It’s only Natural

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to It’s only Natural

  1. John de Waal says:

    It is surely the failure to agree the Natural Law regarding sex that is at the heart of much of the trouble in the Church today. If we see the natural purposes of sex as love-giving and life-giving we can see the logic in the Church’s teaching on marriage, contraception and homosexual acts. Without such an insight there can be no agreement. Unfortunately, the teaching Church has failed to explain this and we are living with the consequences.

    • Brian Hamill says:

      Much of the moral law which the Church teaches is commonsense, embodied as it is in the Ten Commandments as Quentin says. But the Church moral teaching regarding the Sixth Commandment is a total mess. It treats this Commandment as something totally special in that any breaking of it, from adultery in the Commandment, through rape and fornication, all the way down to masturbation as gravely sinful. It does this to no other Commandment. Stealing is wrong, but the Church does not say that every act of theft is gravely sinful. There is a commonsense sliding scale according to who is robbed and what is taken and in what circumstances. There is no such sliding scale with regard to sex and its abuse. Why? Because the Church’s moral theology in the area is founded on a philosophy which says that sex is a serious matter, which it certainly is, and so every transgression must, logically, be seriously sinful. Therefore we have the incredible case of a woman denied the possibility, in Catholic moral law, of preventing the possibility of further childbirth even if another birth may be gravely harmful to her. Because the Church uses the Natural Law argument in such a case, the Natural Law is tainted with this clear abuse of its meaning. This, I think, is the root cause of the bad reputation of the Natural Law in the Church.

      • Quentin says:

        Brian, I think there is another consideration to take into account. The Church, Aquinas in particular, applies the verdict intrinsic evil to sexual sins. That is, it looks for perversions of the structures of sexuality as they have been created by God. Take masturbation as the simplest example. The argument is that observation and reason tell us that the sexual faculty is designed by God for the purpose of heterosexual congress. Masturbation is a clear misuse of this sexual faculty, and a defiance of God’s will as expressed in his creation. Similar principles apply to other sexual acts

        That is the objective position. Subjective guilt is another matter. Question 2352 in the Catechism addresses this specifically.

        It was of course this argument from perversion of structure which lay behind the condemnation of artificial contraception. However, the four moral theologians who opposed a change in this ruling in the discussions of the Papal Commission, admitted that they could not prove the truth of the argument but had to rely on the strength and length of the Church’s tradition.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Brian Hamill.
        I am not too sure what point you are making .
        If a woman is in danger of death, surely the answer is for the husband to be responsible and make sure that his wife does ‘not’ become pregnant. And that would be obvious with knowing the knowledge of her fertility.!

      • John de Waal says:

        I agree with much of what you say. In pre-Vatican Two days the teaching on sex was very black and white. Unfortunately, since then there has been a great silence from many bishops and priests who seem afraid or reluctant to discuss the subject.

        Is there room for the Natural Law to be flexible without betraying its basic principles? The following quotation is said to come from Aquinas and is quoted by M.J.Longford in his book :”The Good and the True, an Introduction to Christian Ethics”, p.204 (published 1985). I have not been able to track it down in St Thomas’s writings but it would be interesting to do so.

        It goes: “The first principles are altogether unalterable, but its secondary precepts … although they are unalterable in the majority of cases … can nevertheless be changed on some particular and rare occasions.” Aquinas continues :”…the more you descend into the details the more it appears how the general rule admits of exceptions, so that you have to hedge it about with cautions and qualifications.”

        The important point is that first principles are just that … and we discard them at our peril. Nevertheless, for every objective truth there is a subjective degree of responsibility depending on a person’s freedom to act.

        Sadly, we have got stuck with either the back and white approach of years ago or we have abandoned any notion of objective truth. The consequences of denying objective truth we see all around us in broken relationships, broken marriages and families, extra-marital sex taken for granted, an explosion of STIs, a re-interpretation of what marriage is to include same-sex couples and much unhappiness and social chaos. And, I believe, much of this has come about because of contraception which has made extra-marital relationships seem possible without the normal consequences of babies. And contraception with its inevitable failure rates leads to abortion.

