A Lament at the Secular World’s Rejection of Natural Law

One of the great losses to Western Culture is the increasing refusal to accept that there is a Natural Law to which we may commonly refer. This is especially problematic in pluralistic and secularist societies like the post-Christian West where reference to the sacred text of Scripture is not considered authoritative by many.

Hence, it has been the long practice of the Church, even before secularizing trends to base her witness to the truth not only on Scripture but also on Natural Law. The recourse to such a basis for discussion is now largely impossible for us, as most secularists have adopted a radical skepticism that our nature, and that the reality all around us, has anything to say to us in terms of the moral life. Thus, little discussion is possible between believers and secularists and the impasse is clearly on display in the comboxes of blogs such as this and others.

What is the Natural Law? According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (I-II.94). There are two reason we call this law “natural.” First, because it is set forth in our very nature itself, and second, because it is manifested to us by the purely natural medium of reason, rather than by supernatural revelation. The law, however, we observe does not rest on some particular element or aspect of our nature (e.g. only the physical). The standard is our whole human nature and also the special ends to which we are directed: e.g. justice, truth, rationality, and openness to the eternal.

For example, in observing our overall nature we rightly conclude, by the use of reason, that it is wrong to indulge the satisfaction of some lower need or tendency in a way that is not properly subordinated to the higher goods. We rightly conclude that reason should maintain a proper order and balance among our conflicting tendencies and desires.

  • – Thus, to nourish our bodies is right; but to indulge our appetite for food to the detriment of our overall bodily health or spiritual life is wrong.
  • – Self-preservation is right and good, but there are times to accept dangerous and even deadly undertakings when the well-being of wider society requires it.
  • – A glass of wine may be good and relaxing, but it is wrong to drink to intoxication, for it is injurious to health, and deprives one of the use of reason, the guide and dictator of conduct.
  • – Theft is wrong, because it subverts the basis of social life and sows fear and distrust; so does lying; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of well functioning society.
  • – Sexual pleasure is good, but promiscuity of any sort undermines the family, spreads disease and endangers children in innumerable ways from abortion to being raised in less than the ideal setting of a committed, complimentary, and stable marriage of a mature mother and father. Outside of this ideal setting for children, a host of social ills follow as we well know today.

Note that in these examples, we have not referenced Scripture, which is supernatural revelation. Natural Law however is accessed through the unaided operation of reason. Founded in our nature and revealed to us by our reason, the natural law is known to us in the measure that reason brings a knowledge of it home to our understanding. The supreme and primary principles (e.g. not to steal, lie, commit adultery, murder) are known to every one having the actual use of reason and are held in every culture. Another class of conclusions or principles are those which are reached only by a more or less complex course of reasoning. This would be due to the more complex nature of the situation encountered. [1]

Thus, in effect, Natural Law is the law available to us by the use of natural reason. It presupposes that the existing world is intelligible, that it manifests order, and tends toward a purpose or goal (e.g. sustaining life). It presupposes that the natural world is steeped with meaning, and maintains a vigorous optimism that we, who are rational creatures, can learn from what the natural world and our own human nature testify to us.

But this optimism that creation shouts meaning and truth has suffered many serious blows in Western Culture, in the wake of the radical doubt and skepticism set in motion by the Cartesian revolution of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. Increasingly, many influential Western philosophers came to articulate that things are ultimately, meaningless. Many scientists have taken up the notion that all the intricate order we can observe is only the result of random chance mutations and that the existing world ultimately has no real or ultimate meaning; it is just a chance accident. Materialists refuse to accept anything beyond physical matter, and reject metaphysical concepts such as justice, love, beauty, longing, and moral sense as mere emanations of brain synapses ultimately signifying nothing. Nihilism and other reductionists tendencies have plagued the West and robbed us, collectively speaking of the optimism that we, our lives, or the existing world have meaning and something to teach us.

Thus it is we who believe who are left holding the candle and who optimistically assert that the existing world is steeped with meaning, with teachings, with intelligibility. From the Christian point of view, God made all things through his “Word” (who is our Lord Jesus Christ). The Greek word Logos points to a kind of “logic” that permeates all things and is discoverable to our human reason. The universe was “thought into being” and thus we who possess reason are able to observe, to recognize, the Law, the reason, and the wisdom that underlies and permeates all things.

So, along with the supernatural Book of Sacred Scripture we also have the natural Book of Creation. The Church esteems them both as pointing to the one truth. Thus there can be no absolute or ultimate conflict between true science and faith. As Catholics, we are frequently considered together with our Fundamentalist and Evangelical brethren who do not often esteem the Book of Creation and Natural Law as we do. There are important distinctions that Catholics uniquely make that are often lost on atheists and secularists. We do not insist that our moral teachings and most of our doctrinal teachings are only available by Scripture, we also strive to show them and demonstrate them by way of natural law and that they are quite often accessible to reason.

Again we may note with sadness that this avenue is of late shutting down. Note because we have changed or moved, but because the world has become doubtful and cynical that the existing world or our bodies have anything to tell us.

