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The Evolving Definition of Sin in the Bible

10 May

Sin may be defined as the wilful transgression of a divine moral precept; Thomas Aquinas identifies sin as “nothing else than a bad human act,” a voluntary contravention of “eternal law.”[1] However, the notion of sin in the Bible is deeper than simply a violation of law or a moral evil. In Scripture, sin entails a rupture of relationship, either between human beings or between the sinner and God. The Bible, Bruce Vawter and S.J. DeVries agree, has a highly developed theological vocabulary for sin,[2] which stems from “its keen sense of moral and spiritual values.”[3] Vawter points out that in Biblical text sin does not have an “exclusively moral association.”[4] The Hebrew word hattah, which “literally means ‘to miss the mark,’” is the most frequent word in the Hebrew Old Testament translated into English as “sin.”[5] The New Testament Greek equivalent to hattah is άμαρτία (hamartia).[6] After hattah, another common Biblical Hebrew word that connotes sin is pesha, whose literal meaning is to ‘overstep’ or to ‘rebel.’ Like hattah, pesha is used in Scripture beyond the context of moral wrongdoing. Vawter gives the example of 2 Kings 8:20, where pesha describes the rebellion of Edom against Judah, a “political fact”[7] that is not judged as immoral.

The moral and spiritual awareness conveyed in Scripture, though, must be viewed within the framework of the covenant relationship between Israel and God. The scriptural idea of covenant, and likewise of sin, arises from a personalistic worldview within which human beings and God are in personal relationship with one another.[8] Personalism, as opposed to moralism, which defines sin as “deviation from an external norm,”[9] and monism, “in which sin is… equated with [humankind’s] creatureliness or physical nature,”[10] is dominant and continuous throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

In this essay, I will trace the development of the concept of sin in Scripture, and consider points of continuity and of discontinuity between the Old and New Testament notions of sin. The Old and New Testaments both highlight the significance of sin, although the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the one who alone is able to gain “certain victory”[11] over sin. Thus, God intervenes radically to establish a new and “everlasting covenant in which sin should have no part.”[12] I will therefore also discuss the growth in the understanding of covenant that is linked in Scripture to that of sin. Along with the development in the meaning of covenant in Scripture, the concept of sin evolved from that of an infringement against a binding pact with God or against law in the earlier traditions through to the post-exilic additions of the Old Testament to the breach of the bond of love between God and humanity. Moreover, where sin is equated with an offence against divine law in Scripture, it is primarily construed as a misdeed against God and not only against law.[13]

Ancient Israel’s appreciation of covenant progressed greatly over the approximately one thousand years during which the Old Testament as it is currently known was written.[14] The earliest traditions of the Old Testament illustrate covenant as a binding agreement between an all-powerful God who blessed those who were faithful to that covenant and cursed those who were unfaithful to it. Law and covenant became increasingly intertwined between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., as Israel’s monarchy and, concurrently, the peak of the prophetic age gave way to the Babylonian Exile.[15] From post-Exilic Old Testament traditions into the New Testament era, covenant, while still viewed as the expression of God’s will as law for humankind and the human response to that divine will, came to be understood as a divine-human relationship of love.[16]

Thomas Ogletree argues that the idea of covenant law originated in pre-Scriptural oral traditions. “Creative individuals,” Ogletree writes, served as spokespersons of the Israelite culture: “collectors, redactors and editors of… memories of a people regarding their own past” that “were passed from generation to generation.”[17] Those memories became cultic legends whose purpose was to establish and to “articulate the authority of the moral notions the people shared in common.”[18] Myths founded in collective experience were then grouped into narratives and into lists of “laws and ordinances” that “made up the content of Israel’s covenant obligations.”[19] Ogletree gives several examples of the legal and cultic codes included in the Pentateuch,[20] but his connection of these codes or commandments to the framework of covenant is most pertinent; in ancient Israel divine commandments were understood within the context of covenant. To emphasize this, Ogletree quotes Jeremiah 7:21, 23: “Thus says the Lord of hosts… ‘Obey my voice, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the ways that I command you, that it may be well with you.’”

