Archive | January, 2010

The Significance of Natural Law in Catholic Ethics

14 Jan

Natural law is the fundamental principle of ethics in the Roman Catholic tradition, but the term “natural law” is “highly ambiguous” (1) and leads to confusion over its definition. As a primary step, natural law can be described by what it is not, namely natural as in subject to empirical verification as are scientific theories, or merely a series of either written or unwritten legal prescriptions. (2) However, such negative characterization of natural law is insufficient; while natural law concerns neither the study of nature proper to science nor the function of legislative and judicial bodies, it assumes universal moral norms of good and evil and the ability of human reason “to know and choose what is right.” (3) In Catholic teaching, faith is presupposed to assist reason, which is nonetheless capable of knowing basic truths like the existence of God (4) and the judgment of right from wrong. (5) Thus, natural law can be defined positively as a participation “in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator” and an expression of “moral sense which enables [humankind] to discern by reason the good and the evil.” (6)

Based on this definition of natural law, I will outline advantages and disadvantages of its use in and influence on Catholic moral theology. Following that initial sketch, I will compare natural law with other ethical systems, most of which are at least partly compatible with each other or with natural law. In particular, I will contrast natural law ethics with moral relativism, utilitarianism, deontological or duty-based ethics, teleological or goal-directed ethics, and consequentialism. (7)

The foremost advantage of natural law in a Catholic framework is that it holds human beings to be essentially good. It follows that if humankind is essentially good, then the human rational faculty from which arises the ability to judge what is morally correct is also good in and of itself. Moreover, humankind is held in Catholicism to have been created in the image and likeness of God, the source of all goodness. (8) This doctrine of the “imago Dei” (9) could be construed as a disadvantage rather than an advantage of natural law in the Catholic context, because the anthropological view that human beings are created in the image of God is declared to be devoid of significance for non-theists. Eberhard Schockenhoff responds to this criticism of natural law coupled with imago Dei anthropology by contending that to conceive of humankind as created in God’s image is more a theological stance than strictly an anthropological one. (10) Schockenhoff concedes that

this presupposition must be taken for granted from a theological perspective, but it already contains the first catch. If natural law is to make possible the justification- independently of every religious confession of faith- of moral commandments and of laws antecedent to the formation of any state, it is not possible simply to take creation theology’s interpretation of reality and make this the unshakeable foundation that is to do justice to this claim. (11)


While by itself the theological claim that humankind is created in God’s image cannot form the basis from which the system of natural law ethics is to be made relevant to non-theists, Schockenhoff affirms that natural law is founded upon an understanding of what “is common to all human beings.” (12) A view from “Christian anthropology” of human nature entails a “theology of creation” (13) in which all human beings are presumed to have been made by the same God. Therefore, human beings are naturally oriented toward an “ultimate end:” (14) God. The secular humanist worldview does not consider humankind to be directed toward a divine creator as its definitive goal, but regards humanity’s final purpose to be experiential and historical. In secular humanism, “individuals…act in history with specific goals.” (15)

As within Christianity, the notion of human nature within a secular humanist worldview is then fundamentally teleological, that is, directed toward a final objective or telos. (16) That objective- God- is metaphysical in Christianity while it is confined to the physical in secular humanism. Due to this teleological characterization of humankind that is commonly shared among adherents and non-adherents to a religion, a natural law ethical system is possible in theistic and in non-theistic worldviews. (17) More particularly in Catholic doctrine, God is the telos of humanity, whether or not an individual fully recognizes his or her intrinsic God-oriented nature from which natural law as an ethical foundation necessarily derives. (18) Thus, another advantage of natural law is that it is universalizable; natural law can be understood independently of a religious worldview and depends only on the principle of the teleology of humankind.

