Has Natural Law Died?

The recent Synod on the Family had its surface controversies: the admission of the divorced and remarried to the sacraments and the pastoral care of homosexuals. It also had its background theoretical controversies. The Vatican’s Humanum conference in November probed one of them: the complementarity of the sexes. Another controversy concerns the value of natural-law ethics. An ancient mainstay of Catholic moral argument, natural law suddenly appears consigned to ecclesiastical limbo.

The documentary history of the extraordinary synod tells the tale of natural law’s eclipse. The 2013 Vatican questionnaire preceding the synod asked, “What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles and among the people at large?”

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Early in 2014, the German bishops, like many other national episcopates, replied negatively: “Very few people are familiar with the term ‘natural law.’ It has virtually no role to play at the institutional and educational level or in everyday culture.” Preparing the synod debate, the working document (instrumentum laboris) issued by the Vatican in spring 2014 evinces a similar skepticism: “The concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.” When it survives at all, the appeal to “nature” is distorted into an appeal to personal preference (my nature), to cultural prejudice (what the majority thinks) or to biology (what animals do). Given this impoverished concept of natural law, the working document can only “request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and its narratives.” This amounts to a tacit replacement of natural-law ethics by a moral argumentation based uniquely on biblical narrative. In the synod’s closing report (relatio post disceptationem), the reference to natural law has disappeared.

The problems concerning natural law detected by the synod are real enough. The very term has become confusing. In a recent ethics examination, one student defined natural law as the law of gravity. Another identified it as evolution’s random selection. A popular textbook claims that natural-law ethics condemns anything artificial. According to the author, natural law considers Diet Pepsi immoral. (The status of un-diet Pepsi remains unclear.) Clearly, such distorted concepts are far from an accurate grasp of natural law, which resides in human nature and manifests itself in moral inclinations to protect the basic goods of human nature, essential to the quest for authentic happiness.

Despite its confused semantics, natural-law ethics is abandoned at the church’s peril. The proposed substitutes are problematic. Recasting natural-law arguments in terms of human rights cannot capture natural law’s teleological argument as to why an action is right or wrong in terms of its end. In an age of subjectivism, rights themselves easily become subsets of self-indulgence.

The effort to substitute biblical narrative for natural-law principles suffers a similar limitation. Moral argument based uniquely on the sources of revelation easily becomes a sectarian ghetto. Only those who share the church’s theological presuppositions could accept it. Genocide is wrong not because majority public opinion or Western democracy condemns it. It is not only because the Bible or the church rejects it. It has something to do with human nature, human dignity and the basic human good of life itself. It springs from the nagging impulse that we should not treat human beings this way just because they are human beings.

The current impasse in the church over natural law is paradoxical. Although we have become agnostic over the value of natural law, we incessantly use natural-law arguments in our moral discourse. Pope Francis’ opening speech to the recent Humanum conference is illustrative. He makes no explicit reference to natural law but defends “the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good for persons, communities, and whole societies.” Despite its cultural variations, human nature endures. The church funeral for natural law is premature.