Just as covenant and commandment are essentially linked in Scripture, so too are “cultic and social regulations.”[21] Human beings are fundamentally social. Ogletree contends therefore that, in the Old Testament, the sense of covenant as a communion of the Israelite people with God and the ethics that resulted from that covenant grew out of the experience of “everyday human interactions.”[22] Cultic norms developed, for example, around the rhythms of nature, the protection of the vulnerable, and an exclusive “Israelite allegiance to Yahweh.”[23] It became a moral obligation[24] among the Israelites to connect the religious reality of covenant with the reality and “normal processes”[25] of human society. Ogletree thus summarizes this point: “A religious ethic [that] is wholly extracted from the cult is a religious ethic without historical and social substance.”[26] That was clearly true in Old Testament Israel, where a perception of covenant originated and developed from a common sense of historical, social, religious, and moral order.

As Ogletree demonstrates, the origins and development of covenant, both pre-Scriptural and in Scripture itself, are easily identified. The Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch in particular divides Israel’s covenant history into three sections: firstly, from the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:25-26 to God’s blessing of Noah and promise not to destroy the world by a flood again (Gn 9:1-17); secondly, from Noah to God’s covenant with Abraham to multiply his descendants (Gn 17), and thirdly, from Abraham to the gift of the Decalogue to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 6:2-13).[27] Nevertheless, the Scriptural origin of the concept of sin is more difficult to ascertain. The account of the fall of humankind in Genesis 3, a contribution of the Yahwist tradition, likely the earliest written tradition of the Pentateuch,[28] “unmistakeably intends to explain how sin began,”  even though there “the terminology of sin is lacking,”[29] says S.J. DeVries. This narrative also depicts the consequences of human disobedience toward God.

The story of the fall begins with the portrayal of Adam and Eve as naked, yet without shame (Gn 2:25). The Hebrew word translated as ‘naked’ is ‘arom. In the next verse, the serpent is described as “cunning.” In Hebrew, this adjective is ‘arum, which forms a play on words with the representation of Adam and of Eve as naked in the previous verse.[30] Thus the serpent is the ideal tempter; Eve and then Adam succumb to the snake’s shrewdness only because of their vanity in desiring the wisdom and immortality of God.[31] The ultimate effect of the defiance of God’s command not to eat the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gn 2:17) is death (Gn 2:17, 3:3), although as the serpent deviously indicates, this death is not immediate nor is it primarily corporeal. The principal consequence of sin is spiritual death; through the cunning of the serpent, nakedness and shame are united. Sin is exposed for what it is: estrangement from God. That result of sin is emphasized after the fall, when God searches for Adam and Eve in the garden. The Lord does not judge the action of Adam and Eve as wrongful, but asks them, “Where are you?” (Gn 3:9) Adam and Eve are separated from God; therefore Genesis describes them as hidden and afraid (Gn 3:10). The loss of communion with God through sin is further highlighted by God’s expulsion of Adam and of Eve from the garden (Gn 3:24), after which they must toil in the wilderness (Gn 3:17).

After the murder of his brother Abel in the continuation of the Yahwist narrative, Cain receives essentially the same punishment as did Adam: “You will become a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Gn 4:12) This rift in the God-human relationship is a greater consequence of sin than the disordered inequality between man and woman, pain in childbirth (Gn 3:16), agricultural failure (Gn 3:17-18), or even physical death (Gn 3:19). Thus, Cain pleads with God, “My punishment is too great to bear. Since you have banished me from the soil, and I must avoid your presence… anyone may kill me at sight.” (Gn 4:13-14) Although DeVries argues that Cain “understood all too little the consequences of his sin” while he protested instead against the severity of his banishment,[32] Cain’s appeal to the Lord suggests that the idea of the separation from God and resultant confusion and fear caused by sin was ingrained in the consciousness of the writers of the Yahwist tradition.

