Sunday, January 17, 2016

The “Natural Law”

1.     Let us talk about the “natural law”. The Natural Law has been deeply entrenched in the moral perspective of the Church. The Church relies deeply on the thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding Natural Law. We will adventure into the heart of many libraries to appreciate (and criticize) the details of Aquina’s notion of Natural Law. Suffice for our needs in this class is to give a very general approach.
2.     The notion of Natural Law has helped the Church over the centuries to reflect on moral issues. The Church appreciates this so much because it implies something that is found in each and every single person. In each one is the capacity to seek for the good—and we will explain this later. The Church trusts in the human person with this capacity. Hence the notion of the Natural Law is very respectful of the human.
3.     Up until today the Church relies a lot on this notion and she feels it is relevant now. Take the different issues like bioethics and medical ethics. These can really stand well on Natural Law.
4.     Of course, we admit, the notion of Natural Law is not so clearly delineated, not even by St. Thomas Aquinas. Over centuries theologians and philosophers have debated about many aspects. So in general, then, what is Natural Law as described by the Dominican saint?

5.     “Natural”:The word “natural” tells us about what is innate in each of us. We were born with it and in it. It is so “human nature” in us that we cannot see ourselves without it. What is natural is opposed to simply what we construct. The natural has an objectivity to it. It is “already there”. For example, natural in each of us, humans, is our corporal existence. We have “my body”. We also have feelings, emotions, psychological lives, sensitivities. We have intelligence and we can think and reflect. We have freedom. We live with others, we have social lives. Using a more modern language we can say that we have innate facts. The fact is, I am born with a body, with feelings, with sensitivities. It is a fact that I am born in a family with a set of relationships and I am born in a culture and society and language. I may have many dreams and plans as I grow older but I have to navigate through my life with these facts. These facts are naturally given, they are “already there”.

6.   The “Law”: If that is “natural” what then about “law”? Law here, for St. Thomas Aquinas, implies moral law. It means that there are things we should do as we recognize the natural facts in us. Inscribed in us is a moral law—a “should”—that tells us that if we are to live properly we should use our heads—our reason—to constantly and vigilantly adapt to what is natural in us. We have dreams and hopes and we want to live fulfilled human lives. We can do this if we keep in mind the natural facts in us. Do not live in violation of human nature. Orient life respecting the natural facts.
7.     God has a plan in creating us—and this plan is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls as “Eternal Law”. That Law belongs to God. When God created us, he inscribed in us the moral law: the Natural Law. This moral Natural Law is our way of participating in God’s Eternal Law. So technically then if we follow the Natural Law we are “doing God’s will”. What we should do is to do what God has naturally made for us. There are certain natural God-given aspects in us that we must vigilantly respect and recognize and obey. Deviating from this is to fall outside the Natural Law; we will end up doing something unnatural, artificial and false. To use our MAPAC term, we say that as we live as naturally as we can, we bloom. Staying within the parameters of human nature is to guarantee our blooming. This is what God wants—it is in his “Eternal Law” plan.
8.     Note then how theological the notion of Natural Law gets. The nature inscribed in us, humans, is in the divine will.
9.     In more concrete terms, what should we do? Do good and avoid evil
·        Where do we say that we are following the natural path the God has willed for us? St. Thomas Aquinas says that if we observe closely this nature of ours, we notice that we should do good and avoid evil. Ingrained in our nature is this imperative. Fortunately we, humans, are not the only creatures called to do good and avoid evil. St. Thomas Aquinas observes that all creatures tend to seek fulfillment. All creatures tend towards “blooming”. The mango tree does its best to be fully and truly mango. The cat does its best to be truly and fully cat. The human too moves to fulfillment. All tend to do good; all tend to bloom. To do good and avoid evil, we can do specific things.
                    i.            Just like all creatures, the human does good and avoids evil by conserving being/existence/life. Self-destruction is never the option of creatures.
                  ii.            Now if conservation of being is natural and a “should”, corollary to this is the promotion of being. All creatures, including humans, promote life. We see this in the propagation of the species and the formation of the offspring. We educate and form and train our kids.
                iii.            But then, there is something proper to the human. This is the capacity to seek and to know the truth. We humans are capable of having insight into the workings of the reality around us. If we borrow from Von Hildebrand we can say that the human has the capacity for reverence: acknowledge things for what they are.  This allows us to live socially with one another. We are not just pushed and pulled by genetic forces and instincts. We are capable of thinking, reflecting and deciphering the world around us. Hence our social lives are characterized by this capacity for insight. We can—and should—live with each other in truth.
10.            Again, we repeat, this notion of the Natural Law has its intricate details which we are not delving into here. Let us just keep in mind the basic tenet: do good and avoid evil. This is the moral law in us. Now to do good and avoid evil is to conserve life/being, to promote life/being and to live truthfully and properly with others in society.
11.            There are advantages in taking inspiration from the Natural Law. In our modern-postmodern world we are so exposed to many ideas and values we can be attracted to so many approaches to moral living. But it can be tough and confusing because we wonder “which is which”. We target a good life with a shot gun with twisted barrels. (Or am I too critical of postmodernity? It comes with age.) As the old song goes, “Who can I turn to?” With a myriad of moral options it can be a tough world to live in. How do we live morally with this notion of the Natural Law?

·        a. The Natural Law offers objective basis for making moral decisions. We can rely on what is naturally given in front of us. This is the nature God gave us, why deviate? So we discern and seek to base our choices and decisions on what we see are truly natural in us. It is not about what I want or what I prefer but about what “stuff” God made me of.  Human reality is not dependent on our preferences and tastes. It is a reality that has been prescribed by God. Take it or leave it…it does not work this way. We just have to take it for what it is. So in moral discernment the challenge is always to seek for the human nature in us.

·        b. The Natural Law is about what each of us has. We do not need rocket science to look at ourselves. Every single person has the capacity for reflection and self-discernment. We can each look at the nature given to us and seek for moral truths based on our insights. (Modern psychology…or some schools of it…might teach us to rather be skeptical about this capacity to reflect and know ourselves. And so we see this tendency to rely on, say, a therapist. But we are not completely zero in self-reflection, are we? Also, if we admit how difficult it is to know ourselves, we also admit that we can be helped—which is another way of saying that at a certain point we can have insights too on ourselves.)

·        c. We can hold the conviction that whatever moral truth we discover it can be made “universal” i.e., applicable to all. If we gain insight into human nature, we cannot say that it only about a specific group of people like the Chinese or the Samoans. For if insight is about human nature, then it is insight about all humans. Morality then is open to the possibility of something universal. Maybe there are variations in the style of doing good and avoiding evil; but we see that everyone should do good and avoid evil; everyone should conserve being, everyone should promote life and everyone should live well with others.

12.            The Church needs this solidity. The Natural Law, if we look closely, is so rational based. The Church has a high regard for the human capacity to reason and think and discern. The Church recognizes that by the proper use of human reason in vigilance to what is human nature, we can have solid moral living. If we put in faith and Scriptures and other theological elements, we inform this reasoning capacity with faith. This surely can help a lot!    

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