New Prospects for the Application of the Natural Moral Law

Resistance to natural law ethics
Why is it that the natural law ethics meets today with such a wide resistance?

Is this caused by the weakness of the mind, which has been conditioned excessively by ideologies and philosophical assumptions that have impaired its capacity to see the truth, or are there other causes?

In the Enlightenment, reason was elevated above faith that was treated as superstition and myth in the conviction that reason alone, freed from prejudices and any external sentimental interferences may arrive at true cognition with accuracy and precision. This intellectual pride of reason, which set itself its own method and sphere of activity ended finally in the self-limitation of positivism, in which reason arbitrarily limits not only its own possibility of knowing, but even the existence of that reality which it cannot ascertain and measure according to its own arbitrarily chosen methods.

The refusal to view the metaphysical ground of reality is a form of enslavement of the reason that locks itself in its own self-defined prison. As such this refusal becomes an ideology that blocks the mind and disenables it from seeing what to another more open mind is obvious. Skepticism about the cognitive possibilities of the mind ends in shortsightedness that is ultimately nihilist.

In a paradoxical historical development, today it is the Church that is defending the dignity of reason, and inviting the minds of thinkers not to stop short and to reach out to the fullness of reality that can be known.(8) The reductive self-limitations of the mind however contribute to the nihilist and relativist moral climate, which denies the existence of the natural moral order and leaves the new moral virtues reacting to new moral challenges suspended in a nebulous groundless atmosphere, prone to whatever ideological winds, fashions and political manipulations, may appear.

Is the contemporary resistance to the natural law caused primarily by epistemological weaknesses, or are there maybe other reasons, which cause the rejection of an objective, rationally cognizable moral order? While it is true that anti-intellectual fundamentalisms, whether of a religious or secular nature, may generate a psychological paralysis of the mind, are there not also other factors causing the shirking away from truth, even if the mind is naturally inclined toward it? Should we not look into factors that have constrained the will, both from within and from without, and disenabled it from persevering in the truth once it has been known?

It is not only philosophical assumptions and the weak mind that generate a resistance to the light of the natural law, but also the deformations or rather the lack of formation and of support of the will, which generate this resistance. The reason may see, even clearly, the truth of a moral challenge, and yet the person may refrain from adhering to it, precisely because what is missing is the moral stamina that would permit the creative and mature free choice of the “verum bonum,” as it has been truly seen. And when moral truth has been rejected, primarily due to moral weakness, the intellect then easily succumbs to the temptation of retreating from truth and to the espousing of confused relativist and skeptic theories that would justify the previously made decision to escape from the known truth.

In this context, it is good to remember the words of St. Paul who wrote about the depravity of men who keep truth imprisoned in their wickedness. For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them since God himself has made it plain. Ever since God created the world, his everlasting power and deity — however invisible — have been there for the mind to see in the things he has made. That is why such people are without excuse: They knew God, and yet refused to honor him as God or to thank him; instead, they made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened. The more they called themselves philosophers, the more stupid they grew (Romans 1:18-22).

Paul’s acerbic language did not aim uniquely at ridiculing the intellectual pride of the philosophers, nor did it intend to throw moralizing accusations at those culpable for the moral depravation of the society of his times. It was a preliminary step toward his preaching of Christ and the annunciation of justification through faith.

It is through faith in Christ that the grace of the Holy Spirit is received, which infused in the reason and the will enables growth in charity and moral responsibility. In wondering about the reservations about the natural moral law in contemporary Western culture, should we not also note the insufficient initiation into the life of grace in the past and maybe even present Christian moral teaching, depriving those who have engraved in their consciences and hearts the moral intuitions coming from their instinct of nature (Romans 2:15) of the only available power making the adherence to the verum bonum truly possible?

Both the quoted text of St. Paul and the teaching of Aquinas on the natural law are presented within a vision of faith. It is of course true that a rational discourse on the moral order should be able to stand on its own without the support of faith, but this does not mean that the practical living out of the ethos presented by the natural law is possible without the life of grace. Even Adam, according to Aquinas,(9) in the state of original justice needed the support of grace, although he did not need to apply that grace to so many wounded spheres of human existence as we do.

