Thursday, January 9, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas


If a Catholic has the unusual combination of interests in women’s dignity and the sister subjects of Creationism and Intelligent Design Theory, s/he (she or he) would probably view the uproar caused by a US New and World Report op-ed column about Catholics with a corner of one eye on St. Thomas Aquinas. A columnist at US News, Jamie Stiehm, was outright hostile toward the decision of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor.  These nuns did not want to sign over the right for an insurance company to pay for contraceptives and abortion for their employees. The problem has been festering ever since Obamacare made its move to include this cost in insurance coverage. The law is for the insurance to pay for contraception, not about whether the employer can force its employees to use or not use contraception. Many Catholics are responding in great anger and indignation to this column, both in comments at the site and at various blogs like the one linked above. The Little Sisters apparently felt that in agreeing to the payment of contraception and abortion even by another party they would still be violating their religious conscience about it.

Unfortunately, the arguments about contraception and abortion are caught up in each other and distinction of types of contraception beyond “natural” and “unnatural” are not made with Catholic leadership. Chemical contraceptives taken internally can cause death of a fertilized egg. However, man-made barriers can keep the sperm from reaching the egg and avoid embryonic death, but they are still deemed wrong by the Church. The reasoning stems from the Natural Law, derived in great part from Thomas Aquinas, the greatly venerated 13th century Doctor of the Church. The thoughts of Aquinas are carried down to this day within Catholic theology and philosophy.

We probably all know by now that the Catholic teaching is that every sexual act, which is allowed only for married persons, should be done with procreation in mind. A recent survey put out to the bishops by the Vatican concerning the deterioration of the traditional family refers to this Natural Law. The questions of the survey are listed in the bottom half of this post in Vatican News and Natural Law is mentioned in Question 2 where the bishops are asked if Natural Law is still accepted (The first half of the link is current reasoning by the Magisterium about family ). Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, (Sec. 16) expressed a very limited exception of consideration for the burdens of giving birth continually, but they were only to be interrupted by natural means. These developed into what is known now as Natural Family Planning (NFP). NFP makes use of biological factors to prevent pregnancy and probably works if there is absolutely no human weakness between partners. In my experience of encountering couples who teach it, I’ve found they have had between 6 to 12 children.

Many women active in their field, say medical doctors, do not have time to properly care for 6 to 12 children unless they have superwoman levels of energy (some do but many do not). The Church does not seem to think that God would personally call a married woman to be a doctor instead of a mother. Perhaps this is because of St. Thomas Aquinas.  In Part I, Question 92, Article 1 of Summa Theologica seen here, Thomas gave his opinion of women’s roles.  (His Summa is set up by first posing questions made by others and then he answers them below). The question, bad enough, was whether women should have been made in the production of things. His answer:
It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a ‘helper’ to man; not, indeed as a helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation.  
By generation he means reproduction.  He goes on to describe sex between man and woman, then says:
But man is yet further ordered to a still nobler vital action, and that is intellectual operation.

In other words, Aquinas said women can’t think. But unlike Thomas I assert that all women are intelligent and should be treated as such. Perhaps the existence of female Nobel Prize winners will assure that women have intellect. I am not saying that intelligent married women shouldn’t be mothers.  I am not saying all married career women are in their careers because they believe God called them there.  I am saying that when intelligent married women discern they are called by God to serve Him in specific ways other than motherhood, no one should tell them they must be mothers instead. 

Now what does the Church’s gender problem have to do with Creationism? Let’s go back to Thomas Aquinas. It is a curious thing that his teachings are ignored when so-called experts have other agendas. His name is used to press the idea that science will one day have no gaps, since God supposedly created an ordered world that man will thoroughly understand. This order in the world has taken, as a prominent example, the form of totally materialistic, naturalistic evolution. Evidence of this mindset is found from the exclusion of creationists and intelligent design advocates from a Vatican-endorsed conference concerning evolution.

Though the conference was back in 2009, the Thomists keep the worldview running. Consider a statement from Mark Shea at the National Catholic Register.  I link to a pertinent column here and will not quote the whole thing.  But very succinctly, he talks about why Thomists don’t agree with the Argument from Design.  He says there are several problems with this approach: 
The first is this: St. Thomas himself never says “We can’t explain X, so God did it”…

In fact, Aquinas addresses in Article 4 the creation of man and woman in the very same question at the very same link I gave before. Thomas Aquinas says:
Now the matter whence man is naturally begotten is the human semen of man or woman.  Wherefore from any other matter an individual of the human species cannot naturally be generated.  Now God alone, the Author of nature, can produce an effect into existence outside the ordinary course of nature.  Therefore God alone could produce either a man from the slime of the earth, or a woman from the rib of man.

In the next statement, Reply to Objection 1, Aquinas says:
This argument is verified when an individual is begotten, by natural generation, from that which is like it in the same species.

The points here are many, but for now I will emphasize this one:  if the bishops are nervous about whether women can discern wisely, they would be better off teaching discernment than dictating to half a billion people exactly what they should do. How do they know each heart better than God does? The answer is, they don't. When the Church leadership trusts women to discern God's personal calling instead of assuming Thomas Aquinas' opinion of women, a New Evangelization may truly start to take hold.

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