural law, therefore, is intended to account for why there seems to be so much commonality in certain moral practices. Whenever you are asked why you think something is "just plain wrong" or "clearly right," and you say "Because it just makes sense, that's what my heart tells me", natural law theorists would say that you're appealing to the light of understanding given to all human beings. That all human beings have access, sometimes dulled, sometimes clearer, to a basic sense of right & wrong.

This is because all human beings have essentially the same goal in life: to flourish in mind, body and spirit. Aristotle said that the purpose of human life was eudaimonia, which literally means something like 'good-spirited-ness', and is usually translated as "happiness"; my favourite translation in the literature (I forget for now who came up with it; maybe John Cooper?) is "human flourishing."

Picture a plant which is flourishing in the way appropriate to a plant. It is strong, its leaves are a vivid green, it reaches for the sun. Now picture a plant starved of nitrogen, or starved of water, or obliged to put up with my very-warm apartment. Note how it limps, flops around, fails to flourish.

Aristotle's idea is that humans are kinda similar. Obviously we're different from plants. We can move around, we can dance and sing, we're fundamentally social and political, we have culture, history, art, and we can reason. That said, the basic idea of flourishing is the same. Just as there's a way for a plant to flourish as a plant, there's a way for a human to flourish as a human -- for all of its potential abilities to be developed and actualized. Aristotle's idea of the goal of human life is for us to develop ourselves as much as possible.

Now, along the way, he notes that certain activities can be done well, or badly. For instance, we can let our anger run away with us, and that ultimately hurts us, if we become unable to hear the other side, or we become rash. Or, we might not have enough anger, and that hurts us too if we become cowards. There is a happy medium in between: rightful anger, which can still hear the other side, but not get pushed over. Aristotle proposes as a general rule that a virtuous form of activity is to be found in the middle of two extremes.

Aristotle's account of virtue and vice, therefore, is not intended to be an externally imposed account of moral good and evil, but intended to guide human beings toward the flourishing most appropriate to them. It's saying, "Look, human beings just are a certain way, and here's some advice to live life in a way that will help you flourish the most, and not get dragged down by stupid things."

Now, Aquinas picks up this account of human nature, human flourishing, and virtue & vice, but adds to it a specifically Christian understanding of the world & humans' place within it (well, he also adds a good dose of Platonism, but I won't get into that). So, humans are supposed to be happy -- but their happiness isn't just going to be the type of human flourishing that Aristotle describes. Because that is temporary, as even Aristotle recognizes -- the most well-adjusted & virtuous person can still come down with a horrible illness, or lose their family in an accident or a war, and it's really difficult to flourish in those circumstances. (Recall again that flourishing is for body AND soul -- neither Aristotle nor Aquinas see the soul as firmly separated from the body. We are ensouled bodies.)

Aquinas suggests that what Aristotle was describing was an imperfect happiness, because of its fragility & vulnerability to harm. It's the best happiness we can get when we're alive on earth, and we should still strive for it. However, ultimately, after death we can achieve perfect happiness in beholding God. Perfect, because no-one can take it away. Perfect, because (unlike the pleasures of earth, which the more we receive the more we want, and ultimately they never completely satisfy - we always want more) God totally satisfies -- God is infinite, after all! God gives us endless and unconditional love.

Now, if you read through a traditional discussion of virtue & vice, it starts sounding pretty stodgy and random. Why should some things be virtues and other seemingly harmless things be vices? (Aquinas has a great bit about how women & young men shouldn't drink alcohol, because they don't have the developed intellect to tell them not to get carried away by it & led into licentiousness. What-ever.)

But if you remember that the point of discussing virtue & vice is not (at least originally, or in its best form) to beat people over the head, but to give them practical guidelines as how to best be happy, then they're less offensive.

(If anyone's interested in the question of, "But aren't the particular views of human nature that would spawn particular conceptions of what IS virtuous/vice-errific utterly relative to the culture and society in which they are formed?", I can get to that. Because it's an interesting problem that I'm still trying to figure out -- so far my answer is "yes and no." But that is for another blog entry, I think. And I'll talk about Martha Nussbaum. And Hegel. And it will be fun. Maybe even Freud? and Foucault?)

OK! So, back to natural law theory. Natural law theory suggests that moral theory be based on an understanding of human beings as creatures able to flourish & be happy in particular ways, with particular things that would be HELPFUL to them and particular things that would be HARMFUL to them -- thus we should put together a moral theory that rules those HELPFUL things as morally "good" and those things that are HARMFUL as morally "wrong".

The classic objection to natural law theory is that it loads the dice -- that it has a predetermined sense of what is going to be "good" or "wrong," and reaches around for excuses in human nature to justify its presuppositions. So, for instance, a natural law theorist who is homophobic will reach around in human nature to find an excuse to call homosexuality "disordered" and hence "wrong", but the view of human nature itself was already clouded by the theorist's own homophobia.

Now, that history & culture can condition us into seeing falsehood instead of truth is obvious; consider, for instance, this excerpt from Pope John Paul II's 1995 Letter to Women:
Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.
But here's the question I want to consider: Is this a reason for discarding the idea of "the natural law" altogether, or a call for trying to do it better, in the light of the many discoveries and realizations we have made about human beings?

