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Aquinas, “Nature” – and Sex.

Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law are often trotted out by the rule-book Catholics alongside the half-dozen clobber texts as a supposed justification for denying respect and equality to sexual minorities. I have absolutely no expertise in Thomist theology, but was intrigued by this observation, in a longer article (“The Other Side of the Catholic Tradition”), at the Washington Post.

Thomas Aquinas, who followed a century after Hildegard, wrote commentaries on 10 works by the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, even though the pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle. So controversial was Aquinas in his day that the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy. For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.” Aquinas insisted that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority (emphasis added).

There are clear echoes of this in the modern world, where so many religious reactionaries insist on ignoring the clear findings of science, inserting instead their own established prejudice. If we accept Aquinas’  thesis that “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God”, the implications for Catholic sexual ethics are profound. The first of these would have to be a recognition that same-sex attraction is tu entirely natural and non-pathological dominant sexuality for a small but distinct minority of people, and  a smaller part of the sexual make-up of many more. This much is familiar, as is the knowledge that many animals (possibly even all or most mammals, but also birds, reptiles and insects) also practice degrees of homosexual activity.

No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphis. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue.

Medical News

But even more important, and not nearly as well-known, are the findings from science that natural sexual activity, as observed in the animal kingdom, is not after all solely geared to procreation. This has been the traditional assumption, but thanks to empirical evidence, we now know better. In several animal species, an extraordinary range of non-procreative sexual activities occur.

  • In some animals, sexual intercourse begins as much as a year or two before physical maturity and the onset of fertility – and so with no prospect of procreation.
  • Some species practice anal intercourse. or conventional intercourse without ejaculation, or intercourse outside of the estrus period.
  • Many species engage in masturbation, alone, or with others of either sex. Where they lack hands they use alternative strategies.

Autoeroticism also occurs widely among animals, both male and female. A variety of creative techniques are used, including genital stimulation using the hand or front paw (primates, Lions), foot (Vampire Bats, primates), flipper (Walruses), or tail (Savanna Baboons), sometimes accompanied by stimulation of the nipples (Rhesus Macaques, Bonobos); auto-fellating or licking, sucking and/or nuzzling by a male of his own penis (Common Chimpanzees, Savanna Bonobos, Vervet Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Thinhorn Sheep, Bharal, Aovdad, Dwarf Cavies); stimulation of the penis by flipping or rubbing it against the belly or in its own sheath (White-tailed and Mule Deer, Zebras and Takhi); spontaneous ejaculations (Mountain Sheep, Warthogs, Spotted Hyenas); and stimulation of the genitals using inanimate objects (found in several primates and cetaceans)

-Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance


  • dolphins engage in non-procreative sex that has no human counterpart. They use their partners’ blowholes as additional orifices available for penetration.
  • Some species practice oral sex – including oral self-pleasuring (“auto-fellatio”)

Animals of several species are documented as engaging in both autofellatio and oral sex. Auto-fellatio or oral sex in animals is documented in goats, primates, hyenas, fruits bats and sheep


  • Remarkably, some primates even make their own sex toys, fashioning dildos out of liana vines, and masturbation aids from suitable fruits.
  • Chimpanzees and penguins have been found to engage in forms of prostitution, exchanging sexual favours for food (chimps) or pebbles used in nest-building (penguins).

The implications for sexual theology are profound.

To forestall the standard reaction to this argument, I am not arguing here that because these sexual practices are found in nature, they are therefore acceptable. Animals also engage in incest, intercourse with juveniles, and necrophilia – none of which I recommend. What I am suggesting, is that we must remove the argument from nature in deciding on sexual morality. Much of the traditional Catholic theology on sex derives from Aquinas’ concept of “natural law”, which he in turn derived ultimately from his reading of Aristotle. We now know conclusively that whatever his value as a philosopher, Aristotle has no value whatsoever as a natural scientist. By Aquinas’ own reasoning, to follow Aristotle’s mistakes about nature is to make mistakes about God. To be really true to the spirit of Aquinas, we must therefore reject his own conclusions about nature in the light of the scientific evidence, and find alternative sources on which to base our sexual ethics.

What other sources are there? Traditionally, these have been the Bible and the early Church fathers to go on. Modern Biblical scholars are finding that many of the traditional interpretations of Scripture on sexual matters are flawed, while the ascetic elevation of celibacy as a Christian ideal, and the accompanying disapproval of all sexual acts, was based on a belief in the parousia – an imminent second coming of Christ.

If the traditional sources are now shown to be flawed, what else is there? The example of Aquinas in fact, helps us here, but pointing to his commitment to studying the best scientists of his day. We too can learn (and the Vatican agrees) from the best scientists of our day, not in the field of animal behaviour, but in the modern discipline of human sexuality and related fields. The findings by these scientists are that sexuality is a fundamental part of our human make-up, that diverse orientations are entirely natural, that a healthy and active sexual life can contribute directly to both physical and mental health,  and that sexual expression serves many more purposes than simply procreation alone.

Probably the majority of Catholic theologians already accept this. It is time that the Vatican paid more than lip-service to its claim that we must take seriously the findings of natural and human sciences, and did so too.

Books:

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity

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

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