The natural moral law – what is it?
A term – a reality – that we don’t hear much about, but which is increasingly important to us as Catholics, is the natural moral law. The natural moral law is the law of moral action that is part of our human nature, made integral to our human nature by God. Thus this law in our nature is divine, it is of God. Because it is in human nature itself, all human beings are accountable to it. Because it is in human nature, evidence of it is found in all of humanity, in all cultures, places and times of human history. All men know that it is wrong to murder an innocent person. All know it is wrong to steal, to lie, to cheat. All know that we are not eternal, that we were created, and that there is a Creator to Whom we are accountable, and who deserves our gratitude and our service.
We all know this – except that our knowledge and understanding of these (and other) moral imperatives in our nature are now clouded, confused and obscured by sin. Nevertheless, traces and remnants of the natural moral law remain in human nature – and thanks be to God that at least traces remain! Otherwise, the evil and destruction we would rain upon one another would be devastating. The world, dark as it seems now, would be many times worse if traces of a sense of true right and wrong were totally lacking in us.
This natural moral law explains in part the beautiful and yet mysterious dignity that we read of in the Bible, when we read that God made us “in His own image: in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27) Before sin, this inner law ruled Adam and Eve: they chose only good, because it was in their nature immediately to do good – to choose the good, the beautiful and the true. Indeed, their fall into sin was a choice of a lesser good over the greatest good, under the influence of the deceitful serpent: since the forbidden fruit seemed good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise, Eve and then Adam disobeyed God their Creator and ate the fruit. (Gen 3:6)
After that first sin, and the inherited loss of sanctifying grace, human nature was deeply wounded. Our reasoning was darkened, our wills were weakened and prone to sin, and the clarity of the natural law was somewhat confused and clouded – but not lost. Mankind can still discern much of Gods moral law, and the very existence of the natural law serves to point us toward the origin of this inner sense of right and wrong, of good and evil. The inner image of God, impressed upon our souls by Him, serves to point us toward the Source of the image – the Original, because of Whom we sense truth, goodness and beauty. Thus we are drawn toward them, and thus we are drawn toward Him. He made us for personal relationship with Him, and so He made us with an inner compatibility with Him, the divine image, the reason for the great dignity of every personal example of humankind.
Why is this important?
The natural moral law is important for us to know about, for two reasons: 1) for evangelization, and 2) for our civil responsibilities.
1) Evangelization. Persons we meet, and those we already know who are not Catholic Christians, need to find and to serve the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ. The need for God – for a real, living and personal relationship with God in Christ – is in all men in the natural moral law. This is why we see religion in all cultures, in all peoples, in all times and places in human history. It is in us to seek the true God, to worship Him, to serve Him, to live His life.
Therefore telling people about God, and helping them find Him, is not like trying to sell something to people that they neither want nor need. It is like helping people find what they do need, and what they are seeking whether they know it or not. God made us all to need Him, to seek Him, to find Him, and to live in peace happily with Him forever. And the witness for the truth of this, is in every man by the natural moral law – dimmed, distorted or nearly destroyed by sin though it may be.
2) Civil Responsibilities. As Catholic lay persons, we have a responsibility to bring the light of Christ into the secular and temporal world where we live. We are called to be “good citizens.” In some ways, this calls us to try to lessen the evil; in other ways, we can promote and expand the good. In America, Catholics need to stand against the growing moral lawlessness of the land, and to stand for that which is good and true for all men, and that which is in all men by the natural moral law. Catholics need to vote for the common good – not the current political correctness – but the enduring common good for all men, which is the truth of God. This truth is in all men, but sin is ever denying the truth and seeking to advance the lie – but the lie kills, only the truth saves. Only truth brings happiness in the end.
Secularism is rising, and Christianity is declining in the “developed” West. We must try to help the men of modern secularism, who reject any place of the Bible or of religion in modern society, to see and to value the moral law that has been in our common human nature from the beginning. The natural moral law is in us all – moral truth is not “merely a religious thing”! Moral truth is a human thing, and thus we must advance human morality in our culture, lest in this modern and advanced society we lose our very humanity.
And we, holding moral precepts formed in God’s law, must vote in the light of His eternal truth! We must vote for life and not for death! We must vote for human dignity and not depravity, for true freedom and not for moral lawlessness.
The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity,” they are “intrinsically disordered.” “Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Why does the Church teach this? Because we are mean, prejudiced and homophobic? Because we are blind sheep being led by old men in Rome? Because the Bible teaches it? No, homosexual acts were wrong before there was a Bible. The Church teaches against homosexual acts – to Catholics and to all men – because homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law.” (all quotes from Catechism 2357) Homosexual acts are harmful to all men and to any culture that endorses such activity because they are harmful to the humanity of persons, who are all created in the divine image.
Other moral issues are being redefined in our time. Abortion is wrong: what mother cannot know in her heart that it is wrong to kill the child within her? Contraception is wrong – it is certainly not the “right” of every sexually active female, to be paid for by the taxpayers. Homosexual marriage – and the right of active homosexual couples thereby to adopt children – is wrong: God has already defined marriage, and parenthood, consisting of a mother and a father.
No government can, by mere civil law, change human nature! No culture can, by mere cultural pressure, redefine normality or moral goodness. Sin has wounded us all, but it need not destroy us. It need not reign over us. Sin need not form us in its own image – we are made in a higher image, the divine image, the image of God.
The Good News
In Jesus Christ, something wonderful happens. Human nature – still preserving some of the divine image placed in us by God, yet wounded and darkened by sin – begins a renewal and a restoration and an upbuilding. This renewal will reach final completion when we are finally finished with this time of trial and cleansing and maturation in Him, and finally see Him face to face. Paul writes,
Col 3:8 But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.
Col 3:9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices
Col 3:10 and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Again, he exhorts us to this same call to holiness:
Eph 4:22 Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts,
Eph 4:23 and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
Eph 4:24 and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Then, that day, His holy image in us will be restored in all its beauty. Then we will possess both image and likeness, as in the beginning. This hope is powerful – very powerful. It is a hope that all men and women who are struggling in this present darkness, deserve to have by the merits of Jesus Christ. God so loved us, each one, so much that He sent the Son to regather us into that “true righteousness and holiness” fitting for communion with our Lord and God.
There are many brothers and sisters struggling in the darkness of this world, and in this confused and godless culture we live in. They deserve hope! They deserve knowing that in their hearts is still the handprint of God their Creator. His touch calls them to more than this world can understand. His touch speaks of a higher calling, a noble and honorable calling to holiness and righteousness. They are more than accidents. Life is more than toys and pleasures. Love is more than animal lust. Try to help them remember the more noble hungers in their souls. God will help them find themselves again, if they will only hope, and search a little while. He will find them, and they will find themselves again.