Are you wanting to be an apologist for the the faith and to battle against the Culture of Death? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to argue against abortion, contraception, so-called gay marriage, etc. with more than just Scripture? If you agree, then you need to know the meaning of Natural Law.
The Catholic Church bases much of its opposition to modern perversion of sexual ethics upon its theory of Natural Law. But what does the Church teach as the meaning of Natural Law?
In his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth) Saint Pope John Paul the Great offers a wonderful introduction to the theory.
Understanding the theory will help Catholics and Christians alike to formulate arguments in opposition to the agenda of the Culture of Death. Errors, such as so-called gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, contraception, IVF, and embryonic stem cell research, can be repudiated using the theory of Natural Law.
ST. JOHN PAUL THE GREAT’S DEFINITION OF NATURAL LAW
The late Holy Father offers the following as the definition of Natural Law:
“The true meaning of the natural law can be understood [as] man’s proper and primordial nature, the ‘nature of the human person, which is the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end.
“The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body” (50).
That is a lot to digest, I realize. Let us break it down a bit.
First, the Pope points out that all mankind is endowed with the same “proper and primordial nature.”
He goes on to state each person, on account of their “bodily and spiritual nature” have both rights and duties.
This means that moral relativism, which represents the air we breathe in our society these days, carries no weight. In other words, in reality no one can create their individual truth. As humans, we all share in the same truth. We know this by light of our reason.
THE NATURAL LAW IS UNIVERSAL AND BINDING
St. John Paul II quotes St. Augustine, who offers an analogy.
“‘Where then are these rules written,’ Saint Augustine wondered, ‘except in the book of that light which is called truth? From thence every just law is transcribed and transferred to the heart of the man who works justice, not by wandering but by being, as it were, impressed upon it, just as the image from the ring passes over to the wax, and yet does not leave the ring’” (De Trinitate, XIV,15, 21: CCL 50/A, 451).
The truths that bind us all as humans are imprinted on us. Like a ring into wax, says the Doctor of the Church.
The pope adds more commentary on his analysis on the meaning of Natural Law:
“But inasmuch as the natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties, it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind” (51).
Later, the Polish Pontiff delves deeper into the universality of the Natural Law. He explains men and women know the precepts of the universal law by use of their judgment:
“Positive precepts such as these, which order us to perform certain actions and to cultivate certain dispositions, are universally binding; they are ‘unchanging.’ They unite in the same common good all people of every period of history, created for ‘the same divine calling and destiny.’
“These universal and permanent laws correspond to things known by the practical reason and are applied to particular acts through the judgment of conscience. The acting subject personally assimilates the truth contained in the law. He appropriates this truth of his being and makes it his own by his acts and the corresponding virtues” (52).
SO, WHAT ARE THE COMPONENTS OF THE NATURAL LAW?
This is a bit hard to grasp without the help of some examples. The Vicar of Christ realized the same in his encyclical. He offers numerous examples of the Natural Law, which are binding on all human beings.
Saint Pope John Paul II’s first example, in section 50, is the universal prohibition on committing murder. Interestingly, he reasons to this in a twofold manner. On the one hand, he acknowledges the classic Natural Law argument that man has a natural inclination to preserve his own life. Therefore, he extends this out to others and recognizes he ought not take the life of another innocent person.
However, the saint also concludes we cannot commit murder because each person has intrinsic value in himself. He writes, “Human life, even though it is a fundamental good of man, thus acquires a moral significance in reference to the good of the person, who must always be affirmed for his own sake.” Elsewhere in the encyclical he fleshes out why it is each human being has fundamental value.
The late Pope’s other examples of components of the Natural Law begins with another saint’s writings. He cites St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which lists these: do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practice good and contemplate beauty (I-II, 94, a. 2).
He gives another couple examples.
“It is right and just, always and for everyone, to serve God, to render him the worship which is his due and to honor one’s parents as they deserve” (52).
The Pope does not pretend these precepts are all that bind all mankind. More aspects remain, which will be good to explore in future blog posts.
For further reading on the topic, I suggest reading Veritatis Splendor in its entirety, especially sections 46-53. St. Thomas Aquinas covers the meaning of Natural Law in the Summa Theologica, and other writers have tackled the topic much more recently as well. You can also learn more in other blog posts on this site.
Since it is true that we all are bound by a universal law, then the Culture of Death has no leg to stand on. For example, the right to life supersedes all other supposed rights, as reason dictates. Dismembering babies in their mothers’ wombs, chemically killing a preborn child by using birth control, or killing human embryos violate this basic norm on the Natural Law.
I hope you can see the usefulness of knowing the meaning of Natural Law. Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to better defend the sanctity of life against the evils of the Culture of Death.
So, what do you think of the theory of Natural Law?
Are you beginning to understand it?
What do you make of Pope Saint John Paul the Great’s treatment of the meaning of Natural Law in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor?
Please sound off below!