Melinda Selmys, familiar to the readers of Crisis as a leading voice among the gay Christian movement, recently wrote an essay she called “10 Reasons Why Homosexuality is Not a Natural Law Issue.” Her basic premise is “that trying to argue against homosexuality from a natural law point of view in contemporary discourse is about as prudent and effective as the charge of the Light Brigade.” In other words, she believes it’s dead on arrival.
She concludes her essay with a few magisterial pronouncements:
Christians have been trying this natural law approach for decades. They have been steadily losing ground for decades. Arguing against homosexuality from natural law is demonstrably ineffectual. It produces no converts. It draws no souls to Christ. It doesn’t even convince people to oppose gay marriage. It’s a lame horse. Giving it another run will not alter the results. It has not worked, and it’s not going to work—for all of the reasons given above. It’s time to put this old argument out to pasture, and try a different approach.
As a man who once considered himself a gay man, and converted to the Catholic Church in large part because of the Church’s teaching on the natural law, I simply have to scratch my head in wonderment that she believes the natural law draws no souls to Christ, or is ineffectual for conversion, or ineffectual in convincing people of the wisdom of the Church’s teaching about homosexuality. I’m not an anomaly. Anyone who earnestly seeks the truth will find the truth revealed in the natural law. As to the natural law’s effectiveness in drawing souls to God, we need only consult the writings of St. Paul. One of the foundations of Christian evangelization is St. Paul’s assertion that God’s law is written on man’s heart, always guiding him so that he might know good from evil. The “law written on the heart” has always given missionaries confidence that they could communicate with any society anywhere the wisdom of the Church’s teaching.
I travel all over the country, and have spoken about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality to thousands of people, young and old alike, and I can attest to the power and efficacy of the natural law in convincing people to consider the teachings of the Catholic Church. The most effective part of any evangelization is the power of witness, yet after the story of my conversion, people (especially young people) want to know why I’ve chosen to follow the Church. Without grounding my choice firmly within the natural law, my choice to follow the Church appears to most people as mere blind obedience to an arbitrary moralism. The natural law is the most effective tool we can ever use to explain to the world, and to young people, exactly why the Church teaches what it does, and why the Church’s teaching leads to freedom. The natural law isn’t a lame horse—it’s a stallion itching to run who has hardly been let out of the stable.
None of Selmys’s assertions about why the natural law is a “lame horse” have ever been a problem in my ministry. For example, one of her major complaints is that no one can possibly understand what the Church means by “natural,” since, according to Selmys, “the particular meaning of the word ‘natural’ that is used when we’re describing homosexual acts as ‘unnatural’ is more or less completely unfamiliar to everyone in the contemporary world.”
I don’t accept her claim, yet even so, it’s not difficult to teach people meanings of words that are unfamiliar to them. As a professional musician, who has taught trombone lessons for about 25 years, I’ve taught many elementary students a new meaning of the word “natural” they never knew existed, and they learn it quite quickly, especially when I constantly remind them they need to play an A natural—and not an A flat—when they play a B flat major scale.
Teaching what “natural” means in the context of human sexuality isn’t all that hard either. In my experience, it’s been remarkably easy. And in the case of students, not only do they grasp it quickly, they are grateful as well.
My talks to high school students always include a parable about Thanksgiving. I describe a typical family Thanksgiving, where the whole family has gathered at grandma and grandpa’s house. They’ve just finished a memorable feast of turkey, with all the fixings, followed, naturally, by pie. Everyone is stuffed to the gills. And yet, fifteen minutes after dinner, and to the surprise of everyone, their grandmother offers everyone a second meal. “We couldn’t eat another bite!” some say, yet in response, their grandfather, with a glint in his eye, grabs a bucket, sticks a feather down his throat, and proceeds to vomit out his dinner, horrifying the family. With a swish of mouthwash, and a quick wipe of his face, he sets the bucket on the table, looks around at his stunned family and says, “Alright, who’s next?”, then grabs another plate of food and sits down in front of the TV, acting as if he had just done the most natural thing in the world.
Students’ reaction to my story is immediate and visceral. They groan—loudly. I ask them with feigned shock, “Why does that gross you out? Don’t you like to eat? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could eat whatever you wanted, and never worry about gaining weight? Wouldn’t purging yourself of food in order to eat more food bring you great freedom to live with as much pleasure as you would like?”
And as easily as that—and in a way they’ll never forget—I’ve introduced them to what the “natural” means in the Church’s teaching of the “natural law.” It’s not hard for them to get it, for they can detect unnatural behavior in humans a mile away. They may have never thought about it in the context of human sexuality however, but that’s the power of parables like my story about Thanksgiving.
The students groan because they intuitively know that eating, followed by purging food is not normal or healthy human behavior. Indeed, they know instinctively that to do so is not natural, since they know that no matter how pleasurable food is, eating food is primarily to provide sustenance and nutrition for the body. With eating and purging, they have rightly intuited an ought from an is. Once this understanding is established, it’s an easy and direct path towards discussing sex and the design of the human body, and the freedom that comes from following the natural law.
