The Natural Law: What is it, and why should we care?
Written by Jonathan Hill on November 16, 2019
The following article is Part One of Catholic Citizenship’s three-part Introduction to the Natural Law.
The Natural Law is not a theory, but a fact. It is unchanging, even though changes in existing circumstances can affect how we apply it. It has profound implications for how we ought to live, and ignoring these can destroy a person’s life and a nation. It is not just about moral perils to avoid, but also fundamental rights that apply to all human persons. The Natural Law is God’s law, and therefore has its origin in the supreme legal authority, making it a powerful protection against legal positivism – the dangerous statist idea that any regulation that can be successfully enforced is “law.”
The Enlightenment Brings Confusion
Recent centuries have seen increased confusion in understanding the Natural Law, due partly to the influence of a radical 17th and 18th century intellectual movement called the “Enlightenment.” Enlightenment thinkers sought to create a “new man,” by severing all connection with tradition and organized religion, while typically retaining belief in a Creator. “The fundamental dogma of the Enlightenment is that man must overcome the prejudices inherited from tradition; he must have the boldness to free himself from every authority in order to think on his own, using nothing but his own reason.”(1) As a result, Enlightenment thinkers, and those heavily influenced by them, tended to set aside the guidance of Our Lord’s apostolic Church in interpreting the Natural Law.
By the late 18th century, the damage was evidenced by U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Iredell’s assessment of Natural Law: “The ideas of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard: the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject.”(2) The distorted idea that Natural Law is merely subjective opinion with no objective basis led to the current situation of Natural Law having about zero influence on our nation’s legal system. When Justice Clarence Thomas made a mild reference to it during his confirmation hearings, his statement was greeted with a storm of hostility.(3)
Our Founders and the Natural Law
This is odd for a nation that can truly claim that it’s founders, per the Declaration of Independence, considered the Natural Law to be the sole justification for it’s founding event: the American Revolution. The phrase in the Declaration, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” captures the essence of what the Natural Law is. It implies that nature is systematically ordered, and ordered in accordance with the will of a Creator. The founders insisted that human rights stemming from the Natural Law, so-called natural rights, were being violated by the colonial power, and that overthrowing British rule was therefore justified. Indeed, it is as true today as it was then that any government that systematically violates the natural rights of it’s citizens is calling into question it’s legitimacy. Given our national history, it isn’t understatement to say that every American citizen should have a keen interest in the Natural Law.
While our founders were influenced by the Enlightenment, they were typically believers in a Creator. Absent this belief, it is impossible to grasp the concept of a natural law. As George Washington pointed out, “religion is as necessary to reason, as reason is to religion…a reasoning being would lose his reason, in attempting to account for the great phenomenon of nature, had he not a Supreme Being to refer to.” Consequently, the founders were able to make many important deductions about the Natural Law, and these had a major influence, not just on the form of the Declaration of Independence, but on the U.S. Constitution. This was especially evident with respect to the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments) which were approved by the 1st Congress.
In Part Two of Catholic Citizenship’s three-part introduction to the Natural Law, we’ll provide a succinct definition of the Natural Law, explain how it is written on the heart of man, and how this affects the nature of mankind.
(1) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Address to the Consistory of College of Cardinals, Apr. 4, 1991, “The Problem of Threats to Human Life,” L’Osservatore Romano (English ed.), Apr. 8, 1991, p. 2;36 The Pope Speaks 332,333 (1991)
(2) Calder vs. Bull, 3 Dall. 386, 389, 1L. Ed. 648 (1798) (opinion of Iredell)
(3) Peter Steinfels, “Natural Law Collides with the Laws of Politics in the Squabble over a Supreme Court Nomination,” New York Times, Aug. 17, 1991, p. A8.