        I do not have the answer as to how priests can approach this from a pastoral point of view – keeping to the objective truth based on Natural Law whilst showing compassion for those whose freedom to act seems limited – but this is the discussion we need to have.

        In the meantime the Pope and bishops need to dust off the Natural Law and explain it to the People of God.

      • milliganp says:

        Response to Quentin
        At a conference about sexual abuse by priests a Psychiastrist, specialising in the subject, stated that masturbation is an essential part of sexual development and it’s repression by the church could be a contributory factor in that abuse. One of the challenges of a simplistic understanding of natural law is that we don’t necssarily allow natural development to adulthood.

      • milliganp says:

        Prior to Vatican II, the teaching of the church was that, at marriage, the man acquired the unbridled right to his wife’s body. As a child I had a friend who’s father was a drunk and a womaniser. He even brought a prostitute back to the marital home. When his wife raised the matter in confession she was told to ‘offer it up’ and reminded she did not have the right to refuse her husband. This included her own exposure to STDs via her husband.

        Is that Natural Law?

      • Quentin says:

        St Paul is interesting on this subject:
        (I Cor, 7.3-6):
        “Let the husband render to his wife what is her due, and likewise the wife to her husband. A wife has no authority over her body, but her husband; likewise the husband has no authority over his body, but his wife. You must not refuse each other, except perhaps by consent, for a time, that you may give yourself to prayer, and return
        together again lest Satan tempt you because you lack self-control. But I say this by way of concession, not command.”

        Couples do of course exchange sexual rights at marriage. Nowadays the view would be that the request must be reasonable — what is reasonable might be a matter of dispute. Count yourself lucky — in the Middle Ages an authority taught that even the leprosy of you partner did not excuse.

  2. Singalong says:

    When another birth was considered inadvisable, my parents refrained from intercourse. Was this the “hard and narrow way” which Christ requires of His followers? Advances in the field of fertility awareness might have helped them. I don`t know if it is always secure enough for a very grave risk to the mother.

  3. St.Joseph says:

    Milliganp’
    That just shows how little you know how it works!!
    Too simple for you I suspect!

  4. Alan says:

    “Take masturbation as the simplest example. The argument is that observation and reason tell us that the sexual faculty is designed by God for the purpose of heterosexual congress.”

    Seems like an odd argument for them to use to me. In principle it is critical of anything that we would do which doesn’t seem to be what we are “designed” for. That includes a whole raft of things that the church doesn’t consider sinful at all. I wonder why they would have thought it applicable only selectively.

    • Vincent says:

      Alan, please give us an example or two, so that we know what you have in mind.

    • Alan says:

      Things that someone might do only or mostly for the enjoyment of it. Our mouths would seem to be there mainly either for eating/drinking or communicating. If instead, just for fun, I choose to blow soap bubbles or smoke rings or inflate party balloons then that isn’t something that is considered an abuse of purpose by comparison. We look to be better designed to travel on land than in water. While there are times when swimming is only practical and might arguably have some health benefits there isn’t any objection to it even when it is done purely for pleasure.

      I think perhaps the basic problem with the original argument is that while we might identify something like sex (or eating or talking) as having a particular purpose it does not follow from that that some other related act is therefore wrong. Take the washer/drier as another example. Imagine I find a use for it that isn’t the one for which it was designed. I might find water based dyes which I can use in it to colour clothes instead of cleaning them. If the washer drier doesn’t suffer any ill effects from this alternate use I put it to have I still abused it, made a mistake, sinned against the designer of the machine?

      • Vincent says:

        Alan, your argument is a strong one. But some points need to be made. Take the mouth issue. Blowing soap bubbles etc, may be a trivial use but they contain no element which runs counter to the nature of mouths. So no problems there.

