Last week I explained that I was surprised to see how much confusion there is surrounding the topic of natural law. If the Church needs to use the natural law argument in order to explain morality and especially sexual morality, we need to find a better way to explain it. Here’s my contribution:
If you type “natural law” into your Internet search engine, this is what you’ll get:
nat•u•ral law (noun)
- a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct.
- an observable law relating to natural phenomena.
This is actually not a bad definition. Natural law refers to a law that is absolute, it is unchanging. It does not change based on cultural, social or experiential differences: What’s true for you is true for everyone.
Last time I mentioned that it was St. Thomas Aquinas
who came up with the doctrine or notion of natural law. He based this idea on the notion that first there is an “eternal law”.
In his Summa Theologiae
, Aquinas begins by defining law. Laws are the rules by which a ruler rules. Aquinas assumes the notion that rulers rule for the good of the governed. If God is the ruler of the world, the idea by which God governs the world, for the well-being of the world, is called “eternal law.”
This is where the definition that we looked at last week from Prof. Hittinger of the University of St. Thomas, Houston
comes into play: According to Aquinas, natural law is the participation of rational creatures in eternal law. Question is whether that “eternal law” imprinted in the hearts of rational creatures. Has God imprinted his eternal law in the nature, essence or design of his creatures? If so, that imprint of God’s eternal law in his creatures is natural law.
Since all beings in creation act according to their nature, it can be deduced that all beings act according to natural law, i.e. the law that God wrote in their beings (their design), and this law is a participation in God’s law, which exists for their well-being. It’s easy to understand if we’re speaking about tomatoes or chipmunks; they can’t act except according to their nature. But rational beings? Can we human beings act against our nature?
This is where the problems begin because human beings have freewill. (Can we say that it is in our nature to have free will?) In fact, a better definition is that natural law is “human beings’ participation in eternal law, through reason and will.” That means that we humans have to use our reason and will in accordance with the eternal law.
Are you confused yet? If it sounds like you’re back in grade 12 philosophy class while the teacher drones on, I do apologise. It does get complicated.
But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how Dr. Janet Smith
explains natural law (or my adaptation of her definition) and how I’ve been explaining it for years:
Natural law is the law that says that all things work best or yield the best results when used according to their nature.
Think of that tomato plant. If you want it to work best or yield the best tomatoes, you have to use it according to its nature. You don’t stick in the closet and forget about it. That is not the nature of the plant. The nature of the tomato plant is that it needs water and sun. There may even be different species of tomatoes that have slightly different natures; some grow better in the sun, others in shadier areas... I don’t know (gardeners, please help), but you get my point. How do we know the nature of the specific tomato plant? We look at how it works best or yields the best results.
And it doesn’t just apply to “natural” things or thing “in nature”. Take my car for example. My car works best or yields the best results when I use it according to its nature or design. If I put honey in the gas tank, it’s not going to give me very good results. The design of the car is that we have to put gas in the gas tank. Furthermore, if I do all the things that I’m supposed to do, according to the design of the car; change the oil every 5000kms, rotate the tires, etc. (who does all those things?) it is guaranteed to work best and/or yield the best results.
That doesn’t mean that if I don’t use the car or the tomato plant exactly according to their nature, it’s going to be a disaster. If my car is not yielding the best results but at least it gets me from point A to point B, who cares? I operated my last car for 5 years with a leaky master cylinder by bleeding the clutch every six months. Not the car’s nature, but good enough for me – and saved me $2000. (What human beings do when something is not working best or yielding the best results is that, instead of trying to find out the nature of the thing, we just make do, or try to change the thing’s nature. More on that next week.)
It’s easy to understand this when speaking of tomatoes and cars, but what about when it comes to human beings? How do we know the nature of human beings?
Same way we know the nature of a tomato plant: we see how a human being works best or yields the best results. I guess, we’ve figured this out by trial and error. We know now that smoking is bad for you; that it’s good to drink eight glasses of water a day; that we need to sleep 7.5 hours a night; that aerobic exercise is good… Once we can determine how the human person works best or yields the best results, we’ll know human nature. The human person is guaranteed to work best or yield the best results when used according to its nature.
The reverse is also true: When we use something or behave in a way that goes against natural law, things don’t work best or yield the best results (or they are not guaranteed to work best or yield the best results). So, if I listen to music that’s too loud, and therefore am not using my ears in the way they were designed to be used, I may damage my ears. Or if I smoke, therefore using my lungs in a way that goes against their nature, they will not work best. As I said earlier about my car, if I do one thing or another that goes against my nature, according to what God designed for me, it may not be the end of the world, but it will harm me. It may harm my ears or my lungs, or it may harm my spirit. It may also harm my relationship with God, because that is also written into our hearts as part of our nature.
And this applies to everything and especially when it comes to Catholic moral teaching. If you want the guarantee that something will work best or yield the best results according to God’s design, then you must use it according to its nature.
It’s actually not that complicated. If you have a question as to why the Church says that something is immoral or sin, put it through the natural law test. I’m sure you’ll be able to figure it out.
Next week, let’s look at some concrete examples as to how this can apply to sexual morality.