Monday, December 08, 2008

Perspectives on Natural Law

Part 1: Herbert McCabe, OP

Last Friday, Archbishop John Nienstedt hosted a second “Marriage Study Day” for the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. And CPCSM was there! . . . Well, kinda.

Ahead of the study day (the focus of which was announced as “Natural Law Moral Theory”), the leadership of CPCSM wrote to every priest in the archdiocese and shared with them a compilation of “perspectives on natural law.” We did this as we were aware that at the previous Marriage Study Day of August 28 the focus was not on the sacrament of marriage (as announced) but on solidifying opposition to same-gender partnership rights and marriage in civil society.

We were therefore concerned that the presentations on the concept of natural law, scheduled to take place at the second meeting on December 4, would have a similar focus and thus would further discount and malign the lives and relationships of LGBT persons. And even with a focus on heterosexual marriage, we noted in our letter, we were concerned that the lived experience of married couples, on which “natural law” within the context of marriage is supposedly based, would be ignored.

We also shared our opinion that Catholic teaching based on a narrow understanding of natural law is one reason so many ethical Catholics, straight and gay, leave the Church.

In light of these concerns, we shared with the priests of the archdiocese (and Archbishop Nienstedt) a selection of reflections that offer contemporary interpretations of natural law theory and its application to human sexuality – including the issues of homosexuality and contraception. These reflections came from a number of highly respected Catholic scholars – including Jean Porter; Herbert McCabe, OP; Daniel Helminiak; and Garry Wills. We encouraged the priests to draw on these reflections and to question the theological perspectives on natural law presented on December 4, if these perspectives failed to acknowledge or encompass the experiences, insights, and relationships of married men and women, both heterosexual and homosexual.

In the next few weeks I’ll share via The Wild Reed some of the “perspectives on natural law” that CPCSM shared with the priests of the archdiocese. I start today with an excerpt from the late English Dominican Herbert McCabe’s essay, “Manuals and Rule Books,” in Considering Veritatis Spendor (John Wilkins (ed.), Pilgrim Press, 1994, pp 61-68).


St. Thomas [Aquinas] develops Aristotle in at least two ways. In the first place the biblical doctrine of God as Creator (a Jewish notion not available to Aristotle) enables him to extend the analysis of the good human life from the polis of citizens under the authority of those chosen to rule to the quasi-political community of human creatures under the universal authority of the Creator. (It is hard to find a reasonable basis for “human” rights – as distinct from the rights of citizens in this or that community – without this notion of a Creator with “universal jurisdiction”)

In the second place, St Thomas takes Aristotle’s political notion of philia (amicitia in his language) as his model for the caritas which is the foundation of the community of the human family as, not merely creatures, but children of God. So (in I-II, 88) he distinguishes between, on the one hand, not living the life of the Spirit well, perhaps through neglecting the cultivation of the virtues through prayer (for these firm dispositions are not now simply acquired by education but are the gift of the Holy Spirit), and, on the other hand, acts which are just incompatible with membership of a community sustained and defined by caritas. Those acts which cut at the root of human community thereby cut at the roots of our community in caritas. It would seem, for example that there could be no human community based on friendship in which the killing of the innocent was treated with indifference; and hence such an action is a rejection of solidarity with each other, and thus a departure from the shared divine life which is the gift of the Spirit.

Now the question arises: how are we to identify those acts which are not merely inadequacies in living the life of caritas but actually incompatible with the caritas upon which human community depends? It is a mistake to think that we find the answers to this by looking at a list of wrongdoings and arranging them in order of “gravity”. St. Thomas’s answer is: by the use of our practical reasoning and also by faith in divine revelation; and the deliveries of these two sometimes overlap. In its primary meaning , for him, “natural law” just is our capacity for practical reasoning; reasoning, that is, about what to do, based on the principle “seek good and avoid evil”, just as theoretical reasoning about what to think is based on the principle “seek truth, do not contradict yourself.”

Unlike the sub-linguistic creatures, we have a capacity to make decisions about our own lives, and the exercise of prudentia on our part he sees as a sharing in the exercise of providentia on God’s part. There is, for St Thomas, no built-in code or “voice of conscience”, no innate grasp of moral truths. We are, indeed, born with instinctive tendencies to action but these are the voice, not directly of God but of our animal ancestry; they are to be respected, not as a substitute for, but as a factor to be taken into account in, our rational decision about what to do. Practical reasoning is not thinking about what laws to have but about what, on a particular occasion, to do. (The conclusion of the “practical syllogism” is an action.) Laws prohibiting certain types of action arise through our practical reflection on our thinking; deciding that it does not have to go on any more, because the action (for example, the killing of an innocent person) already calls in question the whole context within which practical thinking takes place, much as treason calls in question the very society in which it operates (it is important that foreigners cannot commit treason).

. . . The encyclical [
Veritatis Splendor] (79) speaks of “the commandments, which, according to St. Thomas [I-II 100.1], contain the whole natural law.” This is quite untrue. What St. Thomas proposes in this article is the altogether different teaching that all the moral precepts (of the Old Law) belong to the natural law. For him, the natural law, being nothing but the exercise of practical reasoning, the use of artificial contraceptives, say, or homosexual acts or masturbation or in vitro fertilization, none of which are mentioned in the Decalogue, come within the scope of natural law simply because we can reason practically about them. On the other hand, perhaps in their case, since they are not revealed to us as prohibited, we should be chary of speaking of “mortal sin” in their connection. Moreover it must, surely, remain an open question whether objections to these practices should really be seen as part of the absolute rule book and not rather part of the more flexible manual of instruction intended to guide us as we grow to maturity in the virtue of temperateness.

- Excerpted from “Manuals and Rule Books” by Herbert McCabe, OP (in Wilkins, J. (ed.) Considering Veritatis Splendor, Pilgrim Press, 1994).

NEXT: Part 2: Judith Web Kay

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Same-Sex Marriage: Still Very Much on the Archbishop’s Mind
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
Beyond Courage
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory


Anonymous said...

Great post. I admire the work you're doing in Minnesota. In many ways you guys are serving as a model for Catholics everywhere to get informed and proactive!

I'm curious, though . . . have you heard how your letter was received? Did it have any discernable influence or impact? Regardless, I'm sure it planted seeds, so to speak.

Thanks again for doing what you're doing.

Anonymous said...

Facts & Values, Scientific Method & Evidence are all denied by the Church's Natural Law. It commits the Fact/Value, Is/Ought Fallacy and the Naturalistic Fallacy, while conflating biological teleology (false Aristotlean natural laws) with human instrumental action (true Aristotlean ethical theory).

No more pernicious concept has harmed so many people in its history as the Natural Law which is False, Untrue, and a Fallacy.

Anonymous said...

Great excerpt from Fr McCabe! I look forward to the future installments.

crystal said...

I like McCabe too. He has a past homily on the web - Human words become God's Word

Anonymous said...

Hi first off I want to say great post. While blogging this past Tuesday I was googling Natural Law in order to find a picture to go along with my post and it brought me to you. If you have a moment I would be delighted if you would check out my blog. I only have 3 posts so far since I've just started, but I'd love to know what you think being a gay Catholic myself attending a Catholic University in Massachusetts.

Ryan J. Glode