Washing machines and the Natural Law

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.

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About Quentin

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

23 Responses to Washing machines and the Natural Law

  1. Brian Hamill says:

    I would suggest that what is traditionally defined as Natural Law may best be used as guidance rather than as the basis for hard rules. What the Church has spoken in the past about divorce and its consequences has largely come to pass. If it had been presented in the right light as wise guidance rather than a flat rejection, perhaps people might have listened more carefully and so avoided some to the more dire social consequences. As my father used to say, ‘Rules are made for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men (and women)’. We all need guidance but, as any counsellor will say, to tell someone what they should do in a difficult circumstance is the recipe for disaster.

  2. ignatius says:

    Hooray!! I agree. High time our insufferable legalising is converted into proverbial wisdom.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Ignatius you are right, however it does not always convert into wisdom. as far as marriage is concerned
      There are reasons where Pope Francis say’s in certain circumstances with regards divorce and re-married receiving the Blessed Sacrament.
      Years ago marriage was mostly the man being the head of the house, and in lots of cases he could have been a strict ‘head of the family’ treating his wife as a slave, and a very strict father to his children, calling her woman etc; In those days Holy Communion was not frequented as much as it is in today’s Church.
      Sexual relationships would be when the husband found it necessary and it was her duty to oblige. I do not mean this to be the norm however it did happen.
      Marriage was for keeps under any circumstances.
      As time passed and wives began to be more independent and defended themselves from violence and a relationship not in a marriage that is made in Heaven.
      Nowadays mothers will defend their children and if one is a mixed marriage, a husband or wife will grow stronger in her or his faith and become more involved in her faith and obedience to church teaching with contraception practicing faith and loving Holy Mother Church, wanting to encourage children to become more holy and into the love of God.
      So husband or wife find reasons to commit adultery or fall in love with some other who they can relate to as a unreligious partner and divorce the other.
      He or she must stay single or marry and choose between the new husband or wife from Our Lord who awaits in the Tabernacle for them to receive Him.
      How sad is that?

      • St.Joseph says:

        PS
        I would like to send this to Cardinal Burke, however if I did he might excommunicate me!!

      • pnyikos says:

        In answer to your last question, St. Joseph: It is not sad to those “to whom it is given”, to use the words of Jesus in Mt. 19:11 after his disciples protested Jesus’s uncompromising words on divorce.
        (“If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is expedient not to marry.”)
        Obviously it is not given to those who cannot bear this “hard saying” of Jesus, or his “hard saying” in Luke 14:26-27 or his “hard saying” in John 6:52-60.

        It is a false dichotomy to say that those who must abstain from the Eucharist on account of violating Jesus’s words against divorce and remarriage, are therefor barred from receiving Him. They receive Him in a lesser way by crossing their arms across their chests and coming forward for a blessing from the priest.

      • St.Joseph says:

        pnyikos.
        Thank you for your comment.
        I see a lot of hypocrisy there!

      • pnyikos says:

        St. Joseph, Cardinal Burke would certainly not excommunicate anyone for words like those you spoke. That would derail the delicate process whereby he is trying to get Pope Francis to clarify what he meant in Amoris Laetitia about the talk there of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist. The letter by the four bishops that was intensely discussed a few weeks ago is just the first step in that process.

        The controversy is centered on a footnote which, according to one source, was written by someone else and not seen by Pope Francis before Amoris Laetitia was published. This footnote tore out of context a statement meant for validly married Catholics. In its original context it is in the tradition of St. Paul’s advice not to deny ourselves to our spouses too long, lest by our coldness we are creating an occasion of sin for them. To apply it to divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics is downright subversive. I discussed this a few weeks ago in this Second Sight blog.

      • St.Joseph says:

