Natural Law: a common ethical foundation


By Father Bud Grant

Fr. Bud Grant

Recently, a colleague asked me about Natural Law.  He was reacting, I suppose, to the bishops’ objections to birth control. I am very attracted to the principles of Natural Law, derived from St. Thomas Aquinas, and so I enjoy the chance to explain it and I wonder how many other Catholics are a bit mystified by a theology that is often known only by conclusions drawn and rules applied by the magisterium.
I propose to offer a series of articles dedicated to the theology behind the rules and conclusions. Ultimately, we will see how Natural Law is applied to Catholic environmental ethics. Natural Law is not difficult, but it is intricate. If this project interests you, you might save each article so as to re-read the last before reading the next.
The articles will proceed much the way Thomas himself explains it.  First, then, we will discuss what the term “law” means in this context. Then we will see how Natural Law is not distinct from, let alone an alternative to, biblical ethics. The third step will be to explain the principles of Natural Law.  After that, Natural Law must be situated within the larger scope of the Virtues Ethics of Thomas, which includes a discussion of the role of emotions, the four “cardinal” virtues and the three theological virtues. This will complete the general framework of Natural Law and you will realize immediately that we are still some distance away from specific magisterial rules and conclusions, let alone environmental applications.
This is important. Natural Law and Virtues Ethics do not necessarily and inexorably lead all theorists to the same conclusions. While we might well agree on the broad insights and general truth-claims of the theology, reasonable people will still find much room for disagreement about how these should apply. For this reason it is important for us to recall the primary principle of Catholic moral theology: it rests on the sovereignty of the individual conscience, what Thomas calls “synderesis,” that is, the deep moral awareness which “‘insights us to do good and to murmur against evil” (Summa Theologica I.97.12).  This “first natural habit” must be informed by the use of right reason, but it constitutes the primary source of our moral reasoning.
Thus, Catholics are obliged to examine their conscience (a close-enough synonym for synderesis), study the principles of moral theology, listen attentively to the conclusions of the magisterium, and then make our own moral choices. Not only are we free to act contrary to specific magisterial teachings, by the way, we are obliged to do so if we have reached different conclusions.  “Man is obliged to follow the moral law, which urges him “to do what is good and avoid what is evil.” This law makes itself heard in his conscience”… “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1713, 1738).
That the universal principles of Natural Law might lead good and reasonable people to contradictory conclusions is one of the most delightfully paradoxical elements of the system.  Perhaps one might complain that it is useless as an instrument if it leads to some such moral fragmentation.  On the other hand, it can be noted that Natural Law is a supple and nuanced tool that avoids the rigidity of one-size-fits-all legalism.  Whether in the field of environmental or sexual ethics, for example, reasonable and good Catholics might well agree on what is ideally good and what is abhorrent, while yet disagreeing  how to evaluate all of those ethical choices and practices that fall somewhere in between…which is to say most of our moral experience, I’d wager.
Natural Law reveals how much we have in common, how good and reasonable we are, despite our disagreements, and how we might agree to share a common ethical foundation.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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