The Fool is delighted to introduce a new voice from the peanut gallery that is The Pope’s Fool … The Cranky Thomist!
November 16, 2014
By The Cranky Thomist
I think therefore I am. But what a minute! What happens when I space out? Do I cease to exist? And do I exist again when I start thinking again?
Philosophy is awesome! However, unorthodox, anti-scientific pseudo-philosophy is not. Case in point—the toxic natural law idea that has gotten firmly stuck in the papal and episcopal mindset for decades now.
The groupthink goes like this: Natural law means that you look at nature and figure out morality from that. First you see that God made man and woman. And then you see that men and women make babies. And then you conclude that contraception is immoral. And homosexuality is intrinsically disordered. And in vitro fertilization is a sin (rather than a blessing that helps people create families). And then you say that all of it is based on the “observance of the precepts of the natural law.” Seriously???
Natural law has been around since ancient Greece and was embraced in the Catholic intellectual tradition by St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s easy enough for anyone to understand, and has nothing to do with looking at nature and making stuff up.
According to Aquinas, natural law works like this. The primary natural law, upon which all other laws are based, is that good be done and evil avoided. So we figure out what makes humans grow towards the good and derive morality and law from that (with good in the Christian sense being defined as that which moves us toward the love of God and fellow creatures in charity). As Aquinas says, “Since good is grasped as always desirable, the first premise in reason’s planning of action is that good is to be done and evil avoided” (Summa Theologica, 1a2ae. 94. 2).
Aquinas then points out three derivatives of this primary natural law, seeing us first as living beings, then as physical creatures, and finally as reasoning creatures. First, we must conserve human life and oppose death. Yup. Then, we must do whatever accords with our physical nature, which is what we have in common with other animals (e.g., having sex, raising children). Finally, we use reason to plan our actions. “Man naturally seeks whatever accords with the rational nature that distinguishes him as human: to know the truth about God, for example, and to live a social life; so the law in us by nature commands whatever is relevant to such inclinations, like avoiding ignorance and not offending those we live with.”
Because natural law is based upon practical reasoning and our understanding of the reality around us, it is knowable by all and applicable to all.
Does anyone see anything there that would lead you to condemn contraception or homosexuality or IVF? Me neither.
In the preparatory document for the recent Synod of Bishops in the Family, the authors had an interesting take on the understanding that the faithful have of natural law. They note that one of the roadblocks to the acceptance of the ban on contraception, and to Church teachings on the family and on sexual matters in general, is a misunderstanding of the concept of natural law on the part of the faithful. “In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.”
That’s a good one! Natural law, which is based on practical reasoning and our understanding of the reality around us, is incomprehensible! Somehow I don’t think the problem lies with the faithful. We intuitively figured out a long time ago that the condemnation of contraception based on the “observance of the precepts of the natural law” in the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae was poppycock, which is why 95% of us have studiously ignored it.
Here’s a guy who does get the real import of natural law: Archbishop Mamberti, the newly appointed Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Segnatura, a position equivalent to the Chief Justice of the Vatican Supreme Court. When addressing the opening of the UN General Assembly in September 2012, Archbishop Mamberti said that “the transcendent value of human dignity offers a secure basis to the rule of law because it corresponds to the truth about man as a creature of God’s making; while at the same it allows the rule of law to pursue its true purpose, that is, the promotion of the common good.” He then argued for “political solutions applicable at the global level with the aid of a juridical order solidly based upon the dignity and nature of humanity, in other words, upon the natural law.”
If you want to see natural law in action, don’t read Humanae Vitae. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.