        pnyikos Thank you,
        First I would like to make it clear with regards to the ‘hypocrisy comment’ I made, that being the silence of Cardinal Burke and other people in authority with regards to a more serious sin than communion for the divorced and re-married, where the couple could be confessing their sin when they have sexual intercourse and receive Holy Communion when they don’t, who are we to judge! We do not live in the bedroom with them, they could also be well past fertility age, or they could be using fertility awareness.
        I have not heard anyone from the hierarchy speak out about the reception of Holy Communion when a couple are using abortifacients as a birth control method in all the 30years I have been teaching it.
        I also would like to mention about the blessing with ones arms across, that can not be the same as receiving Our Lord, We all receive a blessing when Mass ends by the priest.
        I may have misunderstood what you meant.
        Just as a passing thought, I saw Mass celebrated by Pope Francis today and noticed that two or three times someone crossed their arms for a blessing and the priest ignored them and gave them Holy Communion on the tongue.!
        If Cardinal Burke is so concerned with regards Holy Communion for the divorced and re-married, he also must be concerned about some irreverence when it comes to Holy Mass
        in the Vatican’ outside when Mass is Celebrated with over a million,
        I understand his position that he has a duty to perform, but to make public remarks against the Holy Father on one point when there are others he ought to be thinking about!
        In Jesus’s times marriage was different to todays marriage vows.
        Hopefully there are more marriage education classes now than in the last 30 years.
        If Holy Matrimony is meant to bring couples closer to God, they will not be closer to God when they are in the state of mortal sin by using unlawful abortfacients. They could be closer to God in a second marriage,
        ‘Who are we to judge’ as Pope Francis says, we will all meet our Maker sometime!
        I taught FA for the sake of the babies and their mothers!! Because I knew the consequences of the effects of the Pill and other health problems, just to make it clear. I am not responsible for the souls of others only my own!

  3. pnyikos says:

    Right now I am somewhat involved in a discussion on the natural law and its relevance to sexuality, especially homosexuality. So it is very relevant to both this week’s theme and the theme of two weeks ago.

    It is on Catholic Answers, http://www.catholic.com/ It is a traditionalist organization but one whose article writers don’t often monitor the comments sections of the articles they write. As a result, the discussion has been dominated by well-prepared non-Catholics, some of them agnostics or atheists. The Catholic point of view is under-represented and I would be very glad if some of the readers of Second Sight could join me in presenting it. But whether you wade in or not, you may benefit from reading what goes on there.

    It started two days ago and is the second discussion from the top currently, titled `Why Human Nature is Important When Evaluating Sexual Behavior,’ and the lead article is by Karlo Broussard, who also did another article on the Natural Law on December 14.

  4. galerimo says:

    “Imago Dei” is a useful term when it comes to naming “Natural Law”. Finding the image and the likeness of God in an evolving and complex reality that is our human nature and the world to which we are connected.

    The world view at the time of St Thomas Aquinas would have more easily accommodated Natural Law in its “a priori” sense than our current understanding. For a time in history I think Natural Law aligned quite neatly with the closed systems of cosmology and natural science.

    Maybe we move too quickly to morality with our religion when it moves us to an encounter with the mystery of God and the beauty of God found in our lives and in our world.

    We are meant to behold rather than hold the imprint of the Divine – Image of God.

    Any thing other than the love of God is always a shaky basis for human behaviour or argument for truth.

    Ironically the image that is received (by contrast with that which is observed, reasoned or structured) does not come from search or research – because it is already there in abundance. It discovers us this divine universality.

    I need to think some more about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit too for this topic – such a massive and all pervading Law of Nature that has now become.

    Thank you for your wonderful work in 2016 Quentin and every blessing to you, your family and my fellow bloggers here for 2017.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Do we know if Jesus ever eat meat, in a much as we know He ate fish,
      Maybe Her didn’t .
      I am a vegetarian even going off eggs lately although not a vegan.
      Its obviously against our nature to eat humans, although not for Cannibals .

      • pnyikos says:

        Jesus ate the Passover meal with his apostles. It was what Jews now call a “Seder.” The bread that he blessed and broke and distributed was very much a part of the meal; but also the flesh of lambs was and is an integral part.

        There are vegetarians who claim that there was also a meatless version of the Passover meal and that this is what Jesus took part in; but I have never seen any evidence for either of these two claims.

  5. St.Joseph says:

    pnyikos.
    Thank you for your comment.
    It does not bother me that humans eat meat, just that I do not like the thought of it.

  6. John Thomas says:

    “my personal nature comes from God” Mmmm … But doesn’t this seem to be saying that my nature, as I have it, now, was created by God? But what about The Fall? Surely, my nature, as it is NOW, is a mixture of what God created and the fatally flawed thing that the fall has made it? I find Natural Law difficult, probably because I take the view that (because of the fall, the imperfection of man/nature as it now is) Nature is not an unalloyed Good Thing.

  7. Peter Foster says:

    A Scenario.

