Tag Archives: natural law

Separating human-made law from natural law

July 11, 2013

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There's a reason behind every law--even ones governing ducks on the head. Not all laws have reason on their side, however. Photo/keepon. Licensed under Creative Commons.

There’s a reason behind every law–even ones governing ducks on the head. Not all laws have reason on their side, however. Photo/keepon. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Cross the Minnesota border with a duck on your head and you may face legal consequences. Tap your foot to the music in a New Hampshire tavern and you’ve violated the law. Throw pickle juice at a Rhode Island trolley (if you can find one) and you could receive a citation.

These old laws must have made sense when they were enacted but now we just wonder what legislators were thinking.

Those studying our laws 100 years from now might also scratch their heads at some of our statutes—and they may already feel the effect of some of our human-enacted laws that diverge from God’s natural law.

All human-made statutory laws are considered positive law. What exactly is positive law? What’s the difference between positive law and natural law? Do they have anything to do with each other? And what happens if positive law doesn’t align with natural law?

The term “positive law” was first used by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 work “Leviathan:”

Positive, are those which have not been for Eternity; but have been made Lawes by the Will of those that have had the Soveraign Power over others; and are either written, or made known to men, by some other argument of the Will of their Legislator.

Positive law also refers to the establishment of specific rights for an individual or group.

According to one legal definition:

Positive laws may be promulgated, passed, adopted, or otherwise “posited” by an official or entity vested with authority by the government to prescribe the rules and regulations for a particular community. In the United States, positive laws come in a variety of forms at both the state and federal levels, including legislative enactments, judicial orders, executive decrees, and administrative regulations. In short, a positive law is any express written command of the government.

Positive law can also be divine. Canon law and other Church laws are humanly instituted but inspired by God’s revelation. Natural law, on the other hand, refers to God’s laws governing the nature of things. Positive divine law can’t contradict natural law, instead it confirms and further defines it.

Separable or inseparable from our nature?

Natural law is proclaimed to us by the natural light of reason and is inseparable from our nature, whereas positive law is made known by outward signs—word of mouth or writing and is not inseparable from our nature.

Natural law is the foundation and root of the obligation of all positive laws. We can’t violate the natural moral law and the positive laws that are rooted in it without opposing God’s will.

Human-enacted positive laws can be amended or rescinded. Natural law, however, comes from the unchanging God and can’t be revised or avoided. When a positive law violates natural law, as sure as the former is temporal and the latter is immutable, there will be consequences.

A law governing pickle juice and trolleys doesn’t challenge the natural law, although maybe someone was spared inconvenience or even injury because of it.

Defying natural laws

But positive laws that disregard natural law are still subject to it, much the way someone who exercises a legal right to “fly” from a 15-story building will quickly become acquainted with the more established law of gravity.

In the case of some of our newer laws, especially those dealing with sexual morality, it just might take a little longer to hit the ground.

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Where did marriage come from?

June 6, 2012

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Photo/makelessnoise Licensed under Creative Commons

I did a search on “marriage” recently and was blessed with more than 700 million results. It didn’t surprise me that Wikipedia was on top with this definition: “a social union or legal contract between people called spouses that creates kinship.”

I thought that was vague enough to please just about everybody. The Catechism’s definition is a little more specific:

The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. (CCC 1601)

A covenant, a sacrament—the Church not only has her own definition of marriage, she has her own language. The mainstream media doesn’t understand that language so we don’t see it in the paper, on TV or on news websites.

With this and the next few posts, I’m going to get into that language to try and discover what the Church actually teaches about marriage. I’m looking for answers in scripture and Church documents. Anywhere along the way, I’d like to know what you think–if these posts are helpful, if you have insights to share or if you have constructive criticism.

In the Beginning

After laying out the Church’s definition of marriage, my next question is, where does she say that it came from? Marriage is believed to predate recorded history in cultures around the world. Among other places, tribes in the Western Hemisphere practiced it before Europeans arrived.

In Judeo-Christian traditions, the book of Genesis records that God established marriage when He created Adam and Eve. (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:18-24 RSV) While some skeptics claim the Genesis creation story is taken from a pre-scientific Babylonian myth,  I am basing these posts on my belief that it is the Word of God and therefore truth.

Evidence of God’s work in instituting marriage appears in Genesis 1: “God created man is his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen. 1:27-28)

Genesis 2 provides more detail:

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him … and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man He made into a woman and brought her to the man … Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:18, 22, 24)

Jesus affirms the creation story when Pharisees ask Him about the lawfulness of divorce:

Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. (Matt.19:4-6)

The story of “the beginning” that Jesus describes differs from how many tribes in pre-Columbian America would tell it. Still, they understood God’s plan for marriage because it was part of the natural law, the foundation of many of our laws, which is known to all people.  The natural law by which those outside the Church reach this conclusion is the basis of the Church’s teaching on the institution and laws of marriage, as Pope Pius XI presents in his encyclical on Christian marriage, Casti Connubii:

… let it be repeated as an immutable and inviolable  fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves.

This language of the Church is strong, affirming that her teaching on marriage, as established by God, is truth which doesn’t evolve. God’s law might seem  inflexible but in reading the Genesis story again, I see His care for the newly created humanity. The last verse, Genesis 2:24, shows that human beings, created as man and woman, were created for unity and through this unity they became one flesh, which from the beginning has a character of union, according to Catholic Encyclopedia.

In looking at the origin of marriage, St. Augustine sees this bond as kinship, which might be the strongest part of Wikipedia’s definition.

Forasmuch as each man is a part of the human race, and human nature is something social, and has for a great and natural good, the power also of friendship; on this account God willed to create all men out of one, in order that they might be held in their society not only by likeness of kind, but also by bond of kindred. Therefore the first natural bond of human society is man and wife. Nor did God create these each by himself, and join them together as alien by birth: but He created the one out of the other, setting a sign also of the power of the union in the side, whence she was drawn, was formed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Natural Law and the Goldfish

March 16, 2012

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Photo/úlfhams_víkingur Licensed under Creative Commons

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. ”

I can’t go into specifics on how the Church interprets natural law in each of her teachings. I’ll leave that to the Catechism and a teacher who had much more than a theology degree.

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)

 

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10 questions to increase your Catholic IQ

August 26, 2011

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question marks

Image by Valerie Everett. Licensed under Creative Commons.

A newly-ordained priest said during a homily recently that when he left seminary he realized he didn’t know everything.

He was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but his comments made me think about how much there is to know about the Catholic Faith.  No matter how many questions we answer, I think we’ll always have more because ultimately, God is a mystery.

Here are 10 intriguing questions about the Faith–not in any order–that readers and other inquiring Catholics have sent in for this blog. I’m curious about which ones you’re most interested in or if there are others (and I’m sure there are) that didn’t make the list.

  1. What is a miracle?
  2. Why do we baptize babies?
  3. What is an indulgence?
  4. What does the Church teach about cremation?
  5. Why do we need to confess our sins to a priest?
  6. What is penance and is it just for Lent?
  7. What does the Church teach about polygamy?
  8. What is natural law?
  9. What is intinction?
  10. Why do we pray to saints?

I’d also like to know if anyone ever asks you questions about the faith–either other Catholics or non-Catholics. Are there topics for which you’d like to have an answer ready, in case they come up again? Do you ever wish you could engage Mormons or evangelical groups in conversation about faith when they come to the door, but don’t quite know how to express your beliefs?

These are good reasons to keep asking questions about the Catholic Faith. Look for answers to the 10 intriguing questions in future posts. And email in what you’ve been wondering about!

 

 

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