What is the Natural Law in Catholic teaching?

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.’ ” [Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 91, A. 2.]

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law….” [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.

Perfect knowledge of the eternal moral law is only obtained with our knowledge of God in the Beatific Vision. [Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 91, A. 2.] But the moral law can also be known by the use of reason to consider all that God has created, i.e. the goodness and good order of natural things. All that is good in Creation is a reflection of God who is Just. Therefore, justice is inherent to all created things, to the natural order of all created things, and especially to the hearts and minds of all created persons. Free will and reason, and our understanding of the natural world and its proper order, give us the ability to understand what is just and what is unjust. Thus, the natural law is the promulgation of the moral law into the very nature of all created things, especially created persons. The eternal moral law is the Just Nature of God, and the eternal moral law is promulgated in the nature of created things, especially created persons.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The natural law is promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind so as to be known by him naturally.” [Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 90, A. 4.]

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 is also universal and immutable. [Veritatis Splendor, n. 51, 53. The Pontiff defends the “universality and immutability” of the natural law.]

Some commentators criticize natural law arguments used in Catholic teaching, by appealing to the behavior of the lower animals. If a behavior is found in animals, they claim that it cannot be considered “unnatural”. But natural law is not humans behaving like animals, but rather humans behaving in a way which is most truly human, before the eyes of God. The goodness in human nature is a reflection of the goodness of God. And it is a greater and more perfect reflection than that of the lower animals. Also, since the lower animals are in a fallen state, we cannot consider their behavior to be necessarily an expression of the will of God.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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