On Romans

In the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologiae (ST), Thomas devotes only a few pages (six, in a standard Latin edition) to natural law. He devotes many more (157) to other forms of law: The Old Law, the New Law, Ceremonial Law, Human Law, and vastly more to the virtues, their background and context (around 1200). Law generally is the deliverance of the prudence of a ruler. Eternal law is God's prudence (ST I-II.91.1), and concerns singulars (including people and events - ST I-II.93.5-6); natural law is an abbreviation of eternal law (STI—II.91.2, 94.2, 94.3), God's taking human beings into participation in the divine prudence by allowing them to understand certain generalizations from the particulars, at least: do good and avoid evil (ST I-II.94.2). Note that in this way natural law is defined in terms of the virtues (God's prudence). Furthermore, as other scholars have argued, human beings require prudence to understand the natural law, and, as I have argued elsewhere, justice and gratitude to carry it out (Rogers 1998; Rogers 1999a: 87-139 and Rogers 1999b). But the great surprise to non-Thomists about Thomas on natural law is textual: he says so little about it, and he does so little with it. While in theory the wrongness of an action might be stated both in the language of law,8 and in the language of virtue, in practice Thomas almost always chooses to state it in the language of virtue. Natural law answers not the modern, essential-ist yearning for something commanding transcultural, universal agreement. On the contrary, Thomas explicitly claims that something as obviously wrong as stealing admits of cultural determination, so that natural law signally fails to command agreement (ST I-II.94.4). Rather, natural law answers the Stoic objection that the life of virtue may not lead to happiness if fate can defeat it (see Bowlin 1999). Natural law claims that fate is under the control of God's providence, and that if human beings participate in God's prudence, then the vagaries of fate will be such as can lead them to greater virtue and need not defeat the blessedness of the virtuous.9 In particular, it is prudent, and a parameter around the vagaries of fate attempting to defeat happiness, if we attend to the natural goods of food, shelter, sex, living in society, and seeking to understand (ST I.94.2 post med). This attention does not so much give content to the virtues, as put a fence around fate. Not that natural law cannot supply content. Aquinas would never make a form-and-content distinction go all the way down. Rather, to read natural law rather than the virtues as the ordinary, surface site of appeal for content is bizarrely to misread the Summa, to take the half of a percent for the 99.5.

There are at least two places, however, where Aquinas seems to favor an appeal to natural law over an appeal to the virtues: lying and homosexuality. Can these two cases restore a natural law that dictates content to morality? Marriage-like homosexual relationships may lead adherents of virtue and law approaches to rival conclusions. Natural law theorists may call them unnatural, a parody; virtue theorists may applaud the sites of love and justice. Only oblique approaches may generate more light than heat. I address the tension between natural-law and virtue-theory ethics among Thomas scholars in complementary ways: (1) by turning to his biblical commentaries, and (2) by relating his discussion of homosexuality to his discussion of lying. The biblical commentaries reveal premises that modern ethicists on both sides of the debate no longer share with Thomas, and the analysis of lying applies differently to modern and medieval conceptions of homosexual activity, however evaluated.

In Aquinas's Commentary on Romans, chapter 1, the results look surprising. Aquinas mentions homosexual acts in the commentary for the most obvious reason, but one that often goes unstated: because Paul does, and Aquinas is attempting to follow Paul's reasoning. Aquinas bases his account of apparent homosexual acts in the Romans commentary (unlike elsewhere?) penultimately on natural law but ultimately on the virtues of justice and gratitude. Homosexuality is God's punishment for Gentile injustice and idolatry.10 Indeed, idolatry is a "holding truth captive in injustice."11 Liberation theologians can now appeal to Thomas Aquinas to claim that human beings cannot reach correct intellectual conclusions under unjust conditions. Rather, injustice leads human beings to mistake the truth about what is natural.12 That claim will not settle any debates about natural law, but it may complicate and enrich them. For it makes social justice crucial and allows disputants to differ on what justice entails.

That is so not least because no one will now hold Aquinas's view of how social justice relates to homosexuality. In the Commentary on Romans, homosexuality does not originate as an independent sin, but as a punishment for previous sins of social injustice, a punishment causing the unjust society to die out - in this case, idolatrous Gentile societies. According to Aquinas (who seems to have learned this from the rabbis), God began and increased the practice of homosexuality among Gentiles just as they began and increased the practice of idolatry The beauty ("convenientia") of it is, that idolatry kills itself off.13

In the very biblical passages, therefore, that Aquinas elsewhere adduces as the warrants for arguments about natural law and the virtues, natural law turns out to be no independent source of knowledge. Natural law is here (unlike elsewhere?) epistemologically subordinate to the virtues, because Aquinas reads Romans 1 to make homosexuality follow from injustice. Following Paul, Aquinas tells a story in which ignorance of natural law succeeds a lack of justice. Here, natural law shows itself to be at bottom a mode of biblical exegesis and critique, rather than a discipline of secular provenance and goals. In the presence of injustice, it becomes a self-consuming artifact, a non-functional, feckless knowledge, a knowledge manqué. Aquinas's account may therefore show more flexibility than many give it credit for, and prove susceptible of different uses by those with ideas different from his about what justice and gratitude entail. Proponents of religious blessing or civil recognition of same-sex unions can argue, for example, that those are conditions of social justice without which the truth about homosexuality simply cannot be known. Textual resistance to such a revisionist usage of Aquinas's reasoning arises less from his view of nature than his view of Scripture. But that is another argument (see Rogers 1999a: 127-39).

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