April 12, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Natural law and the Ten Commandments

John F. FinkPope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke frequently about the natural law.

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

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).

When C.S. Lewis was putting together broadcasts that eventually became 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 said 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.”

Yes, 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.

However, we cannot rely solely on the natural law when it comes to doctrines of our faith. We cannot reason our way to 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 primarily to morality and not at all to revealed doctrine.

God’s plan for humans’ morality was revealed in the Old Testament by the Ten Commandments that he gave to Moses. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Ten Commandments as “the privileged expression of the natural law” (#2070) because we believe that the prohibitions in the Commandments, as well as such positive Commandments as “Honor your father and your mother,” are also part of the natural law.

The Ten Commandments, though, are more than part of the natural law. They are also laws that God revealed to us.

We Catholics believe that Jesus fulfills the natural law, and God’s plan as revealed in the Old Testament. †

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