One cannot judge individual hearts to be sure, but it is not without sobriety to suggest that some, if not many, who have rejected Natural Law have done so, not out struggle or doubt, but because the existence of any law above them is inconvenient to the moral life they wish to lead. Such judgements may be beyond us in individual cases, but collectively it seems clear that the wholesale abandonment of Natural Law has coincided with the declining West’s collective decision to take a moral holiday.

Perhaps as a prosaic conclusion to the Church’s optimism that the created world shouts forth meaning and truth we can end with the words of St Athanasius. Certainly he writes from the standpoint of faith and his words would matter little to a secularist or atheist. But to we who still have that “old time religion” it is a good reflection on how creation mystically manifests the immanence and wisdom of God.

By his own wisdom and Word, who is our Lord and Savior Christ, the all-holy Father (whose excellence far exceeds that of any creature), like a skillful steersman guides to safety all creation, regulating and keeping it in being, as he judges right. It is right that creation should exist as he has made it and as we see it happening, because this is his will, which no one would deny. For if the movement of the universe were irrational, and the world rolled on in random fashion, one would be justified in disbelieving what we say. But if the world is founded on reason, wisdom and science, and is filled with orderly beauty, then it must owe its origin and order to none other than the Word of God.

He is God, the living and creative God of the universe, the Word of the good God, who is God in his own right…. the Word that created this whole world and enlightens it by his loving wisdom….produced the order in all creation….and gives order, direction and unity to creation.

By his eternal Word the Father created all things and implanted a nature in his creatures. He…in his goodness he governs and sustains the whole of nature by his Word (who is himself also God), so that under the guidance, providence and ordering of that Word, the whole of nature might remain stable and coherent in his light. From a Discourse Against the Pagans by Saint Athanasius, bishop (Nn. 40-42: PG 25, 79-83)

54 Replies to “A Lament at the Secular World’s Rejection of Natural Law”

  1. Timely article! I just finished reading What We Can’t Not Know by J. Budziszewski’s. In his book, JB covers to a greater extent the same premise that you write about in this blog post. The most surprising aspect is how easily society has come to disregard what is most obvious about our own nature. However, Mr. Budziszewski does talk to some length about the reality that, deep down, we do have a conscience, that, in most cases, will come back knocking asking for answers. I highly recommend J. Budziszewski’s book if you have not read it.

    Msgr. Pope, I recently discovered your blog and became an avid reader and a fan. I want to thank you for the variety of topics you cover and specially for the depth in which you write while keeping your commentary accesible to all. I look forward to continuing reading your blog.

    May God bless you.

    1. It is not merely sin – sinners often know their rebellion and do it in light of that knowledge. Natural Law died in the church itself when the end became more important than the means. We’ve had Rerum Novarum, yet we shredded subsidiarity for integration, “The Great Society”, and the rest. Now it is contraception and gay rights being imposed.

      Aquinas himself drew lines where the civil law ought to end. But we wanted the Leviathan to accomplish the goals, no matter what. Impose whatever necessary. We never stopped to ask if fallen men could run things given more and more power each political cycle.

      Even now it is whom is going to ride Leviathan, not whom is going to slay the beast (Ron Paul excepted).

      We forgot that even when doing good, or especially when doing good we must do so carefully, surgically, as a sapper would defuse an active bomb. For evil lurks everywhere, ready to corrupt and contaminate the most honest and charitable act.

  2. Monsignor,

    I sincerely admire your writing and read it regularly. It is needlessly for me to say that I have learned a great deal from you and your insightful comments.

    Here, however, I find your remarks deeply troubling. They betray, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding of modernity and its approach to ethics. Allow me to be specific.

    it is true that natural law does not figure prominently in the modern world. This is most readily seen in its natural environment–university moral philosophy and ethics courses. Why is it that most almost all the universities and colleges in the world–including most catholic universities and colleges–do not present natural law and encourage students to study it? The reason is NOT that academics and the world at large have rejected natural law as you say. The reason is that natural law theory has been shown to suffer from the natural fallacy–a violation of sound reasoning and logic–which precludes it from being a coherent moral theory and that serve as a useful or effective guide to human conduct.

    The natural fallacy has many names. It also called the “is/ought problem” and the “fact/value distinction.” I do not wish to condescend (I am sure that you are familiar with this issue), but allow me to elaborate. What this fallacy marks is the logical move from the way the world is to the way the world ought to be. For any good reasoners a logical rule such as this cannot hold occasionally or “for the most part” as Aristotle says. It must hold necessarily. On this view a move from the way the world is to the way it ought to be does not hold even for the most part. Let me illustrate. Now you say that the world is ordered to sustain life and I take this to be a principle of natural law. I grant all of this. The biological purpose of a raspberry bush, for example, is on this view (at least in part) to reproduce by means of raspberries. Thus the world is ordered to sustain life and in this case the raspberry bush reproduces by means of raspberries. Now according this principle of natural law it is morally unacceptable for anything to interfere with the natural reproduction of the raspberry bush. Hence it would be wrong for any person to remove a branch or indeed a raspberry from this raspberry bush for scientific research because it would interfere with the natural biological function of the raspberry bush. You might of course object that so long as the branch or raspberry were used to feed or nourish an animal, it would be licit. but this line of reasoning would also license cannibalism (at the very least in certain situations) which is surely moral reprehensible. The basic point here is that natural law theory takes as one of its basic principles the proposition that nature is organized to sustain life (which I do not under dispute) but adds that any interference in the natural ORDER is wrong if it does not lead to the preservation of life. But as my illustration shows this principle is itself logically inconsistent and so produces what philosophers call the natural fallacy.

