Social Justice: Natural Law is not enough (Part II)
January 17, 2020
I have been writing about the foundational principles of social justice, the right order of human society. I have affirmed that this means, as far as possible in this world, restoring the right order that was lost in Eden through man’s rebellion against God. The order of Eden, though, is only restored through the Cross of Christ, which does not lead us back to the earthly paradise, but forward to the greater reality of the heavenly Jerusalem to which Eden itself was originally ordered.
Last Sunday I began writing about the insufficiency of natural law as a foundation for social justice. I pointed out that even though natural law is theoretically accessible to human reason, unaided by faith, it is not actually accepted by atheists because natural law implicitly depends upon the truth of God’s existence both for intelligibility and for force.
Natural law is also insufficient as a basis for community among adherents of different religions. To put the matter simply, not all religions equally accept the force of human reason. For example, wide swaths of Islam actually reject the validity of human reason.
Indeed, today we are in many ways caught between a militant Islam that rejects reason altogether and various forms of ‘scientific atheism’ that exalt the authority of reason over all, but at the same time truncate reason, reducing its scope to the realm of empirical facts, while removing from the realm of reason the entire realm of God and morality.
Nevertheless, even were natural law accepted as the basis for community by diverse groups and diverse religions, it would still be insufficient.
The good of truth requires that the existence of God be recognized and that the person of God be duly honored, both individually and socially. In other words, natural law is not neutral in the matter of religion but demands that God be worshipped.
In some measure the 3rd commandment, Keep holy the Sabbath, belongs to the natural law (cf. Summa Theologiae, IaIIae q.100 a.1), but only insofar as it is reasonable to set aside determinate times for the worship of God. God’s commandment, however, goes beyond the generality of natural law and determines that one particular day be set aside and dedicated to the worship of God. God’s commandment also determines specific rituals that are beyond the scope of natural law as such.
Indeed, because God does make known that he wants to be worshipped in a specific way, it is now against the divine law to worship him in another way. Suppose a group of Muslims, Jews, and Christians made a common agreement to worship God together so as to live in peace with each other and determined on certain prayers or rites of worship that were not specific to any of their religions. If they began offering worship to God according to those prayers or rites, it would be contrary to the worship established by God and offensive to him.
The Church has condemned Freemasonry partly because, at best, it proclaims a purely natural religion of ‘reason’ that transcends the differences between the ancient religions.
One might wonder if the proposed “Abrahamic Family House” in Abu Dhabi, with its mosque, synagogue, and church, all built on a common foundation, does not contain a similar misguided effort to find a unity other than the unity that God himself gives.
If religion were no more than a matter of man reaching out towards God, this might make sense, but once God has revealed himself to man in the Word through whom he made all things, there can be no human unity apart from that revelation. This is even implicit in Vatican II’s formulation that the Catholic Church “is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.” (Lumen Gentium 1)
There is, finally, one other reason for the insufficiency of the natural law: human ignorance and weakness. Without the help of divine revelation human reason itself has difficulty grasping the natural law in its fulness. Further, the will unaided by grace readily goes astray from the good that is known when this conflicts with personal desire and interest. Then when the will goes astray it the mind readily finds excuses, rationalizations, which plunge the mind even further into darkness. Much of moral debate in our society today has more to do with self-justification than with right and wrong.
Right religion is needed to give light to the mind and strength to the will. Without that light and strength human social life ends in conflict and corruption.
There is a further problem here: the attempt to found human society on natural law limits the vision of the human good to this passing world because the natural law is incapable of seeing past death. Nor will it do to practice religion merely for the sake of the well-being of the temporal community or nation. This turns religion upside down.
Worship must be offered to God because he is God and for the sake of the good that he provides for us, which above all is the good of eternal life in himself. The temporal order, governed by natural law, cannot stand on its own. Temporal society needs to be ordered to eternity, but it cannot be so ordered without right religion. Indeed, temporal society cannot be ordered to eternity except through the Lord’s Day.
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.
March 20, 2020