        On the other hand you might agree that the primary purpose of eating is to nourish the body; the secondary purpose is the pleasure of eating. So, were you to eat so greedily that you damaged your body, that would then be an abuse. You have turned the secondary purpose into the primary purpose, and so damaged that primary purpose thereby.

        Your washer/dryer example fails because, although the designer did not have this in mind, what you have chosen rather carefully to do is to use the machine in a way which is compatible with its nature.

        In the first case we are under obligation to God who created our biological natures; in the second case we have no obligation to the designer because he has given us title through our purchase.

      • Alan says:

        Hi Vincent,

        In the examples you follow up on, how is it that you are identifying what is not “counter to the nature of mouths” or a use of the machine which is “compatible with its nature”? It would seem to me to be that, despite what might be assumed or observed to be a primary purpose (or the specific purpose outlined by the designer in the manual) the only distinction is whether the use to which I put something is damaging … to my health in the case of overeating and to the mechanism of the washer/dryer in the case of colouring clothes.

        Is there a totally harmless, or even beneficial, use of something that could be called an abuse of purpose because it goes against the intent of a creator? If so, how could that be determined? If not, isn’t it merely the consequences of the action that are potentially leading the classification of it being compatible/natural or otherwise?

      • Vincent says:

        Alan, I hope I have not misunderstood the question. You are asking me to distinguish between the wrong involved in defying the Creator’s intention and the bad outcomes of so doing. But the two are connected. We could argue that one would expect that going against the nature we have been given would produce a bad outcome. Alternatively we can observe the bad outcomes and argue back to the Creator’s intention.

        Thus we could say that telling lies is an abuse of the Creator’s intention that we are given speech in order to tell the truth. Or we could say that a society in which people habitually tell lies to each other can be observed to be dysfunctional.

        the fact that an individual lie might ultimately have a good outcome does not affect the broad principle.

    • Peter Foster says:

      One natural law argument says that something was designed by God. Poor Darwin fell foul of the dominant and seemingly reasonable idea that creatures were designed and placed in situ. We now see this was not so and that this is not a problem.

      Alan used the phrase “is designed by God for the purpose of”. What weight can we give to this argument given our knowledge of evolution, and the role of the processes of self-organisation in physics and biology? This role of God’s design could only be saved by regressing to it being an endowment in the basic structure of the universe.

      Perhaps we have to find how to fulfill Christ’s instruction to Love in what is a less mechanistic and legalistic but therefore a more difficult open universe.

  5. Brendan says:

    Apropos the concept of Natural Law , I like Quentin’s terminology in using ” mistake ” rather than ” sin ” – it’s sounds more universally ontological. There is no doubt in my mind that being made for God, summed up in Quentin’s quotation of the Penny Catechism, and that under the ‘ ruling ‘ o f that Law – ” good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided. ”
    To this end, I can defininitely confirm that I am happiest when I – particularly in sexual behaviourial matters ,comply with the commands/restraints laid down by my Maker in this area. To that end I believe I am directed to love and to be loved in this world, and to be ” happy with Him forever in the next. ”
    Our Lord did not infer that it is to be the better course to remain ‘ celibate ‘ in sexual matters for nothing – it being the better way to ‘ fast-track ‘ to God. I’m sure many human beings can testify to that. The joy is that in this state i find myself in ‘ control ‘ of my sexual appetite , not under its tyranny.
    The churches teaching is right in that being ” fully alive ” as our species means simply following Natural Law instinctive to us who are made in His image and likeness. I hope I make my points clear – I’m no philosopher but speak wherelse but from the heart. I await the learned among’st us to pick holes or not in this piece. Sorry Quentin, I’m off to work – I’ll try and get back later.

  6. Quentin says:

    See John de Waal Feb 21 4:30pm.

    It is certainly true that many natural law applications (e,g, telling lies, stealing) are flexible in their operation according to circumstance. But there is a category where the Church holds that the law is written clearly in the created structures involved. Thus Pope Paul, in HV, was able to say that there was no excuse whatsoever for using artificial contraception. It was just this absoluteness which was opposed by the Papal Commission.

