Natural law

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The fundamental obligation imposed on us by right reason is to "do good and avoid evil."

This basic principle cannot be derived from any higher principle.

It cannot be "proved" by formal proof based on axioms of logic. It is something taken for granted in and by logic. We ought to accept the conclusions of logic, where they apply, because this is the good of the mind (to know the difference between what is true and false). Without the assumption of synderesis, logical reasoning has no force.

Those who deny that we ought to do good and avoid evil can form their denial only by appealing to it. They say, "You ought not to believe that people ought to do good and avoid evil; it is evil (wrong) for you to hold that view." This is a self-referentially inconsistent position; it is a form of hypocrisy to say one thing ("People cannot be obliged to do good and avoid evil") and do another (describe a standard by which the listener is obliged to do good and avoid evil).

Catechism: The Natural Moral Law

Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good. The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie:
The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin . . . But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted.[1]
The "divine and natural" law[2] shows man the way to follow so as to practice the good and attain his end. The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. It hinges upon the desire for God and submission to him, who is the source and judge of all that is good, as well as upon the sense that the other is one's equal. Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue. This law is called "natural," not in reference to the nature of irrational beings, but because reason which decrees it properly belongs to human nature:
Where then are these rules written, if not in the book of that light we call the truth? In it is written every just law; from it the law passes into the heart of the man who does justice, not that it migrates into it, but that it places its imprint on it, like a seal on a ring that passes onto wax, without leaving the ring.[3] The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.[4]
The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties:
For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense . . . . To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely.[5]
Application of the natural law varies greatly; it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances. Nevertheless, in the diversity of cultures, the natural law remains as a rule that binds men among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the inevitable differences, common principles.
The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history;[6] it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies:
Theft is surely punished by your law, O Lord, and by the law that is written in the human heart, the law that iniquity itself does not efface.[7]
The natural law, the Creator's very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature.
The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known "by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error."[8] The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit.

In Brief

According to Scripture the Law is a fatherly instruction by God which prescribes for man the ways that lead to the promised beatitude, and proscribes the ways of evil.
"Law is an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by the one who is in charge of the community" (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II, 90, 4).
Christ is the end of the law (cf. Rom 10:4); only he teaches and bestows the justice of God.
The natural law is a participation in God's wisdom and goodness by man formed in the image of his Creator. It expresses the dignity of the human person and forms the basis of his fundamental rights and duties.
The natural law is immutable, permanent throughout history. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. It is a necessary foundation for the erection of moral rules and civil law.
The Old Law is the first stage of revealed law. Its moral prescriptions are summed up in the Ten Commandments.
The Law of Moses contains many truths naturally accessible to reason. God has revealed them because men did not read them in their hearts.
The Old Law is a preparation for the Gospel.
The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit received by faith in Christ, operating through charity. It finds expression above all in the Lord's Sermon on the Mount and uses the sacraments to communicate grace to us.
The Law of the Gospel fulfills and surpasses the Old Law and brings it to perfection: its promises, through the Beatitudes of the Kingdom of heaven; its commandments, by reforming the heart, the root of human acts.
The New Law is a law of love, a law of grace, a law of freedom.
Besides its precepts the New Law includes the evangelical counsels. "The Church's holiness is fostered in a special way by the manifold counsels which the Lord proposes to his disciples in the Gospel" (LG 42 § 2).


I believe that ethicists classify the natural-law approach of Catholicism as "deontological."

Online Etymology Dictionary
science of moral duty, 1826, from Gk. deont-, comb. form of deon "that which is binding, duty," neut. prp. of dei "is binding;" + -logia "discourse" (see -logy). Said to have been coined by Bentham.

Natural and unnatural rights

I have the feeling that there is something peculiar happening in our jurisprudence. On the one hand, natural law is set aside on the basis of "what most people want." On the other hand, an appeal to some kind of objective moral order is implicit in the judicial decisions like those that weaken DOMA or Proposition 8 — some "higher law" than the law makes such efforts "unconstitutional." It's baffling. The courts are "seeing things" in the law that are not on the surface. "Manufactured rights" — hand-made, just for you. Right to same-sex marriage, right to abortion, right to privacy among consenting adults, right to kill the handicapped, right to die. But there is no right to free speech to oppose these measures; that is evidently a hate-crime.

The word "normal" has ambiguous meanings. On the one hand, it means "expressing the norms by which things are to be judged." On the other hand, it may mean "the average kind of behavior to be expected from a representative sample of the population." In the eyes of the Church, the norm for sexual behavior is one man and one woman united in the natural act by which human life begins; all other forms of sexual activity, alone and with others, are abnormal, different from that norm. In the eyes of our culture, the norm for sexual behavior is "what most people do." It is therefore "normal" to engage in pornography, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, same-sex relations, group sex, adultery, sex with animals, sex with machines, incest, and the like.

"Can We Save Infidelity?"
Once something becomes common, we may call it normal.

Which nature is the norm?

This is the "natural law" tradition in Catholicism. It is a philosophical viewpoint that complements the theology of "positive law," the laws made known to us by revelation.

The "natural law" is not derived from nature in general nor from all possible natures. It is specifically human nature that sets the standards for human behavior. That male tigers kill the offspring of other males in order to cause a female to become available for mating is an interesting biological observation, but it does not justify a boyfriend murdering the children of his girlfriend. The behavior of tigers is natural for them, but not natural for us.

30% of male preying mantises are killed by the female with whom they are copulating. This is natural for preying mantises; it is not natural for us.

The examples of what animals may do and humans may not could be multiplied endlessly. To be human is to have a conscience that says, "Be human-hearted."

To be human is to be taught how to be human. Other animals do not need years to absorb their culture; we do.

Scientism denatures nature

The appeal to the natural law is defeated by scientism.

The Church says, "Use the body as it was designed to be used."

Scientism replies, "There is no design. There is no designer. We are all X-men. We are flukes of evolution. There is no purpose in biology. Biology is not a source of ethics."

I would hope that people would agree that rape, incest, and pederasty are evil, not because they involve genital activity but because they are a misuse of sexual powers. So, too, with all of the sexual activities identified as intrinsically evil by the Church.


  1. Leo XIII, Libertas praestantissimum, 597.
  2. GS 89 § 1.
  3. St. Augustine, De Trin. 14,15,21:PL 42,1052.
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. præc. I.
  5. Cicero, Rep. III,22,33.
  6. Cf. GS 10.
  7. St. Augustine, Conf. 2,4,9:PL 32,678.
  8. Pius XII, Humani generis: DS 3876; cf. Dei Filius 2: DS 3005.


Romans 1:18-32.