Natural Law and the Catholic Faith

There are three pillars of truth in the Roman Catholic Faith:

1. Tradition
2. Scripture
3. Magisterium

The Magisterium (the living teaching office of the Church) teaches from Tradition and Scripture. All the teachings of the Magisterium are found, explicitly or implicitly, in Tradition and Scripture.

Second Vatican Council: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God, committed to the Church…. But the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” (Dei Verbum, n. 10)

So then, what place does natural law have with respect to the Magisterium? The Magisterium can teach from natural law, as well as from Tradition and Scripture. This assertion does not contradict what Vatican II taught, since all of the truths of natural law, which can be attained by reason alone apart from Divine Revelation, are also found in Divine Revelation (Tradition and Scripture), at least implicitly. So when the Magisterium teaches from natural law, She is teaching truths also found in the Sacred Deposit of Faith.

For the Catholic Faith is not based on faith alone, but on faith and reason. Faith is greater than reason, since faith attains to knowledge from Divine Revelation that is beyond the reach of reason alone. Faith is greater than reason, since what is known by the reason of a fallen sinner is less certain that what is known by the faith of a fallen sinner in the teachings of the Church. But reason allows us to understand, to a great extent, what faith teaches. Reason prevents faith from becoming the blind obedience of a slave or a servant.

{15:15} I will no longer call you servants, for the servant does not know what his Lord is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything whatsoever that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you.

We are the children of God, and so we believe with understanding. Blind adherence to a set of assertions without any understanding would not even be a type of faith, but rather an idolatrous imitation of faith. Therefore, reason is necessary to the life of faith and grace given to the disciples of Christ.

What is natural law?

Natural law is the promulgation of the eternal moral law in all creation, especially in created persons, both in the nature of each created thing, and in the ordered relationship between created things. Moral goodness is inherent to, and understandable from, all Creation, especially created persons. The nature of created persons is more like the Nature of God than any other created thing. And so the natural law is most clearly perceived within the nature of created persons and within the proper relationships between created persons.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 6) that ‘knowledge of the eternal law is imprinted on us.’ ” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 91, A. 2.)

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law….” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 96, A. 2.)

This imprinting of the eternal moral law upon human persons is inherent to human nature itself; it is not merely an addition to, or one aspect of, human nature. For all that God created is inherently good, and therefore all that God created is a reflection of God, who is Goodness itself. Human persons are said to be made in the image of God because free will and reason make created persons more like God than other created things. Thus the natural law is first and foremost found in human nature itself.

But the natural law is no different than the moral law, except that the natural law is the means by which we know the moral law. Therefore, the natural law is the promulgation of the moral law, so that this eternal moral law may be known naturally by created persons.

{2:14} For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature those things which are of the law, such persons, not having the law, are a law unto themselves.
{2:15} For they reveal the work of the law written in their hearts, while their conscience renders testimony about them, and their thoughts within themselves also accuse or even defend them,
{2:16} unto the day when God shall judge the hidden things of men, through Jesus Christ, according to my Gospel.

The natural law is nothing other than the promulgation of the eternal moral law by God within the nature and order of Creation. Therefore, the natural law, like the eternal moral law, is also universal and immutable. (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 51, 53. The Pontiff defends the “universality and immutability” of the natural law.)

The justice that is inherent to the very Nature of God is the basis for all morality. The eternal moral law, as we mere weak and mortal human persons understand it, is a glimpse of the Goodness of the Infinite God. And natural law is an expression of the eternal moral law because all of creation is a reflection of the Goodness of God.

In particular, natural law is based on that created good called humanity. For we are a much better reflection of Divine Goodness than lower animals, plants, and inanimate matter. We are made in the image of God, and so human nature is one of the better windows into the truths of natural law.

Natural law attains to moral truth partly by an understanding of the nature of the human person. Since the human person has intellect and free will, he has a responsibility to us those gifts wisely. We must respect the intellect and free will of other persons, not treating them like objects or like animals, but as created persons with freedoms and responsibilities. We must treat others with the same respect that we ourselves properly wish to be treated.

But natural law also understands moral truth by the relationships between human persons. Reason recognizes a certain good order in families, in marriages, between spouses, between parents and children. Reason recognizes a certain moral order between those who lead a society and those who are members of that society.

What is often overlooked in natural law, though, is the order that reason can and should recognize between the created human person and the Creator. For reason alone can perceive that all Creation must have a Creator, and therefore that God must exist. From this, it follows that natural law can attain to an understanding of the moral responsibility to worship God, and to seek and do the will of God.

