I know of no public opinion polling data to support me in this belief, but I believe, and have believed for many decades, that many American Catholics, perhaps most of them, equate the Christian moral law with the natural law of morality. What the Christian law proscribes and prescribes, they believe, the natural law proscribes and prescribes.
But this equation seems to me to be highly unlikely. For it would mean that the rule of morality that Jesus Christ delivered to us was simply the same law that we already knew. He was telling us nothing new. He was simply republishing what humans had always known. He wasn’t giving us a moral revelation; he was simply giving us a reminder.
What’s more, Thomas Aquinas points out in the “Treatise on Law” in the Summa Theologiae (Ia-IIae, 90-208) that we humans have two ends: a natural end that can be fulfilled in this temporal lifetime and a supernatural end that can be fulfilled only in the world to come. But if we have two ends, doesn’t it make sense that we should have two moral laws, a lower one for our natural life, a higher one for our supernatural life?
I am reluctant to use the expression “natural law” here since the expression has, and has had for many centuries, a variety of definitions depending on who is using the expression. As a result, my use of the expression is more likely to confuse my readers than to enlighten them.
But what I have in mind when I speak of a lower, temporal morality is a morality that obliges all human beings, no matter what century or what country they live in; further, it is a morality that is known, at least in its basic principles, to all human beings. It is a morality we all agree on.
The best brief description of this common morality that I know of was given by Cicero who, though not himself a Stoic, borrowed the idea from the Stoics. It appears in his partially surviving work The Republic, where he says this is the law of God or the law of nature or the law of reason; that it is equally known in Rome and Athens and everywhere else; and that it needs no law professors to expound it. It is a marvelous passage, Cicero at his rhetorical best, but (even though brief) too long for me to quote in this brief column (you can read it by clicking today’s “Notable”).
Though I wish to distinguish between this “lower” common morality, known by reason, and the “higher” Christian morality, known by revelation, I acknowledge that there is a great overlap between the two. Which is to say, all the good deeds mandated by the common morality and all the bad deeds prohibited by the common morality are also mandated and prohibited by Christian morality. Both prohibit, for example, murder, rape, and robbery. Because of this, Jesus, in addition to giving us new commandments, was also reminding us of commandments we are capable of knowing without Jesus.
What, you may ask, are some examples of this higher morality? The most important example, I suppose, is the Christian law of charity: the law that tells us we must love our neighbors as ourselves, with “neighbor” being defined the way it was defined in the parable of the Good Samaritan, that is, any member of the human race.
In the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world, the importance of sacrificial love was recognized and admired. One should love one’s family and friends and country; and should show that love by a willingness go so far as to die for them. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, wrote the Roman poet Horace. But to live and work and even die for strangers? For foreigners? For people in far-off lands? Even for enemies? Unheard of. This was a moral ideal – or rather, a moral commandment – that Christianity introduced into the world.
And there were others. Take the virtue of humility. The ancients recognized such a virtue – in slaves and other lower-class or lower-caste persons. They should of course have a spirit of humility. Christianity transformed this servile virtue by extending it to all humans. Not just slaves, but nobles and rich men and kings and even Caesar himself, should be humble in the face of God.
And chastity. The ancients held that women should be chaste. Christianity taught that all humans, men as well as women, should be chaste. Christianity went even further than that, teaching that the hyper-chastity of a monk or nun (imitating the hyper-chastity of Jesus himself) was even better than garden-variety chastity.
And courage. The ancients had immense admiration for courage, the warrior-courage of Homer’s heroes or of Alexander the Great. But Christianity taught a new kind of courage, not the active courage of the warrior but the passive courage of the person who suffers in the service of God: the courage of Jesus on the Cross and of martyrs willing to suffer and die for the faith.
Christianity (at least in its Catholic form) teaches that marriage is indissoluble. By contrast, the common or natural-law morality teaches that, while lifelong permanence is the ideal, divorce and remarriage are permissible in some unhappy circumstances. Even the Catholic Church, or at least the Catholic Church in America (and lately in Rome), tacitly acknowledges this. Thus, American Catholicism is very generous in granting so-called annulments. In theory, these are declarations that an apparent marriage was never a real marriage. And so, the apparently married partners are free to try a second time. But in practice these are usually (though not always) “Catholic divorces.”
If I’m right about the above, certain actions that are sinful from a Christian or Catholic point of view are morally permitted from a common morality (or natural law) point of view. In other (and more paradoxical) words, absent Jesus, you can be both a sinner and a “good person” at the same time.
*Image: St. Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael, c. 1515-16 [Vatican Museums]. This is one of a dozen tapestries based upon “cartoons” painted by Raphael and subsequently woven in Brussels at the studio of Pieter van Aelst. All the tapestries were restored and briefly displayed (2020) in the Sistine Chapel, their original home, before being removed to glass enclosures for safe storage elsewhere in the Vatican Museums.
You may also enjoy these view on natural law:
C.S. Lewis’s Natural Law
Eric Voegelin’s St. Thomas Aquinas on Natural Law