Natural Law and the Church’s Necessity

When you see an article with a title like, Do You Renounce Kennedy and All His Works?, you can have a moral certitude that it was written by John Zmirak, the eccentric, Croatian-Irish, working-class Yalie turned standup apologist. (I was an undergrad at LSU when John was getting his Ph.D. there, and I owe him a lot for exposing me to, among other things, the Traditional Latin Mass.) Worth reading in Dr. Zmirak’s article is the section toward the bottom, on Dr. Hadley Arkes, a convert from Judaism. Prof. Arkes, as Zmirak says, “has long been a spokesman for the natural law tradition in American politics.” After mentioning the natural law, Zmirak goes on to make an excellent point.

It’s ironic that natural law is meant to be the language we use when speaking to non-believers, since it seems that nowadays only Catholics really believe in natural law — or that those who accept the latter end up becoming the former. Like his worthy predecessor Mortimer Adler, Professor Arkes has spent so many lonely years sticking up for natural law that he has found his way into the Church.

I was at the talk that Dr. Arkes gave. It was brilliant. I had a chance to spend a few minutes in conversation with him after the talk, and asked him a question that touched on the lines of Dr. Z’s above paragraph: “Do you know anyone who defends the natural law, who is not a Catholic?” His response was “Yes… but they eventually become Catholics.”  Keep in mind, this man doesn’t just engage in casual conversations about the topic, he has become identified with it and is rightly called “a spokesman for the natural law tradition in American politics.” He’s also a college professor whose lectures have directed students toward the Church, even though he teaches political science and jurisprudence.

The natural law is God’s law written on the human heart. St. Thomas calls it “nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation.”1 The natural law is not revelation, or, rather, it is not supernatural revelation like Holy Scripture or Apostolic Tradition, but it is revelation — for it is revealed by God. The same God that made the Church the teacher of His supernatural revelation to all mankind also made the Church the custodian of His natural revelation.

Why do we need the Church to teach us what is naturally knowable?

St. Thomas says that the natural law is equally known to all in its general principles (beginning with “do good and avoid evil”), but not in all it conclusions or details of practical action. He further argues that, while the natural law cannot be abolished from the heart of man in its primary precepts, its secondary precepts (and therefore, also its conclusions) can be effaced. How? The answer is revealing:

But as to the other, i.e. the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Romans 1), were not esteemed sinful.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Today’s militant advocates of perverse morality (and the “rights” that come along with it) are simply slaves of those same “vicious customs and corrupt habits” St. Thomas and St. Paul knew about.

All this led Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis (No. 3) to conclude that divine revelation is “morally necessary” for these naturally knowable truths to be “known by all men readily with a firm certainty and with freedom from all error.” God, in His mercy and goodness, included the natural law in His supernatural revelation. Of the three parts of the Mosaic Law (moral, juridical, and ceremonial), the moral law is nothing more or less than the natural law. This is the only part of the Mosiac Law that the New Law of Christ did not abolish.

It follows, then, that the Natural Law falls within the Church’s purview. Despite the fact that certain modern theologians draw too wide a chasm between the natural and the supernatural and thus claim that the Church has no competence in the natural law, the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the Church’s authority in this domain:

The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God. [CCC 2036]

What are some examples of natural law precepts that mankind needs the Church to teach us? Against hedonism, the natural-law’s condemnation of contraception, abortion, and homosexuality; against modern warfare, the just war doctrine; against anarcho-capitalism, the just price and just wage doctrines; against socialism and communism, the Chruch’s teachings on private property and the primacy of the family over the state. All of these are naturally knowable, but very few there are that come to know them without the Church preaching them.

Anybody with other examples can make them in the comments.

(Readers interested in this subject may also like to read my Catholics, Non-Catholics, and the Natural Law.)

  1. Saint Thomas Aquinas, In Duo Praecepta Caritatis et in Cecem Legis Praecepta. Prologus: Opuscula Theologica, II, No. 1129, Ed. Taurinen (1954), 245, cited in Veritatis Splendor, No. 12.