Can We Trust Natural Law?

zygoteFrMichael and Crystal have been going at it in the thread connected to “Another Fired Employee.” I don’t have a background in philosophy as such, so I don’t feel as qualified to talk about natural law and how it could or should be applied to Christian theology. My concerns are more practical, and possibly more grounded in the scientific/rational truth of the created universe. If God made gays, and God persists in allowing same-sex-attracted people to seek and desire companionship, perhaps it is our understanding of tradition that is flawed.

Or more directly, if we consider a person a sinner, is it necessary to fire the person? Clearly, some people may be kept in office for faults and offenses that actually contribute to people leaving the active rolls of the Church. What about all who give scandal, not just those who act out sexually?

Let’s turn back to Natural Law. Can we apply a hermeneutic of skepticism, and still be within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy? What does Natural Law mean, anyway?

The online Catholic Encyclopedia has an entry, which reads in part:

In English this term is frequently employed as equivalent to the laws of nature, meaning the order which governs the activities of the material universe. Among the Roman jurists natural law designated those instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring. In its strictly ethical application—the sense in which this article treats it—the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (I-II.94).

Is the Natural Law “skepticism” of same-sex commitments in keeping with how God created everybody? In other words, does majority rule? And can we be skeptical of taking a pattern found in the majority (or even the ruling male class) and applying it to all cases?

I reviewed Veritatis Splendor 46-50, as FrMichael suggested. Saint John Paul II’s definition:

(Natural Law) refers to (humankind’s) proper and primordial nature, the “nature of the human person”,89 which is the person (her/)himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his (or her) spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his (or her) end.

Can I remain a skeptic? If God has made a small minority of human beings with same-sex attraction, and if he hasn’t gifted all of them with the same or similar charism of celibacy he has given those called to a particular form of religious life, are gays and lesbians not exploring the spiritual and biological unity involved with the human desire and need for companionship?

St John Paul makes an argument for his opponents in terms of what some would call a desire for a wider (or absolute) freedom of self-determination. I’m not sure I would argue that stance as forcefully as he attributes it to the hermeneutic of skepticism. I suppose I’m more interested in a chipping away at an aspect that doesn’t seem to fit most classic definitions of Natural Law. And to be sure, sexual orientation is not at the core of either Christian creed or moral theology.

I think we can’t discount biology. Are people created SSA from the beginning? If so, let’s explore that openly. But let’s not take the pattern of the heterosexual as a starting point. We can’t do that any more than we can consider a woman as a female man.

At this point, I will turn it over to the philosophers in the commentariat, sit back, and read  carefully.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Can We Trust Natural Law?

  1. crystal says:

    The whole Natural Law thing is really pretty interesting. It’s not Christian per se, but Catholic. Philosophers have refuted it since Hume and GE Moore (the naturalistic fallacy …

    Keith Ward, who was the Regius professor of Divinity at Oxford and who’s also an Anglican priest has a paper on JPII’s Veritatis Splendor (, and I just listened to one of his lectures (in video) the other day about Natural Law …

    The basics, from what Ward said, are that Aristotle believed people (and other things) have natural inclinations towards perfection (Forms), they have a purpose. Aquinas Christianized this idea, saying that these inclinations, this natural order, come from God, that they shouldn’t be frustrated, and he deemed one of these inclinations to be procreation (thus gay relationships not being “procreative” frustrate the natural order created by God, conservatives would say).

    But Ward points out that since the acceptance of the theory of evolution, Natural Law has ceased to be believable to most because it can be seen that the only “order” for inclinations seems to be random mutation and natural selection … it’s all about survival, not about goodness, and in fact many “natural” inclinations are pretty morally corrupt (aggression, sexual predation, etc.).

    All this … evolution, natural law, the problem of evil … is so tied up with medieval Catholic doctrines of the fall, original sin, atonement … and much of this is not bibical but created later by Augustine, Aquinas, and others to try to make sense of what lived life is like. I guess you have to admire their efforts but I don’t see why we’re bound to believe in them.

  2. John Drake says:

    God made me. He drew my wife and me together. I am occasionally attracted to other women, but i restrain myself from acting on that impulse.

    Perhaps He really wants me to act on the impulses?

    I don’t think so.

    • Liam says:

      That’s mighty white of you to acknowledge.

    • Todd says:

      John, you were free to act on the impulse provided by your wife. You were free to consider and contemplate a mutual sharing of impulses, and you eventually made a commitment that began with God-given impulses, set aside individual freedom and embraced a new freedom that enhanced your and your wife’s life.

      Perhaps there are reasons in natural law that suggest permanent commitment is superior to promiscuity. Maybe that’s something to support …

  3. John McGrath says:

    Natural Law as used by the Catholic church is adopted from an ancient science that is not science today. Thus it claims to be scientific but it is not, especially in regard to biology. The human species was liberated from sex as solely for procreation by the suspension of estrus as found in other primates. There is no reason to put procreation as the primary purpose of sex or marriage. Marriage, and prudent pre-marital sex, has many purposes: companionable love (which makes sense as the primary purpose of marriage according to the Catholic notion of the sacrament of Matrimony as opposed to teh secular institution of marraige), entering a commitment to properly nurture or help to nurture the next generation (which does not necessarily require procreation), to affirm a commitment to one’s community, to arrange mutual property settlements, to build community, to pledge fidelity, to contribute to the good order of society, to achieve individual and mutual happiness and well being.

    Another bizarre aspect of Catholic “Natural” Law is the insistence that organs have end purposes separate form the person. Thus because procreation is what sex is for, and the sex organs exist to accomplish procreation, then the sex organs must not be restrained in any way “against nature” (no contraceptives) but they can be restrained “in accordance with nature.” So in principle restraining procreation is OK.

    But if companionable love and the proper nurturing of the next generation are superior or equal purposes for marriage along with procreation, then the use of contraceptives can help to accomplish those purposes. In addition,if these are the purposes of marriage, then gay marriage would be allowed, since nature and the God of nature made some people gay. People who are equal citizens in a democracy.

    The papal rigidity and pseudo-science of “Natural” Law has been used to insist that certain things are by nature evil: these include democracy, the idea of liberty, and the charging of interest on loans. These absolutist restrictions were proclaimed as eternal truths, some as recently as the 1800’s. The church has simply walked away from these ridiculous assertions, which were rejected by the majority of the faithful.

    Science now has a good and nuanced understanding of the human species. The church could very much benefit from using this modern science to teach better morality and ethics than it does under the burden of an ancient and medieval notion of science.

    But putting aside natural Law as understood in the Vatican would involve surrendering absolutist papal authority and entering into a consultative process with pastors and scientists. The issue in Rome is always about power and authority, not a humble and Gospel based pursuit of truth. Under the Catholic theory of “Natural” Law the pope is the supreme arbiter and judge and discerner. Since his decisions are supposedly based on the eternal nature of humanity then his decrees apply to all humans of any religion or nation. In reality the Catholic decrees based on “Natural” Law are man made, not Nature made.

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