Lying and Lying Together or How Do Bodies Tell the Truth

A second oblique approach to Aquinas on natural law turns to his account of lying. In the Summa, Aquinas almost always bases his account of a vice, in Aristotelian fashion, on its corresponding virtue. At least twice he departs from that procedure. Both times he appeals to the law of nature rather than the virtues. The odd cases have never become important to a comprehensive account. Both anomalies resonate most powerfully not with the natural theory of Aristotle, but with the natural theory of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. As far as I know, no one has previously noted this anomaly in print.17 The cases are the vice against nature and lying. The vice against nature is said to depart from the "natural" use of sex by animals to propagate the species.18 In like manner, lying seems to depart from a natural use of expression by animals. At least in passing, Aquinas regards animals as unable to express something different with their bodies from what is in their minds. When humans do so, is it therefore unnatural? Does Aquinas's analysis of homosexuality go the same way? Does he regard sex as communicative on the model with language, so that sexual sins miscommunicate as falsehoods do? If so, what difference would the recent concept of sexual orientation make?

In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas classes lying as a "vice opposed to the truth." It is also one of those contra vices: it is enunciating something contrary to what the mind adheres to as true.19 As the vice against truth counters the nature of the mind, so the vice against nature counters the truth of the body. Indeed, lying is unnatural: "For since spoken words are naturally signs of things understood, it is unnatural and undue that someone signify by voice that which she does not have in mind."20

When Aquinas comes to explicate this contrariety further, however, an ambiguity opens up. The contrariety becomes inordinance, a matter of degree rather than direction. "Lying has the sense of sin not only from the evil that it inflicts on the neighbour, but also from its own inordinance."21 Aquinas says this just where the harm to the neighbour is hardest to see, that is, when someone tells a lie to save a life. Reasoning from a sin's inordinance echoes loudly in the treatment of the vice against nature. Aquinas treats the vice against nature as a vice of luxuria, or inordinance par excellence. In that discussion he shows a strict understanding of the Greek, para phusin, that underlies the Vulgate's contra naturam. The Greek speaks of something precisely beyond, rather than contrary to nature, a sin of excess - just as Aquinas's classification. Lying too exceeds something: an excess of words, it exceeds one's true state of mind. What is the problem with that excess, and how does lifesaving count as excessive? That question goes unanswered. The section on the vice against nature raises a similar one. In both cases Aquinas's decision seems to elevate the rightness of the act itself over the practice of virtue, indeed the virtue of charity. Here deontology rules. Yet in the very next article, charity decides whether the lying is mortal or not. The tension is palpable. Aquinas stresses that lying to save a life is not mortal (to the liar!): how small a step to say, not a sin at all? Or a sin only because one finds oneself (why?) trapped in a situation with no innocent solution? Aquinas will not say these things.

Under the sin of hypocrisy Aquinas explains further. The objective wrong of lying departs from this principle: "The exterior work naturally signifies the intention."22 It is in the nature of truth that "signs concord with things signified."23

Lies of the genitals resemble lies of the tongue because both are better described as acts of the whole person; actions of tongue or genitals can both make the whole person a liar. This commonality seems most present when Aquinas indicates that animals do not or cannot lie. Speech is a manifestation or enunciation of something by a rational act conferring a sign upon something signified.24 "Whence even brute animals manifest something, although they do not intend the manifestation, but by natural instinct they do something upon which manifestation follows."25 That seems to imply that animals do not lie. But the remark is subtler than may at first appear. Aquinas does not say that animals do not lie because they form no intentions to mislead, or because animals naturally tell the truth. Rather, animals can neither lie nor avoid lying, because animals do not form intentions at all. The mention of animals is by the way, and not what one might expect. The truth-telling animal plays no role in the argument; the instinctually manifesting animal comes as an extra. The nature in the background here is not the nature that human beings share with animals, but the nature that distinguishes them from animals. Because humans form intentions, because they confer signs intentionally on things signified, they retain a moral responsibility that animals lack. That does not look like modern natural-law argument at all, but it looks a lot like Aquinas.

At last the vice against nature does differ from the vice against truth. The vice against nature counters - or sometimes exceeds - the nature of the human being as animal. The vice against truth counters - or sometimes exceeds - the nature of the human being as human.

