Fall 2008

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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1. Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (Wilmington, Del., 2003), xi–xii, incorporates a fifth-century Christian phrase into the title of his book to emphasize that from early in the Christian tradition natural law was seen as an expression of grace, not as something autonomous from grace or revelation, as often it has been presented in recent centuries. This is a point central to the present analysis.

2. My “The Gay Middle Ages: A Response to Professor Boswell,” Communio: International Catholic Review 8 (Spring, 1981): 119–38, gives an idea of the political issues that complicate current reception of natural law thinking. Russell Hittinger, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (Notre Dame, Ind., 1987), is useful in sorting out recent expositions of the natural law.

3. For a more expansive presentation of the manual tradition, see Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. from third ed. by Mary Thomas Noble (Washington, D. C., 1995), 254–79.

4. It might also be said that sometimes those working on the contemporary theology of the body have seemed insufficiently aware of what actually has been said in Christian history about the body: Adam G. Cooper, The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified (Oxford, 2005), is an example of a work that deserves a wide reading, dealing as it does with the theology of the body and the corporeal aspects of anthropology, and attacking as it does the notion that the Greek Fathers in general held to an anti-material, overly Platonized, asceticism. See the review of this book by Valerie A. Karras in Church History 76 (2007): 826–28. I have sketched some of the issues in “Twelfth-Century Humanism Reconsidered: The Case of St. Bernard,” Studi Medievali, 3a Serie, 31, 1, 1990: 27–53. M. D. Chenu, “The Spirituality of Matter,” Faith and Theology, trans. Denis Hickey (New York, 1968), 106–11, is an example of earlier discussion of some of these issues.

5. Servais Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View, trans. Michael Sherwin (South Bend, Ind., 2003), 30; Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, 400–56. Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, Tenn., 2001), defines nature for St. Paul as “the material creation around human beings and the bodily design of humans themselves, guiding us into the truth about the nature of God and the nature of human sexuality respectively” (391). This captures how much of the early Christian tradition saw man within nature, and the structure of humans as giving insight both into the nature of God and of human sexuality.