Many lay Catholics taking part in the Vatican’s survey will have struggled with the questions concerning natural law and sex and relationships. Here, a theologian explains Aquinas’ thinking and dismisses some myths in the process.
- The Tablet
In the Vatican’s questionnaire, ample reference is made to natural law, an idea commonly associated specifically, if not exclusively, with Catholic moral theology. But natural law is one of the oldest and, until relatively recently, most influential ideas in moral and political thought.
However much disagreement there might be about specifics, we seem unable to dispense with the notion that some things are natural or appropriate to human life. And nowhere is this more so than in the context of family relations, sexuality and medical practice.
Again, only relatively recently, dating from the early modern period, has the idea of natural law come under suspicion, especially among theologians. But the first stirrings of that suspicion were felt in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries when voluntarist thinkers such as the Franciscans, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and William of Ockham (1285-1349), downplayed our ability to grasp the truth about reality with our minds, on the basis that the order of things was established by the sovereignly free and therefore arbitrary will of God, thus putting it beyond our understanding, and calling instead for acceptance and obedience.
According to these thinkers, moral principles were decreed by God such that, if God were to decree that adultery is acceptable, so be it. Something is good or bad, on this view, simply because of God’s fiat.
Later, in the early modern period among secular political thinkers such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), an entirely secular, non-theological concept of natural law emerged, enshrining for the first time human and political rights but also leading to a quasi-mathematical calculus for demonstrating moral principles. This extreme rationalism led to absurdity and a wholly justified discrediting of natural law theory, as it had come to be formulated.
The medieval notion of natural law could not have been more different. It was firmly embedded in an explicitly theological context, in which the concept of nature itself was theological. Natural law provided an indispensable framework within which it was possible to judge and evaluate changes in the understanding of marriage, economics and much else associated with the rapid expansion of the new cities in medieval Europe. Natural law as understood by such thinkers as St Thomas Aquinas is still relevant for contemporary thought.
FULL STORY How to be Happy (The Tablet)