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Natural Law Is Not New and Is Needed Now

September 26, 2010

Last week on the blog we had a discussion of the Florida Court of Appeals’ declaration that two fathers or two mothers was just as good as having a father and mother. I argued that this is absurd and made what was essentially a Natural Law argument against such a supposition. The article in question is here: Fla Decision Denies Reality)

While many wrote to agree with the view I presented there was a also the usual devolution of the argument into a debate on homosexuality in general. Fine. But once again it is troubling how disregarded Natural Law is today in favor of ideological views. I must repeat, even before Scripture is opened, it is clear that the human body does not lie.  A Man is not for a man, a woman is not for a woman. Rather, the man is for the woman and the woman is for the man. Scripture surely confirms what natural law discloses.

Yet it occurred to me that we ought to review what is meant by Natural Law. I would like to represent an article I wrote almost a year ago on Natural Law. I am away this week preaching a retreat for priest. I will try and monitor the comments (since I am not on retreat). But since it may not be possible to write new material in this busy week I though it timely to represent this article on Natural Law.  

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 a “murky” sort of revelation, only  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.

 

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Comments (29)

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  1. Alan says:

    “What is truth?”
    -Pontious Pilate

    It sounds like the civil authorities have come full circle after two thousand years…..

  2. Nick says:

    What the world wants is the Divine and Natural Moral Law on a light tap; that is, subjective, not objective.

  3. Matthew says:

    Excellent article. There are several typos that make it difficult to follow / read. Most notably the first sentence of the seventh paragraph – what is missing?

  4. Patricia Cornell says:

    I saw about 10 minutes of Dr. Charles Rice on Natural Law. How and where can I see the entire 55 minutes. It is a great subject. I want to pass it along to my home schooler friends! Patricia in St. Louis, MO [email protected]

  5. anon says:

    I read something that explained natural law as common-sense reading of reality. It talked about how people of faith are accused of acting on beliefs rather that reason, but then pointed to those who disregard the science of embryology to insist that an embryo isn’t life. When we discard natural law, truth becomes relative.

    Relativism in our culture has made many think same sex unions are okay but also would strongly agree that situations like polygamy and adult/child sexual relations are deviant and thus illegal. It is not simply a religious judgment that such relationships are wrong; indeed, it is a natural law judgment. Any person who understands human nature should be able to understand that such relationships are wrong. Since we consider such relationships to be wrong, we do not believe we are engaging in “unjust discrimination” when we forbid such relationships. To me, it is common-sense that I view homosexual relationships opposed to what is natural and therefore also opposed to what is best and good.

  6. Paul Rimmer says:

    So how do we know that we can trust the answers Natural Law provides?

    • Reason is the judge of it.

      • Paul Rimmer says:

        But reasoning from what? What’s the premise, how do we know whether that premise is sound, and how do we determine the accuracy of different applications?

        • @ Paul Rimmer: reasoning from what plainly is before us. Reality itself is the premise.

          • Bender says:

            It also should be noted that we each do not need to reinvent the wheel here with each new situation. In addition to the centuries of Catholic thinking in the application of natural law to various subjects, there are several hundred years of Anglo-American jurisprudence grounded in natural law, which is really the foundation of the common law (law which is common to all by virtue of nature), which includes tort law and contracts, as well as a good deal of criminal law and property law, not to mention this whole thing called “America” being founded on natural law principles, e.g. the Declaration of Independence.

            So, we need not start from scratch each time. Rather, we may have recourse to the wisdom of the ages and merely see if what has been said before comports with right reason.

          • Paul Rimmer says:

            But this is what I don’t understand. I’ve seen conclusions from natural law, and I don’t at all know how to check whether they are correct or not; they do not seem obvious to me.

            Even natural law arguments for things that are clearly wrong, like murder, seem not to provide any way to determine whether the application provided an accurate result.

            The two problems I have are: (1) I live in reality, and I don’t get anywhere near natural law conclusions about many different situations (homosexual activity and gay marriage, for example). Also, the opposite of natural law conclusions can sometimes be reached via a good natural law argument (as with contraception; I can send you my argument if you’d like to see it sometime). Thirdly, some general conclusions reached using natural law (often when discussing the relationship between men and women, degree of sin, slavery, maiming, and the like) have been abandoned by virtually all philosophers and theologians, not because the argument was found to be lacking, but, it seems to me, because of the force of the enlightenment.

            (2) Even if we grant that natural law’s premise is sound (that it really is based on reality, or, more precisely, that things in reality have a teleology and we can determine that teleology), how do we know, in specific cases, that we have applied the principles of natural law properly in any specific instance? Some would be obvious, I grant, but others are very messy (water-boarding), and good Christians can disagree about them. By what method do we address these disagreements objectively (and without deferring to an authority that would seem to me totally arbitrary; chosen only for the costume)?