The extension of natural law beyond a religious paradigm in order to universalize it leads to a further objection, though. If natural law can be interpreted from the perspective of any teleological ethical system without deference to religion, Richard Gula writes, then “Christian morality” merely becomes the domain of “moral philosophy wherein religious beliefs do not… make a difference for moral claims.” (19) On the contrary, the contributions of secular moral philosophy ought not to be separated from a distinctly Catholic Christian conception of natural law. Indeed, natural law theories pre-date Christianity; they were developed in Greek and in Roman philosophy as well as in Old Testament prophecy and in Wisdom Literature before their integration into Christian thought. (20) An added benefit of this long evolution of natural law, therefore, is that while its roots are Biblical and philosophical, natural law can be applied to contemporary circumstances that were not relevant to ancient times. A historical overview of the historical progression of natural law also shows that its universalization to appeal to those with and without religious affiliation is actually advantageous and does not lessen the influence or credibility of natural law-centered Catholic moral theology.

Natural law arguably originated in the Greek philosophy of the Stoics and of Aristotle, and in that of the Romans Cicero, Gaius, and Ulpian. All of these models shaped the medieval Christian moral thought of figures like Thomas Aquinas that continues to be significant in contemporary Catholicism. (21) Of the ancient natural law theories, that of the Stoics was the most naturalistic and deterministic, as well as the most distant from natural law in the Catholic tradition. In Stoicism, nature was not to be altered to suit human goals. Any attempt to change the course of nature was considered futile, since “the given order of events [would] ultimately assert themselves according to their own design anyway.” (22) Stoicism left little room for human autonomy over nature.

Aristotle developed the Stoic perception of nature; no longer was humankind to simply follow an established natural order, but nature was posited as the origin of activity of all beings. (23) Each being acts according to its nature. Aristotle’s view of nature afforded human beings slightly more freedom than Stoicism; humans could act against their natural ordering, but at the expense of their own happiness or eudaimonia. (24) One approached eudaimonia if that person followed the “‘law’ of nature”- “the orientation of all beings toward their perfection.” (25) Aristotle equated morality with rationality, thus a morally correct action was a rational assent to pre-ordained means to reach perfect happiness as a final objective. (26)

While the Greeks were naturalistic in their approach to natural law, the Romans were legalistic. (27) The main Roman concern was to assure both political and social stability. To that end, Cicero, who died in 43 B.C.E., stressed the supremacy of human reason. To be human was to be rational. Whereas Aristotle had said that nature directed the activity of all beings, Cicero was more specific in that reason was central to human nature and directed human activity. For Cicero, therefore, the moral act obligatorily conformed to the prudent use of reason toward an increase in political and “social order.” (28)

More than two centuries after Cicero, Gaius further developed Roman law focused upon the principles that reason was the essence of human nature and that it was oriented ideally toward the good of all society. Gaius’ legal code could be more accurately called natural law than the philosophies of Cicero or of the Stoics and Aristotle, because it not only highly valued human reason, but was “based on the common needs and concerns of all people.” (29) “As such,” Richard Gula concurs, Gaius’ legal formula was “not distinguishable from the natural law, or that which is reasonable.” (30) Two categories of law existed according to Gaius: the civil law or jus civile that was comprehensive of the entire state- its political management and the individual rights of its citizens (31)- and the jus gentium, which governed the “relationships between legally autonomous territories” (32) within the Roman Empire. Ulpian, whose death was forty-eight years after that of Gaius (33), subdivided the jus gentium into jus gentium and jus naturale. The former was specific to humankind as a rational species, while the latter accounted for characteristics common to humans and animals. For example, human reason dictated that contracts were to be honoured, thus contract law fell under the jus gentium. Procreation and the care of offspring, common between humans and animals, were within the domain of the jus naturale. (34)

According to Charles Curran, Ulpian’s tripartite organization of law was adopted in late medieval Christianity by Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas called the jus gentium “human law” (35) or the “law of reason” (36) because it deals with the rational capability unique to humankind. On the premise that, unlike other animals, humans have the capacity to reason, human beings are inclined to act rationally toward good and against evil. (37) Thomistic natural law in the strict sense, or “divine law,” was akin to the jus naturale of Ulpian or the “iustum naturale” of Aristotle before him. (38) Divine law dealt with traits common to humans and to other animals.

