Fall 2008

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.”