Back to the garden: Natural law, faith and the gift of reason


By Fr. Bud Grant

When Pope Francis recently confirmed the Church’s acceptance of evolution, it caused quite a dust up. Secular journalists like Adam Withnall of The Independent interpreted it as a great swerve from traditional Catholic theology while Creationists like Michael Snyder, of Right Side News, accused him of disregarding Revelation just to create “a religion that almost everyone would love.” (I have to ask: is that a bad thing?)

Here’s what the Holy Father said: “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so, he created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

One creationist critic, comparing the pope to a drunken driver, noted his same erratic behavior in regards to issues of the family and sexuality.


Well, it is true that the Holy Father is using the same moral compass in both applications: Catholic moral theology flows from Natural Law interpreting our biblical faith. This strategy has served us well from the time Paul confronted the philosophers in the agora. This tempest in a teapot (the Catholic Church acknowledged evolution circa 1950) exposes how misunderstood is that sophisticated moral compass, even within the Church, by some who too often assert Natural Law as a blanket answer but do not make use of its arguments. As a result, the Church is dismissed as irrational and the great schema of Natural Law is sullied.

The answer given by the Church is clear: the marriage covenant establishes “a perpetual and exclusive bond” between a man and women and has been endowed by God with “its own proper laws” (Catechism 1638, 1603). Elsewhere, the Catechism says homosexual acts are “contrary to nature” and “objectively disordered” (2357-8).

But what are the arguments underpinning these judgments? The recently completed Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family demonstrated freedom of expression and sometimes even awkward transparency that invites Catholics everywhere to engage in the conversation, not just accept answers. This sensus fidei (the wisdom, or competency, of the whole Church) suggests that we could learn a great deal from one another during this great dialogue.

The next several months are an open window allowing diverse voices to penetrate the synod’s deliberations, so let’s talk about what Natural Law really is.
Natural Law, by itself, does not prima face prohibit same-sex relationships, preclude all forms of birth control, nor exclude re-married Catholics from the Eucharist. Natural Law never provides “The Answer” like an irrefutable mathematical calculation or proffers some gravitas laden rule, the sheer traditional weight of which precludes debate.

Rather, it provides a fantastic framework for hosting this great ethical conversation. Natural Law begins with a simple truth claim: God gives us faith and endows us with reason. Though not equivalent, they are, to use an evolutionary term, symbiotic: apparent contradictions between the two just signals some mistake: either we aren’t reasoning well (like believing the earth is flat) or faith must adjust to the facts (as when Catholic theology embraced evolution).

Thomas Aquinas, that greatest exponent of Catholic Natural Law, never meant to leave us a hermetic answer book. He expected us to use our noggins, in light of revealed Truth, to solve difficult ethical problems. There is only one universal and necessary Natural Law precept: “the good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided” (ST I.II.92.4), where “Good” means union with God. All other, secondary, precepts are contextualized by circumstances. As science informs us about sexuality, for example, we adjust our conclusions.

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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