Notes on Natural Law
The natural law is a participation in the eternal law. In what way natural law is natural is difficult to define. The term “natural law” is itself uncomfortable because it can have a Kantian ring to it, in the sense that we are to follow some kind of abstract sense of duty. Even if we place the law in the mind of God, the whole notion of law runs the risk of falling into moralism. What is required is an understanding of normativity that takes into account man’s inclination for happiness.
There are some interesting discussions on the relationship between theoretical reasons and practical reasons. Many philosophers have thought that they were separate and so one branch focused on things epistemological and the other action or ethical theory. But recently, some philosophers are trying to bridge the gap. One way is to emphasize the convertibility of goodness and truth. One does not look for truth if it does not interest him. Truth becomes abstract if it does not take into account many other factors. Let’s give examples from analytic philosophy. Take, for example, the goal of epistemology. Some say that the goal of epistemology is truth. But that is hardly the case. The goal is knowledge, something that is more than truth. We can have true beliefs without them being knowledge. Or suppose that we compare someone with a true unjustified belief and another with a false justified belief. One can hardly attribute intellectual virtues to the former. And then there is the account in which practical interests play a role (cf. J. Stanley). Our attributions of knowledge also depend on what is at stake. Usually, when there is more at stake there is less knowledge, we are told. Then there is also the knowledge rule of assertion (cf. T. Williamson): we should only assert what we know. Finally, there is the notion of practical reason based on facts or knowledge. According to some (cf. J. Hawthorne, J. Stanley), we should only act according to what we know. D. Parfit has also argued against the desire-based theories, proposing that facts gives us reasons; in fact, facts give us reasons to have desires. D. von Hildebrand proposed long ago that there is not just being but importances. By this, he means that things motivate us to act in a certain way. They can motivate us to act because they either are self-satisfying, because they are objectively good, that is, will make us happy, or because they are important in themselves, or combinations of the three. A. Pruss has argued that all facts are normative because they make us act a certain way. We can then assert that there is an intuition about the relationship between the theoretical and the practical.
Facts, then, are not just neutral. They have a normative component. Any kind of realism that does not take into account the splendor of truth and its gratuity is a false realism. We cannot look at reality as if it does not affect us, as if it does not ask us to be engaged in it. Here we can turn again to von Hildebrand’s notion of value. Being has value and this value requires a proper response. Saints are to be admired and evil is ought to be hated. When I understand the truth of things, it requires me to respond in a certain way, like a child seeing a mother and rejoicing in her presence or a person committing a sin and having a contrite heart because he knows who he has offended. The key is trying to figure out the source of this normativity. Ratzinger has been insisting that God is essential in having a realistic worldview; any realism that is not holy can be hardly called realistic. Here we understand the nature of law in the natural law. Law, as Thomists have emphasized, is in the mind of God and it is in this way that we are obligated to act in certain ways. But even the notion of a participated theonomy is very abstract in our minds. What is necessary is to understand that reality requires us to act in a certain way because it is there for us. A mother requires a child’s love not only because she is important in herself but because receiving the mother is a good of the child. A true account of realism, then, takes into account the intention of God as that which is good and beautiful. The term “law” should not distract us into abstraction if we understand it as the intention of a gracious God. It is at this point that it becomes difficult to understand how it is that natural law is natural. In the first place, it is in the mind of God, that is, the place of man in God’s heart, and in what way we participate in this law gets into the problem of the nature and grace distinction.
The distinction between nature and grace is difficult. In the first place, we should understand the account of creation as an act of grace. The Eastern Christians, for example, would speak of every act of creation as the activity of God. To see creation is to see the energies of God, that is, God Himself. But creation is seen as being ordered to the Incarnation. We can quote Maximus: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end, the goal, for whose sake everything was created. This was the divine purpose that lay before the beginning of all things…with this goal in mind, God called the natures of things into existence” (Quaest. Ad Thal. 60). If we are to speak of the natural law as the intention of God, we definitely have to take into account in which way this law would lead to the divine law.
We need to be specific with regards to nature and grace. Both are gifts but in what way they are distinct needs to be fleshed out. A helpful way to understand nature and grace is simply this: grace is the concrete activity of God in the world which is directed to and is the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery. To put it in another way, grace is the covenant of God with man, both new and old. This way, we can understand grace as both a continuity and discontinuity (analogy of being) with nature. Here the natural law and divine law complement each other. Because the natural law refers to the capacity of human nature, which is the capacity for beatific vision, the divine law perfects and uplifts the natural law. But in what way is the Incarnation a free gift of God? One way we can understand the nature and grace distinction is to understand whether the Incarnation is necessary for every act of creation. Take the proposition:
(4) The Incarnate God exists in all possible worlds.
This means that the Incarnation is necessary, that in every world that there is, Christ exists. But if this is true, that the basis of all creation is the Incarnation, then we can argue for the following:
(5) Creation entails the Incarnation.
Every creation of human nature, then, entails that God assumes this human nature. One wonders where the gratuity is in such an event. It is true that God does not have to create a world and therefore there can be no Incarnation. But this leaves gratuity simply as the act of creation since we can deduce the Incarnation from the act of creation. To put it in another way:
(6) If an essential property of a world is the Incarnation, then the Incarnation can be deduced from the existence of a world.
