By: Alexander Greco
Pope Innocent VI speaking of the extraordinary theological and philosophical insight of St. Thomas Aquinas, stated:
His teaching above that of others, the canons alone excepted, enjoys such an elegance of phraseology, a method of statement, a truth of proposition, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error.
Among the many teachings of St. Thomas which have been almost completely perverted in modern times is his understanding and defense of the natural law. It is the case today that not only is there a large variety of natural law theories, but there also appears to be many claimants who insist upon the label of Thomist when their particular expression of natural law theory is anything but Thomistic.
In fact, these groups have incorporated much of Thomistic terminology, but have rejected the underlying principles which inform the substance of Thomism. Subsequently, the appeal of natural law and its proper reasoning as that which informs the moral agent in how they ought to act has diminished rapidly due to its incessant furcations and even outright metamorphosis into something other than the natural law theory of the Thomistic-Scholastic tradition. It is our belief that only the faithful Thomistic approach to natural law prevents the decline of its reasonableness, and one of the goals of this blog is aimed at demonstrating this belief.
We cannot fully and accurately apply the principles of natural law without thoroughly defining what the natural law is. In the theoretical realm at least, natural law should be very appealing. That there are truths and principles for action which transcend the individual and particular culture, in the sense that they are immutable and universal, should resonate easily with those who maintain the belief that we are the creation of a Creator, the Author of nature.
In short, “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law.” Clearly there is much within the definition which needs to be unpacked. For instance, where does nature fit into natural law? Is nature a reliable means to determining what we ought to do? For that matter, can we talk about nature in any teleological sense? That is, is there a natural teleology through which the discerning moral agent can detect purposes which define how he ought to act and determine the moral species of his act? What about the naturalistic fallacy developed and argued by David Hume and G. E. Moore? What about the responses to the arguments of Hume and Moore proposed by the so-called New Natural Law Theory of Germain Grisez and company? How compatible does their argument stand within the Thomistic tradition? Is natural law merely an intellectual enterprise where reason alone operates in the determination of the moral species of the act? Does theology have a role in natural law theory? How does a creature’s faculty of reason participate in the eternal law, and what essentially is the eternal law? Is man’s faculty of reason even reliable? These questions represent some of the issues at play in the modern misconception of natural law theory.
That the natural law is universal and immutable resides in the fact that God has instituted it. We can easily fall prey to fundamental errors of moral reasoning if we forgo and ignore the theological focus of natural law as the ordinance of a divine lawgiver. It is in this vein that we loose sight of natural law as being chiefly theological, and instead we view natural law in merely a physicalist or rationalist approach to what a moral agent ought to do. Unlike the Hobbesians, we view life as something more than merely “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” We are called to happiness, and ought to order our lives with God’s grace towards achieving this end.
Man was created for an end, and all of man’s actions, human actions which proceed from a deliberate will, are done with consideration of that end. Morality concerns human actions, insomuch as how they proceed to the good of man. The reasonableness of natural law is only as persuasive as the accuracy of its presentation. With that said, we will begin the next post with a presentation of how Aquinas described man’s end, along with the all too important yet all too forgotten fundamental aspect of the natural law as being the ordinance of the Divine lawgiver.