    One odd (some would say, scandalous) outcome arose from the use of condoms by a married couple, one of whom had HIV AIDs. While the Vatican took this under consideration (because it was questioned by a number of senior prelates) the Vatican declined any ruling. Any answer out of: no, yes, or maybe would have been embarrassing. A failure of duty here, I think.

    • milliganp says:

      For a significant part of human history different behaviour was expected from men and women. Thus it was almost expected that a young man would ‘sew his wild oats’ whereas a woman was expected to be a virgin at the altar.
      Is there a natural law basis for the oppression of women up to the 1960’s.

      • Quentin says:

        “Is there a natural law basis for the oppression of women up to the 1960′s?” A loaded question I think! There can never be a natural law basis for the oppression of anyone.
        Since a woman has a childbearing role there will certainly be some natural law consequences — but I would have thought that this would lead to a greater reverence for women. However the overall picture may be complicated because it is hard to separate values which were based on the cultural customs of the time — and this would of course have been reflected in Scripture. How would we, for example, apply in the modern world the concept of woman being the support and help for the man? This is a very interesting subject.

    • John de Waal says:

      I am not suggesting that the Church approves contraception but merely accepts that there are degrees of guilt – as with any sinful action – almost to the point of zero guilt. I am thinking of a Catholic woman married to a non-Catholic husband who refuses to cooperate with her on this matter. If she accepted her husband using a condom is this the lesser of two evils in order to secure the marriage relationship?

      • Quentin says:

        The guilt attending an objectively evil act can be mitigated by lack of full intention or lack of full understanding of the evil of the act. It may not be subjectively evil at all if the actor is directed by a sincerely formed conscience. Nevertheless the damage caused by the act may remain. For example an abortion still results in an unjustly killed baby whether the aborter is in good faith or not.

        In the condom case you mention, while the wife must not encourage her husband to do this, it is generally thought lawful for her to accept sexual intercourse in such a case.

        Contrast this with the case of the nuns in the Belgian Congo who were in danger of rape from terrorists. It was ruled that nuns could use the self defence of a female contraceptive because the act of rape lacked the essential nature of sexual congress.

        There is no formal teaching that artificial contraception is forbidden outside marriage. There are moral theologians who will argue that using contraception in fornication increases the guilt; others argue that not doing so (increasing risk of conception or transmission of disease) increases the guilt. Take your pick.

        One tip I have found useful in such quandaries is to imagine that the person at risk is one of my children or grandchildren. It make it much easier for me to discern which is the loving solution.

  7. milliganp says:

    When looking at natural law relating to human sexuality one has to notice that human beings are naturally inclined to sexual intercourse both within and outside the fertile period. This points to the affective benefits of sex, the building of closeness in a relationship. Modern science tell us that this is down to the release of the hormone oxytocin in orgasm, the same hormone that plays a key role in mother-child bonding. In both cases, childbirth and sexual orgasm, the bond having been built over time needs less reinforcement. Hence the old ‘honeymoon period’ at the start of marriage.
    The Fathers, at Vatican II chose deliberately not to place procreation and mutual support in any sort of hierarchical relationship, allowing them to be equal. The Catholic Herald’s most irritating letter writer (yes again this week) uses this to justify contraception as almost essential to marriage – I presume her poor husband is permanently worn out.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Quentin.
      Casti Canubi (59) makes some sort of suggestion on what you say regarding the greater of two evils,(for use of better words) I see the point you make also with unmarried young people-I would feel the same Also regarding the Nuns. But when it concerns marriage even though one is a non-catholic it would seem to be breaking the natural law as far a the Sacrament of marriage is concerned.Jesus came to raise us up from the natural law to a spiritual sense of loving . Although I reealise we don’t live in a perfect world.!
      Casti Canubi was written in 1930-when no alternative was known not like the advanced scientific knowledge of fertility.
      There would also be another danger if the condom broke and the husband insisted on his wife having an abortion .. It is a matter of the consequences as well.
      I would have every sympathy in a situation where violence is concerned.But we do strive to be perfect like our Heavenly Father is perfect but we can not always achieve it,

  8. milliganp says:

    Sorry, she was in the Catholic Times this week, she seems to alternate papers to give the editors a break.