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William Atkinson
2 years 10 months ago
John: Kind of wonder about just limiting conversation and thinking to what is referred to as "Natural Law" when in reality subjects should cover animal nature, human nature, and divine nature. Mankind does have an animal nature as it's basic development, then specific a human nature and are called by our creator (Made in Image and Likeness) to enjoy the divine nature. It is not bad or evil to live within the different natures, but given the freedom we have by our creator we are called to join during our lives our creator in in growing and developing to a higher state and nature. Listen to the signs of the times and organize our work and efforts to show, teach, give example to the greater glory of creation, as we expand our companionship to include all of creation, all of time and space to enjoy living and progressing in the kingdom of the creator. Man is called to expand our vision and continue to develop forward all natures to arrive at that point of being. Like the saying "Be All You can Be".
ed gleason
2 years 10 months ago
The CIA torture arguments are being based either on its 'efficacy' for useful information or the violation of human dignity. Human dignity, natural law, seems to take a back seat even by Fordham educated CIA director Brennan . Senator Feinstein , Jewish identity but Catholic educated grasps the natural law argument.
michael baland
2 years 10 months ago
" This amounts to a tacit replacement of natural-law ethics by a moral argumentation based uniquely on biblical narrative." Wasn't it Gratian in the Decretum who stated that all natural law came from the Old and New Testament?
William Atkinson
2 years 10 months ago
There is a lot in that statement "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." but essentially natural laws, all natural laws come with the creation of the universe and specifically the development and growth of all of the earth and its properties, one of which is plant, animal, and human life. One of nature's laws is that it takes time usually huge amounts of time to build, grow and develop all of creations entities, but minutes and even seconds to destroy or end those creations.
Charles Erlinger
2 years 10 months ago
If there are distortions in thinking about natural law they arise, in my opinion, from distortions in thinking about the nature of the human person. These distortions are supported by very powerful and even prestigious communities, including academic as well as political. It is in the interest of these communities to insist only on the natural, an not the supernatural ends of human life. Very prominent economic theories, for example, depend on the assumption that the human person exists to respond to economic incentives in order to achieve the ends or ultimate purposes of human existence. It is not surprising, given the fundamental differences that exist in understanding human nature, that the idea of natural law and any supporting arguments therefore, are regarded as alien.
Denis Nolan
2 years 10 months ago
I went to a Jesuit high school and a Catholic University. I did graduate work at another Catholic university. I am a practicing Catholic for 70 years. I am not, however, a theology student. Therefore, when the question of natural law was posed to me, I had never heard the term in the vein which theologians seem to think it means. To me, and to millions of other Catholics. it means the law of nature. Do you get the feeling that the theologians and bishops are speaking quite a different language than the rest of us? Don't bring up a topic that is not common knowledge or you are going to get a reaction such as has happened here.
Charles Erlinger
2 years 10 months ago
My impression is that the author is assuming that the term means more or less what it has meant in classical and Western Christian tradition. There is no doubt that since at least the 19th century the term has accumulated a variety of different meanings, most of them related to physical or material nature, although there are some meanings currently regarded as valid that pertain to social sciences, particularly economics. I wish I could remember who said that philosophy is the process of making rational distinctions about reality, but if that is true, the devolution of philosophical distinction-making has currently reached a nadir.
Winni Veils
2 years 10 months ago
Natural Law and the justifications that it has been used for has a fundamental problem. Citing natural law assumes that we, fallible human beings have a complete understanding of the nature of the world, ourselves, and the interactions of the two and our places in it. In some ways, in some uses, this is absolutely good and necessary. The equality of all human beings, the value of the body and the mind, the inseparability of both, the inherancy of rights of all people on a level far deeper than state or religion...these are treasured aspects of natural law. Natural law that looks to the level of harm caused to the person or interactions between persons has a solid ground of justification. However, when natural law is cited as the reason that homosexuality, for example, is wrong, the cart has been put before the horse. No one has managed to cite the harm to persons or relationships caused by loving relationships between two members of the same sex. And certainly harm can be caused by denying those relationships to others on account of 'natural law'. Instead, in this case, it seems that the definers of natural law is presumed to understand everything about how God has designed the sexuality of human beings, in orientation and gender expression. Natural law becomes the reason, by itself, without backing or explanation. For example, pornography is wrong, even without clear harm done, because it clearly degrades the sacredness of the human body and prizes looking at human beings as objects for sexual pleasure rather than as persons. It does harm to interactions with human beings in the future by falsifying expectations of sexuality and interactions in the future. Its source and legacy is poisonous, so there are grounds for attack. Homosexuality, however, is condemned for breaking natural law, but no 'proof of the poison' can be found. Instead, it seems that God has created people of this nature, and it is up to us to widen our understanding of nature to find out where they fit.
J Cosgrove
2 years 10 months ago
Has Natural Law Died?
If it has, then we are doomed. If anyone is interested in a thorough discussion of natural law, then pony up the $30 to get the Great Courses course on it by Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. It could be on your computer or smart phone or tablet in minutes. With 24 lectures it is a $1.25 per half hour of learning. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/natural-law-and-human-nature.html We cannot live a moral life without an implicit understanding of natural law. Many of those educated at Jesuit universities were exposed to aspects of it or should have been.
