Last week was a busy one in the secular West’s confrontation with its Christian heritage. In Amsterdam, the Free University summoned Piet de Vries, a theologian who criticised “cheating, divorces, sex before marriage and homosexual relationships”, to explain himself to its board. The university was reportedly considering taking measures against de Vries. In the US, a judicial nominee was interrogated about whether he opposed “marriage equality” and “a woman’s right to choose”. Suspicion fell on the nominee, Brian Buescher, because he is a member of the Knights of Columbus.
And in the city of dreaming spires, John Finnis, Emeritus Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy, faced a petition to remove him from teaching responsibilities. Finnis has written that same-sex sexual activity is “never a valid, humanly acceptable choice and form of life”, and has defended other aspects of traditional morality.
For the authors of a petition against him, which had gained slightly under 600 signatures after two weeks, this amounts to “a long record of extremely discriminatory views”. Finnis, according to the signatories, is “particularly homophobic and transphobic.” They asked Oxford’s authorities to remove him from teaching – Finnis currently teaches some seminars in an optional course at the Law Faculty.
The Finnis case was the most interesting of the three controversies, because it pitted an unusually distinguished and subtle defender of traditional beliefs against an unusually incoherent campaign.
Among Catholic philosophers, Finnis is known as an exponent of the “new natural law” school, which presented a fresh understanding of St Thomas Aquinas, politics and moral questions. On all these points, more traditionally-minded Thomists have strongly criticised Finnis and his associates. And since the “new natural lawyers” have, among other things, stood for some unpopular Catholic teachings, they have also been attacked from the other direction. But Finnis has written on many other subjects from nuclear weapons to Shakespeare, and even those who disagree with him can appreciate his close reasoning (he happens also to be an honorary QC) and punchy writing.
One example of both gifts is a 1994 article, updated and republished in Finnis’s 2011 Collected Essays, which discusses the government’s role in discouraging sexual immorality. Among other things, Finnis refers to “the evil of homosexual conduct” and suggests that “The deliberate genital coupling of persons of the same sex” is “destructive of human character and relationships”. Finnis makes clear that he is talking about the act, rather than the people – and he has stressed that those who fulminate against same-sex relationships while remaining silent about divorce and birth control are guilty of self-contradiction. But the petitioners paraphrase him as saying that “Being gay is ‘evil’ and ‘destructive’.”
In an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Finnis rejected the charge of homophobia: “In my private life, in my professional life, I’ve been well-treated by people with homosexual inclinations or living arrangements – very well-treated by friends, by colleagues, by members of my Faculty, and I have reciprocated.” It was, he said, “a matter of personal pride for them and for me; a matter of professionalism” not to discriminate.
Finnis’s point seems to have got through. In the Observer, the philosopher Kenan Malik said that, if the petition succeeded, its logic could be extended to Muslim academics with similar moral views – or to anti-Israel academics whose views were seen as anti-Semitic, and secularists whose opinions offended religious students. On Today, the presenter Justin Webb remarked to one student protester: “You seem stumped by the idea that someone could hold views that are no longer fashionable.” And an Oxford University spokesman told The Oxford Student that “the University’s harassment policy also protects academic freedom of speech and is clear that vigorous academic debate does not amount to harassment when conducted respectfully and without violating the dignity of others”.
For now, then, John Finnis seems to have survived. But the controversy is still ominous. Almost everyone who defended Finnis felt the need to say that his views were expressed a long time ago, that his courses were, after all, optional, or that his views were indeed repugnant. Even the admirably sane statement from the university had to affirm “inclusivity” and opposition to “harassment”, as though these were at stake in letting Finnis take some seminars.
What was encouraging, however, was how much the petitioners floundered when they had to explain their opinions. Should Finnis be sacked because he was a bad person, because employing him associated the university with his views, because he would offend students, or because students who stayed away from his seminars would be missing out? The case against Finnis seemed to bounce from one reason to another. In a separate interview on Today, a student first announced “It’s not about ‘he’s homophobic so let’s ban him’,” then said that Finnis was not “able to fulfil the criteria of his job” because of how he would make students feel.
Simply by remaining calm and sticking to his principles, Finnis had made his opponents sound incoherent. The campaign against Christian morality may be increasingly powerful, but it also looks ever more confused.