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Natural law

Charles Rice | Tuesday, December 8, 2009

 “The crisis of … democracies,” said Benedict XVI in accepting the credentials of American Ambassador Miguel Humberto Diaz, a Notre Dame alumnus, “calls for … policies respectful of human nature and human dignity,” including “respect for the inalienable right to life from the moment of conception to natural death.”  

These remarks raise questions we ignore at our peril:  Why do we have to be “respectful of human nature?”  And where do we get “inalienable” rights?
Do moral issues, in health care and elsewhere, reflect merely personal or sectarian preferences?  Or is there an objective moral order — a natural law — that determines whether an act is right or wrong?  In “her interventions in the public arena,” said Benedict to European parliamentarians on March 30, 2006, the Church draws attention to “principles which are not negotiable [including] protection of life in all its stages … These principles are not truths of faith, even though they receive … light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity.”
Natural law is neither a merely Catholic teaching nor even a Christian invention.  Aristotle and Cicero affirmed it.  Everything has a nature built into it by its maker.  General Motors built a nature into your Chevy and gave you directions as to how to act in accord with that nature so the car will achieve its purpose.  Our “Maker” has built a nature into us that we ought to follow if we are to achieve our goal of eternal happiness.
We can know the law of our nature, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, by “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil.”  And our Maker has given us directions in Revelation, including the Ten Commandments which express the “principal precepts” of that natural law (Catechism, No. 1955).
The first, self-evident principle of the natural law is, in Aquinas’ words, that “good is to be done and promoted and evil is to be avoided.”  The good is that which is in accord with the nature of the subject.  It is good to feed gasoline to a car.  It is not good to feed it to a man.  And it is not good, i.e., it is evil, to steal or murder, because such acts are contrary to the natural human inclination to live in community.  While we can affirm through reason the objective rightness or wrongness of acts, we generally have neither the right nor the ability to judge the subjective culpability of the person who commits that act.  To be culpable, one must know the act is wrong and choose to do it.
The natural law provides a standard for human law as well as personal conduct.  Martin Luther King cited Aquinas when he said, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”  So, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955, she made a natural law statement.  Legally enforced racial segregation is unjust and a civil law that mandates it is void.
“Moral truth is objective,” said John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver, “and a properly formed conscience can perceive it.”   But if reason were our only guide we would be in confusion.  Our intellects are weakened by original sin and sincere advocates can be found on both sides of most moral issues.  Aristotle, who had a pretty good LSAT score, sanctioned infanticide.  Some Christians in the last century upheld the morality of slavery.  Today people differ on the morality of abortion.  They can’t both be right.  As St. Thomas tells us, “If … we consider one action in the moral order, it is impossible for it to be morally both good and evil.”
But whose natural law are you going to apply?  As Supreme Court Justice James Iredell said in Calder v. Bull, in 1798, “The ideas of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard:  the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject.”  If Iredell is right, the natural law is indeterminate and relatively useless as a higher standard for law and a guide for human conduct.  An authoritative interpreter is needed.  “Christians,” however, said John Paul, “have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium.  As the [Second Vatican] Council affirms: … ‘[T]he Catholic Church is by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth.  Her charge is to … teach … that truth which is Christ … and confirm 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.”  Veritatis Splendor, no. 64.
Everyone has a pope, an ultimate visible authority on moral questions.  If that authoritative interpreter is not the real Pope, it will be a pope of the person’s own choosing, usually the person himself.  It makes sense to say that we have only one Pope, not seven billion and that his name is Benedict because he is the successor of Peter to whom Christ gave the keys.
“[F]undamental rights,” said Benedict, are “accorded universal recognition because they are inherent in the very nature of man, who is created in the image and likeness of God … [A]ll human beings … share a common nature that binds them together and calls for universal respect.”  May 4, 2009.  Every state that has ever existed has gone out of existence or will go out of existence.  Every human being who has ever been conceived will live forever.  That immortal nature of man, created in the image and likeness of God, is the basis of the inalienable, transcendent rights of man against the state.
So when the Church speaks out against abortion, euthanasia, contraception and other intrinsic evils, she is not expressing merely some sectarian preference.  Rather she incorporates the teaching of the natural law on those and other issues into her teaching of Christ who is the Author of that natural law and whose birth, described by Benedict XVI as “the central event of history,” we celebrate in a few days.
Professor Emeritus Rice is on the law school faculty.  He may be reached at 574-633-4415 or [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.