12th-century manuscript of the Meditations of St. Anselm

12th-century manuscript of the Meditations of St. Anselm Public domain

“What do you get when you cross Tony Soprano with a natural law philosopher?” asks my friend Mark Massa, S.J., dean of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. “Someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand.”

The same point is made, more ponderously to be sure, in the Vatican’s just released preparatory document for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family. Reporting on the results of the questionnaire distributed by the Holy See to Catholics worldwide, the Instrumentum Laboris states, “In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.” Ouch.

This does not only matter to the church insofar as it struggles to communicate its moral teachings to the faithful. As the document notes (quoting the International Theological Commission’s 2009 report, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law), “The natural law responds thus to the need to found human rights on reason and makes possible an intercultural and interreligious dialogue.” It is what makes possible — provides the rationale for — the church’s public advocacy on behalf of its moral positions in secular societies like our own.

In the church’s view, natural law is binding on all people because it is written into the nature of things and is therefore, by definition, accessible to all people by reason, not revelation. And yet, as the Instrumentum Laboris acknowledges, the foremost expression of reason in the contemporary world rejects it: “Today, in not only the West but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not ‘scientific.’”

What to do? Interestingly, the document suggests recourse to the Bible as a way of making natural law more comprehensible.

In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world.

In other words, the way to make reason more comprehensible in today’s world is through revelation. I suppose this comports with St. Anselm’s thousand-year-old notion of “faith seeking understanding.” But it doesn’t say much for natural law as a self-sufficient, universally graspable system of thought.

Categories: Ethics

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

6 Comments

    • It made no sense back then either. Except back in the day people were more deferential to authority wrapping itself around religion.

      It was pure “argument by unfounded assumption”. A glorified way to say your views are not subject to objective criticism or analysis.

      • Lynne Newington

        Yet they certainly know how to use it for expediency, recalling Vatican Secretary Cardinal Sodano asking Condoleesa Rice to help stop sex-abuse
        American law suits hanging over their heads sometime ago.

  1. A Lay Catholic

    The re-reading of natural law to make it more understandable in this day, is not going to make lay Catholics suddenly adhere to the church’s moral teachings. Judy Valente at the Public Broadcasting Service station, asked the late, Father Andrew Greeley, in a May 10, 2002 interview, why he used the term “communal Catholic”. This was Fr. Greeley’s response: “Well, I meant people who have decided they’re going to be Catholics on their own terms. They are Catholic, they’re strongly Catholic, they like being Catholic; but they’re not going to let Church leadership dictate the terms of belonging. Immediately after the Second Vatican Council, [there was] the euphoria and the effervescence of the council, the contagion [from] the council fathers to the people and to the lower clergy, and in a remarkably short period of time, they changed the Church. By 1975, all this had happened: birth control wasn’t wrong, premarital sex wasn’t wrong, priests leaving the priesthood wasn’t wrong, nuns leaving the religious life wasn’t wrong. You didn’t really have to go to mass every Sunday. You didn’t have to go to confession before receiving communion every time. All of these things, which they never really understood and they didn’t like, were just swept away. Now, a whole generation later, despite all the efforts of the present pope, they [the Church fathers] have not been able to restore the acceptance of those teachings. And I don’t see how they ever will. It may be good, [it] may be bad, but the sociologists say this is what’s happened.”

    • Lynne Newington

      Back then children who had clerical fathers who wanted to own them had a better chance then, than today.
      These days the mothers are blackmailed if being supported the church and keeping their child the father refused rescripts of their vows, apart from those happy to shack up together living a life of subterfuge.

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