Friday, November 01, 2019

Contrary to Nature: A Response to "Would the True "Nature" Please Stand Up?"

Fr. Vasileios Thermos, in his essay "Would the True "Nature" Please Stand Up?" argues that when Orthodox writers take the position that homosexuality is contrary to nature, they are dependent on the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, and he then goes on to point out problems with making use of Aquinas' views on natural law.
"Contemporary moral objections to phenomena like homosexuality or gender dysphoria often rely on what we might call the “nature argument”: “this is unnatural,” “this is against nature,” and so on. Such an argument is not confined to those outside the Church. Orthodox Christians, too, make it. Indeed, one crucial hindrance to the Orthodox Church’s efforts to shape a more constructive attitude towards homosexuals and trans people is the idea of “nature” held by many of her members.
Should the Orthodox Church, however, cherish the same logic used by those outside the Church, some of whom invoke the nature argument not only to exclude homosexuals and trans people but also to rationalize hostility or even violence towards them? Is Orthodox theology at all compatible with such an idea of “nature”?
I fear that by adopting the nature argument as a theologically sound one, the Orthodox Church misses a decisive opportunity to look with critical eyes on her unacknowledged indebtedness to the most eminent theologian of medieval Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas, indeed, is widely regarded as the father of natural law theory, provided that “nature” is defined in scholastic terms as a fixed set of “forms” or “essences” underlying reality and generated by human reason. According to Aquinas, sin is considered a violation or undoing of this “nature”— to more or less detrimental effect. On this foundation, Aquinas built a hierarchy of sins and passions, from which certain moral assessments stem."
The only problem with this thesis is that Fr. Vasileios doesn't ask the question of where Thomas Aquinas might have gotten the idea that some types of sex might be contrary to nature. One need only look to opening chapter of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans to find the answer:
"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature [παρα φυσιν]. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due" (Romans 1:26-27).
It is rather amazing that Fr. Vasileios is either unaware of this connection, or else does not see why it might be significant to note what St. Paul says here, and therefore how Orthodox Fathers and theologians can speak of homosexuality as "contrary to nature" without having to have gotten the idea from Aquinas.

St. John Chrysostom has an entire homily (Homily 4 on Romans) dedicated to these two verses, and he says:
"No one can say that it was by being prevented from legitimate intercourse that they came to this pass or that it was from having no means to fulfill their desire that they were driven into this monstrous insanity.... What is contrary to nature has something irritating and displeasing in it, so that they could not even claim to be getting pleasure out of it. For genuine pleasure comes from following what is according to nature. But when God abandons a person to his own devices, then everything is turned upside down. Thus not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was too.... How disgraceful it is when even the women sought after these things, when they ought to have a greater sense of shame than men have" (Homilies on Romans 4, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VI, Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998) p. 47, emphasis added).
I will go out on a limb here, and suggest that neither St. Paul nor St. John Chrysostom ever read Thomas Aquinas.

Fr. Vasileios goes on to suggest that things like monasticism, celibacy, and altruism are contrary to nature, so how can we say homosexuality is a sin, and they are virtues?
"So far, Orthodox theology appears largely unaware that when it has recourse to the nature argument, it is playing the part of a loyal Thomist. In a recent personal communication I had with Metropolitan John Zizioulas, he rejected this argument without any hesitation. This line of thought, he pointed out, if followed to its rigorous conclusion, can destroy ecclesiastical life and spirit: “Is monasticism and celibacy natural?” I now add to his rhetorical question: Is asceticism natural? Is altruism natural? Let me push it a bit further: Is medicine natural?"
Altruism, monasticism, asceticism are not contrary to nature. They are contrary to the sinful nature, but they do not go against God's created order. They are the opposite of a rebellion against God, as St. Paul speaks of in Romans 1. These things are supernatural. They are things we are enabled to do, by God's grace, to overcome our sinful nature, the weakness of the flesh, and the demons. As St. Maximus the Confessor notes:
"For we have not been commanded to fight against the sense-perceptible creations that are outside of us, but rather to wage perpetual war within ourselves against the "dishonorable passions" [Rom 1:26] that are contrary to nature, which reside in the earth of our hearts, until such time as we eradicate them and take possession of our own earth, which will remain unshakable after the overthrow of the passions, which are foreign and hostile to us" (The Fathers of the Church: St. Maximos the Confessor, On the Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, trans. Fr. Maximos Constas (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2018), p. 311).
For more information see:

“Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Answers and…People,” by Fr. Lawrence Farley