Trying to “Queer” Natural Law

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, in his courageous efforts to protect Catholic students in the Bay Area from the pernicious influence of the gay agenda, has invoked the natural law in stressing the moral unacceptability of gay sex and gay marriage.

Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and regular contributor to the New York Times feature, “The Stone,” (as in philosophers’ stone) has called the archbishop’s understanding of natural law into question. Gutting believes that the natural law, properly understood, supports the gay agenda. He is utterly mistaken in this view, and it is important to understand why.

But first, we need to take up two questions concerning the natural law. How is the natural law related to the Faith? And how do natural law arguments work?

The natural law is not an article of specifically Catholic dogma. In the public square, Catholics are typically the ones invoking the natural law, but this is simply because Catholics have a robust appreciation of the integrity and scope of natural reason—that use of our minds that does not depend on special revelation from God.

This natural light of our intellect is indeed complemented and perfected by the special revelation of God, in particular, the dogmas of our Faith. But this added supernatural light does not diminish the integrity of natural reason, which is capable of discerning the laws that govern the virtuous exercise of our human powers.

The natural law, in sum, is a rule of reason, and as such it is available, in principle, to the mind of each and every human being, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Professor Gutting appreciates this distinction. He does not confuse the Church’s natural law arguments with its arguments from revealed theology. In his rebuttal of Archbishop Cordileone, Gutting’s foremost aim is to meet the archbishop on the ground of natural, or philosophical, principle. (Later, Gutting attacks arguments against homosexuality based on Scripture, but we’ll leave what he says about that to the Scripture scholars.)

So, how do natural law arguments work? To answer this question we must first consider what we mean by any law or precept. “The notion of a precept,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “signifies order to an end, insofar as that which is commanded is either necessary or expedient for an end.”

A natural law or precept, accordingly, signifies what is necessary or expedient for one of our natural ends. What are the natural ends of human beings? They are the goods that perfect our nature, the goods we are made for, the goods our nature craves even before we make particular choices: goods such as life, family, education, friendship, political community, truth, and above all the truth about God.

“Lot Fleeing with his Daughters from Sodom” by Albrecht Durter, c. 1498 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]
“Lot Fleeing with his Daughters from Sodom” by Albrecht Durter, c. 1498 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]
A natural law argument gets going from an examination of the goods that perfect or fulfill human nature. Such an argument then seeks to clarify the laws or precepts that govern the necessary or expedient pursuit of these goods.

Professor Gutting offers two arguments for his belief that the natural law supports the gay agenda, the first of which exposes the weakness in both arguments. This argument has to do with what Gutting sees as the beneficial effects of “nonreproductive,” i.e. gay, sex.

He puts the argument in the form of this question: “even if nonreproductive sex were somehow less “natural” than reproductive, couldn’t it still play a positive role in a humanly fulfilling life of love between two people of the same sex?”

Everything rides on what Gutting means by “fulfilling.” For, as we have just seen, natural law precepts govern the pursuit of the goods that fulfill our human nature. Professor Gutting simply assumes a particular notion of human fulfillment. He concurs with philosopher John Corvino’s assessment that “A gay relationship, like a straight relationship, can be a significant avenue of meaning, growth, fulfillment. It can realize a variety of genuine human goods; it can bear good fruit. . . .[For both straight and gay couples,] sex is a powerful and unique way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy.”

None of this is argued for in Gutting’s essay. It is simply asserted as a “genuine” description of the fulfillment that the natural law directs us toward. But the natural law is not directed to just anyone’s notion of fulfillment, but only to the fulfillment of our natural inclinations prior to choice.

Even if we were to concede that a gay relationship is an avenue of “meaning” and that it “replenishes intimacy,” we would still have to ask: is the “meaning” and “intimacy” of the relationship in harmony with the true flourishing of our nature? Adulterous lovers no doubt sometimes find some sense of “meaning” and “intimacy” in their affairs. Is this enough to declare adultery a genuine fulfillment of human nature and thus permissible by natural law?

In trying to capture the natural law tradition for the gay agenda, Gutting smuggles into his argument a notion of fulfillment that no natural law proponent could countenance, and on the basis of this subterfuge declares victory.

It is telling that not once in his piece does Professor Gutting mention the words “marriage” and “family” as even part of the fulfillment of human sexual powers. The closest he comes is references to “pregnancy” and “reproduction” as what the natural law tradition has customarily taken to be the end of sex.

But this is wild mischaracterization. Pregnancy, just in itself, is not a natural end of sex: a household is. And by “household” I mean a married husband and wife whose procreative acts have resulted, Deo volente, in the gift of loud, demanding, exhausting, beautiful children for whom the couple is prepared to sacrifice their lives.

If Gutting isn’t going to mention the good of the household, then he isn’t talking about the understanding of sex in the natural law tradition.

Thus he has no reason to think he is even close to co-opting that tradition for the gay agenda.

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at