A Very Queer Reading of Aquinas

aquinasI was alarmed this past week to read that two highly regarded conservative columnists in The Australian would be voting “Yes” in the postal survey on same-sex marriage. I refer to Janet Albrechtsen, who invoked libertarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Greg Sheridan, who invoked medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas, to support their arguments.

Albrechtsen argued:

Voting Yes to same-sex marriage recognises that institutions evolve, social mores change and laws ultimately reflect those changes… When the word ‘marriage’ was inserted into the Constitution in 1901, there was only one meaning imaginable, but not any more.

Albrechtsen may not realise it, but on this basis a “yes” vote will set up a sliding scale on the meaning of marriage for future generations of Australians. It is not too hard to imagine a time when the definition of marriage could include polygamous relationships, even incestuous ones.

But let’s leave that aside.

How about Ms Albrechtsen’s appeal to John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty? Yes, Mill did write that the individual should be “sovereign” over his own mind and body, and that “the only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.” However, even the most libertarian of conservatives in the Liberal Party have not adopted Mill’s ‘anything goes’ approach. For example, there are few Liberals in state and federal parliaments prepared to argue that we should legalise marijuana, let alone harder drugs, based on Mill’s philosophy that each man should be master of his own destiny. And the possible introduction of laws making euthanasia possible continue to be debated in parliaments around the country because of the wider legal and social implications.

These issues come down to arguments around the rights of the individual versus the common good. Drug-taking and euthanasia continue to be frowned upon, not only because of the harm they do to individuals but also because of their social impact. For the same reason, all Australian states require the wearing of seat belts in cars and helmets for motorcyclists and cyclists. We also place limits on the sale and advertising of tobacco products. The ‘common good’ issues in these instances are about the drain on the health and welfare systems from the possible harm caused in motor vehicle accidents where seat belts and helmets are not worn, and diseases associated with the use of tobacco.

Marriage equality needs to also be seen in the context of the social harm that may ensue.  At what point do we say enough is enough? If Mill’s essay justifies gay marriage, it can also be deployed to justify polygamous, polyandrous, and polyamorous marriages so long as the individuals in those arrangements are consenting adults.

And why not also allow incest, and give such couples legal standing? In this day of very effective contraceptive drugs and devices, and abortion on demand, shouldn’t the right to cohabit be left to the consenting individuals even if they happen to be brother and sister? The ‘ick’ factor aside, what possible reason does the state have to not legalise incest? If you think this is unlikely in modern Western societies consider that the German Ethics Council recently recommended that incest, including between siblings, be legalised.

Have no doubt that once gay marriage is legalised a Pandora’s Box will be opened. If the only argument we have for voting “Yes” on same-sex marriage is to grant validation to the love individuals in a homosexual relationships have for each other, we are standing on very shaky philosophical grounds. Love blesses all marital arrangements. If you love your sister, marry her! If you love your horse – marry it! But, marriage is, and always has been, across all societies and cultures, about much more than love.

This brings us to Greg Sheridan’s nonsensical appeal to the Angelic Doctor, the premier theologian of the Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas. Sheridan notes that he “was surprised to learn recently that [Aquinas] held the view that prostitution should not be illegal.” He then uses Aquinas’ argument that human law cannot “exact perfect virtue from man, for such virtue belongs to few and cannot be found in so great a number of people as human law has to direct.” Sheridan makes Aquinas sound as utilitarian as Mill.

Sheridan can be forgiven if he has not read all three parts of the Summa Theoligica. Unfortunately, with his mind on higher things, Aquinas neglected to write a treatise on prostitution. His ideas are coherent, but scattered throughout the 3,500 pages of the Summa.

Aquinas’ views on “legalising” prostitution need to be read in the light of his discussion of lust, natural law, and human sexuality. He lists four types of lust: simple fornication, adultery, incest and rape. They all vary in degrees of the wrong committed against God and man (society, as well as the individuals concerned). Aquinas parks prostitution under fornication, which is the least serious of the four. To Aquinas, the others are more serious because they cause greater harm to other individuals (e.g., the betrayed spouse or a woman assaulted and raped) or society (e.g., the breaking of family bonds in the case of incest).

So why does Aquinas not call for laws against prostitution? First, he sees the social harm as less than in the cases of the other types of lust. But secondly, he understands the limitations of civil authority. To Aquinas, civil law could not be used to punish every moral wrong. Such resources are limited, he reasoned, and must be used to combat greater threats to the social order.

