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The Natural Law Is Not Enough

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 03, 2012

I have argued repeatedly for the importance of the natural law and particularly for an appeal to the natural law in public affairs. But today I wish to introduce a note of caution. As important as the natural law is, it can obscure things that are more important still.

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Most creatures reflect the glory of God involuntarily, simply by being what they are designed to be, by doing what they are designed to do. But because human persons possess the faculties of intellect and will, we must both learn and choose the good in order to glorify our Creator. This “glorifying” flows naturally from what secures our deepest happiness. It consists in proceeding toward the end for which we have been created, and its fulfillment lies in reaching our true end.

Human life, then, is rooted in right action; it is inescapably moral. The natural law, as perceived and reflected in the conscience, stamps the person with a sense of right and wrong, and of existing under a judgment; an intuition therefore of the existence of a Judge, who must also care about us; and even an expectation that this Judge will look for an opportunity to reveal his will more fully. Because these intuitions are built into our very nature, doing what is good according to the law of nature is no mere matter for philosophical speculation; it is a serious personal obligation.

In other words, the natural law is the key to what may be required of every man and woman as a matter of justice, just as Revelation is the key to what may be required of all those who voluntarily accept it as a matter of charity.

The natural law thus provides a basic framework for moral discussions among men and women of differing cultures and differing religions. Pluralism itself, so far from being a defense against the requirements of the natural law, is always bound by it simply because it is human. And so the natural law governs moral argument even between believers and non-believers, and it also clarifies the kinds of laws which a society must accept (or reject)—laws which may be prudently enacted and enforced by government even against those of its citizens who may misunderstand or deny the natural law.

Now all of this is true; all of it may be rightly said in favor of emphasizing the importance of the natural law. But it is also true that when it comes to persuading others of the right way to live, natural law arguments are historically very thin. It is difficult to point to any non-religious society which has not strayed very far from the natural law in a significant number of critical ways, despite the reality that the natural law is accessible to reason, and our very concepts of right, wrong and moral obligation are rooted in how we are made.

This leads to an essential caution. Culture after culture strays from the natural law. Those cultures which possess a strong, consistent and cohesive articulation of the natural law are extremely rare. In fact, the strongest awareness of the requirements of the natural law has always been found in Christian societies. It would seem necessary to conclude that people have a great deal of difficulty in putting the natural law ahead of their own pride and passion unless their perceptions are clarified, their resolve strengthened, and their attachments purified by Christ.

Must we not be wary, therefore, of embracing social strategies which attempt to rely on the natural law without introducing the spiritual and life-changing impact of Christ Himself?

Perhaps the quandary is best illustrated by its most obvious example. I refer to politics in what we call a secular public square. Insofar as we accept the premise that politics in a pluralist society ought to be stripped of its Christian context, we exclude an important area of life from Christian influence. As logical as this seems, surely we must suspect it to be one of the factors that actually reduces the chances of long-term political success. Contemporary political strategies almost always deliberately exclude Christ so as to be construed as reasonable and fair. Inescapably, then, the more we emphasize purely political strategies in our culture, the more we obscure Christ.

I am increasingly convinced that, at the level of politics, the natural law is more valuable as guidance for what Christians can legitimately demand from everyone through government, and less valuable as a means to bring non-Christians to a minimal moral standard for a successful social order. The former enlightens the Christian ruler about the nature of justice in the world; the latter, it would seem, requires something of the spirit of St. Paul:

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5)

At the very least, this is something worth thinking about. The natural law is real, and it is vitally important. We all relate to it in some way, and we all need to reflect on it in order to more fully understand our being, our nature, our ends. Certainly there are occasions when a natural law argument is the best argument to make. But it would be a grave error in judgment to suppose that any appeal to the natural law is an adequate substitute for the grace and power of Jesus Christ Himself.