    God created the world.
    Life was created or more probably was already inherent in the structure of matter?
    Hominids evolved towards Homo Sapiens.
    In some era they acquired sufficient maturity to make moral choices.
    They were then in need of instruction and salvation.
    Christ was sent to enlighten them and 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)

    Previously, mankind had become aware of God.
    And thought that God had created the world.
    And thought that God had designed the world and its components in situ in relation to each other. This was a reasonable idea, given the beautiful complexity and functionality of the natural world.
    Then came the ideas: “God’s law is expressed in the structure of creation”; and “We recognise an action which goes against our created nature.”
    Developments of these ideas became fossilised in laws.
    They were verified through religious authority.
    Societies need a structure of rules to give certainty in order to function for the benefit of all; and sanctions to preserve order.

    Design is an anthropomorphic concept, in this case a wise old man at the drawing board of life. Anthropomorphic concepts change when our knowledge of creation changes and at that point reason should come into play.
    The authority and validity of natural law concepts have been disrupted by those discoveries in the field of biology and evolution which contradict the anthropomorphic version of how God designed the world.

    It can be seen that the absoluteness of some church theory and pronouncements have been overtaken by events. “I still have much to say to you, but it is beyond your reach as yet?” (John ch.16: v.12)

    In his Regensburg lecture Benedict xvi explored the idea whether God can contradict himself and concluded the he cannot; and that the Greek idea of non-contradiction is not an accidental cultural addition in Church thinking but fundamental.
    Unfortunately Paul V misapplied the principle of non-contradiction to previous supposedly God supported pronouncements of the church whose origin may have been primarily cultural. Asian cardinals, Stephen Fumio Hamao, 1930-2007, and an Indonesian, were more aware of this over-intellectualisation.

    Recently, Nektarios proposed to close an argument on homosexuality with: “Romans 1 : 16-32 is the authoritative answer to these matters.”

    Black and white answers, however, often fail in their relation to justice in a particular case.

    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.

    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.

    For example, a rejection of the natural law idea of marriage in the UK brought the horrendous problem of the 65,000 children in care and their dreadful outcomes and how they got there. How can we approach this in a way that would be respected by our compatriots?
    The Fragmenting Family by Brenda Almond, OUP 2006.

  8. Iona says:

    Maybe not so much a replacement as a going-alongside; like laws as they are framed, and precedent. Or simply interpreting the law in the light of specific circumstances.

  9. Iona says:

    That looks like an interesting book, Peter
    (I’ve just ordered it!)

  10. G.D. says:

    Peter Foster says … ” 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. ”

    That is the Natural Law.

    All other ‘interpretations’ that have followed are mere echoes of it.

    When we, as individuals & in unity, allow and accept ALL nature to ‘be’ as it is intended (not “used according to it’s nature”) then we, as individuals and in unity, will learn to accept & enhance what the Natural Law IS, and what it is creating moment by moment.
    Then Law will pass away. And it will Be The Reality It Is.

    My personal nature (as all natures are) is given by God as my own, to do as i will with it.
    Please God i learn to live it as the Natural Law intended.

    We all have differing means and ways, learning to accept them all, and relate to them all in Love is the only way to allow Natural Law to Be.

    Can’t get a more open universe than that.

    Simply put … God’s Will Be Done, freely chosen, in me. ….. And in all creation.

    • Peter Foster says:

      It is simple enough to imagine structure and purpose in nature but recent history shows it is more difficult to get others to see a particular version as definitive; less so when the structure has come through a process of evolution. How to cope with deviations from the “ideal design” with justice?

      • G.D. says:

        For me there is no definitive version for others to see; there is only the real version that is manifest in every Present Moment for all to accept.

        Not too interfere with that manifestation, and remain faithful to the ‘path’ discerned as the ‘just’ one to follow is my goal.

        For me, the criteria is not to control or allow myself to be controlled (whatever hampers that is not the ‘way’) and so to allow The Moment to Be as it is manifest.

        God is in that Moment manifesting all the Natural Law we need to guide us.

        Fail miserably as i do, of course, that is my ‘sign post’ against deviation.

  11. Alan says:

    The exception proves the rule is a catchy phrase, but it sounds as if it were coined by the person who made up the rule and couldn’t think of another way to defend it. It feels to me as if identifying the reason we think that exceptions are justified can tell us more about the real decision we are making.

  12. John Nolan says:

    ‘Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis’ according to Cicero. In other words, you can’t have exceptions unless you have a (strict) rule in the first place.

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