Veritatis splendor – the natural law as a moral law

It is one thing to affirm the general notion of fundamental human goods, such as life, procreation and family, sociability, truth, beauty, God — it is another thing to derive from them specific moral norms. There is the philosophical problem  about the justification of moral norms. The most obvious model to use, the one from Aristotle and Aquinas, is to see that the fundamental principle of synderesis, good is to be done and evil to be avoided, takes up each of the goods as a rule for practical action. Each good is to be protected and promoted and whatever detracts from and destroys the good is evil and ought to be avoided. And then each norm must be applied to the concrete and particular circumstances of an individual person. Conscience is the reflective knowledge or judgment concerning whether my actions have conformed to the norm or not. Have I done good, or evil?
Many, if not most,  moral philosophers and many theologians, reject this model. The idea of an absolute moral norm proves bothersome to them, especially the idea of an exceptionless negative precept, such as do not murder, or do not commit adultery. Yet these were important to the teaching of Jesus to the rich young man:  “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19:17-18).

The notion that morality is universal and permanent is also challenged vigorously by philosophers. This encyclical discusses the challenges to natural law and magisterial teaching on morality (see for example §§51-53). I do not plan to discuss these issues in great detail in the blog, but I will be posting many articles on the JP2 Forum website that do so.

In this blog I will make a few remarks about the defense of of some aspects of natural law. We need to be careful not to demand a Cartesian or Euclidean type deduction of moral norms  from first principles. Aristotle said it is a sign of an educated man to acknowledge that different types of proofs and demonstrations are fitting for various types of inquiry. If knowledge of natural law is a participation of the human person in the wisdom of God, it will be dependent upon the active engagement of people over time to actively seek the truth of morality. In Man and the State Maritain has a good discussion about the peculiar problems pertaining to the knowledge of natural law, and he emphasizes the historical unfolding of our knowledge of the natural law over time. But here are a few quotes and points from Veritatis splendor.
§50: “Natural inclinations take on moral relevance only insofar as they refer to the human person and his authentic fulfillment, a fulfillment which for that matter can take place always and only in human nature.” The goods listed for human flourishing are not abstract goods, they are aspects of the concrete person. In Redemptor hominis John Paul said that we are concerned about the human person in the concrete. For example, “the origin and the foundation of the duty of absolute respect for human life are to be found in the dignity proper to the person and not simply in the natural inclination to preserve one’s own physical life. Human life, even though it is a fundamental good of man, thus acquires a moral significance in reference to the good of the person, who must always be affirmed for his own sake.” We defend the “right to life,” or the good of life, a culture of life, but we cannot forget we are defending the dignity of particular, concrete human beings, not the abstract idea or principle. The human person is served by the moral norm and this should be the aspect that rouses our conscience.
§52: To the rich young man, Jesus confirmed the importance of the negative prohibitions. John Paul comments — “Prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behavior is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbor. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all. . . . the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken.” The last century of such great evil and the global rising trends today of murder, genocide, forced prostitution call out for us to affirm without ambiguity the “limit” below which humanity is defaced and lost. Evil is evil, semper et pro semper.

McInerny says, “The moral order is protected on its borders by negative precepts, but in the interior positive precepts suggest the inexhaustible openness of the human good.”

§53 “It must certainly be admitted that man always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture. Moreover, the very progress of cultures demonstrates that there is something in man which transcends those cultures. This ‘something’ is precisely human nature: this nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being.” Precisely through conscience, the interior sanctuary wherein the person can encounter the divine, is it possible for man to transcend culture, to question it, to challenge it.
Mark Twain saw how conscience can be warped by culture when he wrote “the conscience — the unerring monitor  — can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.” But Huckleberry Finn does eventually break through to affirm the humanity of the slave. There are many examples of sheer conformity to culture, but there are those significant examples of men and women who rose above their time and place. The martyrs stand out among them.


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