Aquinas may well have supported the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. In his thinking, homosexuality was mere fornication – the least harmful of the sins of lust, as the social harm was limited, provided, of course, that the actions remained private and between consenting parties.

On the other hand, Aquinas would have had reservations about Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras because it actually promotes homosexual activity. This is an important point: Aquinas said the elimination of prostitution from the statues was acceptable because it meant toleration of an evil by civil authorities but not endorsement of the evil.

So what might Aquinas think about gay marriage?

Sheridan and others would do well to remember that Aquinas was a natural-law philosopher. Indeed, in his discussion of lust in the Summa, Aquinas talks about marriage, about it being between and man and a woman, about married heterosexual couples having children and nurturing them. It need hardly be said that he doesn’t use the language of the current debate because in his day the very idea of gay marriage was inconceivable.

But Aquinas’ view is clear: Marriage is about having and rearing children. As only one party can be the legitimate parent of any offspring in the case of a homosexual union, it is conceivable that the natural-law thinker would have had considerable reservations about the legalisation of homosexual marriage and its implications for the rights of children being raised by a gay couple. Most likely, Aquinas would have argued for the right of the children to enjoy the benefits of having both a mother and a father; indeed, he used enormous quantities of ink talking about the upbringing of children and the proper function of marriage in his discussion of lust. Aquinas would also have had considerable reservations about surrogate pregnancies, let alone commercial surrogacy, from the perspective of natural law.

Sheridan’s invocation of Aquinas is therefore mistaken and misleading.

The final issue that needs to be addressed is Sheridan’s claim that we are better off having gay marriage laws passed under a Coalition government than under a Labor one. I am not convinced.

We do not know what legislation will go before the federal parliament, which is reason in itself to vote ‘No’. Will it ensure freedom of religion? Will the right of parents to educate their children be respected? Will people be able to critique same-sex marriage without fear of being hauled before a tribunal? The Devil really is in the detail of the legislation, yet the postal survey will ask only if Australians of the same sex should be allowed to wed.

John Howard is right to argue that we should vote “No” unless and until we are presented with the legislation that will ultimately go before parliament. As he says, we wouldn’t elect a political party without knowing the details of its tax or energy policies.

Scratch the emotionalism and the only possible conclusion is that it would be imprudent to support the same-sex marriage proposition without knowing exactly how our rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech will be protected in this brave new world.

Alistair Nicholas is a Sydney-based public affairs executive and conservative writer

18 thoughts on “A Very Queer Reading of Aquinas

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    A timely and most informative article.

    Ultimately, the bottom line of the controversy over gay marriage is the matter of legitimacy of homosexuality itself. Just because a tiny fraction of humanity is sexually attracted to others of the same sex as themselves, it does not make homosexuality normal in any sense of the word. The base line of heterosexual attraction is to urge the copulation of members of opposite sex, resulting in the semen and fertile egg uniting to launch a new thread of life. That is what makes it normal. No amount of emotionalism or sophistry can change that cast iron fact.

    • Warty says:

      Unless we are opting for a dystopian world, and it often seems that way, then what you are saying is entirely so. As I’ve mentioned before, on the 9th of June, last year, the Canadian Supreme Court (voting 7 – 1 in favour) legalised bestiality, so long as there was no penetration.
      Alistair Nicholas talks of the ‘sliding scale’ in terms of social acceptability, whilst Cory Bernardi used the term ‘slippery slope’ and was banished to the back bench, by Tony Abbott of all people. But what he said back in 2012 eventuated in June 2016 (as mentioned) and the same court in Ottawa has introduced punitive measures to ensure those who identify as transvestite, queer, or what have you, are addressed with the use of the right pronoun. One ought to be doubled up on the carpet with laughter, if it weren’t true. And if the things that the gay activists are trying to ram down our collective throats were indeed natural, then why the punitive measures? If one doesn’t have a Stalinist turn of mind, then why force your own world view on others?
      ‘A timely and most informative article’ indeed.

      • whitelaughter says:

        No, the Canadian court did *not* legalise bestiality. While throwing the book at a scumbag on multiple cases of child abuse, they found to their horror that they couldn’t get him for bestiality on a technicality…that the Canadians are in the process of closing. Scumbag is in jail; courts obeyed the letter of the law; the letter of the law is being changed to reflect the spirit of the law.

        Focus on the *real* legal abuses out there – like the Bendigo mock beheading trial.

