Guardians of the natural law
As the classic Christmas hymn has it, with the birth of Jesus, God and sinners are reconciled. Jesus Christ is true God and true man: one Person, two natures. The mystery of the Incarnation provides us with the metaphysics of our reconciliation with God; the words and deeds of Jesus give the method. Jesus elevates and completes natural law.
Natural law is a code of moral behavior accessible by human reason, generally without the light of God’s revelation. Natural law recognizes the rules of upright conduct that derive from the inclinations every person has in the search for lasting happiness.
We know, by reflecting on our human condition, that we must choose good and avoid evil to attain happiness. Most of us realize, for example, that lying, cheating, and murder are immoral and ultimately bring misery. The overarching moral code of Western civilization is built, to a large extent, on the precepts of natural law. Natural law provides the context for a kind of secular moral code. (For example, natural law forms the basis of the U.N.’s 1948 “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”) Observing the reasonable and objective precepts of natural law is the path to natural goodness and happiness.
Our understanding of natural law extends into antiquity. The pagan philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato, spoke of our duty as human beings to choose good and avoid evil. The task of formulating the detailed precepts of natural law may be difficult, but the concept is quite simple. In articulating the principles of natural law, we consider various human inclinations, identify good behavior, and forbid bad behavior. The great pagan philosophers, in their way, were guardians of natural law.
But without God’s revelation, our understanding of natural law is susceptible to error. So there is a need for another Guardian.
When preparing children for first Penance, it’s amusing to ask them about the Ten Commandments. Before studying the Ten Commandments, they know that disobeying mom and dad is wrong, or throwing a temper tantrum is evil, or lying and cheating are sins. So why is it necessary for God to reveal the Ten Commandments to us? Invariably, a thoughtful child responds, “To remind us.” Exactly. The Ten Commandments direct our attention to the precepts of natural law with the help of God’s authority. God is the supreme Guardian of natural law.
Those who study natural law point out that we become what we choose. When we repeatedly choose good acts, we become virtuous—prudent, just, courageous, chaste, and so on. When we choose evil, we become a murderer, a thief, a liar, and so on. Our choices continue to define us until we select contrary acts. When we repent of murder, thievery, and duplicity, our repentance redefines and restores who we were created to be. Our remorse begins to reverse the evil effects of our choices, even if it is necessary to suffer punishment as a matter of justice. But without God, the pursuit of forgiveness remains elusive.
The notion of forgiveness (as a duty or as a virtue) is not at all prominent (and arguably absent) in the works Plato or Aristotle. Yet the tug to seek forgiveness for transgressions is normal (or at least to demand apologies that, in a backhanded way, admit to the need to seek forgiveness). Jesus introduces the need to forgive—and to be forgiven—into our understanding of natural law.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is endearing and appealing. Curiously, the parable does not invoke God or his law. It is a touching story of fall and redemption. With the parable, Jesus appeals to our natural sensibilities to seek forgiveness (even for imperfect and self-serving purposes) and to forgive those who trespass against us. Jesus is lifting the whole of the natural law into a more sublime and Godly level in this parable—by appealing to human reason alone.
But we have a dark side. We tend to justify our evil conduct and repackage our wicked inclinations and call them “good.” The ancient philosophers may have been perplexed by this irrational pattern of behavior because they knew nothing of Original Sin. But abandoning the moral absolutes of natural law brings us into the weeds of moral relativism.
Indeed, relativism gives rise to distorted (and comical) moral precepts: “We have no right answers” (except this one). “There are no moral absolutes.” There is no “right or wrong,” there are only “diverse lifestyles.” At their core, these doctrines violate natural law, and ultimately collapse because of their inner logical contradictions and their failure to provide lasting happiness. Don’t ask a female athlete who lost a championship to a male pretending to be female to “celebrate diversity.”
The sexual revolution of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s ushered in certain unnatural “diverse” practices that became widely accepted in our culture, but prompted behavior that destroys happiness, producing broken families, disease, depression, addictions, and loneliness. Human sexuality is sacred and is inseparable from our dignity as human beings. Violations of that dignity are degrading and abusive. The so-called “Me Too” movement in recent years may be a small—if clumsy—step back toward the right direction.
Holding fast to the precepts of natural law brings psychological and emotional security. But today’s experimental behavior promises to deliver tomorrow’s stinging indictment (personally, culturally, and legally). It’s difficult to imagine a grand jury handing down an indictment for chastity or remaining faithful to a spouse in marriage. Striving to live according to natural law provides—including in matters of human sexuality—the ultimate in personal satisfaction: a clear conscience.
But we may have to await the crash and burn of moral collapse before we come to our senses as a culture. When we emerge—individually and/or collectively—from the wreckage, we will never be without hope. Jesus is not only the Guardian of natural law. In His Person, He is true God and true Man, and He is the very embodiment of natural law. Come what may, Jesus the Good Shepherd will be with us, interceding for us, and directing prodigal sons to return to the Father. God’s desire to forgive is natural—and divine.
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