Social Justice: Natural law is not enough (Part I)

Last Sunday, I began an attempt to set forth the foundational principles of social justice, the right order of human society, apart from immediate practical concerns. I pointed out that immediate practical concerns often lead us to lose sight of the foundational principles and that, in fact, those foundations have been almost completely eroded in our contemporary society.

I pointed out that we are actually given to see the foundational principles in the order of human society in Eden: there is right order of man below God, right order in the human soul, right order between man and woman, and right order between man and the created world. These four orders are themselves hierarchical. Sin entered in destroying the foundational order of man’s relation to God, leaving everything else to fall into disorder. The practice of right religion restores that foundational order toward God and makes possible the restoration of the subordinate orders.

Note, that I have taken as my starting point what God has revealed to us through his word in sacred Scripture. This is a ‘theological’ starting point that is not altogether accessible to unaided human reason. The contemporary Catholic approach to social justice in a pluralistic society has sought to appeal instead to the ‘natural law’ as a philosophical starting point, accessible in theory to all, believer and non-believer alike.

This is first of all seen as a practical necessity because of the separation between Church and State and because society must include believers of different sorts, as well as non-believers. From this, because an individual must freely embrace the faith and cannot be coerced in this regard, founding human society on natural law seems to be more than a practical necessity, but the true ideal that would allow individuals freely to discover and embrace right religion.

We need, then, to consider briefly what ‘natural law’ is all about and whether it can truly be a sufficient foundation for human society.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines the natural law as the participation of the rational creature in the eternal law, while the eternal law is nothing other than the plan of divine providence by which he governs the universe. (Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, q. 91 a.1-2) At first glance, though, this definition appears to be ‘theological’ because it starts with God and his providential governance of the universe.

If we were to consider natural law from a human perspective, we would say that it is the law that human reason is able to perceive as being ‘written’ so to speak in human nature itself.

A wolf acts in determinate ways by the instinct of its own nature. We could say that the ‘law’ of the wolf is simply those patterns of behavior that are characteristic of wolf life. The wolf does not, however, recognize and understand this ‘law’ and choose to obey or disobey. It simply acts according to its nature. So it is with the rest of animate and inanimate creation.

Man, however, precisely because he possesses a rational nature, is capable of understanding his own nature and the goods proper to his nature. In this way he is also capable of discerning a ‘law’ by which he should act in conformity with his nature so as to attain the true human good. He is also capable of choosing not to act in conformity with his nature or of acting against his nature.

St. Thomas roots the whole of natural law in certain fundamental human goods: the good of human life itself, the good of procreation and education of children, and the goods of truth, friendship, and human society.

Rightly considered the very concept of a ‘wolf nature’ or a ‘human nature’ intelligible to the human mind implies the existence of an intelligent Creator who designed those natures, endowing them with their properties and characteristics. For this reason all forms of atheism end up denying the reality of human nature as a ‘given’ that would determine some sort of ‘law’ for man. Others might accept the reality of human nature but would deny that it can impose any sort of law or moral obligation on individuals. They say that you can’t argue from an ‘is’ to and ‘ought’. Atheism is at least implicit in this line of thought as well.

We see here then the inability of natural law to establish a common foundation for human society between those who recognize the existence of God and atheists who deny the existence of God. Really, the only sort of morality that an atheist, if he is consistent, ends up accepting is a morality of pragmatism or utilitarianism. He will accept that in general people should do what is beneficial or useful for the greatest number, but this will vary according to circumstances. Further, when push comes to shove, the atheist will have little reason to prioritize what is beneficial or useful to the greatest number over what might be beneficial or useful for himself.

We can see, then, that the natural law really proves to be an insufficient foundation for human social life, so long as atheists are a substantial force in human society. Atheists claim to build their life on human reason, but they do not accept the natural law as belonging to the realm of reason.

That is why, in the end, the proposal to outlaw abortion or to define marriage as being between one man and one woman have been rejected in American society as impositions of religious belief. (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.