WHY IT FAILS TO RESONATE WITH POSTMODERN MAN
Is the “Natural Law” Concept Obsolete?

June 2012By Melinda Selmys

Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism (Our Sunday Visitor, 2009). A regular columnist for the National Catholic Register, her articles have appeared in numerous Catholic publications, including This Rock, The Catholic Answer, and Envoy. She writes from Canada, where she lives with her husband and their six children.

As appeals to Christian moral tradition have lost their efficacy in the culture wars, many conservatives hope that the natural law could be used as a Trojan horse to smuggle Christian moral precepts into the secular sphere. The difficulty is that the success of the Trojan-horse gambit relies on the presumption that the horse appears desirable to those whom it is meant to deceive. Odysseus went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that the Trojans were under the impression that the horse was sacred to Athena, and that victory was assured to whomever had it under their control. The problem with natural-law theory as it appears in the modern political sphere is that it is eminently convincing to those who already believe in Christian virtue, but is alien and irrelevant to everyone else.

The Law Graven on the Heart

Over the past 2,500 years the concept of the natural law has substantially developed. It is derived, indirectly, from the Greek thinkers who proposed a theory of natural justice in order to try to find a universal good in the face of massive regional discrepancies in law and custom. The ancient pagans, lacking a definitive revelation like that of the Jews, worked to understand good and evil on the basis of their observations of nature, both the natural world and the nature of the human person. St. Paul acknowledges this when he says that there are pagans “who never heard of the Law but are led by reason to do what the Law commands, may not actually ‘possess’ the Law, but they can be said to ‘be’ the Law. They can point to the substance of the Law engraved on their hearts — they can call a witness, that is, their own conscience” (Rom. 2:14-15). This verse was the foundation for the entrance of natural-law theory into Christian thought.

The basic idea behind the natural law as it emerged in Roman thought was that human beings have a particular nature, and that if this nature were properly observed and described, then it would be possible to come to a series of ethical techniques by which human beings could become happy. Just as certain conditions were auspicious for the growing of wheat or the raising of cattle, certain interior conditions might best serve the needs of the human soul. Ethics, therefore, was a sort of counterpart to medicine: the latter was to describe a regimen and standard of health that would serve the body, whereas ethics would perform the same task for the soul. Scientists and ethicists were both supposed to study the nature of the human person in order to describe the style of life that would best serve his well-being.

As the notion of the natural law was dovetailed into Christian doctrine, it became obvious that the nature of man was a direct product of the creative intention of God. The natural law was therefore situated in a position between revealed law and human law. It was accessible to all human beings of good will on the basis of reason, it was universal across cultural boundaries, and it could never be completely effaced from the human heart.


You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.



Back to June 2012 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
1)Physiology and Philosophy of Mind are two sciences inseparable. 2) Man's moral nature is regulated by determinate laws. So vast is the importance and so great and salutary the influence,of this position ,that it should become an article of universal belief among mankind.3) what man can know of his own nature; first,his body ,it's constituent parts,it's functions, the laws of it's preservation ,and the laws of propagation; further ,his own affective and intellectual operations , and those of his fellow men; lastly ,the conditions necessary to the manifestation of these, and the regularity or laws according to which they appear or are produced. Posted by: laguerre12
June 15, 2012 11:20 AM EDT
" Since man is endowed with intelligence and determines his own ends,it is up to him self in tune with the ends necessarily demanded by his nature. This means that here is ,by very virtue of human nature, an order or a disposition which human reason can discover and according to which the human will act in order to attune itself to the necessary ends of the human being. The unwritten law ,or natural law ,is nothing more than that " ( Maritain ,Rights of Man and Natural Law,II) Posted by: laguerre12
June 29, 2012 11:10 AM EDT
" That in the order of ends,man ( and with him every rational being) is an end in himself ,that is ,that he can never be used merely as a means by any ( not even by God) without being at the same time an end also himself, that therefore humanity in our person must be holy to ourselves,this follows now of itself because he is the subject of the moral law ,in other words , of that which is holy in itself,and on account of which and in agreement with which alone can anything be termed holy. For this moral law is founded on the autonomy of his will, as a free will by it's universal laws must necessarily be able to agree with that to which it is to submit itself" ( Kant,Critique of Practical Reason ,Pt,I,II,2) Posted by: laguerre12
June 29, 2012 11:19 AM EDT
wpjmd: Thank you! Posted by: opinionated1945@yahoo.com
July 29, 2015 08:39 PM EDT
Slemys note is a dissonance to me. I don't like the sound of it. The Doctor Universalis expanded and elaborated the precepts of Natural Law. Thomism and Natural Law underpins this country’s founding philosophy and documents. This conservative flaunts Natural Law in promoting “Christian moral precepts into the secular sphere”-no Trojan horse.

The Doctor Communis tried to counter every possible argument within his texts. No, I've not read the aged Summa theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. Maybe the questions Mrs Selmy asks are answered in them. St Thomas Aquinas' influence on Western thought and the Catholic Church is considerable. I don't know that he has been discredited even after being thoroughly reviewed and critiqued over the centuries. I think some just don't like what he says.

Because the Natural Law is not constant across cultures does not invalidate it as a foundation of acceptable secular morality. Consider the earthly (secular) human experience as a laboratory where humanity as already evaluated and considered all permeations of society. We have already discerned what is functional (good) and what is dysfunctional (bad). That which is bad has been found offensive and these behaviors are deemed taboo. Societal mores have been established. The system effected appropriate prohibitions then because these outlawed behaviors were dysfunctional; they were bad for the system. Social science, like the other sciences, is an accumulation of knowledge of the human experience accumulated over time. The “laws” of the hard sciences are just as hard-but different-than those in social science. Have we lost the concept of absolutes altogether?

My sense of it is that Mrs. Selmys’ argument is to dismiss the traditional (time tested) values not only of The Church but of conventional society too to tolerate and make legitimate those behaviors already found to be untoward. “The culture wars mentality often causes conservatives to focus myopically on such issues as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality.” Right. We’re the Church Militant. This is the moral high ground on which to take a stand. In the Catholic Church the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church and has a skeleton of immutable Truth. Absolute values are a good thing. They are like anchors. When we build on a strong foundation we can discern the way things ought to be rather than the way we wish things to be.
Posted by: wpjmd
September 06, 2012 03:44 PM EDT
Add a comment


©