Following is a second perspective on the concept of natural law from the compilation of perspectives that CPCSM leadership recently sent to Archbishop John Nienstedt and the priests of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (For why we shared these perspectives, click here.)
This particular perspective is from feminist theologian Judith Web Kay and was first published in the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (1997).
As a method of ethics, natural law can be used metaethically to provide a base for moral discernment or normatively to prescribe duties. As a political theory it can be used either to challenge or to justify oppression. These variable functions of natural law depend on operative discourses about human nature and law.
Thomas Aquinas understood humans to be inherently social, embodied, dynamic, intelligent, and attracted to their true good. Law referred to dynamic movement toward an end. In his hands natural law provided metaethical judgments about the goods necessary for human flourishing. It could be used to condemn social arrangements that failed to promote human well-being. In contrast, physicalist versions of natural law equate nature with biology and understand law as obligation. It then proscribes actions deemed unnatural and legitimizes the status quo.
Feminist theologians (and others) have sought to redefine nature in ways that do not dichotomize biology and reason from history and that avoid reifying historical particularities into ontological truths. . . . While engaged in struggles to free themselves and others from external and internal bondage, they have generated hypotheses about what harms humans and what is necessary for their well-being. These working hypotheses are tested in praxis by how well they explain the oppressed’s collusion with and resistance to oppression, avoid regarding people as inherent victims or oppressors, help people distinguish internalized oppression from more human ways of being, expose false universalizing and denial of difference, and promote universal solidarity. By using these hypotheses to inform their praxis, many are discovering if in fact they provide an adequate account of what is good for humans.
- Judith Web Kay (excerpted from Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson (eds.), Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1996, p. 192.)
See also the previous Wild Reed post:
• Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 1 - Herbert McCabe, OP