The recognition of sin as a reality that “sunders” humankind from God and therefore leads to a sense of being “lost in the presence of the Holy”[33] is most intense in the writings of the prophets of the late Monarchical and Exilic periods and in the penitential Psalms. This theme continues into the New Testament. Simon Peter, for example, “[astonished] at the catch of fish” on the Lake of Gennesaret, exclaims to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8-9) Peter’s response to Jesus’ call to service in Luke’s Gospel is similar to those of the Old Testament prophets, who also often express consciousness of their own sin as well as that of the people. Isaiah’s answer to God’s call to prophesy clearly illustrates awareness of both personal sin and the collective sin of the Israelites: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” (Is 6:5)

Neither personal nor social sin, though, is beyond the remedial capacity of a loving and merciful God. The message of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah was that, while God would hold Israel accountable for its sin, God’s restoration of the covenant relationship with Israel was certain. Following God’s call to Isaiah to prophesy and the latter’s objection that he is a sinner among a sinful people and unfit to be a prophet, seraphim are sent to touch Isaiah’s lips with a burning ember. Thus Isaiah’s “wickedness is removed, [his] sin purged.” (Is 6:7) Amid the Babylonian Exile, Jeremiah proclaims the return of the Israelites to their homeland under divine power. The purity of Israel will be restored as if they had never violated the covenant:

As Israel comes forward to be given his rest, the LORD appears to him from afar: With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin Israel. (Jer 31:3-4)

 Deutero-Isaiah echoes the consoling message of Jeremiah: Israel has more than paid the penalty for its iniquity, and a merciful God promises the remission of sin and re-establishment of the covenant:

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. (Is 40:1-2)

 While Jeremiah 31:3-4 includes the Hebrew word hesed, “translated variously as ‘mercy’, ‘loyalty’, ‘devotion’, ‘loving kindness’, or simply ‘love,’”[34] the notion  of a kind and loving God is implied also in Isaiah 40:1-2. Both passages associate God’s forgiveness of sin with hesed. Deutero-Isaiah and Jeremiah reflect a theology that begins as early as the height of Israel’s monarchy wherein God is understood as able to mend human breaches of the covenant. Humankind, although fallen from moral perfection, is still held to have been created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:27). Therefore, as Bruce Vawter states, “it is in the moral order rather than in the order of being that [humanity] is seen to be most separated from God.”[35]

That human estrangement from the divine can only be remitted by a “wonderful, unique act of God”[36]– an act of divine hesed. Vawter cites Psalm 51 as an example of an appeal of a sinner to God’s hesed. Meanwhile, the Psalmist recognizes that “God alone can and must [remedy] his sinful state.”[37] God is petitioned thus: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense… Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my guilt…From my sin cleanse me… A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.” (Ps 51:3-4, 11-12) The Hebrew verbs rendered as “blot out” and “cleanse,” according to Vawter, are references to the ritual washing of clothing described in Numbers 5:23 and Leviticus 13:6.[38] The Psalmist then employs the verb bara– “to create”- that appears in Genesis 1:1. The heart was, “to the Semite,” equivalent to “the Self” and was not only the seat of the intellect or will.[39] Vawter argues, then, that along with an appeal to hesed, the Psalmist appeals to God to produce a radical transformation of the sinner:

Create, [the Psalmist] says, a new me. Such an idea is boundless in its commentary on what he believed the effect of sin to be in the sinner, an effect which obviously far transcends any notion of purely formal or legal rectitude. Sin was, in [the Psalmist’s] eyes, an involvement from which [one] could not emerge without an alteration in [one’s] inmost being.

