Friday, January 23, 2009

Perspectives on Natural Law

Part 6: William C. McDonough

Following is a sixth perspective on the concept of natural law from the compilation of perspectives that the leadership of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) sent last November to Archbishop John Nienstedt and to every priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (For why we shared these perspectives, click here.)

This particular perspective is from Catholic theologian William C. McDonough and focuses on four ideas, present in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, for a “Catholic natural law morality.” It is a perspective excerpted from an article entitled “The Church in the Modern World: Rereading Gaudium et Spes After Thirty Years” that McDonough wrote for the compilation Vatican II: The Continuing Agenda (edited by Anthony J. Cernera, Sacred Heart University Press, 1997, pp. 113-133).


. . . I ask about the implications for moral theology of the decision of Gaudium et Spes to keep the church in the modern world. . . . So from the start I wish to be clear that what follows should be read not as a road map for the revision of moral theology but as a hope-filled extension and application of Gaudium et Spes to a very urgent task before us.

What is evidently needed is an understanding of morality as spirituality, a spirituality that arises from the natural desire for happiness that is built into all human beings. Servais Pinckaers summarizes the connection between morality and spirituality in this way: “The spontaneous, universal desire that receives an unhoped-for answer lifts human hope to its highest pitch.” [note to Pinckaers, 1995 at 311]. What follows are four ideas, already arising in Gaudium et Spes, for a morality that would lift human hope to its highest pitch.

a. Catholic morality will be a natural law morality, and it will not be like preconciliar natural law moralities.

Quoting Vincent McNamara, 1989, at 105: “The problem which many have found with the version of natural law which dominated Roman Catholic morality was that the whole person was not kept in view: certain aspects seemed to be given a significance and prominence out of relation to the total person. The ongoing task, of course, is to understand what it means to be a person, to discover what are the lines of human wholeness, what humanizes, what are genuine human goods. But we should not expect to be able to prove that a piece of behavior is inhuman and therefore immoral as clearly as we can prove something in the natural sciences. It is not something that can be easily ‘read off’ from a definition of human nature.”

Keeping church and world together in reading Gaudium et Spes will result in a very different form of natural low morality than is described above. First such a morality will acknowledge the church’s dependence on human experience, human judgment and the relevant human sciences in its discernment of moral norms. . . .

b. Catholic natural law morality will have unchanging moral norms, and they will not be focused on sexual morality.

. . . Gaudium et Spes does have a list of what have become known as intrinsically evil acts. And to begin listing those actions one should not look to the area of human sexuality but to the area of direct attacks on human beings.

c. Catholic natural law morality will focus on our common humanity, and will find that commonality at the interior level of virtue more than at the exterior level of norm.

. . . Part two of Gaudium et Spes opens the way to a rethinking of Catholic morality as beginning from a few absolute prohibitions and moving toward a morality of virtue.

d. Catholic natural law morality, situated in the communio of virtue, will integrate concerns for subsidiarity with concerns for the common good.

. . . It is only inclusive communities of virtue that can equip persons for the task that Gaudium et Spes enjoins to us: our humanization as persons through our divinization. And this, perhaps the most challenging moral implication of all in our reading of Gaudium et Spes, is simply another instance of the Thomistic spirit of the document. The way Aquinas put it is that “the higher one’s degree of goodness, the more universal is one’s desire for good. Imperfect things extend no further than their own individual good. God, who is most perfect in good, is the good of all being.” The way Gaudium et Spes puts it is that the church can only be the church in the modern world.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 1 - Herbert McCabe, OP
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 2 - Judith Web Kay
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 3 - Daniel Helminiak
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 4 - Garry Wills
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 5 - Gregory Baum
Dialoguing with the Archbishop on Natural Law

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