May 2, 2008


The natural law

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken frequently lately about the natural law.

He spoke at length about it in an address last October to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, again in his World Day of Peace message on Jan. 1, returned to the subject on Jan. 7 in his annual address to the diplomats accredited to the Holy See, and mentioned it in his talk at the United Nations in New York on April 18.

What is the natural law? Perhaps St. Paul expressed it most simply when he wrote to the Romans that even those who have not heard of the law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, still know what is right and wrong because “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15).

In his address at the United Nations, Pope Benedict said something similar when he said that human rights “are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”

It’s the standard by which human beings know, by the use of their reason, what actions are right and what actions are wrong. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie” (#1954).

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults adds, “Through our human reason, we can come to understand the true purpose of the created order. The natural law is thus our rational appreciation of the divine plan. It expresses our human dignity and is the foundation of our basic human rights and duties. This law within us leads us to choose the good that it reveals” (p. 327).

Back in the 1940s, when the Anglican apologist, professor and novelist C. S. Lewis was putting together broadcasts that eventually became his masterpiece Mere Christianity, he began with a discussion of right and wrong. His first broadcast, and later first chapter in the book, was titled “The Law of Human Nature.” He said, “This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that everyone knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.”

He pointed out that, although civilizations sometimes had different moralities, “these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.”

It’s true that some of those civilizations practiced human sacrifice to their gods, which seems contrary to natural law (as do suicide bombings today), but generally all societies have condemned murder, adultery, robbery and injustices of all types.

All this might seem obvious to us, but, unfortunately, there always seem to be people who deny that humans share a common morality—which, of course, is why Lewis began his teachings about Christianity by talking about the natural law. Today, some prominent leaders assert that morality is completely subjective and it’s up to each individual to come up with his or her own sense of morality. That’s the false philosophy of moral relativism that Pope Benedict has been combating even before he was elected pope.

He told the theologians in that address last October, “Today’s civil and secular society is in a situation of confusion. The original evidence for the foundations of human beings and of their ethical behavior has been lost, and the doctrine of natural moral law clashes with other concepts that run directly contrary to it. All this has enormous consequences in civil and social order.”

To be clear, we cannot rely solely on the natural law when it comes to doctrines of our faith. We cannot reason our way to the truths of our faith that have been revealed by God—the Trinity, Incarnation and Redemption, for example, or belief in Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.

The natural law applies to morality rather than to revealed doctrine. Furthermore, Catholics believe that Revelation through Jesus both transcends and fulfills the natural law.

Nevertheless, Pope Benedict has repeatedly proposed natural law in and of itself as a common ground where peoples of various faiths or no faith at all can come together to order society and its laws in such a way as to best serve the common good.

—John F. Fink

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