    By way of further illustration let me add some history. The first person to article the natural fallacy is at once an unlikely ally and bitter opponent: David Hume. Hume draw our attention to the natural fallacy to attack natural law theories in general–Thomas’ as well as Hobbes’ and Locke’ versions. He did so, he thought, to rehabilitate Aristotle, who he saw as opposed to this theories. How so? Surely Thomas at least agrees with Aristotle on this point. Not so, says Hume (and to my mind correctly). Aristotle remarks in Ethics VI that the purpose and ends (telos as you know) of human nature are prescribed by our character–not by practical reason. Practical reason concerns only the means by which we aim to achieve the ends given to us by our nature. Let me repeat: Our character dictates our ends, practical reason is restricted to the means by which we achieve these goals.

    So for Aristotle there is a sharp distinction between practical reason and character (conforming to the difference between intellectual virtue and virtue of character) which overlaps the distinction between ends and means. Hume often describes character as a “feeling” (and so may be faulted for introducing some confusion between our passions and our character) but I think Aristotle would have conceded the basic point that our goals are selected for us by a non-rational process. Most scholars of Aristotle nowadays recognize just how sharp Aristotle makes the distinction between practical reason and character and how it corresponds with his distinction between ends and means. Yet somehow many catholic commentators seems to miss this importance of this difference and Thomas in his commentary on the Ethics seems to be one of them.

    The point of this is that Hume notices a fundamental logical flaw in the basic presuppositions of natural law theories and drew them to our attention so as to rehabilitate Aristotle in 18th England. This is not just skepticism. It is a rational argument based on the standards of sound reasoning. The result is the diagnosis of a serious logical flaw in a system that prides itself on reasonableness.

    Now none of this is meant to suggest that Hume is correct. He could be wrong. If he is, it is because the natural fallacy is not really a logical fallacy. The problem is that no one has shown that the natural fallacy is incoherent or even simply misstated. Subsequent to Hume, many philosophers (Catholic and otherwise) challenged Hume’s guillotine as it come to be known, but no one has actually offer an argument or refutation of it. Everyone has simply dismissed it. Many for the reason that the natural fallacy seems permissive, that it rends traditional moral values in a way that would lead to moral chaos. But this is no argument. Fear of the possible consequences of a logical principle is not a logical reason to dismiss. Academic philosophers working in ethics and moral theory generally know all of this and few of them seem to be willing to challenge the natural fallacy because it seems to be obviously correct. The inference from the way the world is to the way it ought to be is suspect.

    Your post Monsignor is dismaying because it seems to me to exhibit a peculiar ignorance of the modern world’s approach to ethics. Much of what you say about the modern world’s skepticism of natural law is well-founded, but good reasons have been given to support this skepticism and it has been entirely ignored or dismissed. Defenders of natural law often act as if the entire world has ceased to listen to reason when in fact it has been listening to reason but the defenders themselves have refused to engage the modern world and have resorted to repeating over and over again their view without explaining why objections to their view fail.

    I hope that my remarks–offered in good-will–might start a discussion that would make the position of natural law more tenable for modern readers. I welcome and am eager for your reply.

    1. Your critique offers no solutions. Where in your system does one find a basis for moral law? What is “the modern world’s approach to ethics” ? And, would any system you suggest be as air-tight as you require of natural law?

      I must also confess a difficulty in following what you write. Perhaps you DO need to condescend since I am not in a philosophical or academic setting day by day. Neither I suppose are most of the readers. I see that you use English words and sentence structure but at the end of the day I am not really sure what you are saying and I do not find Hume’s critique compelling. I certainly don’t see Natural Law as a simple jumping from “is” to “ought” (if I understand what you are saying).

      Further the raspberry analogy puzzles me since Natural Law focuses more on the human dimension of living and is not extensively concerned with the needs of lower life which reason would seem to confirm, exists not only to reproduce itself but to provide food to higher life in the great circle of life. Natural Law does not look only to the particular but to the whole. Perhaps we can glean some environmental norms that man should not use raspberries only for food but should also save some for seed? But anyway I don’t really want to discuss raspberries too much. The examples I provided had to do essentially with human life and human decisions.

      Anyway, sorry that I am myself dismayed at how to answer you since I have difficulty in following your comment.

      1. Since raspberries are primarily for reproduction, how do we justify eating raspberries? We could conclude that raspberry bushes produce many raspberries to reproduce while also feeding animals and insects. But if we allow that flexibility of introducing secondary purposes then why not allow for such secondary purposes in other contexts such as human sexual activity? The bottom line is that the Catholic definition of their “Natural law” comes across to many non-Catholics as an artifice to try to place a secular veneer on conclusions that were previously reached on a religious (in this case Catholic) basis.

