The Natural Law Tradition of the Catholic Church is often criticised by some Protestants and more often by secularists. Some think of it as merely an invention of the scholastic period. Others (esp. some of the Protestants) think we should limit our discourse to the Scriptures alone. But Catholicism has always seen God’s revelation in broader terms that Scripture alone. To be sure, Scripture along with Sacred Tradition is revelation it is clearest manifestation. But creation too is revelation from God and speaks to his will and to his attributes.
Natural Law, far from being an invention of the Middle Ages is enshrined in Scripture. We find it in the Wisdom Tradition of the Scriptures and also in the New Testament. Most clearly, St. Paul points to it in the Letter to the Romans:
What may be known about God is plain to [the Gentiles], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20)
Notice that St. Paul does not speak of murky sort of revelation vaguely noticeable in creation but rather a revelation that can be “clearly seen.” Paul does not call this revelation “natural law” (that designation would come later) but what we now call Natural Law is what Paul is speaking of here.
Further, the concept of “Logos” present in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel also enshrines Natural Law premises. The ancient Jews, particularly those who collected the Wisdom Tradition in the Scriptures (Books such as Wisdom, Sirach, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs etc.) understood that the created world has a Logike (a kind of Logic) based on the fact that God made it through his Logos (Word). When God spoke creation into existence through his Word (Logos) his Logos sets things forth with a Logike(logic) that is discernible and could be studied to make one wise in the ways (the logic) of God. We have come to call this scriptural teaching, Natural Law. In effect we can discern a logic of rationality to what God has made and come to know of God and his will for us.
As a final example of the antiquity of Natural Law in the I would like to share excerpts from one of the Church Fathers, Athanasius who teaches on in his great work, “Against the Arians.” In this excerpt Athanasius uses the term “Wisdom” but the teaching, as you shall see is the same as the Logos tradition and what we have come to call “Natural Law.” Here are excerpts:
An impress of Wisdom has been created in us and in all his works. Therefore, the true Wisdom which shaped the world claims for himself all that bears his image…Wisdom himself is not created, because he is the Creator, but by reason of the created image of himself found in his works, he speaks [of himself] as if he were a creature, and he says: The Lord created me in his works, when his purpose first unfolded. The likeness of Wisdom has been stamped upon creatures in order that the world may recognise in it the Word who was its maker and through the Word come to know the Father. This is Paul’s teaching: What can be known about God is clear to them, for God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature has been there for the mind to perceive in things that have been made….So there is a wisdom in created things, as the son of Sirach too bears witness: The Lord has poured it out upon all his works, to be with men as his gift, and with wisdom he has abundantly equipped those who love him….and in the light of this wisdom the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. – Discourse “Against the Arians” by St Athanasius
Hence we see a valuable and very ancient pearl in what we have come to call Natural Law. In these secular times the testimony of Natural Tradition gives us something of a basis to address a world that rejects the authority of Scripture. The use of Scripture may still be best in the circle of believers, (though even there the testimony of Natural Law should not be overlooked), but Natural Law can provide a possible basis for discussion with non-believers. Even here, there are challenges today. In an age as “skeptical” as ours the plain testimony of “reality” is not so plain to some who radically doubt that we can or should derive moral norms from things that appear in creation. Still Natural Law at least provides some navigating points for a discussion with most non-believers.
One of the glories of the Catholic Church is our rich appeal to several sources for truth. Scripture surely ranks first but Sacred Tradition supplies us additional revelation in addition an interpretive key for the Scriptures. Further, Natural Law, attested to in the Scriptures also supplies a witness to the truth about God and it reveals his glory. This is the broad and beautiful foundation upon which the Catholic faith rests.
The following video sets forth the challenges that a radical skepticism poses and illustrates why the Natural Law is a precious gift to be recovered and respected.
I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.