Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What is the Purpose of the Natural Law?

Some thoughts -- about a pretty big question! -- from a student in my "Catholic Social Thought and the Law" seminar:

“The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law” (Pope

Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est).


Catholic Social Thought relies heavily on the natural law as a source of authority outside revealed theology. The natural law is “written on the heart” of all people; therefore normative statements by the Church on social issues may be accepted as true or right simply through the exercise of reason, without accepting the Scriptural authority of the Church through Faith. The natural law is a valuable foundation for moral reasoning, where Christians and unbelievers can meet and build agreement.

But does the natural law “work”? Does the natural law provide a stable foundation for moral agreement? Unfortunately, a quick look at natural law scholarship reveals a MacIntyrian post-Enlightenment landscape: disagreement abounds. “New” natural law scholars battle “Classical” natural law thinkers and any attempts to specify moral precepts break down into disagreement just outside the second half of the Decalogue. And all of this disagreement exists within the natural law tradition, among allies. Perhaps we can at least agree that we disagree?

In the face of all this disagreement, one may be tempted to say, “so what”? People always disagree about ultimate questions of right and wrong, good and bad. But Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us that, because of the premises of natural law reasoning, deep disagreement in practice creates real intellectual problems: “if the precepts of the natural law are indeed precepts established by reason, we should expect to find agreement in assenting to them among rational agents. But this is not what we find, . . . [m]any intelligent, perceptive, and insightful agents either reject what Catholics take to be particular precepts of the natural law or accept them only in some very different version, or, more radically still, reject the very conception of a natural law. And these disagreements seem to be intractable. How can this be?”

Perhaps the natural law has a proper use, and we have missed it. If the natural law does not exist to create agreement among reasonable minds on the requirements of morality for human action, then we should not be surprised when it does not.

But what is the purpose of the natural law? I believe the natural law exists to convict the sinful human heart. We can see this purpose in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Catholic Social Thought often quotes Romans chapter 2 for the proposition that “the law is written on the heart,” but Paul says much more about this law:  “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:19-20).

 “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The Apostle Paul certainly “uses” natural law, but not to reach agreement on social policy. The Apostle Paul uses the natural law to demonstrate that we know right, yet do wrong. The standard is high and we fall short. He uses the natural law for eternal purposes, to crush any faith we may have built up in ourselves, so our faith may find rest in Christ.  Is this the purpose of natural law? Can the natural law be used as a common foundation for moral reasoning, when no one lives up to the full extent of the law?

Can we expect people to consent to the rule of natural law, as a basis for State enforced social policy, when serious contemplation of the natural law illuminates our shortcomings? Or should we focus on pushing the sharp conviction of the law upon the human heart, so hard hearts are plowed, and the ground is made fertile for seeds of grace?


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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