        • Warty says:

          I’m sure you’re right, but just to clarify things, perhaps you could show where you received this more recent information. The ‘scumbag’ your referred to involved his 15 year old daughter and their family dog. His identity was also kept largely hidden, as he was only referred to as DLW, but I’m glad he went to gaol.
          There is otherwise a mountain of civil rights based legislation coming out of Canada that ought to have us very worried indeed, particularly regarding gender fluidity. The UK has become increasingly intolerant in this area too.


    Bacteria have practised male to female sex for billions of years, ever since life itself began on earth, and if they hadn’t then they would be extinct.
    Only 1 in 100,000,000 bacterial cells engage in sex; similarly only 1 in 100,000,000 cells in a human female engage in meiosis [sex].
    Male to female sex is the order of nature, the wellspring of life and always the source of a new clone designed to better keep pace with a changing world.

  • ianl says:

    > ” … we wouldn’t elect a political party without knowing the details of its tax or energy policies …”

    Disagree. Details of actual policies are *always* avoided before an election and obfuscated after the election. The campaigns, especially in the areas of tax and energy, devolve into argumentum ad hominen, straw men and outright lies – always unedifying.

  • kingkate@hotmail.com says:

    Thank you. After reading GS and JA’s articles i was very ready to let go of my subscription. The Australian has been biased towards ssm now for the last 12 months. I found GS’s views to be particularly offensive as he portrays himself as an educated Catholic. To use such a great saint such as Thomas Aquinas and twist and distort his teachings in such a way to support ssm is a disgrace. Aquinas would be opposed to ssm on the definition of marriage but also sodomy. Sodomy being an unnatural act.

  • kingkate@hotmail.com says:

    Given that the Australian has an aversion to the word sodomy – they won’t publish any comments with word sodomy in it, GS should provide a link to what TA has to say on the subject.

    Don’t think it would go down well with the gay brigade.

  • kingkate@hotmail.com says:

    BTW Aquinas makes a destinction on homosexual acts and fornication. Sex being a natural act. Where sodomy being an unnatural act and hence an even more serious act against God.

    • kingkate@hotmail.com says:

      So TA sees sodomy as worse than adultery, incest and prostitution. But just above beastiality. Doubt very much that TA would be favor of wrapping marriage around it.

      I have to say that to pull up GS on his absolute howler of an article was very difficult. It is becoming increasingly difficult to correct journalists on poorly researced opinion pieces.

      And this man is supposedly a senior writer at the Australian. Very poor.

  • Tezza says:

    I too “Have no doubt that once gay marriage is legalised a Pandora’s Box will be opened.”

    It is as clear as can be, absent a draft marriage bill, that marriage would become a relationship between “any two adults”, not “any two male homosexuals, or any two lesbians, or any two heterosexuals”. That is why it is an LGBTQIA campaign, and why it is wrong to label the campaign as being for “same sex marriage” or “gay marriage”.

    Thus we will soon be engaging Government counselling not only for Johnny two mums and Mary two dads, but also for Tom with the bi parent and the transvestite parent. That’s also one reason why the Canadian “All families are equal” law has found it expedient to abandon the words “mother” and “father”, and speaks only of “parent”, of whom any child may now have up to four.

    As Mark Steyn has repeatedly observed, sometimes cultures become too stupid to survive.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Mill was a utilitarian. He was therefore unable to engage in ordinary normative discourse using such basic moral concepts as kindness or selfishness. His attempt to account for everything in ethics using calculus of individual happiness lies at the heart of his concept of “self-regarding actions” – they allegedly affect nobody else, so whatever turns you on is fine.
    Consequently you now get LBGT persons saying that the State must validate their identity and relationships but may not dictate what consenting adults may or may not do “in private”. Here then are Mill’s “self-regarding actions”.
    But consider some of the things that consenting adults do in private. Adultery for example. It’s no longer wrong, apparently. One could multiply examples. It is a big mistake to think that what people do “in private” falls into the class of “self-regarding actions”. In fact I think the universe of “self-regarding actions”, if it exists at all, is much smaller than people imagine. And it certainly does not include sexual relationships.

  • padraic says:

    I wonder what Doc Woodbury would have made of Greg’s article.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    The persecution has already begun. The board of manufacturing radio station, 3MBS has just announced that support for SSM is official policy. It is music station. This policy is wholly irrelevant to its purpose.Idare not speak against it.

  • DG says:

    An oldie but a goodie! On Mill’s dictum: marriage *is* a social matter and not an individual one. Thus the clear intent of the latte-left to undermine it on behalf of the true left by separating it from the natural formation of families.

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