-“The School of Athens”, Raphael, 1509–1511, Fresco, 500 cm × 770 cm (200 in × 300 in), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, please click on the image for greater detail
-Jacob Kohlhaas This article also appears in the July 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 7, page 49).
“Broadly understood, natural law refers to a range of moral theories that rely on rational discernment of the natural order as a means of telling good from evil. Within Catholic moral teaching, natural law arguments are commonly invoked to denounce “unnatural” and therefore immoral acts: contraception, same-sex sexual relations, euthanasia, genetic experimentation not in keeping with the God-given dignity of human beings, and many assisted reproductive technologies, for example. But where does natural law reasoning come from and just how does it connect nature to morality?
Despite its robust history within Christianity, natural law morality was initially developed by the Greek Stoic philosophers. Their commitment to living reasonably within nature’s designs produced a universally accessible moral theory based upon the ordinary human powers of observation and rational reflection. Christians appropriated natural law reasoning through the premise that observations of creation ought to reveal aspects of God the Creator’s will. In other words, what is natural is what God intends.
Yet some Christian beliefs challenged this union, particularly the Christian teachings that humans are limited and prone to sin. As such our understanding is always partial and likely to be distorted. While human finitude is natural, Christianity claims that sin is “unnatural” in the sense that it is a distortion of our nature and therefore does not point back to the will of God the Creator. Therefore, to understand nature as it was intended to be, some interpretation is necessary.
Classically the Bible served in this interpretive role as a sort of handbook to understanding reality. However, modern biblical scholarship and modern science have seriously displaced the Bible’s credibility on the factual details of human and cosmic history, if read as history book, which it is not, primarily. While scripture still provides an essential reference point for discerning the will of God, its reliability as a resource for understanding the natural world has diminished while the moral questions we pose to natural law have become increasingly complex. This is the context for the present diversity of natural law theories both within Catholicism and beyond.
All forms of natural law basically agree that the question “What ought I do?” is best answered in reference to the question “What is natural?” But theories diverge in how they discern that second question. Catholic natural law thinkers today tend to fall into two broad camps with significant diversity in each.
The first approach draws more from authority and deductive reasoning and is characteristic of Vatican documents that tend to conserve traditional teachings through appeals to God’s will as rationally discerned.
The second approach leans on contemporary experience and inductive reasoning and has been utilized by a number of Catholic scholars in order to argue for revisions to official Catholic teaching in light of contemporary knowledge.
Numerous current debates within Catholic morality rest at least partially on these differences. While God’s will for us as persons remains the fundamental concern of Christian morality, thoughtful moral discernment within a complex world remains a challenging process.”
Love & truth,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom