September 11, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: The natural law

John F. Fink(Thirty-first in a series)

Pope Benedict XVI speaks 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, the Ten Commandments, still know what is right and wrong because “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15).

Pope Benedict repeated St. Paul’s definition in his 2008 New Year’s address when he explained natural law as “written on the heart of the human being and made known to him by reason.”

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

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.

God’s plan for humans’ morality was revealed in the Old Testament in the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Ten Commandments as “the privileged expression of the natural law” (#2070) because 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. †

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