Richard Gula proposes a simplified twofold classification of the natural law of Thomas Aquinas and of the “high Middle Ages” that has shaped Catholic moral theology to the present day:

Two strains of thought dominated the natural law tradition [in St. Thomas’ time]. One, the “order of nature,” identified with the Stoics and Ulpian, focused on the physical and biological structures given in nature as the source of morality. The other, “the order of reason,” identified with Aristotle, Cicero, and Gaius, focused on the human capacity to discover in experience what befits human well-being. St. Thomas accepted both. (39)


St. Thomas Aquinas’ acknowledgement of both the order of nature and the order of reason in natural law has created notable consequences for Catholic ethics. Gula, for instance, correctly understands Charles Curran as “consistent in his criticism of the physicalist stream of natural law” (40) that is a danger of too great a bias toward the “order of nature” over the “order of reason” (41) in Catholic moral teaching. Physicalism links the “physical structure of [acts]” with their “natural processes.” (42) This bias, says Gula, dates back to St. Thomas himself, who considered violations against nature more serious than those against human reason. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas lists in order of least to greatest gravity actions that, in the area of sexual ethics, infringe upon nature because they block the biological process of procreation: masturbation, bestiality, homosexual acts, and contraception. Offenses that still allow for procreation but are against right reason include adultery, rape, and incest. Gula rightly cites as problematic “Thomas Aquinas’ principle that the most serious offenses are those [that] go against nature,” which leads to the conclusion that rape and incest are less immoral than actions that obstruct biological reproduction. The current Catholic model of ethics, Curran admits, is not exclusively physicalist, and Gula cites a series of social encyclicals (43) that show a movement toward the “order of reason” in natural law. Although both Curran and Gula criticize excessive physicalism in contemporary Catholic sexual ethics, even the encyclical Humanae Vitae, maligned for its predominant “order of nature” viewpoint, does attempt to appeal to the “order of reason.” Its declaration that the Church’s teaching on the dual nature of marriage as unitive and procreative is “in harmony with human reason” (44) illustrates this point. In reply, Curran suggests a “relationality-responsibility model” (45) of natural law that would better account for the human relationship “with God, neighbour, world and self” (46) than either a physicalist or rationalist view of natural law. While not eschewing natural law as the foundation of Catholic ethics, Curran’s model would accommodate morality grounded in objective truths while recognizing the “subjective…motivation, intentionality, and disposition” (47) of the human person individually and in community.

    Catholic moral theology has advanced significantly from the Thomistic acceptance and modification of Roman and Greek natural law to contemporary contributions like the relationality-responsibility model of Charles Curran. Even so, natural law presently functions alongside other systems of ethics that compete with or complement it, such as moral relativism and other teleological forms of moral thought like deontological ethics, utilitarianism, and consequentialism. The appeal to these alternative ethical approaches is largely due to misunderstandings of natural law, of which Lucien Longtin cites two: one that relates to the misconception of natural law as the endorsement of any action that occurs in nature and another that regards natural law as legalistic based on a false demand that its moral claims be empirically verifiable.

    Firstly, Longtin criticizes the equation of an involuntary action or attraction with one that is natural. For example, homosexuality is widely considered natural because some persons are born with an unintentional attraction to people of the same gender. Homosexual attraction itself is not morally wrong, Longtin points out, but he adds that “natural inclinations do not necessarily make behaviour flowing from them more in keeping with natural law.” (48) Secondly, Longtin agrees that ethical principles may not be applicable in all individual or cultural circumstances; ethical precepts are not without exception, as are many mathematical and scientific conclusions. However, incapacity to formulate ethical rules for every condition does not deny the existence of objective moral truths. (49)

    The negation of any possible universal and objective ethical foundation is moral relativism. The central maxim of moral relativism, that one ought not to judge the ethics or behaviour of one culture or individual to be greater or lesser than that of another, is self-referentially incoherent. (50) One cannot logically conclude that to judge morally is normatively wrong, because that deduction is itself a moral judgment. Ethical relativism, while founded on the tenets of tolerance and compassion, (51) is fundamentally illogical as well as dysteleological- there can be no goal or purpose of ethics not founded on universal truth.

