Natural Law

Natural Law: The First Grace

Glenn W. Olsen

“Natural law thought can never be understood as outside history and neutral either philosophically or theologically. We only approach the world through a specific language and discourse, through a genealogy.”

1. The desideratum: A post-dualist account of natural law


The prospects of natural-law thinking can seem dim indeed, in spite of some recent able defenses.2 Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of this, it is incumbent upon contemporary Catholic intellectuals to make their contribution to the modest revival of the natural law tradition such defenses represent. It seems to me that, in order to be fruitful, this contribution must avoid two extremes. On the one hand, it should not simply return to the older “manual” tradition of construing natural law, lest it underwrite a new dualism between nature and grace.3  On the other hand, granting that the new, very striking, insights of John Paul II’s theology of the body should serve as a platform for a post-dualist recovery of natural law, we must not fall in with the oft-heard claim that these insights are so new that the first twenty-three centuries of the natural law tradition offer nothing useful in comparison, as if it were only now that we had understood the true dimensions of this subject.4  To be sure, John Paul II’s idea of nuptial-sacramental bodiliness does represent a significant development beyond previous thought. Still, the argu- ment of the present essay is that the advances and clarifications made possible by focus on the nuptial meaning of the body more deepen than replace certain strands of earlier natural law thinking. For Aquinas, as we will see below, 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.5


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