Unnatural is the New Normal

In 1968, Pope Paul VI predicted that the widespread adoption of contraception would effectively sever the procreative and unitive purposes of sex in the popular mind and consequently lead to profound moral and sociological changes (see Humanae Vitae 17). British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe likewise argued that accepting the liceity of contraception would leave no principled objection to homosexual behavior, polygamy, and so on. As she put it,

[I]f there is nothing intrinsically wrong with contraceptive intercourse, and if it could become general practice everywhere when there is intercourse but ought to be no begetting, then it’s very difficult to see the objection to [libertine] morality, for the ground of objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. … [I]f that is not its fundamental purpose there is no reason why for example “marriage” should have to be between people of opposite sexes. (Contraception and Chastity, 1973)

The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges confirms these predictions. “In light of precedent protecting the right of a married couple not to procreate,” argues Justice Kennedy—specifically, given the legalization of contraceptives in Griswold v. Connecticut and the decriminalization of sodomy in Lawrence v. Kansas—“it cannot be said the Court or the States have conditioned the right to marry on the capacity or commitment to procreate. The constitutional marriage right has many aspects, of which childbearing is only one” (Obergefell, 16). What was once believed to be unnatural and immoral is the new normal, but given “new insights,” the Court now believes the new normal is good and worthy of Constitutional protection.

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Let’s trace the intellectual history of the decision. The rejection of a procreative telos or purpose for sexuality is premised on a broader rejection of teleology in psychiatry and medicine. In the natural law ethics characteristic of Catholic moral teaching, we should evaluate desires according to their proper objects and proportionality. For example, we define fear as the emotion that responds to the perception of danger. Healthy fear—or better, courage—depends on two things: correctly identifying danger in one’s environment, and acting appropriately and proportionally in response. A fearful response to what is harmless is an irrational phobia—experiencing unwarranted fear of a pet goldfish, say—while disproportionate or inappropriate responses to danger, such as attacking tanks with bayonets or failing to defend one’s children from a bully out of cowardice, are contrary deficiencies of the fear response. Mutatis mutandis, the sexual virtue called chastity is conditioned upon appropriate sexual responses to the proper object of human sexual desire, i.e., one’s opposite-sex spouse, as opposed to water coolers, children, animals, or your married same-sex neighbor.

Such a traditional evaluation of our psychological faculties is now roundly rejected by the establishment, as cited by the Court:

Only in more recent years have psychiatrists and others recognized that sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable. See Brief for American Psychological Association et al. as Amici Curiae 7–17. (Obergefell, 8)

It is not clear what Kennedy’s argument is here. It seems to be that (1) since same-sex attraction is a statistically normal feature of human sexuality, and (2) cannot be changed through the technical interventions of modern medicine, (3) it must therefore be something other than an illness. But what? Read in the context of the surrounding paragraphs about “substantial cultural and political developments”—namely, the widespread loss of belief that homosexual behavior is immoral—the implied inference is that same-sex attraction is healthy—a psychological state which should not to be discouraged or treated as undesirable—and therefore good.

Such conclusions smack of bad moral philosophy and pseudo-science rather than sound medical practice, but they are consistent with the rejection of natural teleology in Griswold and Lawrence. Determinations that a bodily or psychological process is healthy—a value claim—presuppose knowledge of what those processes are for. Only then can it be determined whether the part functions well or poorly. Again, although long a staple of the natural law tradition, such common sense principles were articulated as far back as Plato’s Phaedrus. Suppose, Socrates asks his interlocutor, someone claims to be a physician on the basis of his ability to “raise and lower (whichever I prefer) the temperature of people’s bodies,” or to “make them vomit or their bowels move,” but cannot explain “to whom he should apply such treatments, when, and to what extent.” Is his claim to be a physician justified? Of course not, Phaedrus says; we’d think this man mad (Phaedrus, 268a-b). Rather, Socrates concludes,

The method of medicine [is] in a way the same as the method of rhetoric … In both cases we need to determine the nature of something—of the body in medicine, of the soul in rhetoric. Otherwise, all we’ll have is an empirical and artless practice. We won’t be able to supply, on the basis of an art, a body with the medicines and diet that will make it healthy and strong, or a soul with the reasons and customary rules for conduct that will impart to it the convictions and virtues we want. (Phaedrus, 270b-c)

In other words, without a sense of the body’s teloi, how could we say which manipulations mutilate and which heal the body?

We can’t, of course. Hence the medical profession has had to find substitute principles. The most popular such principle today defines illness as deviation from a statistical mean relative to a reference class. Thus, the heart of a middle-aged, white American male is ill so long as it functions sufficiently differently than the average heart function of middle-aged white American men. As many have pointed out, however, this definition of illness is both too broad and too narrow. On the one hand, it makes illness the equivalent of rare—having type “O” blood would count as being ill—while on the other hand it entails that physiological functioning is a value-free empirical determination whose value must be decided using non-empirical criteria. Deafness is a disability unless your reference class is the class of all deaf people, and among the deaf, deafness might be a desirable trait. Who is to say otherwise? In some cultures, female genital mutilation, tubal ligation and vasectomy—all mutilation negatively affecting the natural functioning of the body—might be considered “medical treatments” productive of health in societies deeming the resulting physical states good for cultural or political reasons. If nature is meaningless and value-free, who is to say otherwise? The unnatural is the new normal, and the new normal is good.

With teleology out the picture, the only criteria of sexual morality left to the Court are the liberal standards of autonomy, consent and third-party harm. As Kennedy writes,

It is appropriate to observe these cases involve only the rights of two consenting adults whose marriages would pose no risk of harm to themselves or third parties. (27)

Kennedy not only thinks allowing homosexual marriage will not harm the institution of marriage, but also that doing so will protect the material and dignitary rights of children to stable households and the knowledge that their families are not somehow “lesser” (15). Kennedy’s argument is that many children are already in homosexual households, and that these children have suffered no loss, material or moral, in being parented by homosexual parents.

Unfortunately, that claim is manifestly false. Homosexuals cannot procreate; the origin of every child parented by a homosexual couple lies outside of their union. These children, every one of them, are in this situation due to divorce, out of wedlock childbirth, IVF, or adoption. This is the factual background that makes Kennedy’s claim that children are better-off in homosexual households than otherwise anything but absurd: children are better off in such households than in single-parent households, or cast upon State agencies with no parents at all. But better off than children raised in loving families with their biological parents? I defy Kennedy to produce such statistics.

What is most certain is that in no case can we conclude that children in homosexual households have suffered no loss. Every one of them has suffered the profound loss of the ontological gift that is her biological mother or father and the unique, one-flesh relationship that is the sole condition for the possibility of her being. To insist that this is no loss is to deny that children have a right to be raised by their mother and father when possible, and it entails that their desire for their absent mother or father is disordered. If Kennedy is correct, concrete filial affection, the desire to know the history of one’s bones (and not a meaningless desire for “parents”) is an affront to the dignity of homosexual parents. To claim that children in such a situation are in circumstances equal to that of an intact and loving family is only intelligible on the assumption that it is normal for biological families to be broken or that having children has nothing to do with healthy or virtuous sexual expression. Yet again, Kennedy assumes that the unnatural is the new normal, and the new normal is good.


  • Joshua Schulz

    Joshua Schulz teaches moral philosophy in the Catholic intellectual tradition at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from Marquette University in 2010.

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