  7. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Relativism and secularism are two sides of the coin called nihilism which is the antitheis of naturalism. Spiritualism and Christianity in particular are the complementary epitome of naturalism. I don’t mean to sound redundant to the above article.

    • Robertlifelongcatholic says:

      Relativism and secularism are two sides of the same coin called nihilism which is the antithesis of naturalism.
      Spiritualism and Christianity in particularm are the complementary epitome of naturalism. Natural law is what has produced and maintains our existence in the physical order of things. Now I am trying to be correctly redundant.

  8. Chris says:

    I have been reading the website for a long time, and I must say I have enjoyed the good solid theological knowledge presented on various subjects. I am not American I am from Malta (EU), the island of Saint Paul. To be honest, after reading the article of homosexuality and natural law I decided to stop reading your website anymore. See this a way of protesting. I am Catholic and it should be said that not all Catholic Priests agree with the extreme understanding of Natural Law. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is based on 3 pillars: Scripture, tradition and scientific knowledge. Both the Scriptures and scientific knowledge are showing us that gay people/couples behave normally, the only difference is they express sexuality differently from heterosexuals. The patter of prejudice by the Catholic Church will remain alive until we (the church) realize that SEX is not just about BABIES. There are ample Catholic Theologians provide us with theology not just based on Natural Law, but also about other factors which you might wish to read. We need a bit of fresh air in our Church…

    • Your three pillars puzzle me. Where did scientific knowledge come from as a pillar? The Church does not oppose science but science is not nearly as settled as some think. It is hardly a pillar. When I was a teenager we were headed for a new ice age, now global warming. When I was a little child the universe was steady state, now it is expanding etc. Science is wonderful in what it has wrought but it is not, of itself, a pillar of the catechism.

      I am not sure what scriptures you are reading but one thing is clear: consistently and at every stage of salvation history, the biblical texts speak of homosexual acts as wrong. The same is said for heterosexual acts outside of marriage.

      Hence my questions for you, What if what you call “the patter of prejudice” is in fact a principled concern to respect what scripture teaches out of humility toward the Word of God? What if there are real and principled concerns about the abandonment of Natural Law and the notion that our bodies have anything to say to us? What if this is principled, rather than, as you say, prejudiced? Why do you presume ill will? Is it possible that your judgments of me and others are rash?

      • Daniel says:

        Regardless of whether or not it changes anyone’s mind about homosexuality, I think Chris has a legitimate insight about science here.
        “But creation too is revelation from God and speaks to his will and to his attributes.”
        If by scientific knowledge Chris is referring to our study of and understanding of the creation of God, then studies about tendencies and norms of human sexuality ought to be taken into consideration, as they have been in discussions about issues like masturbation. Understanding how the human person has been made helps us to understand our moral context. If we stopped our investigations about creation at a certain point because they justified our moral presuppositions, we might still be insisting that a male “plants his seed” in a woman who merely provides the fertile ground, and therefore equating male masturbation with murder. New insights into the way God made us can bring us to deeper understandings of the wonder of who we are and who God is, and how we might strive to live more closely to the way we are intended by God.
        I agree with you about the moral value of “Natural Law and the notion that our bodies have [something] to say to us”, but I also agree that “science is not nearly as settled as some think” and so we need to stay open to new insights done in an open spirit of inquiry.

      • Robertlifelongcatholic says:

        The three pillars are a basis of Zen, not Catholicism.

  9. Ennis says:

    What you are giving us is the good, the true, and the beautiful. I thank you for giving us this in a clear very orderly way. Unfortunately, I believe prayer and sacrifice are necessary for those who believe that natural law (the reality of what is plainly before us) is murky. This is because sin leads to a darkening of the intellect and the will. This is especially true of sexual sin, e.g., pornography, masturbation, immodest dress, contraception, etc. Let us pray and fast with sincere and repentant hearts. Let us go to confession frequently and receive holy communion reverently that our country might be released from its slavery to sin and return to Christ through the hands of Our Blessed Virgin Mary.

  10. John says:

    Msgr.,

    Natural Law also distinguishes Christianity from Islam. It is, yet, one more gift that Christendom bestowed to Western Law and Culture. Natural Law presumes that we can, by reason, come to know that which is right and wrong. Islam’s tradition largely rejects such blasphemous notions. Therefore, there is no need for scientific study either, because the world is incomprehensible to the mortal mind. The only comprehensible thing about the universe, to the Muslim mind, is that it is incomprehensible. Natural Law is the bedrock of our civilization, and a gift from our Creator which must be preserved.

    John

    • Kinana says:

      I know very little about Natural Law as a concept. Is it right to say: the world as created/intended is not our enemy, it can be understood, and is not contrary to what God intends. This is a relief and exiting. The discovery of God’s purpose goes on forever!

      I hope to learn more about Natural Law. Also, John can you provide a link about what you say about Islam and its view of Natural Law?

      Thanks to both of you.