6.2.2 Natural law

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Unit 6 Contents



Against the background of that insistence that living in accordance with natural law will lead us towards human wellbeing, the time has now come to explore what ‘natural law’ actually means.  This is so that we can see why it is significant for what CST says, especially about family life.

In McCarthy’s book, The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, there is a very good chapter on natural law by Joshua Hochschild.  You will be asked to read it shortly.  While you might find this chapter more philosophical than much of what you have read for the module so far, it is well written and gives a clear explanation of what natural law means in Catholic teaching, especially as this was articulated by St Thomas Aquinas. (Aquinas was mentioned previously in 1.2.4, 2.2.9 and 3.3.4.)

Before you read it, here is one background point.

It will be helpful to bring to mind a distinction made in Unit 1 (1.2.4), where I gave an initial introduction to the relationship between Scripture and natural law.  I distinguished there between two senses that ‘natural law’ can have, one to do with its existence and the other to do with how we can gain knowledge of its requirements.

On one hand, the main point that the Church’s teaching about natural law makes is that there really are ways of living as human creatures that fit with our God-given human nature, and so lead towards our fulfilment.  In this sense, natural law refers to the claim that, given how we have been made, there are ways of doing things that are good and right for us, and others that are not.

This point is about the existence of natural law.  Catholic teaching is that natural law in this sense is given in creation.

Here is perhaps the clearest illustration of this.  In relation to marriage, Jesus himself taught, according to the Gospels, that,

from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’ [quoting Gen. 1:27].  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:6-8; cf. Matt. 19:4-6).

Jesus’ point was that, to understand some of the rights and wrongs about marriage, his hearers needed to understand the way God had made things to be, and not refer only to God’s commands given later.

But this affirmation of the existence of natural law must be distinguished from the question of how we learn about its content.  In that example, we actually gain knowledge of its requirements through reading Scripture, just as Jesus told his hearers to do.  But Catholic teaching has also held strongly that we can gain some knowledge of it without direct use of Scripture, because we can use our reason to reflect on human nature and to identify kinds of action that will lead towards human wellbeing and others that won’t.

Drawing on Jacques Maritain, who was introduced in Unit 2 (2.2.8), this distinction is between the ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemological’ aspects of natural law.  ‘Ontological’ means to do with existence or being, from the Greek word for this, ontos.  ‘Epistemological’ means to do with knowledge, from the Greek word for this, episteme.1. Catholic teaching makes both kinds of claim about natural law.  First, it is part and parcel of the way God has made things to be.  Second, we can gain knowledge of it by using our God-given human reason, even though we are prone to making mistakes, which is one reason why God has graciously given us Scripture (for example, the Ten Commandments).

That distinction is worth keeping in mind.  One important point it enables us to see clearly is this.  At any particular moment as we seek to live well, day by day, in line with God’s ways for human beings, we might or might not be correct about what natural law requires.  People can be mistaken about it.  The very fact that Catholic teaching holds that we can use our reason to learn its requirements entails that we need to go on using reason to think critically about whether we have understood it well.  In other words, claims that particular kinds of action are in line with natural law and thereby conducive to human wellbeing, or that others are contrary to it, always need to be open to scrutiny.

Hochschild doesn’t quite make this distinction between the ontological and epistemological aspects of natural law explicitly, but he almost does.  In the next reading, pages 114-116 are mainly about the use of reason to gain knowledge of natural law, whereas from the bottom of p.116 to p.119 the main thing in view is the natural law itself, its existence.  On p.117, he says,

Natural law is “natural”… in two senses: it is rooted in human nature – its moral precepts conform with and help to fulfil the kinds of being we are [the ontological aspect] – and it is discernible by natural reason – the human intellect, by its own power… can discover at least its most essential truths [the epistemological aspect].

The reading of Hochschild’s chapter is divided into two parts.


Reading (6pp)

Hochschild, ‘Natural Law’, in McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, pp. 113-119


p. 113: Sophocles was one of the great playwrights of Ancient Greece.

p. 114: In the Greek Pantheon of gods, Zeus was the supreme ruler.  In the second line of the text quoted from Antigone, the phrase “the gods below” is referring to gods under Zeus.




That reading brings out clearly, especially by reference to Martin Luther King Jr, the important point that for ‘human laws’ (i.e. the laws of the land) to be just, they have to conform to natural law.

Can you think of examples of human laws that are unjust because they don’t conform to natural law – in other words, because they are contradictory to human wellbeing?

Note that this is more the kind of question that will come up in the ‘Public Responsibilities’ module.  In terms of some of the topics of this module, can you think of human laws (from past or present) to do with working life or the economy that you would say are contradictory to the natural law?



End of 6.2.2

Go to 6.2.3 ‘Human flourishing’?


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  1. As noted in Unit 1 (1.2.4), Maritain used the terms ‘ontological’ and ‘gnoseological’ (from gnosis, another Greek word for knowledge).  Instead of the latter, I have used the synomym ‘epistemological’, simply because it is a better-known word. See Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 76-107.