  9. johnbunting says:

    Milliganp, do you have a web address for the Catholic Times? It seems conspicuous by its absence, in the UK. A search brings up almost every paper except the CT, whereas in the States they seem to have one for nearly every diocese!
    About the concept of woman being help and support for the man, Quentin; the principles of equality and reciprocity first come to mind: spouses should help and support each other. However, if one partner is unwilling or unable to do so, the other should, and often will, continue to give what help and support they can. This would follow the teaching of Jesus, which In this case, as in others, seems to be an advance on what was taught in Old Testament times.

    • milliganp says:

      They used to have some content at wwww.totalcatholic.com but that website now links to the Catholic Universe – the parent company.

  10. Peter Foster says:

    There is no such thing as the Natural Law.
    What are referred to as the Natural Law are the conclusions of historic arguments in the particular context of their time. The use of the word “Law” endows them with a spurious authority which insulates them from development.

    Development ought to come when the contexts change which may lead to different conclusions.
    An example of a context is the belief in Christian circles in Charles Darwin’s time that the components of the diversity of the natural world had been individually created in situ with relation to each other. This greatly troubled Darwin because it was the considered belief of his church yet it was contradicted by the fossil record.

    In discussing subjects currently decided by Natural Law arguments, the concept of Natural Law should be evicted. The only arguments to be admitted are those which are accessible to the faithful and to mankind in general.

    The successful development of mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering in the previous four hundred years now underpins an amazing development of the biological sciences and engineering even to the manipulation of life itself. Thomist methods, however logically satisfying, together with their contextual ideas, are not remotely adequate to help the faithful to apply Christ’s message to the challenges in their practical lives.

    • Quentin says:

      This is a splendidly robust challenge to the concept of Natural Law. Who will step up to the plate? Unless you agree, of course.

    • milliganp says:

      If one looks up natural law on Wikipedia it is presented as the foundation of civil law and human rights – so it is not a Catholic construct to justify a particular position. Catholic moral law has been further formed by Old Testament and New Testament developments (I.e. Direct divine inspiration) originating from natural law. Christ teaches us to pray ” Thy will be done on earth” so part of the Christian vocation is to understand the mind of God. Christ modified Mosaic law, he forbad divorce and refused the stoning of the woman taken in adultery.
      Advances in science may help us to understand human sexuality and the processes which create life but they don’t change the fundamental purpose of marriage and family life.
      If the Thomists are wrong it is their failure to admit development in knowledge. I’m sure if Aquinas were alive today he could apply his methods to the problems of our age – and probably with different outcomes – the one thing Aquinas was not afraid of was truth.
      As an example we now know that homosexual orientation is not a perversion, and this forces us to question our attitudes to homosexual behaviour, but it can’t lead us to see homosexual unions as marriage.
      Sorry if this is a bit of a ramble, I’m not equipped to take up Quentin’s challenge but I felt a comment might help.

      • St.Joseph says:

        millignap.You say
        ‘As an example we now know that homosexual orientation is not a perversion and this forces us to question our attitudes to homosexual behaviour,but it cant lead us to see homosexual unions as marriage’
        Yes true, however it is because of their ‘homosexual behaviour’ that we’ can not’! We know what the Church teaches.And homosexuals at least Catholic homosexuals ought to respect that.That is the main problem as I see it!
        Then we could all live happily ever after! .

      • Singalong says:

        I have not been able to find any reference to the Natural Law in the CCC, which is surprising, to me, as it is such an important part of Thomas Aquinas` writings. There is a brief mention of the laws of nature, answer 341, the Beauty of the Universe, on page 88, which could probably be developped as a connection.

      • milliganp says:

        St Joseph. I’m not trying to use the thin end of a wedge to approve of homosexual sexual practices. We used to have a virtue called chastity. This meant my elderly maiden aunts and uncle lived lives devoid of sexual intercourse but it did not make their lives any less valuable – they played a vital role in the extended family. The problem with promoting chastity today is that the general response would be “why bother”? I’m not an expert on natural law but I presume the other side of its coin is the persuit of virtue – to live the best possible life. Perhaps if we promoted virtue as a positive rather than the avoidance of sin we might be able to engage the world. The modern world understand the persuit of excellence – it just gets the target wrong (wealth, power, gratification).
        We always seem to come back to what G K Chesterton called “the indisputable dirt” which not only referred to sin, but the tendency to downplay the need for its contradiction. Chesterton lived in the era of Modernism, its fruit is the world in which we now live.

    • Quentin says:

      Peter Foster, I think you are not giving Natural Law credit for its flexibility in its application to human circumstances. Insofar as its broad principles go, it remains constant since human nature remains constant. But as we review its application we do have to take into account our developing knowledge of human nature and the practical issues which arise. I would certainly agree that the Church is conservative in such matters. And perhaps she needs to be, because she must resist being swayed by every passing fashion. Here are some examples:

      The changed status of abortion following the 19th century discoveries of early embryo development.

      The recognition that lending money at interest is often justifiable — derived from understanding modern economics.

      The recognition that natural family planning is a virtuous activity, and not counter to God’s intentions.

      The outright condemnation of slavery., instead of merely trying to improve the lot of slaves.

      The whole development of Catholic social teaching since the 19th century.

      • Peter Foster says:

        Dear Quentin: To those who raise objections natural law appears to be set in stone. (Apologies to Moses)

        A puzzling aspect of the natural law argument applied to sexual matters is how the proponents can be so confident that they have identified God’s design and purpose in such a precise and absolute terms in its application to one aspect of the complexity of human relationships and their contexts.
        Natural law arguments were born in a vastly different mental world of a static (or better a stationary) world, envisaged as a designed mechanism.

        In a wider perspective, as far as we know, the development of the Earth can be traced from inorganic, to organic, to biologically living matter, to animal life and more recently to human life. The current development is driven by the human mind. When concepts and theories created in the human mind are applied, they result in objects such as aeroplanes and power stations which are outside and different from the “natural!” biophysical evolution. The processes undertaken through the human mind now probe into the structure, operation and control of living matter. At some point in the future it may possibly be that it will be man who designs man. (We may of course argue that this is by a design in the initial structure of the world).

        Returning to the Gospels we find Jesus’ message is one of Love by God and the requirement of love between us.

        “I have a new commandment to give you, that you love one another; that your love for one another is to be like the love I have born you. The mark by which all men will know you for my disciples will be the love you bear one another.” (John ch.13: v.34-35)

        Perhaps a replacement for natural law arguments (as I see them: based on a privileged insight into a static world view) might lie in considering interpersonal relationships in their contexts and in relation to ideas of justice.

      • Quentin says:

        While the Church accepts the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of evolution it has not yet, as far as I know, explored its consequences for Natural Law. One important issue (which I have mentioned in these pages) is that the natural fertility rate of women has evolved throughout primitive times to the level needed to replace the population. Historically this has been five to eight live births. Today in developed countries (and increasingly elsewhere) the fertility rate required for population replacement should be about a third of that. In other words, changing circumstances have produced a serious mismatch, with serious consequences.

        I would argue that natural law requires us to correct this mismatch, and this is most obviously done through reducing fertility temporarily, or in suitable cases, permanently.

        Would you (and others) accept this argument?

  11. Iona says:

    Don’t know about stepping up to a plate, but I would like to ask Peter Foster:

    The only arguments to be admitted are those which are accessible to the faithful and to mankind in general.

    On what principles do those arguments stand, if not on principles which can be construed as Natural Law?

