The Natural Law, which underpins the assessment of moral behaviour in the Catholic tradition, is often seen as a complex concept, rooted in the distant past – and only of academic interest nowadays. It certainly has a long history which goes back, in philosophical terms, to Aristotle and, in literary terms, to the Antigone of Sophocles. But in essence it is not complex and it is universally relevant today. Nevertheless, to understand its roots we do need to put our thinking caps on.
Let me start with your tumble dryer. You might not think that it is subject to a natural law, but it is. You are about to paint the wall of your room, and you have two shades of paint you wish to mix thoroughly. But a bright idea promises labour saving: mix them in your tumble dryer. It appears to work, at least initially. But soon it shakes, smokes – and comes to a halt. When you visit your shop and claim a replacement the assistant tells you that it was not designed to mix paint. A philosopher might say: “You have mistaken the nature of your tumble dryer, and so you have damaged it.”
Let’s move one stage up the scale. You have acquired a golden retriever. When you consider how it will flourish, you recognise – among other characteristics — that it is full of energy. You respond to this by taking it on long walks. Had you made the mistake of treating it as a lapdog and feeding it with marshmallows on a sofa, it would have miserably declined. So the inanimate tumble drier and the animate retriever are both subject to the laws of their respective natures. And human beings?
We might start our consideration of human nature with Aristotle’s statement that we are social animals; it is an element of our nature. But imagine a society in which there is freedom to tell lies, to break promises and to have no care for others. Such mistakes about our nature ensure that we cannot flourish. Or imagine a human society in which there is a sexual freedom for all: children and parents damaged by the break-up of marriage or partnership, adults coping with a succession of temporary relationships without conjugal love and commitment. Are we flourishing?
The social Commandments provide a rough and ready list of the conditions we must observe in order to flourish. They are general enough to provide the headings under which the Catechism can describe the whole span of the moral law.
You may notice that I have used the word ‘mistake’ rather than the word ‘sin’. I did so because ‘sin’ is a label, diluted by familiar use. The New Testament (and, I understand, the Old Testament) word, is hamartia; it means ‘missing the mark’. But what is the mark we are missing?
That question reminds us that I have artificially restricted nature to our immediate human experience. But the Penny Catechism tells me that “God made me to know him, to love him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.” The directly created, spiritual and immortal aspects of ourselves, which we might think of as supernatural, are in fact, by God’s gift, natural to us. The first two Commandments, which point directly to God, are a requirement of our created nature. The mark we are missing is the whole purpose for which God designed our nature in the first place. And that purpose is love, consummated through salvation.
The tumble dryer, the golden retriever and the human being are all subject to their natural law, although the different natures make different demands. This universality of such laws reminds us that each different nature has its own way of flourishing. In our case, our nature, body and soul, is oriented to salvation. It is only the affirmation: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” which tells us that we have finally hit the mark. We have fulfilled the first principle of the Natural Law: “that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.”
A consideration of the basis of Natural Law, as it applies to human beings, does not in itself solve all the problems of its application. Aquinas was clear that, while everyone who has the use of reason is able to grasp the overarching principles, there is more disagreement as one gets down to the details. And I think that we should expect that because our grasp of human nature, and therefore its demands, is continually developing. Anyone who thinks that the details of the moral law, as set out in the Catechism today, will remain unchanged forever, needs to temper his optimism with a little history.
But I take heart from a philosophy group which I lead once a fortnight. Only two members are actively religious, the rest represent the usual mixture. But we return again and again to discussion of moral questions. This shows how important these are to thinking people. It pleases me that, despite our differences, we are able to discuss quite deeply the issues that arise. We can only do this because we share the same broad values. After all we share our human nature and therefore – without adverting to it explicitly – we share much of our recognition of the Natural Law.
There are aspects of the Natural Law which are problematic even in Catholic circles, as recent analyses of the responses to the Synod questionnaire show. But these are for another occasion.