    Except for moral relativism, ethical systems including natural law assume the presence of common truths that may take into account culture, intentionality, and means and ends of actions. Duty-based ethics, or deontology, is one of the most persuasive of teleological ethical frameworks. In deontological ethics, one acts according to duty. Moira McQueen gives an example of deontology where a “priest or [other] adviser” does “his or her duty” by directing an individual not to use contraception, “as required by authority.” (52) The adviser, in compliance with that authority, acts “morally correctly,” (53) regardless of whether the person advised is able by circumstance or ability to abide by the regulation prohibiting contraception. The adviser’s action, though, could be compatible with natural law if he or she accounts for the counselled individual’s “circumstances or ability to fulfill the law,” (54) but deems these to be subordinate to the duty to follow competent authority.

Utilitarianism is another form of teleological ethics. Unlike deontology, which emphasises the duty to act or to intend an action, utilitarianism places greater weight on the final utility of a moral decision. In other words, an act is of greater utility if it results in greater good or pleasure, and less evil or pain for all affected by the moral deed. (55) Natural law and utilitarianism are compatible provided that a moral agent does not directly intend an evil intermediate action to achieve an end of greater utility. Compared to natural law, utilitarianism is deficient in that it considers only the result- increased pleasure or pain- of an action and not its means. Utilitarianism is therefore one form of consequentialism, defined as an ethical “theory [that] focuses on the good [gained] and gives no weight to the morality of the way [the act is achieved].” (56)

    Natural law is a more comprehensive ethical structure than either consequentialist or duty or intention-based moral systems. Its value can be appreciated in situations where a moral choice will bring about both good and evil results. In such circumstances, the principle of double effect is used. The principle of double effect has four conditions (57): firstly, that an action is intrinsically good or indifferent. Thus, actions that are evil regardless of their circumstances must be avoided. Secondly, “the good end [must] not depend upon the evil effect for its accomplishment.” (58) Thirdly, the moral agent must intend only the good effects. Fourthly, if the previous three conditions are met, then a “proportionate reason” (59) must exist for causing a harmful effect. Michelle Davis applies the principle of double effect to the case “of a pregnant mother with a cancerous uterus” wherein “removal of the uterus is [intrinsically] a morally indifferent act…, saving the life of the mother is a result of removing of the cancerous uterus, not [the direct killing of] the fetus,” the physician directly intends to save the mother and not to kill the fetus, and the ability to save the mother is the proportionate reason to perform the hysterectomy. (60)

    This example of the application of the principle of double effect shows that natural law can be a more complicated system to follow in comparison to other models of either teleological or dysteleological ethics. However, natural law is rightly the predominant system of ethics in Catholic moral theology, because it accounts for the ends, means, and circumstances of an action as well as the experience and disposition of the moral agent. Natural law has also been enhanced, from its ancient beginnings to contemporary developments that better consider the subjective and relational nature of the human person in addition to the objectivity of moral truth.


This paper was originally submitted on November 2, 2009, as an assignment for my Themes in Christian Ethics course at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON, Canada.


Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 220.

2 Ibid., 220-221.

3 Ibid., 220.

4 First Vatican Council, Dei Filius, no. 113, in The Teaching of the Catholic Church. 6th edition. ed. J. Neuner and J. Dupuis (Staten Island, New York: Alba House, 1967), 43.

5 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 72.

6 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1954.

7 Moira McQueen, “Bioethics from a Roman Catholic Perspective,” Bioethics Matters (July 2008): 12-18.

8 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 72.

9 International Theological Commission, “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God,” Origins Vol. 34 No. 15 (September 23, 2004): 234.