Although we have become agnostic over the value of natural law, we incessantly use natural-law arguments in our moral discourse.
Fr. Koterski explores other's use of what is essentially natural law. It is not dead yet.
Frank Gibbons
2 years 10 months ago
Mr. Cosgrove, It is my great hope that "America" will one day publish an article by Father Joseph Koterski, S.J. He is a gentle priest and honorable scholar.
Wendell Montgomery
2 years 10 months ago
Father Conley, I think you make some very good points in this article, and I found it interesting to see that natural law theory was placed on the backburner at this conference. Obviously, I think your broader point about some ecclesial hesitation to use natural law theory has merit (at least insofar as you've presented it here - I'm not a cleric). But, speaking as a lawyer, I'd actually argue that the natural law is, for the first time in the last few centuries, really starting to take hold - just not within the Church itself. In particular, natural law concepts are now part of the constitutions of many European states, and are finding broad use in their legal systems. I'm speaking about the concept of "human dignity," which (as even secular, atheist lawyers in Europe admit) was placed within European constitutions by directly borrowing from Catholic natural law theory. For instance, Germany's Basic Law (their Constitution) states that:
(1) Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. (2) The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.
Obviously, it's impossible to understand this extraordinary commitment to human dignity without acknowledging the historical context in which the Basic Law was created (i.e., the Holocaust). Nevertheless, this concept of human dignity is widely understood to be a statement of a natural law right to human dignity. Furthermore, this article of the Basic Law isn't treated as mere surplusage: it is frequently used as a basis for legal decisions, thus resulting in practical effects on the lives of German citizens. Natural law is a force in secular society. In any case, it's fascinating to see natural law, a Catholic concept, is used with eagerness in secular and unchurched states, but is receiving less attention within our own Church!
Paul Ferris
2 years 8 months ago
To me the question should be who killed natural law. By refusing to allow the experience of married people and gay people a say in interpreting what it means to do good and avoid evil in the context of their sexual lives, natural law became the arbitrary provenance of the Pope. Even the saint and genius Thomas Aquinas did not condemn torture as against the natural law. He also distinguished sins against nature as more serious than sins in accordance with nature. Thus rape and incest are not as serious as masturbation because the former acts are committed in accordance with nature. Judging from Father Conley's previous articles he would agree with the Thomist interpretation of natural law. If anyone doubts if I know what am talking about I would be happy to refer you to the passages in the Summa which support my claim.
Roberto Blum
2 years 8 months ago
I am willing to propose that even Aquinas sometimes confused "Natural Law" with the laws of nature and even with clearly wrong descriptions or interpretations of the works of nature. Does "Natural Law" condemn men to be subject to nature? I think not. Thus, whether homosexuality is morally wrong or not cannot be simply decided on biblical prescriptions, personal or social prejudices, individual preferences or beliefs of what nature really is. We must use our reason to develop the principles of Natural Law as they apply to our specific circumstances in today's world. If we do so, I think issues such as homosexuality, same sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, etc. can be discussed and provisionally solved.
Paul Ferris
2 years 8 months ago
Reason which reflects on the experience of reasonable people...I would add.
Roberto Blum
2 years 8 months ago
I completely agree with Fr. Conley when he says that "the effort to substitute biblical narrative for natural-law principles suffers a similar limitation. Moral argument based uniquely on the sources of revelation easily becomes a sectarian ghetto. Only those who share the church’s theological presuppositions could accept it." Even more, biblical ethics reflects an age that admitted and practiced barbaric acts, such as genocide, torture, slavery and many other practices that "Natural Law" could not and cannot possibly admit. Of course human reason -- our way to discover "Natural Law" -- is fallible and limited, but by applying educated reason prudently we can glimpse the basic principles of what is in fact the eternal law as it rules the universe, human and not. If Catholic ethics were based in biblical practices, it would not be catholic in the literal sense of universally prescriptive ethics. The Church needs to decide whether it is catholic (universal) or just a religious sect proposing a dated ethics system based on ancient barbarian narratives. I really hope the Church remains catholic.
Paul Ferris
2 years 8 months ago
There is so much ambiguity in the word, "natural". As you see it the natural law is a reflection of the eternal law. This is certainly the traditional understanding of scholastic theology and philosophy which may be still valid within its context. Today, however, natural law can mean naturalism which is one of the main arguments against theism, God, the transcendent, or eternal law. Thus we have two fundamentally incongruous systems using the word "natural" in an equivocal way. I just finished reading a chapter from Etienne Gilson's the Spirit of Medieval Philosophy on the subject of Natural Law. The relationship between natural law and Christian revelation is quite complex. Both sources need to be integrated with each other for the fullest understanding of both according to Gilson.
Roberto Blum
2 years 8 months ago
I completely agree that eternal law has usually been understood in the context of medieval and traditional theology and philosophy, but I believe it does not need to be the product of any gods or God. Eternal law can be understood as the basic developmental laws imbedded in the fabric of an eternal universe, or if the universe popped out of nothing some 13.7 billion years ago as is the current scientific view, we could name the law governing the development of everything the Cosmic Law instead of the Eternal law. In fact, the hypothesis God could be dispensed off and still we could speak of the Natural Law which is derived from the Cosmic Law.

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