 A significant difference between the Old Testament and New Testament conceptions of sin is the shift from the definition of sin as the contravention of an external law to the idea that sin is a corruption of one’s interior disposition. As in Psalm 51, this sense of sin, of its effects, and of God’s response to it is already foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but it is actualized in the New Testament, whose theology about the internal nature of sin is shown most clearly in the Gospel of Mark: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile [a] person, but the things that come out from within are what defile.” (Mk 7:15) One is interiorly inclined toward or away from the good. At the same time, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those oriented toward goodness. The Spirit of God comes to dwell in those who love Christ and follow His commandments: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” (Jn 14:20)

This simultaneous indwelling of the capability to do good and to do evil, of “the things…that defile” and of the Holy Spirit, is not to be understood as a dualism[40]; the forces of good and of evil are not in competition with each other in New Testament theology. Instead, God has intervened in human history the person of Jesus Christ, the definitive “assurance” that sin will be conquered.[41] Also, the “interior law”[42] of the Spirit is complementary to the external law. In practice, the legalists whom Jesus criticizes viewed the old covenant and the new spiritual law as opposed to one another. Jesus does not intend this to be so: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” (Mt 5:17)

St. Paul is more ambiguous in his assessment of the relationship between the old external law and the law of the Spirit, as Nicholas Crotty observes. Paul writes that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12) and counts “the Law as one of Israel’s privileges”[43] in Romans 9:4. On the contrary, he characterizes the Mosaic covenant as “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2) and says, in seeming contradiction of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17, that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (Rom 10:4) Crotty comments incisively about such Pauline ambiguity regarding the law:

It was to the Law that the Jews looked for life, and this was something it could not give them. [Since] it imparted knowledge of the good but not the power to achieve it, [and] it enabled them to recognize sin without enabling them to avoid it, such a law could only make [people] conscious of their own sinfulness.

 One minor addition ought to be made to Crotty’s remark in order to better understand the New Testament relationship between sin and the law: the old law alone cannot give life. Observance of the old covenant commandments to the Christian is good yet insufficient.[44] Mosaic law is supplemented and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Word who, having taken on our human form, has “made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14) and indeed within us. “Charity,” Bruce Vawter notes, “is the hesed of the new covenant.”[45] This hesed is no longer an external reality of divine love, but is an internal divine gift of charity.

Hesed, covenant, commandment, law, and sin are related in Scripture, and the understanding of each grows and changes from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The notion of covenant originates in pre- Scriptural oral tradition as a personal relationship with God, a feature of covenant that is constant throughout Scripture. Obedience of divine commandments is equated with maintenance of the covenant. Contravention of God’s commandments is not only seen as sin against divine law in the Old Testament, but as disobedience toward God and a rupture of the covenant bond. Hesed, the loving kindness or mercy of God, results in God’s foundation of a new covenant that is no longer external to the human person, but comes to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ. While the proclivity of humankind toward sin still exists in the new covenant era, so does the indwelling Spirit of God who has overcome that sin. 



This essay was originally submitted for my Topics in Christian Ethics class, Theology I, Semester 1, on 7 December, 2009, at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON, Canada.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-I, q. 71, a. 6.

[2] Bruce Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” The Way 2 (1962): 19-20.

[3] S.J. DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:361.

[4] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 19.

[5] Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 91.

[6] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 362.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 371.

[12] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 26.

[13] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 363.

[14] R. H. Pfeiffer, “Canon of the Old Testament,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 1:500.

[15] John L. McKenzie, “Aspects of Old Testament Thought,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 750-751.

[16] Ibid., 751.

[17] Thomas W. Ogletree, The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics: A Constructive Essay (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 52-53.

[18] Ibid., 53.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 54.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 57.

[24] Ibid., 55.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984), 173-174.

[28] Ibid., 96.

[29] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 363.

[30] Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, 119.

[31] Ibid.

[32] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 366.

[33] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 24.

[34] Ibid., 21.

[35] Ibid., 24.

[36] Ibid., 25.

[37] Ibid., 24.

[38] Ibid., 25.

[39] Ibid.

[40] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 371.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Nicholas Crotty, “Biblical Perspectives in Moral Theology,” Theological Studies 26 (1965): 579.

[43] Ibid., 580.

[44] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 372.

[45] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 23.

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.