And there is another problem. Thomas defines the natural moral law as human participation in God's eternal law by reason, and (non-human) animals, by the definition of "human," do not use reason. God governs their natures by instinct, not by participation in the reasonableness of his rulerly prudence. Aquinas famously defines natural law as the human, rational participation in God's eternal law.26 It is much less often noted that, since other animals are not rational, "The natural law is given to human beings, not to the other animals: the most important transformation since Antiquity" (Pesch 1988: 294).27 That is because Aquinas develops "the teaching about the natural law, like that about the eternal law, on theological grounds," so that "the philosophical result of Thomas's teaching claims that there is no natural law, in any case not in the sense in which it is usually taken account of, namely as a catalogue of prescribed and obligatory directions of content that bind each human lawgiver" - where "lawgiver" means not legislator, but rational agent (Pesch 1988: 294; italics in original). The eternal law of God is not "natural" to irrational animals, because they do not govern themselves by a providence or prudence analogous to God's, or as participant law-givers.28 Rather, as sometimes noted, the human mind knows with certainty only the first principle of natural law, that good is to be done, evil avoided (ST I-II.94.2c). Indeed, German and American scholars now argue independently that Thomas's account of natural law serves rather to give the conditions for the possibility of the success of virtue (Pesch 1988: 294-5): God's prudence so bounds contingency that misfortune cannot finally defeat the happiness of the virtuous (Bowlin 1999 passim).

In that context the appeal to animal nature can at most serve to abbreviate an appeal to the reasonableness of the law to humans and the possible exercise of human virtue. Otherwise, the mention of animal activity can count as a remark only quoted in theology from biology. Biology, like metaphysics, stands outside theology's formal rationale, a discipline from which sacred doctrine may not mount its own, proper arguments. Arguments from biology, as from metaphysics, count merely as "extraneous and probable" in sacred doctrine (ST I.1.8). Sacred doctrine treats them as foreign matter. Should it take them in, it includes them ad hoc, or as "extraneous," and without vouching for their truth, or as "probable." What authority they may possess, sacred doctrine does not recognize, except by courtesy Nothing in sacred doctrine can depend upon arguments extraneous and probable.

For Aquinas to be true to his lights he has to (not discard or ignore) bracket or transmute certain appeals to experimental science - a claim that will sound queer to both conservatives and liberals. On the conservative side, one would expect that natural law marked the continuity between human beings and animals, and that therefore one could argue from animal behavior to human behavior. It may indeed mark continuity, but we cannot know that in sacred doctrine by arguing from animal behavior. That move marks the argument as one in biology. The argument from biology might indeed be part of the warrant for modern natural-law theorists who must elide Thomas's commitment to the Scriptures because they are trying to use natural-law theory - as he did not - to generate agreement where disagreement is widespread. Where disagreement is widespread, they dare not appeal to Scripture for fear it would expose a sectarian enterprise. In the modern period, the whole point of the appeal to natural law is to provide an apparently universal, extrascriptural basis for a morality traditionally based upon Scripture. But Thomas Aquinas will have none of it. Thomas has the confidence of one who can assume that all readers will accept the authority of Scripture, and who also knows that the best available natural science is subject to change, and that furthermore the hierarchy harbors deep and sometimes theologically justified suspicion of the best available natural science, as represented by Aristotle.

On the liberal side, one would expect that the way for critics to gain leverage against traditional natural-law theory would be to point to the incidence of homosexual activity among animals (Bagemihl 1999), or undermine the essentiality of the sexes by pointing to the incidence of various hermaphroditisms among human beings (Butler 1999). Detractors might find it ironic that modern natural-law theory opens a space to counter rather than learn from natural science. Yet these too are biological arguments extraneous to sacred doctrine. At most experimental science could raise questions for an account of natural law; since the truth is one, incidence of homosexuality among animals could be cause only for checking one's exegesis. Exegesis correct, sacred doctrine may exercise the theological privilege of judgment over against biology (as some are raising objections against reductionist versions of Darwinism) at least in sacred doctrine's own discipline. In his bracketing of natural science Aquinas again resembles Butler. Both demand that scientific disciplines reveal their political commitments - where "political" means what sort of community they serve.

When Aquinas remarks that animals do not lie, has he temporarily abandoned a commitment to properly theological argument, to argument based on Scripture? If so, we could simply throw out the comment that animals do not lie.

On the other hand, Aquinas may have a scriptural warrant that goes without saying. If so, he adduces extraneous argument to illustrative effect, while his actual premises lie elsewhere. A prohibition against lying appears in the Ten Commandments, and a prohibition of the vice against nature arises from a reading of Romans 1.