The Corporate Aspect to Natural Law

It is true that all the requirements of the eternal moral law are accessible to reason alone. The acts that we must not do, because such acts are unjust, are prohibited by the negative precepts (‘you shall not’). The acts that we must do, because such acts are required by justice, are required by the positive precepts (‘you shall’). All the positive and negative precepts, in all that they require or forbid, are accessible to the intellect and free will given as gifts to each human person.

But we fallen human persons are afflicted by original sin, concupiscence, the effects of our personal sins, the influence of the sins of others. So what is in theory entirely accessible by reason alone, is difficult to attain and hold, especially for the individual standing alone with his reason.

Fortunately, there is a corporate aspect to natural law. The individual human person benefits greatly, in his search for knowledge of morality, through the same search by other human persons of his own generation. We benefit from the thoughts of others on what is and is not moral. We benefit from the arguments that they make, and even from the errors that they make and later recognize as errors. The human person does not stand alone in his attempts to find moral truth through reason. The family, different societal groups, and the human race as a whole are able to work together in reasoning toward moral truth. So the truths of natural law are made known to us, not only by our own individual efforts, but by the efforts of other persons: family members, friends, authors, societal leaders, etc. By the assistance of other persons, each individual is better able to perceive the truths offered in natural law.

And this corporate aspect to natural law also has an historical dimension. We benefit from the search for truth conducted by innumerable human persons who lived before us, even long ago. Their use of reason to attain to moral truth is passed on to future generations by the example of their lives, and by the spoken and written word. As the human race progresses through time, the discovery of truth by reason accumulates, allowing successive generations to more easily discover moral truths taught by natural law. Thus, natural law develops over time; there is a development of the doctrines on morality taught by natural law.

For example, the current age understands the rights and freedoms of human persons much better than a few centuries ago. We understand that slavery is gravely immoral. We understand that a nation should not go to war merely to conquer and to enlarge its territory and resources. We understand that human persons have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. We understand that people have a right to participate in the government that rules over them. There is truly a progress within humanity, through reason and natural law, toward an ever better understanding of the eternal moral law.

But although the whole moral law, in all of its particular requirements for us, is accessible to reason, these same truths found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, and taught by the Magisterium, are more easily attained, more thoroughly understood, and more firmly held with greater certitude through faith. Some of the truths that faith teaches, on the mysteries of God, are beyond attainment by reason alone and beyond full comprehension by reason. But even the truths that faith teaches on morality, which are wholly accessible to reason, are better understood by faith and reason working together.

Is it possible then, by this progressive increase in the understanding of natural law through reason alone, that humanity might improve progressively to become a holy society, with few sins, without the help of religion? No, it is not, and for several reasons. First, the natural law teaches that God exists, and that we must worship Him and seek to know and do His will. But this requirement of natural law necessarily leads us to faith, and through faith to the truths that are out of the reach of reason alone.

Second, the sinfulness of humanity also progresses. We are influenced by other human persons and by society in general in our sinfulness, not only in our reasoning toward moral truth. Even as society progresses, in some ways, toward a better understanding of truth, we are, in other ways, progressing toward greater sinfulness. For example, abortion and contraception are becoming more and more widespread. Sexual sins are becoming more and more accepted by society.

Third, we know from Divine Revelation that society eventually will become very sinful, rejecting Christianity and persecuting the Church severely:

{24:9} Then they will hand you over to tribulation, and they will kill you. And you will be hated by all nations for the sake of my name.
{24:10} And then many will be led into sin, and will betray one another, and will have hatred for one another.
{24:11} And many false prophets will arise, and they will lead many astray.
{24:12} And because iniquity has abounded, the charity of many will grow cold.
{24:13} But whoever will have persevered until the end, the same shall be saved.

Therefore, we cannot attain a holy society merely by natural law, even with its corporate and progressive dimensions.

It is only by faith and reason working together that the human race can hope to eventually overcome the reign of sin on earth. It is only by the intervention of God and His Christ that we can hope to have eternal happiness in the new Heaven and the new earth.

{21:1} I saw the new heaven and the new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and the sea is no more.
{21:2} And I, John, saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
{21:3} And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: “Behold the tabernacle of God with men. And he will dwell with them, and they will be his people. And God himself will be their God with them.
{21:4} And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And death shall be no more. And neither mourning, nor crying out, nor grief shall be anymore. For the first things have passed away.”
{21:5} And the One who was sitting upon the throne, said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And he said to me, “Write, for these words are entirely faithful and true.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

For more on natural law and the eternal moral law, see my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics

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