        1. But we do allow secondary aspects in terms of sexuality. But the secondary aspects do not cancel the primary aspects from which sexuality gets its primary meaning. Also, try not to reduce people to the level of a raspberry, it’s really an annoying trait of materialists to compare human beings who are rational to brute animals or in this case a fruit. Please accept that the moral issues involved with human beings are far more exulted and complex than for raspberries. As for your second point, please study history and philosophy before making silly claims. Natural Law predates Christianity and finds its roots in Greek philosophy. Imagine thinking I could actually have a conversation with you or some other atheist based on observation and reason. Instead of sniffing at it cynically dismissing it as an artifice why not be flattered that the Church would actually want to reach out to you on some common ground. Or would you prefer to be simply dismissed as among the “great unwashed” who simply can’t get it because satan has darkened your intellect?

          1. Ok, forget raspberries, it was someone else who introduced that fruit. Let’s talk human embryo. Aristotle believed in utilizing empirical evidence to determine the natural end of any thing or being.

            Today there are approximately 400,000 frozen blastocysts lying in a state of frozen limbo at in-vitro fertilization clinics. For thousands of these embryos, the decision has already been made that they will never be transferred to a woman’s body and that means they will never grow beyond a tiny clump of undifferentiated cells briefly existing in a petri dish. A newly created embryo can either split into multiple embryos or unite with another embryo to form a single embryo. Until that happens, individuality is far from guaranteed. Only 30 to 40 percent of zygotes survive to attachment to the uterine wall.

            Catholics believe that those cells constitute a human being. Both Judaism and Islam hold that full human status is acquired progressively during embryonic development, not at fertilization until 40 days after conception. Based on the empirical evidence, I consider the Jewish and Islamic view more accurate than the Catholic view, and I consider the view that human status is reached only after a fetus can survive independently of the womb to be even more accurate. Accordingly, I see nothing unethical in principle with biologists and medical doctors using those blastocysts for medical research. When Catholics claim that natural law dictates otherwise I instead see Catholic religious belief being clothed as secular natural law, I don’t see secular natural law.

          2. Some of your numbers are highly suspect. Orthodox Judaism, to which you refer and Islam are against abortion. That the ancients had less clear notions of embryonic and fetal development was a lack in technical knowledge. St. Thomas as well held such a time frame. But NONE of them every advocated killing a child in the womb at any stage from day one. Struggling over the question of ensoulment did not mean they in any way advocated abortion or any form of killing the embryo/fetus/child at any stage. That is your strange world where human beings and human life can be treated as a product, or as dispensable tissue and the stuff of experiments. Your use of the term “full human status” reminds of of 3/5 of person etc rubbish from the 19th Century. Human LIFE (as opposed to your made up notion of “status”) clearly begins at conception when we do not have a dolphin, or a horse, or a pig, we have a human person who has begun to develop as he or she will continue to develop and change for the rest of life. As a materialist you can conclude nothing less that life at conception since “hominization” is a metaphysical concept as is your arbitrary notion of 40 days or any other day you choose. There is no way for you to biologically determine when personhood begins since personhood is a metaphysical concept and cannot be viewed or measured under your little microscope. Hence to avoid metaphysics as a materialist/atheist claims he must, you have no other choice than the biological departure point of conception. Human life has clearly begun at that point and must be respected. If it is not then human life can be violated at any stage, and you are no better than Joseph Mengele

          3. It isn’t so clear when human life begins because life is ongoing, because death is entangled with life, because the capabilities of individual living entities develop and then tend to diminish, because all species of life are historically continuous with predecessor species of life. A blastocyst has none of the qualities that distinguishes human life from other life, it lives as a parasite on its mother. What you are doing is separating human life from life more generally, contrary to the evidence otherwise, and then declaring you are arguing from a universal secular perspective under the rubric of natural law when you are really arguing from within a perspective that is religious (and Catholic) and pre-modern.

          4. You say life is ongoing, because death is entangled with life, a metaphysical claim. You see you materialists cant stay locked up in your little one dimensional world of pure matter for long can you? The very fact that you are discussing what it means to be human and what life and death are demonstrates the metaphysical. The fact is you as an atheist materialist can in no way prove the claim you make using your little one dimensional materialist system. Neither can you demonstrate personhood or the lack of it by your little system. Youre out of your league and have no business as a materialist talking about metaphysical categories or assigning meaning (another metaphysical category). Youre actually a lousey atheist and maybe you should admit there are metaphysical categories like meaning, justice, the definition of personhold or humanity and so forth as you are arguing. Yes you have strayed from your atheist limitations, you are a less than explicit atheist

          5. A human person aged less than five years depends on human persons older. So do many persons who may be much older than twenty years.Are these parasites, Explicit Atheist?

      2. My dear Monsignor,

        Permit me to respond to each of your objections in turn.

