Friday 11 July 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family: part 6 and the end.

In this final post, I want to draw together my main conclusions so far and try to reach an overall conclusion.

The beginning of this line of thought was the following claim in the Instrumentum Laboris (working paper) for the forthcoming Synod on the Family:

The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. 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.

Now, my argument is that this Biblical approach, at least in the secularized world of Western Europe, is misplaced. However, I agree that there is a problem with the description, 'Natural Law' and perhaps with the presentation of its content.

As far as natural is concerned, the main point here is that it isn't from revelation -including the Bible. So the very conception of natural law depends on the understanding that Catholic moral teaching isn't just Biblical. If the word 'natural' doesn't make this clear, then perhaps we need to alter the word (to 'rational', 'commonsense'?) But nothing will be helped by introducing more of revealed, Biblical teaching to an audience which is already prone to assume that churches are simply irrational pedlars of Bronze Age scripture.

As far as law is concerned, insofar as law depends on a lawgiver, using this term does cause problems in engaging with thoroughgoing atheists. But I'm not sure that should be our main audience. Given that belief in God is widespread, I think there's at least an argument that we should start from that point: everyone (well, the rational anyway) believe in the existence of a spiritual direction in the universe: let's explore what the existence of such a spiritual law would involve.

Against the dropping of the term 'Natural Law' is confusion: we know as Catholics that we have a worked out body of thought in this area and we want to make sure, however we describe it, that description clearly denotes that thought. On the other hand, as I've noted, there are dangers that the description 'Natural Law' can mislead. On balance, my recommendation would be that we retain the term, but are more careful in explaining it simply means commonsense reasoning about morality. In particular, I think we need to be careful not to give the impression that 'Natural Law' is simply an instruction manual of codified conclusions, It is certainly the results of an enquiry, but, given those results are precisely what is in question, there is the enquiry and its techniques to fall back on whether in the 'commonsense' form of ordinary practical reason, or its more developed offspring of Thomism.

Finally, to go back to two specific Twitter exchanges that were, in part, the prompt for this series.
Answer: 'natural' law is not primarily based on discerning the function of organs. To the limited extent that it is, such a discernment only makes sense within a context, in particular, within a certain understanding of practical wisdom and of teleology, primarily, though not exclusively within the Thomist tradition. The argument therefore cannot be ripped out of context. It is that background -from which the conclusions follow- which needs to be addressed. [More detailed post was here.]

Answer: 'Natural' is primarily to be understood as 'not supernatural' -ie not from revelation (the Bible). It certainly doesn't say that whatever happens is good (how could a morality say that when morality is primarily concerned with what ought to be rather than what is). To the extent that reflecting on human nature is an important part of the methodology of natural law, you have to remember that what we are just now isn't what we should be or even what we are at the deepest level. That can be put in technical Thomist talk about form and act and potentiality, but that technical exploration really rests on the commonsense understanding that not all feelings are good (depression?) and not every state we're currently in is what we truly are (a drug addict?).

A very final point. There's a temptation in Catholicism (either because it's a general human temptation or because Catholicism is hierarchical and tends towards the neat)  to want one answer. So from the problems with Natural Law and getting a hearing for it, we turn to one answer: more Scripture. I think this (general and specific) tendency should be resisted. If Natural Law is presented in one way -say, by a Bishop in full fig referring to the achieved conclusions of Natural Law as clear instructions- then it will work in some contexts (say, faithful but swithering Catholics) but not in others (say, those who regard Catholicism as superstitious, authoritarian mumbo-jumbo). Adding more Scripture may work sometimes. It won't work always (or even often in the UK). Using terms other than 'natural law' may help sometimes, but on other occasions it will confuse. There is no one solution. All that can be done is that Catholics get as clear an understanding of the principles as they can and try to be as imaginative as they can be in using what they can do to put them over.

But I really don't think that underplaying the rational content of Catholic moral teaching and instead emphasizing scripture is likely to be a major contribution to making our points effectively.

Previous posts can be found here:

Post one: general background [here]

Post two: what is 'natural'? Primarily it means not supernatural. [here]

Post three: what is 'natural'? The role of teleology and nature in the natural law. [here]

Post four: what is 'natural'? Commonsense and human nature in the natural law. [here]

Post five: what is 'law' and what part does God play here? [here]

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