An essay donated by Susan Humphreys
Secularism, the Catholic Church & Natural Law
Is the Catholic Church really serious about wanting to use “natural law” as the basis for its position on issues facing humanity? This web site has an interesting discussion on the Catholic Church’s use of “natural law” for justification of its position against homosexual activity and same sex marriage.
From nature we know that among species that reproduce sexually the norm is one male mating with as many females as he possibly can and taking no part in the rearing of his offspring. No marriage ceremonies, no commitments to love, honor or cherish. Is this the natural law the Catholic Church wants humans to follow?
From nature we know that the norm is that the old, the ill, the lame, the injured, the orphaned are left to die. The herd or pack don’t slow down or stay in one place to care for them. Is this the natural law the Catholic Church wants humans to follow?
From nature we know that males constantly fight for dominance with tooth and claw, hoof and horn. When a male gets old or debilitated and is no longer able to maintain his dominance he is often fatally injured in a battle and left to die. Is this the natural law the Catholic Church wants humans to follow?
From nature we know that populations are kept in check by disease, by predators and by starvation. Is this the natural law the Catholic Church wants humans to follow?
From nature we know that infanticide is practiced, that aggression between rivals within a species is common, that social hierarchies that grant favors to dominant males and females and their offspring is common. Are these natural laws all things the Catholic Church wants humans to follow?
Or do they just insist that homosexual sex is against “natural law”. Yet wait! In nature I have witnessed males mounting other males, no penetration takes place, but the activity is certainly sexual!
Come to think of it I have never seen an animal refer to a book for guidance on what to do or not to do. So it would seem to me that doing so is against “natural law”. I have never seen an animal bow down before God, or enter a confessional booth, or attend a church service, or listen to a priest or minister or advice of any elder. The “natural law” seems to be to do what comes naturally, if it feels good do it, survival of the fittest, each individual looking out for one’s self. Is that really what the Catholic Church thinks should be our guiding principles?
Perhaps the Catholic Church should consider the full ramifications of their policies before they attempt to justify their actions (whether against homosexuals and same sex marriage, birth control, abortion access, end of life choices, etc.) on the basis of “natural law”.
They might object here and claim that they are only referring to the “natural law” of the human species as though man can be totally removed from the influences of his “animal nature”.
It seems to me that part of “natural law” is that we humans have developed a brain that gives us abilities that other species don’t have. We have the ability to question why, to think logically, to make inferences from one situation to another, to think in abstract terms, to be able to tell the difference between objective and subjective “truths”, to see the world through another person’s eyes, to tell the difference between good and bad, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, virtuous and non-virtuous thoughts and actions. All designed to enable us to keep ourselves from being controlled by our “animal” instincts, or solely by “natural law”.
Christian’s argue that man can not decide what is right or wrong, he has no objective basis for making such decisions. Only God can decide and tell us through his revealed word what is right and what is wrong. AND it is the job of Pope, Priest and Minister to tell us or explain to us what “God’s word” is. What makes anyone think that Pope, Priest, or Minister can be objective in their interpretation of “God’s word”?
Secularists argue that morals, and concepts of good and evil are man made concepts and that there is NO such thing as an absolute objective concept of right or wrong, moral or immoral. Christians argue that is relativism at it’s worst, that is an anything goes philosophy, any mans concept of what is right is as good as any other mans concept.
The secularist can argue that how can a subjective concept such as God determine what is or is not objective? As proof that God is a subjective concept they only have to point to the myriad depictions and descriptions of the attributes of God and the Gods throughout human history. There is no agreement about what God is or isn’t, what he or even she is capable of doing or not doing, what name should be used to address this entity, what powers he/she manifests, etc.
The Catholic Encyclopedia (Cathen for short) has several interesting articles on Moral Law, Natural Law, Eternal Law. You can find them at www.newadvent.org/cathen . One definition of natural law the Cathen provides is that it “is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of nature with which He has endowed us.” “ The eternal law is God’s wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action.”
So how do we know what this law is, what it tells us to do, what it defines as right and wrong? Do we look to the example of the rest of creation, we are after all just one species out of thousands and are greatly outnumbered by all the other species on this planet. I have already pointed out the problems that presents.
The Cathen states
“The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself.”
That sure sounds like the concept that James Q. Wilson talks about in his book “Moral Sense”. On page xii he writes:
“By a moral sense I mean an intuitive or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily (that is, not under duress.”
Wilson makes the argument that humans share a common moral sense and sites concepts of kinship structure, caring for the old and young, taboos against incest as well as our shared sense of sympathy, fairness, self-control and duty.
We may never agree 100% on what is moral or immoral, right or wrong. How do we know who is being “true” to their nature and who is going against it? What are we to do?
St. Thomas puts it simply:
“that good is to be done, and evil avoided.”
Okay, so who decides what is good and what is evil? The Cathen says:
“Every man, because he is a man, is bound, if he will conform to the universal order willed by the Creator, to live conformably to his own rational nature, and to be guided by reason. ... The moral law is known to us in the measure that reason brings a knowledge of it home to our understanding.”
It seems to me that the Catholic Encyclopedia has just confirmed what the secularist has claimed from the start, that it is men that decide with the use of their reason what is good and what isn’t. They have just confirmed that we are to use our gifts, our brain to decide what we are to do or not to do, that is the “natural law”.
So is the persecution of homosexuals; denying them their legal rights, telling them they are to deny their “nature or natural instincts”, that their behavior is a greater sin and thus more deserving of punishment than “bearing false witness”, cheating, stealing, is that seeing that “good is done and evil is avoided”?
Is denying women the access to birth control that can keep unwanted children from being born in third world countries where it is likely they will starve to death before their first birthday seeing that “good is done and evil is avoided”?
Is forcing a woman who has been raped to carry the baby of her rapist seeing that “good is done and evil is avoided”? Is sacrificing the life of the mother for her unborn child by denying the mother a life saving abortion seeing that “good is done and evil is avoided”?
I don’t think so. There is no “good” coming from those actions. And it certainly isn’t within my nature to take those positions, (persecute others that are different from me by denying them their legal rights, or denying women access to birth control or access to an abortion, nor would I feel I have a right to demand that women owe me an explanation for the choices they make and I would never persecute a woman by bullying tactics for the choices she makes) and the Cathen tells us:
“The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself.”
That is the “natural law” using my brain, my innate sense, my insight, my wisdom to decide what is right or wrong, moral or immoral, what brings the good and avoids the evil or at the least I can certainly try not to cause greater suffering and harm.
The positions of the Catholic Church on a whole variety of issues seem to me to cause greater suffering and harm, they certainly don’t alleviate it.
- James Q Wilson, "The Moral Sense," Free Press, (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Available in paperbook at $16.00 plus postage, or in Kindle format at $22.56.
Originally posted: 2013-JAN-11
Latest update: 2013-JAN-11
Author: Susan Humphreys