An exploration of Natural Law


By Father Bud Grant

Fr. Grant

I last wrote about two categories of God’s Law: divine, revealed through Scriptures, and eternal, knowable through God-given reason.  Eternal law that we know is the natural law, which has primary and secondary principles.
The primary principles of the natural law are universal and necessary, that is, they apply to all persons in every situation.  Strictly speaking, there is only one such principle, bonum est faciendum et prosequendum, et malum vitandum: good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided (ST I.II.94.2).  The Latin creates what Thomas O’Meara (“Thomas Aquinas: Theologian”) calls Thomas’ “irreducible ambiguity.” Well, not exactly, but it is tricky. Does Thomas mean that the good (bonum) MUST be or that it OUGHT to be done? Both, of course. Still, this principle is broad to the point of near vacuity. Who could argue with it, yet how helpful is it?  It really isn’t unless we define bonum.
First, however, we should note that Thomas’ theology is teleological: good is a goal, not a condition. To say your child is “good” is to say that she “strives for goodness.” Thomas and Aristotle (whom Thomas calls “The Philosopher”), are teleological eudaemonists … they believe that morality is the pursuit of the ultimate good.  Synonyms of bonum include perfection, beatitude and happiness. One more thing, Thomas and Aristotle discover truth from a close examination of the world (and people) around them.
This is tedious, I know, but there is a great pay off.
In his study of nature, Thomas notes that nonorganic entities simply exist. Thus, existence is their supreme good. Plants grow and regenerate; this is their final good.  Animals (i.e. sentient mammals) nurture their young; this is their ultimate good. Rationality constitutes a distinctly human good. Believers’ ultimate good is heaven. These categories are hierarchically ordered and, for convenience’s sake, we can classify them into three tiers, each with its own good.
Oddly, Thomas does not offer clearly distinct terms to describe these three goods, so I’ve borrowed terms he uses (sometimes interchangeably). First is the ‘bonum naturalis,’ the natural good. Non-rational nature expresses itself fully simply by existing, living, growing, reproducing and caring for offspring. While Thomas never got to the exact idea, he is really talking about the order of ecosystems and, ultimately, the whole cosmos. The primary principle of the natural law as it applies to nonhuman creation is this: whatever does happen in nature is what is supposed to happen. There are no crises, no evil, no calamities.  God has so ordered the cosmos that the whole coheres with elegant harmony, kinetic balance, intricate interdependency and indeterminate sustainability. Henry David Thoreau, like the stoics before him, “read” into nature some sort of proto-morality we should learn. He should have known better: nature is “red in tooth and claw,” to cite Robert Browning. Theologian Lisa Sideris de-masks this naïvely romantic misreading of nature as a teacher of ethics. Lions devour their prey without bothering to euthanize it. Cancer, pestilence, plague, drought, tsunami happen.
Still, while not moral, the bonum naturalis is a legitimate good.  Though not itself rational, it is subject to rational inquiry by scientists who not only describe it but, crucially, make predictions about it, thus demonstrating its “orderedness.” Thomas asserts that creation is good simply because it is God’s creation.  It has intrinsic, not merely instrumental value. It reveals to us traces (vestigii) of God who is its author, sustainer, model and end (God is the primary, efficient, formal and final cause, to use Thomas’ terms). Nature’s teleology is always in a condition of being realized.  “Each and every creature exists for the perfection of the entire universe.  Furthermore, the entire universe, with all its parts, is ordained towards God as its end, inasmuch as it imitates, as it were, and shows forth the Divine goodness, to the glory of God” (ST I.65.2).
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on