Teleology, Eudaimonia, Plato, & Sex

Arguably the most prevalent criticism of the Catholic Church is that of its stance on homosexuality and homosexual actions—but why does it hold such beliefs? “Because the Church is from the Medieval era!” so some may say (despite the Church actually being from  classical antiquity—the Roman era specifically, a time period in which homosexual actions were socially acceptable in the mainstream). Others may chalk it up to the Church carrying on the simple bigotry of bronze age Jews (despite bigotry, by definition, being an “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself” [1], which doesn’t describe the Church, considering that it seeks to welcome sinners, apostates, heretics, ect into itself—meaning it is, then, intolerant of their actions, but not of the people doing them). But an institution as massive and ancient as the Holy Catholic Church does nothing without sufficient reason. So let us examine, then, why the Church holds such views.

First, as Aquinas would say, we must “place our purpose within proper limits” [2]. And regarding this we have two inquiries:

  1. What does the Catholic Church teach about homosexuality, homosexuals, and homosexual acts?
  2. Why does the Catholic Church take this stance?

As to the first and second parts of the first inquiry, it is easy enough to answer; for the the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex… The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”[3]. Hence, the Catholic Church teaches that there is nothing morally wrong with a person having homosexual attractions; in other words, it teaches that being a homosexual is not a sin. Nevertheless, the Church too holds that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law… Under no circumstances can they be approved ” [3]. Thus, the Catholic Church does not teach that homosexuals are perpetually in a state of moral evil for simply existing, but, rather, that the tendencies which flow from their disorder needs to be resisted, because they result in actions which are morally evil. So it says, “These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer, and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection [the Beatific vision & Resurrection]” [3].

But why does the Church hold such a view? The philosophical roots of it can be traced back to Plato (or perhaps Socrates; we’re unsure, because Plato set Socrates as the protagonist of his works, while Socrates never wrote anything himself). In the work entitled Phaedrus, Plato gives the argument—through the character of Socrates—that homosexual attractions are good only insofar as they are resisted, because they negate the purpose of erotic pleasure and attraction (namely, the continuation of the species), and, moreover, through resistance one learns the virtue of temperance [4]. Now, Plato himself lived in a culture rampant with pederasty—that is homosexual relations between teenage boys and adult men—his opinion, therefore, is not one formed out of societal bias; if anything, his view rebelled against conventional Greek opinion. What’s more, the book entitled Charmides makes it clear that Socrates—or at least the character modeled after him—himself was subject to attractions towards young men, yet resisted them [5]. So begins the philosophical arguments opposed to homosexual actions.

The development of such a view continued on with Aristotle, who brought to the table a more elaborate—and more accurate—school of metaphysics, which would be further adapted and corrected by St Thomas Aquinas, the General Doctor, as the Church calls him. Pope Pius XII tells us, “the method of Aquinas is singularly preeminent both for teaching students and for bringing truth to light” [6], so I will use Thomistic metaphysics to explain in-depth the reasoning for the stance of the Catholic Church. As philosophically technical terms will be used, if you are unfamiliar with them, the Dictionary of Scholastic Terminology and the video series on these terms will be of some help. The reasoning is as follows:

  1. That which is good in relation to a thing is that which is in accordance with what that said thing is—that is to say, when it is acting most in accordance with itself. For example, it is good to use a hammer as such, and not as a screwdriver.
  2. That which is determinant of what any given thing is is its substance.
  3. The substance of a thing is reflected in its nature, as nature is the derivative of substance—that is to say, a thing has a particular nature because of what it is, and is not what it is because it has a particular nature. In simpler terms, a cat is a catlike because it is a cat, but a cat is not a cat because it is catlike—otherwise a man acting in a catlike manner would so too be a cat, which is absurd.
  4. Now, evidently, the nature of a thing may—at least in part—be known via examination of the natural accidents insofar as they are in accordance with the apparent proper functions of a thing, because accidental structure is given form by the substance, which is the source of a thing’s nature.
  5. In every person with—relatively speaking—properly ordered accidents, the sexual faculty is naturally ordered for procreative purposes—that is to say, the obvious corporeal telos of the genitalia is sexual reproduction.
  6. Therefore, in relation to the substance of man, as substance is what gives proper form to the accidents, and as the corporeal telos of the genitalia is reproduction, we know that it is in accordance with the substance of the genitalia’s possessor—that is, what the possessor intrinsically is—for the genitalia to be used in procreative acts, and hence this is what is good in relation to the genitalia.
  7. Thus, as substance determines nature, and not accidents—although accidents properly reflect nature—purely accidentally sterile acts are in accordance with the nature of a thing, as are by nature accidentally fertile acts (which are by necessity too then substantially fertile), but substantially infertile acts (which then too are by necessity also accidentally infertile) are contrary to the nature of the genitalia, and thus contrary to the good in relation to them.
  8. Therefore, substantially sterile acts are opposed to the good of a thing, since the good of a thing is that which is in accordance with its nature, and it is in the nature of the genitalia to be used for reproduction.
  9. Homosexual acts are substantially infertile, as even when making use of properly functioning accidental structures, the possibility of procreation remains nil.
  10. Thus, homosexual acts are contrary to human nature, and homosexual inclinations are teleologically and substantially disordered.
  11. Ergo: homosexual acts are opposed to the good, and thus are evil.

Now, Aristotle, Plato, and Aquinas all agree that happiness is found in living a life in accordance with the good, a notion called Eudaimonia, and though one may think themselves happy while living outside of the objective good, they are akin to a sick person who believes health to be the epitome of physical well-being, and thus rests when they attain health, neglecting physical fitness, which is a higher from of well-being than mere health. In once being entirely unhappy, those who reject the higher good, believing themselves to be entirely happy, rest when they are merely no longer unhappy, or less happy than they could actually be. This the Catholic Church finds tragic, and seeks to correct it, wanting to align all people to the good. The will of the Catholic church for those with homosexual inclinations is that of ἀγάπη, or agape: a love which desires the objective good and ultimate happiness of another—true, selfless love.

Works Cited:
[1] “bigotry.” Oxford American College Dictionary
[2] Aquinas. ST I. Q1. trans. Fr’s OP
[3] CCC 2357–2359
[4] Plato. Phaedrus. 249d–257b, trans. Jowett
[5] Plato. Charm. 155c–155e, trans. Jowett
[6] P Pius XII. Humani Generis, ¶31


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