The natural law can appeal and it can guide. But it is grace that perfects nature. The natural law cannot convert. Neither can it save.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Oct. 29, 2016 12:04 PM ET USA

    Jeff - your comments are exactly right. "Higher" education is often the worst thing our youth should be exposed to. They often end by being "confident", even arrogant, but with little in the way of authentic knowledge, and at the same time good little politically liberal soldiers.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 27, 2016 2:26 PM ET USA

    The absolute dependence of the corporal on the spiritual works of mercy is what has traditionally distinguished Catholic from secular charitable organizations. I once volunteered to be a Catholic representative at a Billy Graham Crusade. When speaking with the priest-organizer of the Catholic contribution to the Crusade, he informed me that I was not to mention anything Catholic to those who were not raised Catholic as children. I asked, "May I tell the truth about Catholicism?" He said, "no."

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 27, 2016 2:00 PM ET USA

    Garedawg raises an interesting question, but I suspect it is ultimately not relevant to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, or to charity. The higher educational model in the United States is broken. What you have, in the main, is people paying huge sums of money for a frighteningly bad product, for the simple reason that it is expected, and still generally financially advantageous, for people to have a college degree. And because "education" is uncritically valued in our society, this has become a self-perpetuating system. It is not clear how or when this will collapse but, as it is essentially untenable, it will eventually do so. But again, this is a topic all its own. In most cases, tuition assistance is neither charity nor a work of mercy. The vast majority of recipients are far from poor. Higher education today is far closer to social engineering; or at least it simply reflects the priorities of the secular State and our secular culture. In reality, there are many other--and far less expensive--ways to learn which could be used far more effectively. I suspect that, in the main, higher education today is simply how our culture, our social order, chooses to deal with young adults whom the work force is not ready to absorb. It is a convention, not a need. In our time, it may well degrade mental acuity because it degrades values, increasing some intellectual skills, but darkening minds.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Oct. 27, 2016 10:39 AM ET USA

    So what's the answer to the question between private and state-administered charity? My kids depend on financial aide for college, and I sure am happy that I don't have to go around, cup in hand, to various religious orders in order to keep my kids in school. It's a lot easier to spend an evening filling out a form.

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Dec. 06, 2012 6:00 PM ET USA

    Well said. I've long believed that it is perilous to focus too much on proclaiming the requirements of the natural law to a secular society without proclaiming with at least as much vehemence the saving power of the grace of Christ. We know by faith that, without the latter, not only can the former not save, but it can even increase cupidity and rebellion. At the least, the law without the Gospel leads people to despair, whereas today's world is in desperate need of hope.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Dec. 05, 2012 1:04 PM ET USA

    The Christ story, when one thinks about it, is unnatural. If it wasn't, then no big deal. Pity and charity seem to be a break from natural law or logic. Christianity bridges the natural with the unnatural. Unfortunately, now that 20% of the American population no longer identifies itself with any religion as opposed to 3%, 50 years ago, the bridge is being destroyed, and we are left with mere sentiments driving our actions without the influence of natural truths.

  • Posted by: FredC - Dec. 05, 2012 7:39 AM ET USA

    Catholicism sheds much light on natural law; however, in trying to convince politicians that certain actions are immoral, natural law is indispensable. The alternative is to convince them to follow Catholic teaching -- a far greater task. Natural-law arguments are thin because so many people ignore, if not reject, the idea that mankind has a purpose. So the first step is to convince people that there is an eternal purpose to each person's life.

  • Posted by: Antonius86 - Dec. 04, 2012 6:54 PM ET USA

    Wonderful! Thank you, Dr. Mirus for continuing your thoughts from your column on the Pro-Life cause and on "what comes first." Original Sin has so twisted our nature that, without the new life of Christ, the vast majority of people do not defend it.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 04, 2012 5:33 PM ET USA

    This is an interesting piece. I think in one way, natural law is enough - and in another way it is not. Certainly, by itself, without our awareness of our Creator Who is deeply and "passionately" interested in our welfare, the natural law is thin, lacking persuasive power. easily ignored and obscured. In this way it is not enough. However consider what an excellent and just country we would have if it but governed in accordance with the dictates of nature, purpose and reason to the end.