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If same-sex marriage can be natural can it also be doctrinal?

Through this forum Jean Porter has helpfully illuminated some of the principles of a scholastic understanding of marriage. She concludes ‘[i]n my view, a natural law analysis of the purposes of sex and marriage does not foreclose the possibility of recognizing unions which are by their nature non-reproductive, but which allow for the expression of the mutual fidelity and interpersonal love of the partners – indeed, we have good theological as well as natural law reasons for doing just that.’ This conclusion raises a number of interesting questions.

The natural law is not the eternal law of God.[1] Instead, it is participation in the eternal law.[2] Furthermore, it is a participation which must be responsive to the ‘various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances.’[3] The natural law is not understood by all with perfect clarity both as a consequence of the fact that as participation in the eternal law it has the divine intellect as its object and also because of the effects of human sin.[4] Hence there is a need formarriage perspicacity when establishing the natural law. Aquinas maintains that the virtue required to oversee the discernment of natural law is justice because he understands that all law ‘is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.’[5] Given the above background, the magisterium, as the teaching office of the church, and doctrine, as the reflective conceptualisation of faith, have a key role to play in ascertaining the natural law. Hence one important question that Jean Porter’s essay raises is: since church teaching as expressed in formal doctrine contains an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage is there any possibility for development on this issue? Or to express myself more directly: if Jean Porter has made the case for construing same-sex marriage as natural can a similar case be made for construing it as doctrinal?

One starting point is to view church teaching on matrimony as it currently stands as definitive doctrine considered infallible by the non-defining act of the ordinary and universal magisterium.[6] Is it possible for church teaching on marriage to develop, given its status as definitive and infallible? An answer to this question will depend a great deal on how the term ‘develop’ is understood.

For a portion of the history of the church, for some, but by no means all thinkers, it was common to maintain that development could only happen by strict logical means.[7] Under such a model it would be impossible for there to be development of current church teaching to a position of approval of same-sex marriage. However, such an exclusive stress on logic as the medium through which development takes place has been well and truly superseded in the last approximately one hundred and fifty years, by an approach which favours a more variegated and expansive account of the development of doctrine. This had to happen for a variety of reasons all of which are not possible for me to outline here. However, I would like to draw attention to one reason in particular. A logical account of development is in danger of giving the impression that it is the evidential force of logic itself that gives the church certainty regarding her doctrine. While logic undoubtedly plays a key role in conceptualising the church’s doctrine the certainty of doctrine comes from the whole church’s examination of its conscience guided by the Holy Spirit, not logic.[8]

A strictly logical account was overtaken by the work of Newman. The theory which he outlines gives more prominence to the historical, social and thereby dialogical character of doctrinal development. Christianity is compared to a great idea. Here language and thought (philosophy), whose development can be traced back through history to an earlier time, is understood to enrich what has come before by differentiating and amplifying aspects of it. As Newman put it, ‘an idea not only modifies, but is modified, or at least influenced, by the state of things in which it is carried out, and is dependent in various ways on the circumstances which surround it.’[9] As human understanding develops (history, biology, chemistry, etc.) then so too does theology. Consequently, doctrine also develops as ‘recent studies and findings of science, history, and philosophy raise new questions which influence life and demand new theological investigations.’[10] This historical development happens in society. Newman reminds us of the way Mary’s comprehension of who her son was grew over time and through social interaction. Though Gabriel tells Mary ‘[t]he Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’; nevertheless, Mary discovers more about her son through interaction with Elizabeth and then in the Temple talking to Simon and Anna and again in the Temple when Jesus is seen and heard speaking with the teachers.

newmanThis type of development is often characterised as organic. While this may allow for more latitude than theories of development which work on strictly logical means nevertheless Newman’s account of development would not allow for the sort of development required to make same-sex marriage doctrinal. As Newman puts it ‘[a] true development, then, may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.’[11] To put things directly, since the movement we are considering is a reversal from an exclusively heterosexual understanding of marriage to one which is not, we have, for Newman, an instance of something more akin to an illness running contrary to the life of our living idea rather than new growth from it.

However Newman’s model of doctrinal development is not the only one available. Furthermore, it has deficiencies. Without getting bogged down in detail we could point out the following. Newman’s account does not allow for the critical distance between the present and the past, which would enable reform, because Newman narrates the history of doctrine too smoothly. His narrative does not stand up to the facts of history and is predicated on an unjustified privilege of what has been received. As Newman says, ‘corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to disturb, the acquisitions gained in its previous history.’[12]

A helpful way to begin evaluating whether Newman’s account of the history of Christian doctrine does justice to the historical record is through the work of John Noonan.[13] Noonan has enumerated six examples of what he claims are discontinuities in church doctrine.[14] It is not necessary to agree with the positive model of doctrinal development which Noonan has expounded to see that in the light of Noonan’s history Newman’s own appears far too homogenised. Such a comparison gives the impression that Newman projects back into the past outcomes of the process of doctrinal development which could not have been known at the time. One cannot help wondering whether the crucial assumption, unstated by Newman, but operating all the same, is that the time which has elapsed from Christ’s ascension to the present day represents the significant share of the total of Christian history. If we accepted this we might be inclined to believe that Christ would never lead his church to considerable reforms at such a late stage. However, of course no one knows what percentage of human history has played out. It maybe that an alteration in the church’s teaching on marriage made now will be regarded in a million years time as a part of that early church history where the church was only just beginning to settle some of the most significant questions she faced.