Yet deriving an “ought” from an “is” is another of Selmys’s complaints about the natural law. She says, “But those few who have some philosophical training will dismiss natural law arguments as committing the ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ i.e. deriving an ought statement from an ‘is’ statement.”
Here, I will rely on a man far wiser than I to answer her objection.
In a book I can’t recommend highly enough called On the Meaning of Sex, author and philosopher Dr. J. Budziszewski provides an antidote to the lies and confusion stemming from the Sexual Revolution by appealing to the truth and wisdom contained in the natural law. Far from believing that the natural law is an ineffectual tool for promoting the Church’s vision of human sexuality, Budziszewski places it at the core of his argument, where he provides a lifeline of rescue for young people (like his own college students) hurting from believing and following the lies of the Sexual Revolution.
Contra Selmys, Budziszewski argues that people who don’t believe an “ought can be derived from an is” are holding onto a false dogma.
If the purpose of the eye is to see, then eyes that see well are good eyes, and eyes that see poorly are poor ones. Given their purpose this is what it means for eyes to be good. Moreover, good is to be pursued; the appropriateness of pursuing it is what it means for anything to be good. Therefore, the appropriate thing to do with poor eyes is to turn them into good ones. If it really were impossible to derive an ought from the is of the human design, then the practice of medicine would make no sense.
Speaking of a young fellow who is addicted to sniffing glue, with concepts he’ll later expand to human sexuality, he asks,
How should we advise him? Is the purpose of his lungs irrelevant? Should we say to him, “Sniff all you want, because an is does not imply an ought”? Of course not; we should advise him to kick the habit. We ought to respect the is of our design. Nothing in us should be put into action in a way that flouts its inbuilt meanings and purposes.
As he says later,
These meanings, purposes, and principles are the real reason for the commands and prohibitions contained in traditional sexual morality. Honor your parents. Care for your children. Save sex for marriage. Make marriage fruitful. Be faithful to your spouse.
Let the sexual revolution bury the sexual revolution. Having finished revolving, we arrive back where we started. What your mother—no, what your grandmother—no, what your great-grandmother—told you was right all along. These are the natural laws of sex.
I have found any attempts to convince people of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality that don’t include a discussion of “the natural laws of sex” to be dead on arrival, for without this understanding, the Church’s teaching sounds like arbitrary commandments, rooted in nothing but the whim of some grizzled old priests somewhere who think sex is dirty and that people shouldn’t be allowed to have any fun. Without a grounding in the natural law, the Church’s teaching merely becomes, “obey the rules, simply because the Church says so.” And no one is ever really convinced of anything merely through blind obedience—especially young people.
It is simply wrong to say the natural law is ineffective concerning homosexuality and evangelization. During a three-day period a few years back in the Diocese of Wichita I spoke to over 3,000 high school students. After one of my talks, a theology teacher at one of the high schools shared with me what one of his students said to him: “You know, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this guy, but now, it all makes sense to me—all of the Church’s teaching. This isn’t just about the stuff he has to deal with. What he said helps me make sense of what the Church has to say about sex, all of it.” And no wonder it made sense to him: the natural law makes sense because it’s true, for its truth comes from being rooted in reality.
I hear similar things from youth pastors and teachers all the time after my talks. Of course, not everyone who hears me speak about the natural law is convinced by it, but after my talk, they have enough understanding that they can finally see there are well-reasoned arguments for the Church’s teaching. Our job isn’t to convert everyone we meet—that’s the Holy Spirit’s worry. Our job is to promote the Good News in the most powerful way we can, and as for me and my experience, next to the witness of conversion, the natural law is the most effective tool the Church has to convince souls that her teaching on homosexuality is the path to peace and freedom.
Natural law is not a lame horse—and it’s not really been “tried for decades” as she contends. Since Humanae Vitae, natural law has been held back, whipped, bullied, and abused by prelates, theologians and lay people who don’t like the claims it makes upon the men of the world. Every time it’s been trotted out and proposed as salvation from the world’s view of sexual morality, it’s been gelded, stifled and undermined by people in the Church who don’t like what the natural law has to say—or the way it says it. As St. John Paul II lamented in 2004 to the Biannual Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
My intention in the Encyclical Letters Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio was to offer useful elements for rediscovering, among other things, the idea of natural moral law. Unfortunately, these teachings so far do not seem to have been accepted as widely as hoped and the complex problem deserves further study. I therefore ask you to encourage timely initiatives for the purpose of contributing to a constructive renewal of the teaching on natural moral law, seeking consensus with the representatives of the different confessions, religions and cultures.
St. John Paul II is right. Melinda Selmys is wrong. It’s not time to set the “natural law” horse out to pasture. No, it’s been put out to pasture long enough—it’s well fed, and ready to run. In the fight for souls, the natural law is a compass and light that shines as a beacon leading to a place of safety. This is a stallion meant for battle, yet its mettle has yet been tested, for people like Selmys have had no confidence in its ability to run—or worse, have no desire to see it run. Now is the time, when the world has become so confused about human sexuality, to unleash the saving power of the natural law, and by the thundering of its hooves, lead lost souls to freedom.