Natural Law

Introduction: Natural Law

The Fall, 2008 issue of Communio is dedicated to the theme of “Natural Law.” In his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “when Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves. . . . They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (2:14–15). It has become increasingly clear that this idea of a law inscribed in our nature (or written in our heart) has an essential role to play in the Church’s dialogue with secular culture and with other religions. And yet, as Pope Benedict XVI argues, “the ethical message contained in being, a message that tradition calls lex naturalis . . . is almost incomprehensible due to a concept of nature that is no longer metaphysical, but only empirical.” In other words, the concept of nature that we have inherited from the founders of early modern science (Bacon, Galileo, Descartes) is essentially devoid of an immanent rationality or logos. In order for the tradition of natural law to assume its rightful place in the dialogue of cultures it is necessary first to rediscover the rationality of nature and man in relation to their origin and end in God. The present issue takes up this challenge by exploring the foundations of the natural law in light of the anthropology of John Paul II, according to whom the human body bears within itself “the expression and promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator” (Veritatis splendor, 48).

Recalling Benedict XVI’s and John Paul II’s statements, David S. Crawford, in “Natural Law and the Body: Between Deductivism and Parallelism,” argues that the body qua body carries within it an objective moral message. This does not mean that the moral agent merely deduces the moral good from the teleologies given in nature (“deductivism”). It does, however, entail rejection of the view that bodily nature remains merely a “raw datum” (Veritatis splendor, 48) until given its design by freedom, or again of the view that reads the relation between speculative and practical reason as one primarily of “parallelism.” This latter view, Crawford argues, risks granting the wrong sort of priority to the intention of the acting person in conceiving the moral object. Hence Crawford’s conclusion: “Ethical knowing,” he argues, “is neither a deduction from a metaphysics nor, again, a purely creative positing of the moral agent. It is original, but its originality consists in a mysterious simultaneity of ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ perspectives, of creativity in obedience to the origin. This simultaneity, moreover, is inscribed in the body, which in some sense is a memory of the origin.”

In “Natural Law: The First Grace,” Glenn W. Olsen brings to light both the continuity and the novelty of John Paul II’s theology of the body in relation to traditional accounts of the natural law. After reviewing the Stoic heritage and its reception by Ulpian and Gratian, Olsen highlights the unique achievement of Thomas Aquinas, who emphasized “the theonomy of natural law, while reconciling this with a greater emphasis on both the relative autonomy of natural law and its inscription in bodiliness.” For both Aquinas and John Paul II, “natural law is not independent of God and grace, since the Creator has placed in man a desire for happiness, truth, and goodness, that is, a natural desire for God, and therefore nature and grace are ‘pre-tuned’ to each other.”

In “Natural Law: From Neo-Thomism to Nuptial Mysticism,” Tracey Rowland draws attention to the common but mistaken conception of natural law as “a kind of lingua franca for dialogue with non-believers, precisely because it was deemed possible to sever it from its theological roots.” After showing how recent scholarship has recovered the theological context of the tradition, Rowland suggests that the idea of natural law as “a participation of the rational creature in the eternal law” can be enriched in light of the unity of Christology and anthropology. “The natural law,” she argues, “is perfected and fulfilled by the ecstatic movement of a person’s response to Christ’s love and hence participation in the life of the Trinity.”

David L. Schindler’s “The Embodied Person as Gift and the Cultural Task in America: Status Quaestionis,” concludes Communio’s treatment of natural law with a sustained reflection on the metaphysical anthropology of John Paul II. The burden of John Paul’s theology of the body is that “[t]he body in its physical structure as such bears a vision of reality: it is an anticipatory sign, and already an expression, of the order of love or gift that most deeply characterizes the meaning of the person and indeed, via an adequately conceived analogy, the meaning of all creaturely being.” In light of this anthropology of gift, “[t]he cultural task of our time in America must involve an effort to tie the political-constitutional order intrinsically to a natural law the public reasonableness of which is always already metaphysical (and open to the theological) and not—as a matter of principle is not ever—first simply formal or merely ‘political’-juridical.”

In continuity with Schindler’s argument about the nonneutrality of the political order, Thomas Rourke’s “Fundamental Politics: What We Must Learn From the Social Thought of Benedict XVI” shows how for Benedict XVI “the state’s openness to God, far from leading to theocracy, is actually the only thing that enables the state to distinguish itself properly from the Church, and thus to resist the twin temptations of utopianism and totalitarianism.”

In “Homosexuality: The Semblance of Intimacy,” José Noriega reflects on the moral significance of intimacy, “which expresses the space that is generated within a person when he discovers the presence of another, which prompts him to receive the other and to promote the other’s good.” “Intimacy,” Noriega argues, “demands the acceptance . . . of the person in his entirety . . . [including] in his sexual identity.” By implicitly denying that sexual difference is a constitutive element of personal identity, homosexual acts instrumentalize the body and provide only a semblance of intimacy.

In honor of the memory of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died in August of 2008, we include two essays by the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. In “On Solzhenitsyn,” Schmemann suggests that Solzhenitsyn is the first great Russian writer of the Soviet period “precisely because he accepted the ‘Soviet’ as the inalienable fate of his art, as the chalice which he could not leave unemptied, as that experience which art is obliged to embody, reveal, and illumine with the light of truth.” In his review of The Gulag Archipelago, Schmemann extends this reflection by highlighting Solzhenitsyn’s profound understanding of the vocation of the artist in light of the unity of goodness, truth, and beauty. Although Solzhenitsyn wrote “almost exclusively of darkness and sin, of crime and suffering, there always comes from his writings a mysterious light. This light has a content—a very ancient and eternal one: faith, love, hope.”

In Notes and Comments William L. Portier offers a review essay on Fergus Kerr’s book Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians:From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Blackwell Publishing, 2007). Portier situates Kerr’s book in the context of a growing Thomist resurgence whose central claim is that “Henri de Lubac, and by implication, Pope John Paul II, have ruptured and destabilized Catholic theology.” While welcoming Kerr’s contribution to the ongoing debate about nature and grace and about nuptial theology, Portier recalls the suggestion of David Schindler that any alternative proposal to de Lubac’s on the relation of nature and grace “must show how it can better account for the double burden presented by the Gospel, of an utterly gratuitous gift on God’s part coupled with the human person’s profound—non-arbitrary—desire for this gift.”

The final essay of the issue returns to the theme of natural law. In “Natural Law and Divine Law,” Rémi Brague argues that “[w]ithout an exterior point of reference, without someone who is capable of affirming, as God does in the first account of creation, that the human is ‘very good’ (Gn 1:31), we cannot know whether the existence on this earth of the species homo sapiens is or is not a good thing.”