Now, it is true that in every world, before the event of Incarnation, man has a certain lack and looks forward to a fulfillment that he himself cannot attain. But if the Incarnation is necessary in all possible worlds, then since this event must happen, this event is gratuitous only insofar as it comes from God and not from man. Gratuity is reduced to simply: it comes from God and not from man. But such an assertion can be said of human nature also: it comes from God. Where, then, is the radical gratuity of the Incarnation? Where is its discontinuity from the act of creation?
I think that if we are to speak of possible worlds God could have created, we have to admit that there are some worlds without the Incarnation. There are some worlds where there are original sin and the Incarnation and some worlds where there is simply the Incarnation without original sin. Some worlds have no Incarnation. This way, we can understand that gratuity and discontinuity of the Incarnation while at the same time not holding on to the notion that sin causes the Incarnation.
But if we look at the actual world in which the Incarnate God exists, we need to take into account its normativity. If the natural law is nothing but the intention of God’s creation, the intention of the Paschal Mystery must be taken into account. The precept of the natural law, do good and avoid evil, is meaningful only when we take into account that Christ satisfies man’s desires. Here we understand the meaningfulness of the natural law and its unity with the divine law. The precept can be known by all in a confused way but its meaning is understood within the salvific presence of Christ. We also need to understand that there is no such thing as nature apart from God. Again, the account of human nature is precisely looking at the human being: the intention of God to make a creature to be his dwelling place. A human ethic that does not take into account that the good of man is in God is either reducing ethics into an abstract sense of duty or the good of man will be reductive. But a reduction of man into structures or a human fraternity is contrary to the human nature itself. It is true that the proper response to a person is love, but the acknowledgement of the nature of the person is fragile unless one sees the person as relation to God. In fact, natural law or ethics concerns the goodness of an action which is only entailed by the goodness of human life. This is why the human person is truly himself when it is within the people of God, the Church.
The notion that truth is practically normative reveals to us that persons are inherently relational. Even Aristotle saw the social aspect of the rationality of man. Justice, as Aquinas noted, is a matter of right relations. J. Garcia has been emphasizing that we should see virtues as role-based. To understand whether an action is good or bad, we need to understand his person and his role. Assisted suicide is wrong not simply because of the general precept “killing is wrong,” but because it is contrary to the nature of a doctor. The relationship between a doctor and his patient is contrary to such an act. The role of a mother is to love her child. A mother performs virtuous acts insofar as she fulfills her role. This notion of role-based theory of virtue is no doubt complemented by the theodramatic theory of Balthasar that a person is fully a person when he fulfills his mission (instead of “role,” Balthasar prefers mission). Within this Balthasarian framework, we do not limit the person to his roles (profession, social, sexual, etc) because we understand that his role is broader than our categories: his mission comes from Christ. If the natural law is a participation in the eternal law of God, we must understand this to be the Trinitarian God: the Father generates the Son and the Spirit. Normativity should then be taken into account as fulfilling certain roles that God intends for the human person. It is vocation, accepting who he is for the one who created him. It seems to me that a natural law without the notion of a vocation makes it inhumane. When we contemplate what justice is, that is, what a just person is, we will tend to reduce a just man into our own preconceptions unless we take into account his vocation. Here we find fitting Guissani’s notion of love as loving a person’s destiny. Furthermore, we find the notion of justice as related to virginity. Virginity, as possession in detachment, the way God looks at the world (that is, in Christ), can truly be called a right relations of things. Justice requires virginity so that it does not become cold. The natural law obligates the following of a vocation. The rest, such as its form or even to accept it, is grace. With regards to the epistemic, if it is true that the natural law is a calling to accept a vocation, it is very difficult to discover this without a community-tradition. Persons understand roles and obligations solely through witnessing and/or experiencing the relationships. Knowledge can never be individualistic but starts from a communal event, a teacher-student paradigm.
What, then, of the universality of the natural law? This seems to be the issue of finding a common ground within people with different traditions. If the natural law is universal, then to look for arguments apart from scriptural grounds is very attractive. It seems to me that this is attractive because it can influence the state. Within a pluralistic society, the natural law seems to be the way in which we can convince people of providing just laws. What seems to be the crucial point is finding a way in which the natural law, which is not neutral to the salvific presence of Christ, can be the foundation of human laws. This is a difficult project indeed. J. Maritain, for example, saw that pluralism is simply the methodological means in which we can have a Christian society, although distinguishing the state from society. Some believe that although there is a juridical autonomy of the state from the Church, the state should be ordered to the Church. This gives us a way in which we can see the separation of Church and state while not being neutral to Christ. What is important, I think, is a realization of values that is intrinsically connected to a vocation-role. The function of the State is to provide and protect human goods, but human goods are human insofar as they relate to the relationships they are made for. What is needed is a constant purification of our understanding of what the goodness of a human being is and this comes about only when we understand the proper relations and roles of each person.
Finally, allow me to speak of a way in which the Church helps form and purifies the conscience of the state. A missionary priest in Paraguay who helps the poor does more in the name of justice than any liberation theologian. We can build political structures for the poor, but unless men’s consciences are formed, that is, open to their vocation, they are fragile. What is needed are simple hearts that can accept truth in any circumstance. This is where witnesses, the Church, are involved. They make hearts simple so that it can freely love. Simplicity may be the prerequisite for any civil action.