    • Peter Foster says:

      In practice a defective theory which has some utility will only be abandoned in the face of a better one which of course we don’t yet have. Even then many of the thoughts elaborated in the old theory might be seen and used in a new light.

      Most non-Catholic observers…..have great difficulty in understanding the Catholic position (on birth control) precisely because it is based on the natural law; if that position were based on the teaching of the Church only, then submission to it would be understandable as an act of religion. (Archbishop Thomas D. Roberts 1964.)

      Can we find any precursor idea of the natural law in the Gospels? There are sinners in the simple sense of the Commandments, so there are things which are wrong, together with the absence of Love in interpersonal relationships. Perhaps our approach should be more fluid and less legalistic. A viewpoint from a different culture is that of Stephen Fumio Hamao, 1930-2007; made a Japanese cardinal in 2003 (Obituary in Times 13 November 2007.) He criticised the “excessively westernised” bias and “over-intellectualised” theology of the Church.

  12. John de Waal says:

    My understanding of Natural Law is that it is not the same as the “laws of nature” but that we look to the end or purpose of any act. If we respect the purpose we act morally, if we abuse the purpose we act immorally. A point of debate, however, is : what is natural? I would argue it cannot be whatever happens – that could justify cannibalism or paedophilia or the like. Rather, we should look to the original or unemcumbered purpose of an act – ie. without the complications of life as we know it, but, of course, taking those circumstances into account when it comes to individual responsibility.

    If we follow Peter Foster’s line of argument we follow scientism and abandon personal moral responsibility.

  13. RAHNER says:

    “I have not been able to find any reference to the Natural Law in the CCC,”

    For what its worth, see CCC paras. 1954ff.
    A reformulation of natural law moral philosophy , taking account of modern philosophy and other relevant disciplines might be of use in explaining how moral agreement is possible but it is unlikely to be of much use in resolving contemporary moral disagreements…..

    • Quentin says:

      Rahner, your reference to the Catechism is useful.

      I think you will find that when people discuss or argue moral questions, they continually use Natural Law simply because it is how we distinguish right from wrong. Unless we shared our grasp of it, we could not debate moral questions at all.

  14. St.Joseph says:

    Singalong.
    If you can get hold of ‘The Moral Dignity of Man’ by Father Peter Bristow He has a chapter in his book on The Natural Law and Human Rights..
    You can read it on the web I think.

  15. milliganp says:

    Returning to the original theme. The big problem of our age is moral relativism – which tends to deny any absolutes. There is no commandment which has been left untouched. I was tempted to say we still broadly care for life but that only applies to those who have made it through to birth. In this relativism the morality of the Christian becomes a personal choice rather than a guided reflection on human nature. We cannot seek perfection (like our heavenly Father) if we do not know what perfection is. How do we make natural law not seem like an ancient irrelevance, or perhaps worse, an optional extra?

    • St.Joseph says:

      millignap.
      First of all I will say ‘I am only discussing this with you not making any statements or misunderstanding what you say’
      I think you have made a very good point-do you think that when Jesus became man He did so to teach us the Truth and show us the way to salvation, as man was seemingly unable to get to Heaven on his own,so He needed to explain the Law to us.
      Are we in the same position now as before the birth of Jesus which was spoken by the prophets in the OT.Only maybe worse through modernism I mean that also with all the new technology and advancement in living styles.
      Even Christians are getting it wrong, do we need another Saviour,we are not going to get one,we have the Church but that is not convincing everyone. Do we forget about Satan in all this. Will the Church have to become smaller to become perfect?
      I am not very good with words so I can only say what I mean in a simple way.

    • Singalong says:

      I wonder if moral relativism is connected to more consideration of the subjective position of individuals in relation to the law? Joe Bloggs may steal and fight with his gang,and worse, but he has been brought up in such a dysfunctional family and society, that he knows no other way to survive. He has had no experience of absolute values, and any innate knowledge of right and wrong has been overlaid by most of his experiences. A situation is set up which there seems little chance of resolving.

