Fall 2008

Natural Law and the Body: Between Deductivism and Parallelism

David S. Crawford

“How are we to understand the famous passage from Veritatis splendor telling us that the body is a ‘sign’ and an ‘expression and promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator’?”

1. Divine reason and natural law

1. In a recent address to an international congress on natural law, Benedict XVI offered the following reflection:

There is no doubt that we are living in a moment of extraordinary development in the human capacity to decipher the rules and structures of matter, and in the consequent dominion of man over nature. We all see the great advantages of this progress and we see more and more clearly the threat of destruction of nature by what we do. There is another less visible danger, but no less disturbing: the method that permits us to know ever more deeply the rational structures of matter makes us ever less capable of perceiving the source of this rationality, creative Reason. The capacity to see the laws of material being makes us incapable of seeing the ethical message contained in being, a message that tradition calls lex naturalis, natural moral law.
This word for many today is almost incomprehensible due to a concept of nature that is no longer metaphysical, but only empirical. The fact that nature, being itself, is no longer a transparent moral message creates a sense of disorientation that renders the choice of daily life precarious and uncertain. . . . This law has as its first and general principle, “to do good and to avoid evil.” This is a truth which by its very evidence immediately imposes itself on everyone. From it flow the other more particular principles that regulate ethical justice on [sic] the rights and duties of everyone. . . .
Yet taking into account the fact that human freedom is always a freedom shared with others, it is clear that the harmony of freedom can be found only in what is common to all: the truth of the human being, the fundamental message of being itself, exactly the lex naturalis.1

This passage contains some fascinating claims that hinge on the idea of natural law as an expression of being or as “the fundamental message of being itself,” as Benedict puts it. For the pope, then, the structures and forms of being or nature pose obligations. Consider another passage, this time from a writing of Cardinal Ratzinger prior to his election to the papacy:

[T]he Church believes that in the beginning was the Logos and that therefore being itself bears the language of the Logos—not just mathematical, but also aesthetical and moral reason. This is what is meant when the Church insists that “nature” has a moral expression. No one is saying that biologism should become the standard of man. That viewpoint has been recommended only by some behavioral scientists.2

The context of this second passage is once again a discussion of the foundations of morality, this time in relation to conscience. Ratzinger’s concern here is to call attention to what he calls the “ontological” origin of “conscience” in anamnesis, a concept which he favors as clearer and more philosophically robust than the traditional scholastic term, synderesis.3


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1. Benedict XVI, “The Only Valid Bulwark Against Arbitrary Power,” address to the participants of the International Congress on Natural Law, organized by the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome (22 February 2007), available online at http://www.zenit.org/article-18989?l=english.

2. Joseph Ratzinger, “Bishops, Theologians, and Morality,” in On Conscience (The National Catholic Bioethics Center/Ignatius Press, 2007), 67.

3. Joseph Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth,” in On Conscience, 30ff.