10 Eberhard Schockenhoff, Natural Law and Human Dignity: Universal Ethics in an Historical World, tr. Brian McNeil (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 20-21.

11 Ibid., 20.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 21.

14 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 73.

15 Schockenhoff, Natural Law and Human Dignity, 34.

16 Lucien F. Longtin, An Introduction to Catholic Ethics (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Educational Association, 2003) 23-24.

17 Gula, Reason Informed by Faith, 220.

18 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 29.

19 Gula, Reason Informed by Faith, 220.

20 Ibid., 221.

21 Ibid., 221-230.

22 Ibid., 222.

23 Ibid.

24 Longtin, An Introduction to Catholic Ethics, 24.

25 Gula, Reason Informed by Faith, 222.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Charles E. Curran, Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology (Notre Dame, IN: Fides Publishers, Inc., 1970) 106-107.

35 Ibid., 107.

36 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, q. 94, a. 2.

37 Ibid.

38 Curran, Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology, 107.

39 Gula, Reason Informed by Faith, 223.

40 Ibid., 234.

41 Curran, Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology, 114.

42 Gula, Reason Informed by Faith, 228.

43 Ibid., 236-238. Gula cites in particular Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Pacem in Terris, and Octogesima Adveniens.

44 Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 12.

45 Charles E. Curran, The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1999) 77-83.

46 Ibid., 80.

47 Ibid.

48 Longtin, An Introduction to Catholic Ethics, 189.

49 Ibid., 11-12.

50 Ibid., 14.

51 Ibid., 13.

52 McQueen, “Bioethics from a Roman Catholic Perspective,” 13.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid., 14-15.

56 Ibid., 15.

57 Bernard Hoose, “Proportionalism: A Right Relationship Among Values,” Louvain Studies 24 (1999): 43-44.

58 Ibid., 44.

59 Ibid.

60 Michelle Davis, “Natural Law,” Bioethics Update Vol. 8 No. 1 (February, 2008): 4.

Patience and Ordinary Time- Reflection for Mass of January 11, 2010

11 Jan

Monday, January 11, 2010
Monday of the First Week in Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Samuel 1:1-8; Psalm 116:12-14, 17-19; Mark 1:14-20

After the high point of the Christmas season, we have once again begun Ordinary Time. The word “ordinary” does not imply that this part of the Church year is monotonous or unimportant. On the contrary, for thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of each year, we celebrate Christ’s presence among us in our day-to-day lives. That presence of Christ is life-giving and brings order. It is “Ordinary” in the sense derived from the Latin “ordo,” which connotes the keeping of time and of order. (1) With God in our midst, then, we celebrate the divine ordering of the universe and we keep time as we wait with patience for Christ to come again.

The practice of the virtue of patience so central to Ordinary Time is not easy. In today’s readings, we are given examples of patience. At the beginning of 1 Samuel, Hannah is said to have wept and not to have eaten, because although her husband Elkanah loved her, she had been childless for many years. (2) In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus chooses the Apostles Simon and Andrew, then James and John, from among fishermen. (3) Fishing can be an extremely trying pursuit. I say this having fished for sport; I can only imagine what it must be like to fish as a profession. (4)

Even more strikingly, when Jesus calls to Simon, Andrew, James, and John, “Follow me,” (5) they are said by Mark to leave their nets and their families “immediately” to follow Jesus. (6) These four “fishers of people” (7) showed tremendous courage in taking that first step of faith. Moreover, Mark sets his account in the days “after John [the Baptist] had been arrested.” (8) Anyone willing to follow Christ at that time must have known of the perils associated with challenging those not willing to hear the “Gospel of God” (9) proclaimed by John and then by Jesus. Despite these dangers, the Apostles accepted the call to follow the Lord.

The patient example of Simon, of Andrew, of James, and of John must also be our example in our world. May our Ordinary Time be one of patience, courage, and faith in our day-to-day lives. “The kingdom of God has come near,” St. Mark tells us. (10) With patience and with great joy in our Christian vocation, let us believe in and be heralds of that Good News. (11)