        You say, “Your critique offers no solutions.” On the contrary, my critique points out that the natural fallacy is employed precisely to rehabilitate Aristotelian eudaemonism which had been suppressed by natural law theorists such as Hobbes and Locke (Thomas is innocent of this attack, but that does not imply that his view escapes the logical consequences of the natural fallacy). Aristotle presents a very specific basis for moral law in human nature. Human beings have a function divisible into their rational and non-rational capacities which have needs or to be more precise make demands on our actions. Our non-rational capacities include our passions and our appetites which must be satisfied if we wish to flourish, and our rational capacities are divided into contemplative and practical reasoning which also must be satisfied if we wish to flourish. In short, human nature makes demands on us and our flourishing as human beings depends on our satisfying those needs. But again as I said Aristotle is clear that it is our non-rational capacities that prescribe our ends and practical reason that determine the means for achieving those ends. This is the basis for moral law for eudaemonism and for natural law (you grant that natural law has a basis in Greek philosophy below with which modern ethics agrees with the exception that natural law erroneously suggests that practical reasoning delivers us with the ends we require to flourish as human beings. This move commits the natural fallacy is modern ethics has diagnosed this problem and has taken steps to overcome it. It is for this very reason why the three dominant ethical theories in universities and colleges are eudaemonism (virtue ethics), utilitarianism, and deontology. These theories are studied in preference to natural law because they do not commit the natural fallacy. Virtue ethics survives natural law for specifically this reason (see G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”).
        This is not to say that the virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontology are more correct than natural law; it seems to me that they acknowledge the problem and have tried to overcome it in a natural law theorists evade it.

        “And, would any system you suggest be as air-tight as you require of natural law?” I hope for the sake of learning the right thing to do in any given situation that I might have reliable guides to act well. Only logically consistent moral theories enable agents to avoid accidentally doing wrong. If a moral theories is logically problematic then it becomes possible for someone to do something with the right intention and get it right. If God has in fact given us natural law as a guide to right action and I follow it scrupulously in good faith, it should not logically speaking lead me to perform some action contrary to its principles. Were I somehow to do so, it should be my own failure–not the failure of the moral theory. However, if natural law suffers from the natural fallacy, then were a person to follow it carefully, he or she might still do wrong because natural law may not be as you put it “air-tight”. I would hope that everyone expect air-tightness to be a virtue of sound moral reasoning so that if a moral theory were not logically air-tight, it would be understood as a serious problem that gives us reason to doubt it.

        “Further the raspberry analogy puzzles me.” I see from subsequent comments that I did not make my meaning very clear. The purpose of this example was not to suggest that human beings are reducible to plants nor to suggest that we have moral obligations to plants in general. Several people seems to think that this was my point. Rather the purpose of the example was simply to illustrate the natural fallacy and to show how it logically works. Perhaps when I have some more time I will make use of better example more in line with your concerns. In the meantime please reply when you have an opportunity.

        1. Has anyone ever attempted to translate you into English? Sorry, once a gain, blame me if you will, but you are not the great communicator, at least tom me. I really cannot follow what you are saying and I still see no solutions.

          1. I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to communicate my thoughts clearly. I have tried to do so but I guess my academic training is getting in the way. If I can come up with another way of putting them, I will certainly bring them to your attention. In the mean time, I hope my remarks drew some attention to the concerns of modern philosophers and dissuaded people from simply believing that natural law has been dismissed out of prejudice. I don’t think it has.

    2. I, like Monsignor Pope, also had trouble understanding what you were saying. I have two comments on your article: 1) a large part of natural law is balancing equally good desires, for example the desire for food and the desire for knowledge. So, killing all the raspberry plants for the sake of knowledge, as well as eating all the raspberries and their seeds for the sake of food, would be bad choices. 2) In the Poetics, Aristotle says that character follows from plot. That is, what we do shapes who we are. Now, one could claim that what we do follows from practical reason and so, practical reason precedes character.

      I didn’t really follow your character/practical reason argument, anyway, but I thought I would throw that into the mix.

    3. Edward Feser addresses Hume, (a big hero to new atheists and secularists in general), and dismantles modern Humean arguments in his book, The Last Superstition.

      1. Yes, but Feser does not (so far as I recall) challenge the natural fallacy. He dismantles Hume’s arguments against the treatment of theology as a science which is no doubt related but Hume is careful to separate his challenge of natural law theories of morality.

    4. Hume’s “no ought from an is” and the “naturalistic fallacy” have come in for a lot of criticism in modern philosophy. I go into some of these critiques in my 2004 book, Natural Law: and Introduction and Reexamination.

      1. Thanks. I’ll check it out. I am very interested in find out what sort of arguments have been presented against the natural fallacy.

    5. Your modern skepticism is like a sausage maker. No matter what meat you put in, you get sausage. Hey, who doesn’t like sausage. The problem comes when you then infer from the results of your sausage making, that every meat is really sausage. You treat the tool as neutral or of negligible to the results.

      If you toss in marriage you get relationship sausage.
      If you toss in life you get tissue sausage
      If you toss in truth you get opinion sausage.

      All the results of the modern program of skeptical inquiry are inferences that reality is something other than what it naturally is.

      1. If you are addressing my comments, you seem to have missed the point that it is not simply a skeptical attitude that drives modern thinkers away from natural law. It is a serious concern for logical consistency of this moral theory. No doubt there are some thinkers that are prejudiced against natural law, but I do not think most of them are.

        1. It isn’t an attitude. Skepticism is a program; a process; a philosophical organon. This process is most aptly characterized as sausage making. Moderns are driven away from natural law reasoning because they are largely only familiar with the sausages not the meat. Much less the living being from which the meat is derived. That living being is tradition.

          There is no life left when skepticism has done it’s work.

