Questions about Natural Law
by John Wijngaards
Background information on 'Natural Law'
Margaret is a Catholic who lives in one of the slums of Johannesburg. She already has five children, suffers from anemia and might not survive delivering another child. Moreover, her husband is infected with AIDS. He often comes home drunk. Margaret’s doctor has advised her strongly to have a vasectomy or to use contraceptives, but her parish priest forbids her to do so.
“Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences proposes . . . to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil”. (1)
On 31 July 2001 the Catholic Bishops Conference of South Africa reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on contraceptives also for possible victims of AIDS. “Natural law should always be observed.”
The norms of human sexuality still adhered to by the Pope and many bishops in the Catholic Church cause problems to millions of sincere Catholics. Those norms are based on an antiquated interpretation of natural law. Without entering into the vast academic discussion on the subject,(2) I will highlight some facts that will give readers more background to my story.
The idea of ‘natural law’ handled by Church authorities derives from Thomas Aquinas ( 1224 - 1274 AD) . He found it in the philosophy of Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) and adapted it for use in Christian theology.
Central to Aquinas’ thinking is that each being has a nature that expresses the substance or essence of that kind of being. A horse has the nature of being a horse. Accidentals of colour, size, height, etc. do not change a being’s nature. That is why a grey horse, an Arab, a palomino and a Shetland pony all share the same nature. They are all horses. If we look at the whole of reality in this way, we find a pyramid of natures, from inanimate beings like stones at the bottom, to plants higher up, then to animals, to human beings, to angels and finally to God right at the top. Each has its own nature.
A being’s nature has been fixed by the Creator. Birds have wings by nature, so they fly. Pigs cannot fly. Flying goes against their nature, or to put it differently: goes against the natural law for pigs. Once you accept this premise, the main task of theologians is to define everything’s nature: the nature of a woman, the nature of marriage, etc. and of course the nature of sex. For nature not only describes what you are, it prescribes how you should behave.
Now how can we know the law of nature? God has fixed an "eternal law" for human beings, that is: how God wants people to behave. By studying nature we can find out what that purpose is, that is: the law of our nature. Natural law governs all of nature, but, unlike animals that automatically follow the law of their nature, human beings possess a will of their own and can choose to ignore the natural law, giving in to their base instincts. This is the concept of natural law adhered to by the Popes.
“There exists a moral law written into our humanity, which we can come to know by reflecting on our own nature and our actions, and which imposes certain obligations upon us because we recognize them as universally true and binding.”(3)
So far so good. But how is this applied?
The natural law of sex
Pigs cannot fly. What about us humans? Judging by our legs it would seem that the law of nature demands that we keep our feet on the ground. But do we? We slide down hills on skis, we gallop around on horseback, we break speed records in motorcars and we fly across oceans. Are we acting against natural law? No, we are told, because we are intelligent. We should of course ride, drive or fly responsibly, for intelligence includes a conscience. But human mobility is not restricted by our earth-bound feet.
When we come to sex, suddenly everything changes. Now everything is judged by our sexual organs.
People who practise family planning through partial penetration at intercourse, or through contraceptives, are considered to commit a sin against nature. For at intercourse, Church authorities say, the body aims at male seed being deposited in the female reproductive tract. If this physical act is blocked, the law of nature is broken and we sin grievously.
Pope Pius XI does not mince his words in a condemnation that has been repeated by all his successors. Contraception equals murder.
“Any use whatsoever of matrimony, exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life, is an offense against the law of God and of nature . . . Those who prevent birth violate the law of nature . . . Therefore, the sin of those married couples who by medicine either hinder conception . . . is very grave; for this should be considered an unholy conspiracy of homicide.” (4)
But surely, a man and woman coming together in a sexual embrace are part of a much wider reality in which intelligence should guide us? Can the nature of the marriage act be assessed on its bodily function alone?
Originally marriage, as we know it, did not even exist. Men and women had intercourse without even realizing its link to the procreation of children, as anthropology has documented. Later marriage arose as a social institution with a multiplicity of forms. Its main purpose was to give stability to families and to protect common property. Marriages were polygamous or polyandrous. Trial sex before marriage was common. What was natural or unnatural in all such marriages?
Rather than ascribing a fixed, unchangeable nature to marriage, why not accept marriage as a dynamic, complex, interconnected reality, always somehow original between specific partners, with unique biological, social, cultural and psychological aspects? And the conjugal act is part of that wider reality, so that our intelligence should judge what is right and what is wrong in the given circumstances.
