Natural Law is a fundamental element of Catholic moral teaching. Here I am going to set out my understanding so that readers can correct me or develop my ideas. In fact, the concept is based on a very straightforward, and perhaps undeniable, principle.
I start with my washing machine. I realise that it has its own nature, and if I want it to wash my clothes, and indeed to continue to do so into the future, I must respect that nature. For example, I must connect it to the right voltage of electricity, and I must use the right programme for the items I want to wash, and so on.
I can work out its nature by observation based on my general knowledge, but I will be particularly helped by the maker’s handbook. There is no moral question here because it is my machine. But if I have borrowed the machine from you, I have a moral obligation to use it in accordance with its nature.
Now let’s look at human beings. Through observation I see that human beings are, by nature, social animals. There may be exceptions but broadly we live in, and depend on, our membership of social groups. So our nature requires such behaviour as telling the truth, respecting other members property or the right to life. And as it happens these fundamental requirements can be found in the maker’s handbook. We call it the Bible.
The Bible is a somewhat old-fashioned handbook. It takes for granted that human beings were directly created by God. An understandable assumption from this is that we can ascertain aspects of the natural law of human beings from biology. The simplest example is that the sexual organs are constructed (by God) for heterosexual intercourse. To use them for homosexual intercourse would ipso facto be contrary to the plan of the creating God. Similarly, the fundamental nature of sexual intercourse is based on its structural design to fertilise. Thus, to artificially prevent fertilisation is against the natural law. It directly interferes with God’s creation.
A minor, but telling, example can be found in the modern Catechism. It tells us that lying must be condemned as a profanation since “the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth.” — thus a biological basis. However, one may get around this in suitable cases by using “discretion”. This sounds like a suggestion that we may effectively deceive providing that we don’t actually tell a lie.
In recent times there has been a development in our understanding. We are more inclined to look at other aspects. Using the homosexuality example, some would argue that, notwithstanding the nature of the sexual organs, there are those whose sexual orientation is directed towards their own sex. Whatever the reasons for this anomaly may be, it is not a result of God’s direct creation.
But, of course, what we know now is that we are not the result of direct creation. At the biological level we are the result of evolution. At the centre of that is our identity as person with its capacity to think and choose. While these characteristics are spiritual, in that they are not caused, they are most certainly strongly influenced by genes and experience. And it is effectively impossible to discern free decisions from influenced decisions. We are free but we never know how free we are.
On this Blog we have plenty of examples. Contributors present a range of views. However well they have been considered before posting, conclusions remain influenced by inherited genes and by experience. And neither the contributor nor the reader knows the line between evidenced logic and subjective influence. The latter may go back to infancy. Hence the value of disagreement and argument. This perhaps is why we should pay most attention to those who disagree with us: this is taking contradiction as more valuable than affirmation because it gives us the opportunity to review the principles we should otherwhile see as infallible.