    6. Dear Mr. Bagwell,

      You said:
      “Thus the world is ordered to sustain life and in this case the raspberry bush reproduces by means of raspberries.”
      You also said:
      “You might of course object that so long as the branch or raspberry were used to feed or nourish an animal, it would be licit. but this line of reasoning would also license cannibalism (at the very least in certain situations) which is surely moral reprehensible.
      WHAT PLANET DO YOU LIVE IN? Why is eating the raspberry from its bush similar to cannibalism?
      The raspberry is a FREAKIN BERRY. The raspberry does not have a spiritual soul. THIS IS THE DIFFICULTY THAT WE RELIGIOUS PEOPLE MUST CONSTANTLY DEAL WITH: Nonbelievers comparing plants and fruits with human beings with eternal souls. EATING A FREAKIN BERRY IS COMPARE TO CANNIBALISM– GENIUS! This is why we must kill the human babies and save the baby seals. Now I understand the logic of the materialists –the human babies are just too much troubles (feeding, changing diapers, etc.) using up too much resources—too much money for you baby. The baby seals to the materialists are cute and no changing diapers and don’t even have to hear their cries. So let’s just kill the human babies! This is what happen when the world rejects God, the selfishness, the cruelty, the stupid logic of equating the consumption of eating FREAKING BERRY WITH eating the HUMAN FLESH. This is all too much for me, Jesus please come soon, I beg you.

      1. Again the logic of the materialists is this: Trees must be save because they provide oxygen for me. You “baby” don’t provide anything, therefore, you must be kill.

        But the materialists/socialists don’t think ahead do they? They just want to kill babies. Babies will one day grow up and work and put money into the Social Security System and pay taxes so that one day the materialists can enjoy their retirements through the workforce of the young. The materialists are bunch of crazies. Now I will digress just for moment, Obamination of Desolation in the Oval Office is claiming that the Catholic Church should stop taking public funding if the Church won’t pay for contraception, sterilization, abortion, etc.
        Now here is the logic of Obamination– We as a nation must stop the Catholic Church from receiving federal funding for She won’t go along with the EVIL GOVERNMENTAL MANDATE, however, we will continue to collect money from all Catholics for they must pay their taxes into the federal government. Oh we are being played by Obamination so bad, let’s just vote him out of the office this November.

      2. Pardon me. I was not clear. As I mention in my recent comment to Monsignor Pope the motivation behind the raspberry example was not to draw a comparison between human beings and plants. (Though we are not completed unrelated for Aristotle and Thomas.) The purpose was simply to illustrate the logical consequences of denying the natural fallacy. If a person starts with some state of affairs in the world and tries to infer this state of affairs ought to the way the world should be, the result is a logically unjustified move. My example is meant only to draw one’s attention the reason why this fallacy is widely held. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. St. Paul helps to understand too that we are capable of knowing the Natural Law through reason [Romans 7:14 – 8:10, RSV Holy Bible]:

    [14]: We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.
    [15]: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
    [16]: Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.
    [17]: So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
    [18]: For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
    [19]: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
    [20]: Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
    [21]: So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
    [22]: For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,
    [23]: but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.
    [24]: Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
    [25]: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
    [1]: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
    [2]: For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.
    [3]: For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,
    [4]: in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
    [5]: For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
    [6]: To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
    [7]: For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot;
    [8]: and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
    [9]: But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
    [10]: But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.

  4. The question I always have is where secularist atheists come up with their notion of “justice,” a concept that they are often touting. Where does their concept of justice come from if we are just a bunch of brain synapses?

    Excellent article as always Msgr!

    1. yes, exactly, Justice is a metaphysical concept, it does not tip the scales, it has no atomic number, it cannot be viewed under a microscope. I have never seen justice out for a walk or sitting down to a meal. It is not a physical “thing” is a metaphysical concept.

      1. Also, justice is dependent upon truth, which is a bit of an obstacle when paired with relativism (a creed embraced by secularists — truth is unknowable, only relative to one’s personal experiences). To arrive at a just verdict (verum + dicere — to tell the truth), truth must be knowable. Determining justice from injustice cannot be achieved in the absence of that reality. Truth and justice are organically linked. In our enlightened secular society we hear calls for “justice!” well before any truth has surfaced (take the Trayvon Martin affair). Yet secularists believe theirs is a more advanced morality than the natural one.

  5. It is scary but true. If one does nto believe in God and we should be able to agree on some common ground based on Natural Law. But our society/culture is inreasingly rejecting Natural Law as an articifial construct. As MSgr Pope states this seems the sole end to this route is to support amorality as an acceptable lifestyle. The US in particular relies exentisively on Natural Law for the common ground that is the premise for our Constitution.

    Without Natural Law to tie us together with the non-believers how can we go forward as a society. If we are simply a combination of chemical accidents and some random chance the there is ultimately no morality. There is no event in history that can be evil if there is no Truth, no Creator. From previous posts Atheist love to read this blog and snidely talk about those of us who live in the medieval times because we believe in God. Maybe they can explain to me how there can be any true good without Natural Law. Do we just vote? So slavery was good in the US until enough people voted that is was bad? If homosexuality were natural, wouldn’t the evolutionary processes has started adapting the biology of men so that two men could reproduce? Natrual Law does put limits on mankind but we have such strong cognitive dissonence that we have convinved ourselves that black is white. The basic pro-abortion stance comes down to it is only a baby humany being if you want it to be. If you don’t want it to be then it is just a tissue than can be removed. Talk about magic and superstition. That one human being has the power to turn another into an annoying tissue by just deciding. Pretty soon they will be need to make choices about middle aged men that are a little over weight. These guys take up more than there fair share of space so we will just decide they are no longer people just some tissue. Problem solved.