But if you determine good or evil purely by biological criteria, then a wide range of complex realities are determined to be in conflict with natural law: the use of condoms to protect against AIDS; (5) artificial insemination for women with defects in the womb; research on stem cells from a foetus, even if it was lost through a miscarriage; last not least, gays or lesbians sleeping together.
“All sexual homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and condemned by Scripture as a serious depravity” . (6)
The tyranny of the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics
Once you are in the grip of the Church’s biological logic, there is no escape. Natural law admits of no exceptions. You must always obey your nature because it is the eternal law imposed on our nature by God.
The Church calls acts which run counter to the law of nature intrinsically evil, in distinction from acts that are only evil through circumstances. If I drive a car I have stolen, my deed is wrong, but driving the car is not intrinsically evil. The evil does not lie in the driving as such, but in he stealing. Deeds against nature are always wrong, whatever the circumstances, because they are evil in themselves, in their biological nature.
“No circumstances, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (7)
"This law of nature, being as old as humankind and dictated by God himself, is superior in obligation to any other law. It is binding all over the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this law; and such laws as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, directly or indirectly, from this original law." ( 8)
That is why, however complex the human circumstances surrounding the marriage act, no deviations are ever allowed from its original biological purpose according to Church authorities.
The thinking of Church leaders fails
The Pope’s norms for deciding what is natural and what not, are purely arbitrary. Thomas Aquinas, for example, worked out that polygamy, a husband marrying more wives, though not ideal is not against natural law, while natural law totally forbids a woman to have more husbands. (9)
Surely mutilating the male sexual organs is against natural law, you would think? No, not so obvious. Enter the castrati, male singers castrated before puberty so that they retained their high soprano voices. Starting in the 15 th century the Church condemned the practice as contrary to natural law, but under Pope Clement VIII this condemnation was revoked in 1599. Church authorities now deemed that castration brought out better the natural potential of the human voice. At the time about 4000 boys were castrated annually through an operation that required a cutting off of their testicles. The papal choir enrolled castrati until 1870 when a prohibition was put in place again. ( 10)
The ethics of natural law have in past centuries mistakenly been used by the Church to justify slavery, the colonial conquest of nations, the subject state of women, torture and wars of aggression. (11)
The contradictions continue to our day. To have sexual intercourse is natural, you would think, if other human beings are to be born and continue the human species. Yet the Popes decree celibacy for priests and nuns and therefore make it morally wrong for them to practice natural law.
Sex is forbidden to gays and lesbians by ‘natural law’ as I reported above. But research has demonstrated that homosexuality is determined by one’s genes and the influence of hormones. Many animal species exhibit homosexual sex. So what is natural or unnatural here?
Human intelligence is natural law for us
The solution to the problem lies embedded in the recognition of human intelligence. This principle should be applied to all spheres of human responsibility, including sex. Not biology should rule supreme, but our human power to discern the correct response to intricate situations. Natural law for humans means: our power of reason to determine what is right and wrong.
“The rule and measure of human acts is intelligence which is the first principle of human acts.” (12)
“Under the divine Lawgiver each creature has its own natural inclination, so that what is a law for one, is against the law for another. Thus I might say that fierceness is, in a way, the law of a dog, but against the law of a sheep or another meek animal. And so the [natural] law of man, which, by the divine ordinance, is allotted to him, according to his proper natural condition, is that he should act in accordance with reason.” (13)
This should be applied also to sexual ethics. Pigs can’t fly. We do. Pigs just breed. We foster loving and life-giving relationships. In Margaret’s case it is the doctor, not the priest who understands the law of our nature.
2. See for instance: André Entrèves, Natural Law, 1951; Joseph Fuchs, Natural Law, 1965; John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 1980; Charles Curran, ‘Natural Law’, Directions in Fundamental Moral Theology, 1985, pp. 119-172; Pauline Westerman, The Disintegration of Natural Law, 1998.
5. Reiterated by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, on 9 October 2003. The Cardinal also said that, apart from being intrinsically evil, condoms are useless because they do not stop the HIV virus. "The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom.”
10. A. Heriot, The Castrati in Opera, London,1956; J. Rosselli, The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon 1550-1850, Basel 1988; S. Tougher (ed), Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond London 2002.