I'm not sure of the answer.

Folks are trying to work this out, of course. James Alison, in his book On Being Liked, addressees Catholic teachings against homosexuality and asks why, given that we are beginning to understand that homosexuality is quite simply a fact (like, say, left-handedness -- which itself used to be associated with a disordered nature!), shouldn't our understanding of what will contribute to the flourishing of human beings (which is, after all, what God wants from us -- our flourishing and happiness in Her!) similarly be updated? (This thread comes up again & again in the essays in the book, but especially in "Being Wrong and Telling the Truth," which was originally given as a lecture at St. Joseph's in the Village Parish in NYC in May 2002). (I just finished this book, and have another one of his books - Faith Beyond Resentment on the way from Amazon -- great stuff!)

Similarly, Jean Porter, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, gave a lecture at Fordham last year entitled "Human Nature and the Purposes of Marriage." Note the plural in "purposes"! The paper was an argument that gay marriage was not contrary to the natural law, and it was rooted in 12th and 13th century scholars' ideas of examining social institutions, such as marriage, in terms of what purposes they serve (again, purposes intended to promote human flourishing). The paper did not conclude with an "anything-goes" approach to marriage -- but suggested that there were good reasons not to emphasize the procreative aspect over the unitive aspect. (I have an unpublished copy of the paper, in case any of you would like to have a look at it).

Now why did I post this very long post? I was looking back through Tokyo Tintin's blog and reread his entry on Pope Benedict's recent statements about gay marriage. The pope's ideas on gay marriage -- and modernity in general!! -- are of course kinda frustrating for me. Anyway, TT links to a Star article which I shall briefly quote:
While he did not specifically mention gay marriage, thousands of listeners at the fairgrounds in Verona's outskirts strongly applauded the two parts of his speech about the family and "other forms of unions".

He urged them to fight "with determination ... the risk of political and legislative decisions that contradict fundamental values and anthropological and ethical principles rooted in human nature".

The Pope said they had to defend "the family based on matrimony, opposing the introduction of laws on other forms of unions which would only destabilise it and obscure its special character and its social role, which has no substitute".

In another section of his speech, the Pope made another apparent reference to homosexual marriage, stating that the Church had to say "'no' to weak and deviant forms of love".

He said the Church wanted instead to say "'yes' to authentic love, to the reality of man as he was created by God".
Note the reference to "anthropological and ethical principles rooted in human nature." That's the natural law theory at work (and the fact that it's natural law he's talking about, and not just revealed law, is why he feels justified in saying that Catholics should resist this politically, and not just, say, avoid it for themselves. Natural law is, after all, supposed to be universal.)

But if God wants us to flourish, and plants within us an understanding of the natural law intended to help us to do so, then why does the repression of homosexuality lead to lies, closeting, and anguish, a lack of emotional & spiritual flourishing, while the acknowledgement of it as simply normal for many men and women leads to honesty and emotional maturity?

OK, I realize that the way I've posed this question loads it, and wouldn't convince anyone who didn't already agree. But I simply don't understand why, if God wants us to be happy and loved and love each other, the Pope's position is any more obvious? In a way that I can actually understand? In a way that doesn't utterly conflict with all of my experience?

It seems to me that to deny the beauty & human flourishing in the same-sex relationships I have witnessed would simply be lying to myself. And "lying is the most direct offense against the truth." (Catechism #2483).

Catholicism has, over the years, gone from promoting and endorsing the slave trade, to repudiating it. It has gone from openly stating that women are defective, to repudiating that. So I'm hopeful. And I'm hopeful that the development in Church teachings here could even be articulated according to the Church's own natural law way of doing things.

So, while I'm still not sure that I can fully endorse the idea of the natural law (I need to do more research; and I have a lot of concerns with its premises), I think that it need not be simply repressive. It can similarly be used as a tool for critique:

How best can the Church assure and promote the flourishing of all its members, gay and straight? What is the truth about human nature that we simply hadn't let ourselves discover until recently, that will permit us to tell the truth about how we love each other? Why can't our new understanding of human beings and their multifaceted love continue to contribute to our broader understanding of "authentic love"?

I'll close with some James Alison, from "Creation in Christ" (also in On Being Liked --
...one of the firmest consequences of the instistence on the natural law is the denial of the arbitrary or capricious nature of divine commandments. This is evident traditionally in the rejection of the voluntarist and nominalist positions with respect to morals. If God forbids us something it is because doing it does us no good. Which is to say, the holiness of the commandment is in the fact that it is for our good, and it is not the case that our good is to be found in following commandments independently of their consequences for us, just because they are commandments.

Well then, if this is valid, we can see that natural law is, in the first place, and before any of its possibly polemical use in the world of non-believers, a very powerful instrument of self-criticism with respect to our own moral teaching. If it is used correctly, the first consequence of the use of this instrument would be having confidence that we can change our own understanding of morality in the light of our growing appreciation of what is.


I also just want to add that not all Catholic teaching based on the natural law is as problematic -- it also leads to great stuff on the importance of a living wage and justice among nations.

I've gone on long enough though -- I had meant to clean my room today, and get some work done on my dissertation. Oh well. Time to make some more coffee.

jane 2:51 PM [+]

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