    Time for a Rosary. I have depressed myself. There is one Truth that does exist and he is Christ. Thy will not mine Father.

  6. “According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (I-II.94).”

    It has already been established that, the “eternal law” as defined by a law comprised of those laws that govern the nature of an eternal universe can not be valid because, the universe is not eternal.

    1. Well, from a material perspective that may be the current theory. But there are and have been, even in my life other theories about the universe. I was raised in early grade school with the “steady state” theory. Then the big bang, which suggests a beginning. But there is also the oscillating theory, and other explanations that are possible as well. As a believer, I DO believe the universe had a beginning but as an atheist/materialist you cannot absolutely exclude eternity. All the big bang theory really says, is that at some point the universe expanded out from a singularity. Is this the only singularity? Are there other dimensions we know not, science cannot really say, as Science. As for Thomas’ quote he is clearly rooting natural law in the Christian setting by speaking of the eternal law. But you as a non believer do not need to accept that aspect of the definition.

      1. LOL…Hardly. The universe is neither infinite nor eternal which does nothing to change the validity of natural law.

        1. Are you able to prove this statement. (BTW I agree with you that the universe is is not eternal or infinite). But since you have a tiny little system to live in that must prove everything by the physical sciences, and you have made a positive statement “The universe is neither infinite nor eternal” can you really be sure of your statement? Can you prove it using the physical sciences? Science speaks of the “singularity” which suddenly began to expand outward to become what we have today. But can you say that singularity is not eternal? How? Did you see it’s beginning in your telescope? How do you justify your statement using the physical sciences, especially your statement that the Universe is not eternal?

        2. Your construction is: there can not be an eternal law because the universe is not eternal, therefore no eternity, no eternal law.

          If this isn’t what you meant, that’s fine, but is what your sentence is saying. Take out eternal in my first sentence. Of this post and replace it with infinity or infinite and that is how your first post to which I responded reads: as a case of you having confused definitions.

          Physical science has only established that the universe is not infinite. Claims about eternity are not even researched by any physical science department. St. Thomas is using Boethus’s definition of eternity and is not some set of observations derived from instrumental programs of investigation. His is a comment is derived from divine revelation and is of the nature of an encounter with the eternal.

  7. Msgr. Pope, your posts are always eminently worth reading; but this one is especially close to my heart. Just this morning on my walk I was also lamenting our abandonment of natural law… and wondering why we don’t teach it in our Catholic schools. My children attended Catholic schools K – 12… and I’m recalling classes & books devoted exclusively to “social justice.” What we get when we teach and value “social justice” without a foundation in natural law is…Melinda Gates. In my own community I see many “melindas” writ small, who use the “social justice” pillar to ram church teaching on human sexuality and bioethical/life issues. It is a crying need, to teach natural law as apparently effectively as we’ve inculcated social justice! Where would one begin to approach the diocese about the need to develop a natural law curriculum??

  8. Thank you again, Msgr. Pope, for this rare article on Natural Law. The Holy Father made the point during his United Nations speech that the Natural Law is a key to peace. It most definitely is. Secular minded people and others should take notice that it is a basis for property rights, the right to life, the right to possess the legitimate means of self defense, and the right to organize oneself with others for legitimate purposes. Natural Law, logically, should be the basis for much unity between people of different faiths. Oddly, it does not seem to be catching on.

    I wrote a pamphlet on the Natural Law which was mailed to all state legislators in Massachusetts during the time of legislative debate on the matter of homosexual pseudomarriage. It is a nice, compact introductory presentation on the Natural Law that should have general appeal, and explains why Natural Law should influence public policy making. There was one minor error in the way I used a probability equation, but this is easily corrected. The general argument appears solid. If you are interested, you may check it out here — http://www.americafirstparty.org/massachusetts/Resources/NatLaw/natlaw.html

    Ave Maria

  9. Ironically, the materialists who “reject metaphysical concepts such as justice, etc. as mere emanations of brain synapses ultimately signifying nothing” would have to concede that materialism and nihilism are also nothing other than emanations of brain synapses, actually our idea that there are brain synapses would be another mere emanation signifying nothing. Thus, in the end, they can have nothing meaningful to say even about meaninglessness. They refute themselves, too clever by half, perhaps.

  10. I’m not sure that rejecting Natural Law-based ethics is as disastrous as you seem to think; doing so doesn’t inevitably lead to materialism and moral nihilism. There are other moral theories out there, like utilitarianism (although, truth be told, I think it’s a really bad theory,) and duty ethics (which I like a whole lot better.) Even people who talked a lot about the meaninglessness of life (as they saw it) like Kierkegaard and Camus had pretty rigid, duty-based ethical systems.

