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The Pope and Natural Law

2010 April 25
by Paul Vallely

My nine year old recently had to do some homework on “arguments for and against being a vegetarian” so he and I did a quick internet surf. Interestingly the vegetarianist sites outnumbered those of the carnivores. Perhaps they have the better arguments, or perhaps the other side doesn’t feel the need to argue at all. It brought to mind again the Lord Peter Wimsey story which begins in an advertising agency where a tyro copywriter is being instructed how to make a case for margarine be. Just as good as butter but half the price, he is told. In which case, the youngster replies, what is the argument for butter. Butter doesn’t need an argument, he was told, because it’s natural.

Things get a bit trickier however when it is not entirely clear what is natural. What is self-evident to some is deeply controversial to others, as Pope Benedict XVI discovered when he recently issued a condemnation of the UK’s equality laws which will forbid discrimination against gay people when appointments are made to jobs like being the head teacher of a Catholic school. By coupling his attack to his official announcement of his visit to Britain in September the Pope has, as one commentator put it without evident irony, rather queered his pitch.

The Pope’s critique was that the British legislation is contrary to natural law. What he means by natural law is that the moral standards which govern human behaviour are, in some way, objectively derived from the nature of human beings and the nature of the world. Everything has a purpose and God’s objective can be figured out through the exercise of reason. In other words, we can scrutinise the world and draw our morality from it by concluding that what is is what ought to be. Or in the words of the great theologian, Thomas Aquinas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” which “can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts”. Because that can be done by inference that means that people who do not believe in God can nonetheless be led to uncover the divine intention for the world.

My son’s vegetarianism homework shows how this operates. One of the arguments in favour of a carnivorous diet was that the human body was designed to eat meat, as is evidenced by the fact that our teeth include incisors as well as grinders and our stomachs produce the acids and enzymes needed to digest flesh. Designed is the key word here. No religion entered into the carnivore propaganda but the vocabulary shows the extent to which religious assumptions about creation are woven into our very language. The evidence for evolution might suggest otherwise but concepts of design seem somehow easier to handle, much as we talk about the sun rising even though intellectually we know it is the earth which moves.

The Pope clearly thinks that by appealing to natural law he is reaching out in non-theological language to engage with people who do not share his faith, but the approach will only work if his interlocutors accept that a purpose may be presumed in existence. But that is not the only problem with natural law which has an unattractively determinist tinge which conflicts with the idea that human reason is the sign of a free intelligent nature, which through the exercise of free will makes man the master of his own conduct – able to act or abstain from action as he pleases unlike the objects of the mere material world.

The concept of natural law – as originated by Aristotle, extensively developed by Aquinas and added to by later Catholic theorists – has arrived at a received wisdom which insists that male-female sexual relations are not just normative (it would be difficult to argue otherwise) but are the only kind which can be permitted. The rationale for this involves also making use of Aristotle’s distinction between efficient and final causes – between what makes things happen and what their purpose is. Sex, the Catholic Church has decided, has an efficient cause – people enjoy it, which is what makes them do it – and a final cause (purpose) which is the transmission of life. Therefore sex is only good if procreation is possible, which rules out homosexual sex (though some Catholic theorists have argued does not always rule out a man taking several wives, but never one woman having several husbands). Unfortunately that notion would also rule out old or infertile people legitimately having sex – which suggests it may have another purpose, like the cementing of a relationship through an expression of love.

So even the logic of natural law thus admits of other conclusions than the one which Rome exclusively prefers. And there is yet another issue. Pope Benedict said that Britain’s equality laws also impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. “When so many of the population claim to be Christian, how could anyone dispute the gospel’s right to be heard?” he said. “The task of communicating the gospel,” he added, involved the need “to be attentive to the promptings of the spirit, who guides the whole church into the truth, gathers her into unity and inspires her with missionary zeal.”

Both the promptings of the spirit and the message of the gospel suggest to many Catholics that Christianity ought to taken a very different attitude to expressions of faithful homosexual love. For the biblical injunctions against homosexuality are not found in the gospels but in the theology of St Paul and among lists of peculiar Old Testament proscriptions.

By contrast the attitude of Jesus in the gospels to those who were stigmatised, marginalised and excluded rather suggests that the attitude of the church ought very different from the position Pope Benedict holds. No doubt when he arrives in Britain there will be plenty of people all too anxious to inform him of that.

from Third Way

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