When we’re looking for an explanation of Church teaching on some of the most controversial issues of the day including gay marriage and contraception, the discussion inevitably comes around to natural law.
If you’re like me and you don’t have a theology degree, you might be asking, what exactly is natural law? Rules for protecting the environment? Did the Church invent it to back up her positions? If it’s a law, how is it enforced? And most importantly, how does it have a bearing on our lives?
Goldfish and all the flora and fauna do come under the purview of natural law but it encompasses much more. It is the rule of conduct given by God that’s already loaded in our hearts–an instinct all humans have which when understood through right reason, calls for using things in accord with their nature.
For example, if you decide to liberate your goldfish from its water-loving nature and take it out of the bowl for any length of time, it shouldn’t be a surprise that soon you’ll have a dead fish.
Human Nature and Reason
Natural law gets its name for two reasons: first, because it has to do with our human nature and second, because we understand it by the natural means of reason.
According to the Catechism, natural law “expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.” (CCC1954)
Natural law states the primary precepts governing the moral life. It depends on our desire to love and submit to God, and to treat our neighbor fairly. The Ten Commandments contain its major precepts. (CCC1955)
St. Augustine explained how it works:
Where then are these rules written, if not in the book of that light we call the truth? In it is written every just law; from it the law passes into the heart of the man who does justice, not that it migrates into it, but that it places its imprint on it, like a seal on a ring that passes onto wax, without leaving the ring.
Natural law is:
- Universal and found in the hearts of all people whether or not they practice a religion. It “remains as a rule that binds men among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the inevitable differences, common principles.” (CCC1957)
- Unchanging throughout history. The Church didn’t invent it. The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote of it before Christ’s birth: “For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men and is immutable and eternal. (CCC1956)
No one gets arrested for violating the natural law per se, but it’s the underlying source for many of our civil laws.
Part of all our decisions
Natural law plays a role in all our decisions. It is the foundation of truth placed by God. On it we build the moral rules to guide our choices, provided our reason has been properly formed.
According to an article on the site Christ’s Faithful People, the Church’s moral teaching stems from a sound theory of natural law based on two foundational points: God created the natural law and the natural law is manifested in the human person. ”A proper interpretation of the natural law must take seriously the natural inclinations of the human person and the ability of reason to understand toward what good ends those inclinations point. ”
Not everyone perceives the precepts of natural law clearly and immediately. Original sin obscures them sometimes. We all need both grace and revelation to understand moral and religious truths. (CCC1960)