One strain of thinking about the relation of natural to biblical law in Aquinas, prominent in German-language discussion since the mid-1960s (beginning with Kluxen 1964: 218-41), but less known in the Anglo-American context, makes much of Aquinas's extreme under-determination of the natural law, and his specification of it by the Ten Commandments. Thus, in Question 100, Thomas announces that God gave the Ten Commandments to specify the principle of natural law: do good and avoid evil. Since the Ten Commandments contain an explicit prohibition of lying, and, in many medieval interpretations, a prohibition of homosexual intercourse under the prohibition of adultery, and since Thomas uses them to specify the natural law, one might expect to find in his commentary on the Ten Commandments29 the following result: since animals neither lie, nor lie unnaturally with one another, these breaches of the law of nature are specified in the Ten Commandments. But Thomas does not so argue. Rather, the commentary on the Ten Commandments makes no use of natural law argument. It concatenates biblical passages, sometimes organized as first, second, and third reasons. Indeed, on second thought, that is what we should have expected instead. The Ten Commandments do not need to be explained by natural-law reasoning. Rather, natural-law reasoning needs to be specified by the Ten Commandments - just as Thomas announced in Question 100. Thomas is only being consistent.

And yet, that result makes the switch from virtue-reasoning to law-reasoning even stranger when it comes. If the purpose of natural law is to give the conditions under which virtuous action is possible - as German and American authors have independently argued (Pesch 1988 and Bowlin 1999) - then why does Aquinas ever use it to give content?

But Aquinas reasons more complexly, because his account of nature depends not simply on what animals do, or what a sexual orientation might be. It depends - I surmise - on his understanding of Paul, who brings the two atypical cases, lying and homosexuality, together in Romans 1.24: "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie." That is a surmise, because, although it seems to explain the pair, the Romans Commentary offers no evidence beyond the words of Paul. For Aquinas the "natural virtue" of truth-telling seems to have applied to bodies as well as speech, and told against homosexuality. Many modern thinkers would conclude instead that gay people ought to come out.

Homosexuality, one infers, is for Thomas in some respects a lie of the body We might today adopt the similar reasoning to an opposite conclusion: heterosexual activity by gay and lesbian people is exposed when their bodies give them the lie, and coming out is the bringing into community, the semiotic offering, of the body's truth telling.

The communicative acts of coming out certainly entail self-definition, but these acts of signification come through surrender to an interpretive community. Coming out is opening one's life to be told by others. This exposure is the source of dread and panic in coming out. It is also the outcome of a desire to be known, a desire for wholeness and a promise of unity of oneself and the world. Coming out articulates the sign-giving character of human, bodily life.

For the church, a similar statement of identity and desire is at stake when the members of the body come out with their sexual commitments. Marriage and the celibate life write the body into the story of redemption. Both are communicative, sexual acts. They are means by which the story of redemption is written through human lives, as signs of God's reconciliation, a reconciliation of the body. Coming out is a wager, opening the body to a language of redemption, opening a way for the body's agency not only in the movement of desire but in the donation of one's agency as an interpretive sign.

Any argument for or against same-sex unions in the church needs to attend to the desire of gay and lesbian Christians to make their desires known and to offer their bodies as signs of God's self-giving (McCarthy 1998: 101-2).

For the most part same-sex rather than cross-sex marriages would better befit the desire of gay and lesbian Christians to make their desires known and offer their bodies as signs of God's self-giving.

John Paul II puts this desire in a particularly graphic way: "God, according to the words of Holy Scripture, penetrates the creature, who is completely 'naked' before Him: 'And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open (panta gymna [naked]) and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do' (Hebrews 4:13)." Even more surprisingly, this "penetration" cannot be as male-centered as it sounds. John Paul immediately blocks that supposition, noting that "This characteristic belongs in particular to Divine Wisdom," gendered feminine. He cites the gender-bending Wisdom 7.24, where "Wisdom . . . because of her pureness pervades and penetrates all things." (If penetrating women go too far, the Greek supports the more feminine translation "Wisdom . . . envelopes - x^pei - all things.") The human being is bound for communion with God because God sees human beings and calls them good, that is, desirable. God grants the human being "a body that expresses the person" because God destines the human creature for not merely spiritual but nuptial community, a marriage between human beings or between the human being and God (John Paul II 1981: 98 n. 1, 109).

Coming out responds to the body's demand for language, and not for individualistic reasons, either. For language is a gift and a demand of a community. Marriage, too (along with monasticism), responds to the body's demand for language, in a way especially suited to receiving and returning a communal gift. As "iron with iron together, so a man is sharpened in the presence of his friend."30

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