In light of what the Church has maintained over the centuries, an examination of the relation of the Gospel of the Family to the experience common to every person can now consider the many problems highlighted in the responses concerning the question of the natural law.
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. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all.
Many bishops' conferences, in many different places, say that, although the spousal aspect of the relationship between man and woman might be generally accepted as an experiential reality, this idea is not interpreted according to a universally given law. Very few responses and observations demonstrated an adequate, popular understanding of the natural law.
The responses and observations also show that the adjective “natural” often is understood by people as meaning “spontaneous” or “what comes naturally.” Today, people tend to place a high value on personal feelings and emotions, aspects which appear “genuine” and “fundamental” and, therefore, to be followed “simply according to one’s nature.”
The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things, and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires.
Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. Today, in not only the West but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not “scientific.”
Instrumentum Laboris for Synod on the Family, 21-22
Reflection – These paragraphs of the Instrumentum indeed highlight a major problem in communication of the Church’s moral law to modern people. Natural law theory is little understood and little accepted today by many. Even people who have no philosophical training and who couldn’t tell you what the Aristotelian-Thomistic notion of natural law is, reject it.
People who have never studied the history of moral philosophy will tend towards some incoherent amalgam of the utilitarianism of Mills, the voluntarism of Sartre or Nietzsche, or the scientism of Comte. This is a textbook example of how, if you do not have a conscious philosophy you will have an unconscious one, which will be given to you by your social and intellectual ‘betters’. Trickle-down economics may or may not work, but trickle-down philosophy definitely does.
It is beyond the scope of this blog (and, let’s face it, this blogger) to give a comprehensive teaching on natural law ethics. The paragraphs above, however, give some idea of the popular misunderstanding of the word ‘natural’ today, and its consequent incoherence when set next to the word ‘law’. So let’s at least clear up what the Church, and the philosophical tradition we draw on, mean by that word.
We have to draw an analogy from the world of human artifacts. A toaster is a machine invented to make toast. It is in accord, then, with the nature of the toaster when it is used for that purpose. If I use a toaster as a paperweight, a murder weapon, or as part of an art installation, I am not using it for the purpose for which it has been designed. This may not be morally wrong, as man is the maker, and hence master of the toaster, and we may repurpose it at will.
Human beings are a divine artifact. What is ‘natural’ for us is not what feels good or what arises in us as a spontaneous desire. What is natural for us is what is in accord with our nature, with the purpose for which God has designed us. (Natural law theory is necessarily theistic, though not necessarily Christian.)
To use an example, the human mind is made to know the truth of things. Human language is made to communicate that which is in my mind to your mind. So it is against ‘nature’ to tell lies, even though we may very much want to and it may feel good to do so.
Human will is made to form intentions and carry them out. Human language is made to create a community of persons who can live a coherent and peaceful life together. This means that we express our intentions to one another and bind ourselves to doing what we have expressed. It is natural, because of the structure of human will, human society, and human language, to make vows and to keep them. So divorce is unnatural and so is adultery.
It is essential to natural law theory that this ‘purpose’ of human life is in us from our Maker, but that it is knowable to us by our reason. In other words, it is not just an arbitrary law imposed from on high that is wholly exterior to us. It is from on high in its origin, but then again, so are we as creatures of God. So by a process of right reason and reflection, we are able to reason our way to the moral law which is in us by nature.
There is whole anthropology of human freedom and human dignity that emerges from this and which is utterly vital for us to grasp. I wrote an entire book about it, once, which may or may not be helpful. But that’s enough for now, and gives the basic idea. More on this subject to follow; that’s quite enough for one day.