Before Christmas we were discussing “Some of my best friends.” It took us into the subject of homosexuality and, inevitably, into Natural Law. I thought it might be useful to write a little primer on this, so that we can extend our discussion – including disagreeing with my primer if you wish.
Natural Law assumes that if we want an entity to flourish and fulfil its purpose it must be used according to its nature. My washing machine has its own natural law, and I find this described in its instruction booklet. If I follow this the machine flourishes, if I don’t it shudders to a halt. We, too, have a law derived from our nature. The difference is that I own the washing machine but my personal nature comes from God. It is not my own.
Discerning how our Natural Law applies is not always easy – particularly when we get down to detail. We need observation and reason. For example, we see that man is a social creature. So we conclude that telling lies, keeping promises and observing fairness are all required by our Natural Law. Here our own instruction book, the Ten Commandments, is helpful: “Thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not kill, honour thy father and thy mother etc.” But we note that all of these have to be applied intelligently. For instance killing may be justified by self defence, a starving man is entitled to steal the food he needs, there are circumstances when we may need to deceive, and so on. But these are exceptions, the declared law still stands: it does not fall down because exceptions exist.
A second approach to natural law is discovered through structure. Not surprisingly this often relates to sexuality. Thus we are taught that the structure of sexual intercourse is such that deliberately removing from that act its inherent potential to conceive is to go against human nature as God has created it. When Aquinas attempts to evaluate sexual sins he is hardest on those which offend structure, say, coitus interruptus, than those which don’t – such as rape or incest.
But it is not only sexual. It applies to telling lies which defies the structure of speech. Or mutilation which concerns removing organs from the body other than for the sake of saving the body. It was once argued that castrating males, who could then become falsetto member of the Vatican Choir, was justified by their better life prospects in their new rôle.
A problem arising from the structural approach arises from its absoluteness. This makes it appear more serious than other sins as Aquinas argued (above). If God created the structure then it is his absolute will that the structure should be respected. Thus a woman who has her fallopian tubes ligated for any reason other than a direct medical need, remains condemned irrespective of her reasons.
These difficulties have given rise to new thinking. A combination of Vatican II’s emphasis on conscience, and the acceptance that using artificial contraception does not outlaw a Catholic, have started the ball rolling. Kidney transplants, which were once seen as grave mutilation of the donor, are now acknowledged as heroic.
Perhaps we are moving in the direction I have described in the matter of the commandments: intelligent exceptions may exist without denying the law. Structure no longer has an absolute imperative. It was not created directly by God, as the ancients quite reasonably believed, but indirectly through evolution. And evolution itself, being God’s way of enabling species to develop, will give us important but not necessarily binding clues to the needs of our nature.
Opponents of this new view will cry “Protestantism – where will it end?”. Supporters will claim that the Natural Law itself justifies the use of our reason applied to our judgment of right and wrong – a faculty undoubtedly given to human nature by God.