      • johnbunting says:

        “… no experience of absolute values, and any innate knowledge of right and wrong….”
        For any administration of justice, some actions have to be regarded as right, and others as wrong: you can’t have everyone pleasing themselves. The warning against moral relativism, I think, goes right back to the story of the Fall, in our tradition. Forbidding eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil it says, in effect, ‘You must not decide for yourselves what is good and what is evil”.

  16. Peter Foster says:

    I don’t fully understand how to use this site. I posted a reply to Iona which didn’t appear. So here is another try.

    In practice a defective theory which has some utility will only be abandoned in the face off a better one which of course we don’t yet have. Even then many of the thoughts elaborated in the old theory might be seen and used in a new light.

    Most non-Catholic observers…..have great difficulty in understanding the Catholic position (on birth control) precisely because it is based on the natural law; if that position were based on the teaching of the Church only, then submission to it would be understandable as an act of religion. (Archbishop Thomas D. Roberts 1964.)

    Can we find any precursor idea of the natural law in the Gospels? There are sinners in the simple sense of the Commandments, so there are things which are wrong, together with the absence of Love in interpersonal relationships. Perhaps our approach should be more fluid and less legalistic. A viewpoint from a different culture is that of Stephen Fumio Hamao, 1930-2007; made a Japanese cardinal in 2003 (Obituary in Times 13 November 2007.) He criticised the “excessively westernised” bias and “over-intellectualised” theology of the Church.

    • Quentin says:

      Yes, it did appear — attached to Iona’s contribution. You must have (correctly) clicked on ‘reply’. (As I have done to link this to your contribution.)

      Roberts was of course known for his remark when HV was published: “It was dead before it hit the ground.” I have a family connection — he consecrated my brother as Pope Paphnutius the First.

      I don’t think that Natural Law is referred to as such in Scripture. (Unless you allow Paul’s remark about the law being even in the hearts of the pagans, thus a feature of human nature.) The philosophical background seems to have been the strong influence of Stoicism in the early centuries, which assumes a rational universe.

      • milliganp says:

        The great contribution of Judaism to the world was the realisation that God was rational. All the pagan gods were thought of as capricious, success and failure in life depended on whether you were in your personal deity’s favour. The people of Israel came to understand that, despite the vagaries of their own history, God was un-changing and the pursuit of personal and collective holiness was a meaningful cause. We should not underestimate the foundational nature of this belief in the development of western society. Despite the crusades, feudalism and the inquisition, the belief in the dignity of the human, made in the image of God has made it possible to turn the natural law into civil law. You only have to look at the 20th century to see what godlessness leads to.

  17. Singalong says:

    For any administration of justice, some actions have to be regarded as right, and others as wrong: you can’t have everyone pleasing themselves.

    Yes, certainly, hard cases make bad law, and that is the point. I do think we have some very bad laws, opposed to the Natural Law, and the laws of the Church, enacted since the mid 20th century, the Divorce Law Reform Act, the Abortion Law, and others, overtly based on too much understanding and concern for the undoubted hardship faced by some people, certainly widely supported on that basis.

  18. St.Joseph says:

    I watched a programme on EWTN this afternoon called ‘Wales The Golden Thread of Faith’.
    It was both sad and and beautiful in the sense of making me very proud to be a Catholic, and seeing in reality how the martyrs died for our Glorious Faith. We hear about it on their Feast Days,but I was thinking of how many of our young people realise that we have it today because of their sacrifice.
    Listening and seeing it puts thing into perspective and pointed out to me that they and many more gave up their lives for the survival of the faith,and to look around now at the churches that have closed-so many catholic children not baptised, so many lapsed.,how our Blessed Mother will be weeping.
    Without bringing up the past perhaps it might awaken in the minds of our young people if films like that were shown in schools.
    I see it as a continued sharing in the Sacrifice that Jesus offered up for us all,and a reminder what Lent and Easter is all about.
    Our Churches are, closing no need for another Reformation.We have one- only no one is martyred,.

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