It is over two years since I wrote in general terms about the concept of the natural law (July 4 2008) but some recent correspondence in this paper suggests that there are certain aspects which could profitably be revisited. I have in mind, simply as examples, letters from Simon Reilly and Hugh Dwan (July 30).
Mr Reilly tells us that, being written in the heart of man, natural law is not subject to change and is self-evident. This, as a broad statement, is unexceptionable but, without refinement, it can lead to misunderstanding – and so wrong inferences. While it is certainly true of the major principles such as that the good should be done and evil avoided, that injustice is wrong, that moral principles are universally applicable – and so on, it is not so when judging the application of the more detailed tenets.
Since such tenets are derived from the circumstances of human nature, change is always possible. For example, the human reproductive system evolved to favour frequent pregnancies to cope with high early mortality. Such fertility would now be unsustainable, so natural family planning, which would formerly have been condemned, has become virtuous. Similarly, our relatively recent ability to donate a kidney to someone in need is seen as an act of love and not prohibited “mutilation”, as our earlier understanding would have judged it.
A second factor can be new knowledge. And, in the 19th century – when the microscope corrected our Aristotelean understanding of conception – the moral status of early abortion was changed correspondingly. Nowadays we realise at an increasing depth the interfusion between the psychological and biological elements in the human being. In the light of this knowledge we can see the potential inadequacy of absolute moral dicta based on biological phenomena. We might note, as a minor example of this approach, that one may, in justified cases, deceive but that telling an actual lie is held, “by its very nature”, to be always wrong because it violates the purpose of speech.
This is not to suggest that the inferences which may be drawn from the biological nature of human acts are irrelevant to natural law decisions, but rather that they should be part of the evidence to be weighed rather than the final arbiter.
That such tenets are not always self-evident can be illustrated by many examples. So I just choose some well-known ones.
It was not evident to the Church that everyone had a natural law right to freedom of religious conscience and practice. So Vatican II and the teaching of John XXIII corrected a misapprehension of centuries. And corrected it so effectively that Pope John Paul was able to say, with a straight face, that the Holy See “has always been vigorous in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty”. I imagine that the odd heretic raised a singed eyebrow at that.
Slavery, which Pope John Paul condemned as intrinsically evil, was condoned throughout most of the Church’s history. And, if I remind you of the long history of the castration of youths for the sake of the glory of God and the Sistine choir, it is only to exemplify how some natural law applications have been far from self-evident.
We are very aware of the outstanding contemporary example of widespread episcopal collusion favouring the interests of the abuser over the rights of the abused. In rightly condemning corrupt individual priests and nuns we may forget that the real scandal lies in the institutionalised blindness to the duty owed to the victims.
Which brings me to Mr Dwan’s reminder that Pope Paul claimed that “no member of the faithful could deny the Church’s competence in her Magisterium to interpret the natural moral law”. Leaving aside what Karl Rahner described as the “many doctrines which were once universally held but have proved to be problematic or erroneous”, we are still left with analysing what is meant by interpreting the natural moral law.
For the Magisterium to elucidate and witness to the natural law and its applications in particular circumstances is of course an invaluable service. But it differs in kind from its authoritative teaching based on revelation and tradition. Since natural law is patent to reason, such interpretations must equally be patent to reason and, like any legal body interpreting a law, the reasons for any conclusions should be given. Of course an inconclusive natural law argument may well be paralleled or supplemented by Revelation or by some other factor to which the Church has privileged access – but this is not, by definition, a discernment of natural law through reason.
A straightforward example is provided by monogamous marriage. While natural law strongly supports the concept, it is accepted that reason could allow polygamy in certain unusual circumstances. Moses was not condemned for permitting it among the Jews, yet Jesus makes it clear that it was not God’s intention for the human race – clarifying the divine will through revelation.
The principles here, if not my examples, are of course related to Aquinas, whose teachings on the natural law have been seminal both in Christian and secular thinking. I would encourage anyone who wishes to look into the question more deeply to start with him and then proceed to the Catechism, in which natural law has several references. It is particularly valuable on the relationship of natural law to the divine law and also on the ease with which sin and habit can cloud our grasp of what the natural law demands. Perhaps the missing element here is that it does not clarify that sin and habit can cloud the vision of institutions as well as individuals.
Lots of opportunity to argue about this one…