Moral teaching needs to be coupled with an initiation into the spiritual life grounded in Christ, as without it, reduced to a Pelagian rigorism, it generates an instinctive defensive reaction. It should come as no surprise that non-Christians, when told about the possibility of living out the ethos of the Sermon of the Mount on the basis of a personal relationship with Christ are intrigued and fascinated, while argumentation based on metaphysical principles and the natural law does not seem to convince them.(10)

The purpose of the natural law reflection is to show that the high ethos, made possible through faith in Christ, is not a deformation of nature, but an eliciting of the profoundest inclinations already existing within nature. That is why the graced person is pleasing in his or her naturalness.

This does not however mean that the preaching of Christ within the moral order is optional, and that moral propriety may be socially guaranteed uniquely on the basis of a natural law morality. The suggestion that one may successfully engage in moral discourses exclusively on the level of ratio — “etsi Deus non daretur” (as if God didn’t exist) — in view of convincing intellectually nonbelievers may be a noble cause, but it is condemned to failure.

Too much is expected then from the rational discourse, which cannot in itself supply such a force of conviction that would move the heart, influence the will and enable perseverance in moral truth. Whereas, an introduction into the spiritual life illuminates the mind, opening it to the mysterious perspective of encountering God and it strengthens the will enabling it to persevere in its attachment to the true good, without in any way, denying the value of the clarity of natural law reflection.

In response therefore to the question that was addressed to me, I conclude that as new moral challenges are facing the world and as new moral sensibilities are being noted and expressed, they require the intellectual support of ethicists, who will work out the clear metaphysical foundations of the new moral perceptions.

This endeavor in itself, however, while desirable, is insufficient. What is primarily needed is the proclamation of the new law of grace, exactly within the moral challenges and dilemmas. Reflection on moral responsibilities needs to be undertaken, “etsi Deus daretur,” believing in the fullness of God’s gift that includes not only the creation of the cosmos with its inherent recognizable order, but also the redemption given through Jesus Christ and the accompanying grace of the Holy Spirit.

It is in the light of this renewing gift of grace that not only the functioning of the intellect, but also the functioning of the will and the dynamism of the affectivity, as also the practical responses to concrete moral challenges need to be viewed. Not only “fides et ratio,” a study of reason in the light of faith, but also “fides et liberum arbitrium” (free will), and “fides et passio” (passion) are needed.

(1) Ethics (New York, 1955), p. 143-144.
(2) Feliks Koneczny, “Prawa Dziejowe” (Laws of History), (London, 1982), p. 174-236.
(3) Motu Proprio Spes Aedificandi, 10: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, XXII, 2 (1999), p. 513.
(4) Marguerite A. Peeters, “La nouvelle éthique mondiale: défis pour l’Église,” (Institut pour une Dynamique de Dialogue Interculturel, 2006).
(5) Epikeia is the virtue of applying to law according to the true mind of the legislator in situations not specified by the letter of the law. Synesis is the virtue of good judgment about acts according to the common law. Gnome is the virtue of good judgment according to higher principles.
(6) St. Thomas Aquinas, Super II ad Cor., l. 3, c. 3: “Ille ergo, qui vitat mala, non quia mala, sed propter mandatum Domini, non est liber; sed qui vitat mala, quia mala, est liber.”
(7) Jean Porter, “Natural and Divine Law. Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics,” (Ottawa: Novalis; Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 140-141.
(8) John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio,” 56.
(9) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, qu. 95, art. 4, ad 1: “Homo post peccatum ad plura indiget gratia quam ante peccatum, sed non magis.”
(10) Servais Pinckaers, O.P., “Les sources de la morale chrétienne. Sa méthode, son contenu, son histoire,” (Fribourg : Éditions Universitaires, Paris: Cerf, 1985), p. 171.