In contrast to Newman there are theologians who would understand the development of doctrine according to what they call ‘historical situationism’.[15] For this model ‘the church’s capacity to gain this deeper insight into the Christian mystery depends in part on the situation from which it views this mystery and the perspective it allows.’[16] If doctrine is, contrary to the ontologists, not acquired by a direct intuition of God but rather discovered through a dialectical relationship to history and within history, then all doctrine will be in need of continual renewal. Karl Rahner rightly points out that a dogmatic statement, since it is in history, should fulfil all the structures of an ordinary statement. ‘[I]t is related to the person who makes it, has logic, its conceptual elements have their historicity, it is embedded in a historical and social fabric, contains literary forms, presupposes those unreflected elements common to listener and speaker without which there would be no possibility of mutual understanding at all.’[17] Furthermore, one cannot ignore the possibility that dogmatic statements might be influenced by sin and therefore be ‘rash and presumptuous … dangerous, equivocal, seductive, forward’ and even ‘manoeuvre a person into a position where he must make a decision for which he is not fitted’.[18] This is just a corollary of the fact that doctrine develops in history and society and not by strict syllogistic logic.

One cannot help but think that with such principles in mind the possibility that same-sex marriage might become doctrinal cannot be ruled out. However, some important amplification is needed. To claim that same-sex marriage might become doctrinal is not to argue that current church doctrine on marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution is therefore wrong or false. It is unhelpful to think of doctrine as only capable of being either completely true or completely false. We might say that so far as this doctrine goes it says something true. However, it could also say more.

Andrew Cooke is a PhD student at the University of RoehamptonHe will be presenting at the Digby Stuart Research Centre’s Research Seminar next. His paper on ‘What Current Roman Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality Doesn’t Say’ will be at 6:00 pm on Wednesday, 13 February in the Archive Room of the University of Roehampton’s library. Please direct any questions to Thomas Lynch at thomas.lynch@roehampton.ac.uk. 


[1] Aquinas, T., Summa Theologica: 1-2.93.2 see also 1-2.19.4. and 1-2.19.9. Bonsor, J. A., ‘An Objective Disorder: Homosexual Orientation And God’s Eternal Law’ in Horizons, 1997, Vol. 24, No. 2, 193-214:

[2] Aquinas, T., Summa Theologica: 1-2.93.2

[3] Catechism of the Catholic church: § 1957

[4] Aquinas, T., Summa Theologica: 1.103.2, 1-2.93.4 on the eternal law as the divine essence. 1-2.94.4 on the effect of sin.

[5] Summa Theologica: 1-2.90.4

[6] Nugent SDS, R., ‘Statement After Vatican Notification’ in Origins, 1999, July 29th, Vol. 29, No. 9, 140-142: 141 Gaillardetz, R. R., ‘The Ordinary Universal Magisterium Unresolved Questions’ in Theological Studies, 2002, Vol. 63, 447-471: 454-455.

[7] However, we should not overstate the extent to which logic dominated theories of doctrinal development within the history of the church. See Kitanov, S. V., ‘The Problem of the Relationship between Philosophi­cal and Theological Wisdom in the Scholasticism of the 13th and early 14th Centuries’, in Analytic teaching and philosophical praxis, 2011, Vol. 31, 89-99: 91-2

[8] De Lubac, H., Théologie dans l’historie, Paris Desclée de Bronwer, 1990 translated by Nash, A. E., as Theology in history, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1996: 250-252 see in particular n.7 and Rahner, K., ‘Considerations on the development of dogma’ in Theological investigations, Vol. 4, London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966: 22

[9] Newman, J. H., An essay on the development of Christian doctrine, Lawrence, Digireads.com Publishing, 2011: 29

[10] Gaudium Et Spes in Abbott S.J., W. M., and Gallagher, J., (ed) The documents of Vatican II, Dublin, Geoffrey Chapman, 1966: § 62

[11] Newman, J. H., An essay on the development of Christian doctrine: 111

[12] Newman, J. H., An essay on the development of Christian doctrine: 110

[13] Noonan, J. T., ‘Natural law, the teaching of the church, and the regulation of the rhythm of human fecundity’, in American journal of jurisprudence, 1980, Vol. 16, 16-37, ‘Development in moral doctrine’, in Theological studies, 1993, Vol. 54, 662-677, ‘On the development of doctrine’, in America, 1999, Vol. 180, 6-8

[14] On slavery, usury, religious freedom, marriage and divorce, the death penalty and meaning of the sexual act.

[15]  Lindbeck, G., ‘The problem of doctrinal development and contemporary protestant theology’ in Concilium, 1967, Vol. 1, 64-72: 66 and Dulles S.J., A., The resilient church, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1978: 51. See Farrelly O.S.B., J.M., ‘Religious culture and historical change: Vatican II on religious freedom’ in Heythrop journal, 2008, Vol. 49, 731-741: 737 for ‘structualism’ which appears to be interchangeable with situationism.

[16] Farrelly O.S.B., J.M., ‘Religious culture and historical change’: 737

[17] Rahner S.J., K., ‘What is a dogmatic statement’, in Theological investigations 5, New York, Seasbury, 1975, 42-66: 44

[18] Rahner S.J., K., ‘What is a dogmatic statement’: 45-6

Andrew Cooke is a PhD student at the University of Roehampton.