  11. Charles Rice, of Notre Dame Law School (pre-Obama!), has written a very helpful primer, “Fifty Questions On the Natural Law” (Ignatius). Great Stuff.

    The 44th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae is next Wednesday. This gem of Natural Law as interpreted by Holy Mother Church should be supported and encouraged and practiced — and taught! — by all of us! It is a true gift of the Church to a suffering culture suffused in pagan self-indulgence.

  12. Dear Msgr. Pope,
    Here it is 1 AM and I just finished reading it all. I am so glad that you are such a great debater.
    That’s why you are a monsignor and I’m on the bottom of the pole.
    You wrote a great lament and defended it all the way.
    Thanks, and keep it up.

  13. Natural Law lost credibility through it’s debatable nature within the Church. Aquinas saw slavery as annexed to the natural law and gave the decretal cites that supported it ( see ST, supplement /marriage/ marriage of a slave)…while John Paul II later called slavery an intrinsic evil in ” Splendor of the Truth” section 80. That also was incorrect because God gives chattel, perpetual slavery to the Jews in Leviticus 25:46. I repeat…natural law is not trusted because experts get it wrong as Alphonsus Ligouri noted in his ” Moral Theology”…. thinking probably of the Dominican versus Franciscan fight on usury settled long before his day by Lateran IV in the Franciscans’ favor.

    1. You seem to mistake natural law as an airtight system. Natual law is a philosophiical stance that appeals to human reason and observation. It is not dogmatic revelation. So pick away if you will but you will find even more radical swings in the physicL sciences. That does mean that the scientific method is thereby discredited.

      1. I do not understand how this discredits the scientific method. Could you elaborate?

        1. That’s exactly what I am saying, it Doesn’t discredit the scientific method that, when new data, new observations roll in, there are adjustments in theories. That makes sense given what the scientific method proposes to be.

  14. As quickly as one will fall from the ceiling in reaction to denial of gravity, one will fall from grace in reaction to denial of the effect of inhumane imposition of one’s will on another. Without regard for gravity we break our heads – without regard for moral law we break our souls. The laws are equally demanding masters of our fate; without rancor and without mercy.
    Praying for us all, as always.

  15. To all materialists/atheists out there:

    Before you knock down Natural Law. Even if you don’t believe in God, do not make the stupid mistake of comparing the consumption of eating a FREAKIN BERRY wtih CANNIBALISM! A freakin berry can not type, can not design, can not sing, can not fly an airplane, it can not love, it can not be a scientist, ETC., ETC (ACTUALLY 1 TRILLION ETC.).
    If you (materialists/atheists) equate human beings with plants, fruits, animals, etc. NORMAL PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT DENSE WILL LAUGH AT YOUR STUPID, CLOWN LOGIC! And believe me YOU WON’T GET ANY CONVERTS! On second thought, perhaps you should continue with YOUR CLOWN LOGIC, so that I can dismantle it and humiliate you!
    Human beings are more valuable than A FREAKIN BERRY–Stop being dense and start giving me a better arguement against Natural Law, which you (materialists/atheists) are incapable of doing. For the rejection of God has darken your minds (A FREAKIN BERRY for crying out loud).

    1. To whom on this message board are you replying? Are you replying to me? No one has compared eating a raspberry to cannibalism and I would agree that such a comparison would be troubling. I was suggesting that the reasoning behind natural law could be used to justify cannibalism contrary to its intent. This is worrisome and I think proponents of natural law should be worried about the possibility of such an consequence.

  16. Dear Mr. Bagwell,

    You said:
    I was suggesting that the reasoning behind natural law could be used to justify cannibalism contrary to its intent. This is worrisome and I think proponents of natural law should be worried about the possibility of such an consequence.


    There is no need for you to worry about the opponents of natural law. For if they were to equate the consumption of berries with the consumption of human beings, then normal people will recognize their stupid logic. Truth be told is this — THE TRUE FALLACY is not recognizing the worth of a human being. And what is the definition of”fallacy”?

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
    In informal logic and rhetoric, a fallacy is usually an error in reasoning often due to a misconception or a presumption.

    As you can see plants, animals, insects do not build civilization, hospitals, universities, etc. THIS IS THE FALLACY – to compare the worth of lower life forms with human beings. Sure there are evil people in this world that destroy things, however, if the atheists/materialists were to make the fallacy of comparing humans with plants, animals, insects, etc. , NORMAL PEOPLE would view their ideology as evil. And since we are talking about evil people, take for example, Stalin. Stalin, a full blown atheist/materialist, killed millions upon millions of his own people. I believe this is why atheists/materialists need to devalue human beings so that they can practice population control. When an atheist/materialist’s house burn down, it won’t be the plants, animals and insects that will put out the fire but the HUMAN firefighters. When the ANTIHUMAN people crash their cars, it won’t be the plants, animals, insects, etc. that will rescue them but rather the HUMANS. Atheists/materialists are the most arrogant people in the world. They are full of themselves for they failed to recognized the dignity of human beings. They are merciless and inhumane and their logic is also STUPID!
    They compare an unborn baby with parasite, yet this very same parasite will one day grow up and work and pay their taxes and put money into the Social Security System which the atheists/materialists will benefit from!

Comments are closed.