Natural Law to the Rescue
Voltaire, the apostate Enlightenment philosopher, famously quipped, “In the beginning, God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” The repackaging of God’s revelation to reflect our biases helps explain the present breakdown in trust for our leaders.
The crisis in authority extends to religious leaders. Historically, wiithin the Catholic Church priests and bishops were generally (with many exceptions) careful to avoid squandering their teaching authority on political matters. Of course, religious and political spheres overlap to some extent. Opposition to policies that promote the evil of abortion, for example, is always a legitimate Church concern. But clerical overreach has become routine in recent decades. Many clerics have more confidence in their favorite policy positions on immigration, climate change, and vaccines than in the Church’s teaching on marriage and same-sex unions. Alas, clergy at all levels of the Church are increasingly particularly vulnerable to the ancient Serpentine temptation: “Ye shall be as gods,” claiming personal mastery over the moral law.
The result? With overreach and abuse, our confidence in authority breaks down. We abandon Christian discipleship in favor of ideological fashions. We turn to the pragmatism and relativism of political solutions, and we are consoled by those who echo our prejudices. Rather than seeking the truth of traditional Church teaching, we identify with those who agree with us as conservatives or liberals, right-wing or left-wing, Republican or Democrat.
Here is an always ancient, yet always new, proposal for restoring the culture based on authentic Christianity.
After the Second World War, the moral horrors that were revealed undermined respect for lawful authority and the virtue of civic obedience. “We were only following orders!” said men accused of heinous war crimes. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the remarkable Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a bid to restore the correct perspective on law and order. The Declaration (UDHR) sets forth the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain saw the UDHR as “the preface to a moral Charter of the civilized world,” as a document containing “rights … which any society which has attained a condition of political justice is required to recognize,” and that could serve as “an unwritten common law.” In brief, the Declaration appeals to natural law, the common law of humanity, and, therefore, has a universal and reasonable application. Natural law and the protection of inherent human dignity measure the justice of all civil laws.
Natural law as a Christian philosophy is rooted in the teaching of Saint Paul. “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts.” (Rom. 2:14-15) With references that extend throughout Church history, the Catechism teaches: “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men.” (1956) Just as man is an image of God, natural law is an image of the divine law.
The guiding principle of the natural law is inflexible: “Do good and avoid evil.” We can never choose evil to accomplish something good. The moral absolutes of the Ten Commandments expand the menu of the reasonable precepts of morality. The Commandments express our desire for self-preservation, marriage, and family, and the desire to know God. The Decalogue does not restrict our freedom but enhances authentic human liberty. Violations lead to moral slavery: “…out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mk. 7:21-23)
The expanding tiers of natural law help untangle the countless ethical conflicts as we apply moral principles to our particular circumstances. The reasonableness of the precept to avoid murder is self-evident. But the principles of just war deriving from the Fifth Commandment are difficult to ascertain and require analysis and study. Similarly, contraception violates the Sixth Commandment, but for reasons that may not be readily apparent (although there was a time when even civil laws discouraged the sale of contraceptives).
With first principles clearly defined, natural law also accommodates clusters of prudential judgments open to healthy argument and debate. We have an obligation in justice to care for the environment and respect the inviolable human dignity of immigrants. But the details of public policy involve the prudential judgments of the laity in the political arena. Church authorities overreach the limits of their competence when they endorse views that exclude reasonable alternatives.
The healthcare industry provides many examples of the need for prudential judgments by individuals. Church authorities have determined that the reception of certain vaccines, for example, is not intrinsically evil. But this does not suggest that the Church and civil authorities have a right to mandate medical treatment. The decision to receive vaccinations belongs to individuals who must consider the spectrum of circumstances, including individual health concerns, the common good, and the morality of vaccine development.
The study of natural law gives us confidence in the edifice of its moral authority because, ultimately, Jesus personifies natural law: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) The union of God and man in Jesus affirms the compatibility of natural law with God’s law. Natural law helps us break ideological prejudices. It allows us to see the unity of faith and reason and the complementarity of science and religion. The Incarnation affirms that science is indeed the study of the handiwork of God!
As we rediscover natural law in Jesus, we reclaim confidence in legitimate Church authority as the guardian of the truth. The study of natural law also helps us identify when Church authorities overreach and abuse their teaching mandate. With God’s grace, the precepts of natural law teach us to love God and neighbor in the imitation of Christ and prepare us to meet God on the Day of Judgment.
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