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Marriage, Procreation, and “The Broad Book of Nature”

At the British Catholic publication “The Tablet”, there is an important column by Clifford Longley, reflecting on Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ recent BBC radio interview, and in particular on some of his remarks about homosexuality. The full article is behind a paywall, so I am unable to supply a link. I would urge you though, if you can to try to arrange sight of the original. Bill Lindsey at Bilgrimage has already written at length about some of the implications of this. I want to pick up on some other aspects.

This is the only part of Longley’s column that quotes the Archbishop directly:

“When it comes to understanding what human sexuality is for, there is a lot that we have to explore.. Because I think what is at one level in the broad perspective clear, is that there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality. Now how do we start from that principle, not lose it, and have an open, ongoing conversation with those who say, well, that’s not my experience? How do we bring together some principles that if you like are written into the broad book of nature, and individual experiences? That’s the area that we have to be sensitive and open to, and genuinely wanting to explore.”


First, I want to stress the undoubted positive implications that this has appeared at all.  This is not the first time that Archbishop Nichols has cautiously hinted at the need for some reconsideration of the approach of the Catholic Church. Nor is he the first senior bishop to do so – Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna did so last April, and was followed by several others. What is important to realize, is that if these few are saying so publicly, there will be very many more who are doing so in private. I am convinced that in years to come, there will be a thorough restatement of Catholic teaching which will move well beyond the gravely disordered pronouncements of the infamous Hallowe’en letter. When it eventually appeared, there will be reminders of how it is not a new position at all, that theologians have been saying so for years, and that it simply reaffirms the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”.

I also want to stress one of the main substantive points in Nichols’ remarks,  recognition of the importance of experience. He asks plaintively,

Now how do we …have an open, ongoing conversation with those who say, well, that’s not my experience?

and that is precisely the point. Our celibate clergy are unable to formulate sexual ethics on the basis of their own experience, so to complement the dry, purely theoretical arguments of long dead theologians, they must perforce rely entirely on the second hand testimony of others. The more that these others tell them, as they should, “That is not my experience”, the more the approved theologians of the church will be forced to ask themselves, as Nichols is doing, “What are we to make of it?”i

I also welcome the suggestion that Nichols has extended some sort of invitation to dialogue.  I wait with interest to see what form this dialogue might take.

However, I have some caveats, too. First, is Nichols’ reference to that old chestnut on reproduction,

that there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality.

Well, of course there is a “link”, but that does not mean that they are identical, inseparable. Among the insights I am grateful for in Salzmann and Lawler’s “The Sexual Person”, is the evidence that as far back as Augustine in the fourth century, procreation was not the only “good” of marriage. Instead, he postulated three: fidelity, offspring and sacrament. Later, Aquinas also spoke of the same three benefits (in slightly different language). For Aquinas, the sacramental value was of sufficient importance, not just as a sign of grace, but as a direct source of grace, that he named marriage as one of the sacraments of the Church.

In the twentieth century, Pius XI (“Casta Connubii”) and later Vatican II both extolled the procreative value of marriage – but both stressed that this did not mean that it was more important than the other  benefits. That marriage is valued by the church even where procreation is impossible is amply demonstrated by the willingness of the church to solemnize marriages of the old or infertile.

There is another important point made by Salzmann and Lawler. They show that although both Pius XI and Vatican II stress the importance of keeping the conjugal sexual relationship open to procreation, this does not mean that every single sexual act must so be open. It was not until Paul VI, who specified it in Humanae Vitae (against the advice of his own expert commission), that the rule was extended to every instance of sexual intercourse.

By extension, we could also argue that although marriage as a whole has an important link to procreation, that this need not apply to every marriage. It does not apply to the elderly or sterile, and it need not apply to same sex couples, who wish to enjoy the other two benefits of marriage specified by Aquinas – mutual love and support, and the sacramental value. The human race needs to produce food to survive, but this does not imply we must all become farmers. The race needs to produce children, but that does not mean we must all become breeders (or what would we make of a celibate clergy?)

My last reservation about Longley’s article applies not only to Nichols’ words, but also to Longley himself.  The archbishop asked,

How do we bring together some principles that if you like are written into the broad book of nature, and individual experiences?

There are several problems with this idea of “nature” in sexual ethics. The first ahs often been pointed out: there are grave dangers in accepting “what is” as a guide to “what ought to be”. Many animal species (like some human societies in history) for instance, practice infanticide as a form of population control. Where would that leave our firm opposition to abortion? Then we have to ask, which examples from nature are we to accept? Nichols referred explicitly to the “broad” book of nature. Any comprehensive look at sexuality in the natural world, or across a full range of human societies, shows an extraordinary variety of practices. When must people speak of “natural” sexual practices, they usually refer to some specific models that are familiar from their own place and time. This narrowing is not a “broad” book, but a narrow one.

My most serious objection though is to a statement by Longley which is widely believed and used to support traditional Catholic teaching – but which is simply untrue:

Alone of mammals, humans engage in sexual intercourse irrespective of whether the female is fertile or not?

Reliance on “nature” as a guide to sexual ethics is a dangerous game. But if we really do attempt to do so, we really should base our conclusions on facts, not myth. The evidence from scientific research is extensive, and shows conclusively that for many animal species, non-reproductive sexual activities are commonplace – and may be more so among those primate species which are closest to us humans in the evolutionary tree.

  • Among bonobo chimps, the primates most closely related to us, the most common form of sex is between females.
  • Bighorn rams have far more sex with other rams than with females
  • Primates engage in extensive masturbation, alone or in company. Even dolphins do the same, using flippers instead of hands.
  • Many animals, especially the primates, even use sex toys.

Many animals do in fact engage in a wide range of non-procreative heterosexual intercourse – which I will detail in a follow-up post.Recommended Books:

Salzmann, Todd, and Lawler, Michael: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)

Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

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