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Appealing to natural law

Charles Rice | Sunday, April 25, 2004

Fifty years ago, in “Brown v. Board of Education,” the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools. That anniversary reminds us that even if the Constitution allowed such segregation, it would still be unjust. That leads to two further questions: Why is legalized segregation, or any other evil, morally wrong and unjust? And how do we know that? The answers are in the natural law.The natural law is not a Christian invention. Aristotle and Cicero affirmed it. Everything has a law of its nature, prescribed by its maker. If you throw a rock in the lake, it will sink. The natural law that governs human conduct is a rule of reason, implanted by God in man’s nature, whereby man (of both sexes) can know how he should act if he is to attain his end of eternal happiness with God.The first, self-evident principle of the natural law, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, is that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” The good is that which is in accord with the nature of the subject, whether a car or a man. It is good for a car to feed it gasoline, but it is not good to feed it to a man. So also it is not good, i.e., it is evil, for a man to steal, since theft is contrary to that natural human inclination to live in community.”Moral truth is objective,” Pope John Paul II said, “and a properly formed conscience can perceive it.” Whether an act, e.g., murder, objectively violates the natural law is a separate question from the subjective culpability of the person who does it. You are morally culpable, i.e., blameworthy, only if you knew the act was wrong and still chose to do it. Apart from special circumstances, such as a juror or confessor, we have neither the right nor the capacity to judge the subjective culpability of anyone.The natural law is the standard for the civil law as well as for personal conduct. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955, she made a natural law statement. A law can be unjust, said Aquinas, “when burdens are imposed unequally on the community.” Legally-enforced racial segregation, whether on a bus or in a school, is unjust because it violates the dignity of the person and undermines community.As Aquinas put it, if a human law “deflects from the law of nature,” it is unjust and “is no longer a law but a perversion of law.” In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” We may be obliged to obey an unjust law, as Aquinas said, to avoid a greater evil of “scandal or disturbance,” but a law that is unjust because it would compel one to violate the Divine law must never be obeyed.The question remains: Whose natural law are you going to apply? “The ideas of natural justice,” said Supreme Court Justice James Iredell in 1798, “are regulated by no fixed standard; the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject.” Reason can attain to moral truth. But if reason were our only guide, we would be doomed to endless and inconclusive debate. Our intellects are weakened by original sin and sincere advocates can be found on both sides of most moral issues. Aristotle sanctioned infanticide. When people disagree, e.g., on the morality of abortion, they can’t both be right. As Aquinas tells us, “If … we consider one action in the moral order, it is impossible for it to be morally both good and evil.”God gave us the Ten Commandments to spell out the basic obligations of the natural law. But without a visible, authoritative interpreter, how are we to apply the Commandments and the natural law in specific cases?Pope John Paul II points to the solution: “Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As [Vatican II] affirms: ‘[T]he Catholic Church is by the will of Christ, the teacher of … the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself.’ … The Church puts herself … at the service of conscience, helping it to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.” Everyone has a pope, an ultimate authoritative interpreter on moral questions. If it is not the real Pope, it will be the individual himself, or CBS, Katie Couric or whoever.It makes sense to recognize that we have only one pope, not six billion, and that he is John Paul II because he is the successor of Peter to whom Christ, who is God, gave the keys. The Church, however, is not an academic “superteacher” of natural law. Rather, she incorporates the natural law, and especially the teachings of Aquinas, into her teaching of the Truth, who is Christ. The papacy is a gift of God, permitting us to be certain as to what conduct is in accord with our nature and the law of God.So, on this anniversary of the Brown decision, we ought to remember that all of us, including the state, are subject to what the Declaration of Independence called “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Professor Emeritus Charles Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column normally appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at plawecki.1@ nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.