Will you be celebrating natural law this Fourth of July? As an American and as a Catholic, you should be. Your country’s Founding Fathers and your Church Fathers celebrated it.
At a time when this country and its culture and courts render unto themselves the right to redefine marriage — which our forefathers believed was the province of the laws of nature and nature’s God — we must be even more mindful of natural law. So what is natural law, and how does it relate to the current debate over marriage in America?
In declaring their independence, America’s Founding Fathers acknowledged the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” And from this natural law, they believed certain inalienable rights flowed, rights to which every human person was entitled. The Founders believed that, in the course of human events, they and their countrymen were finally, rightfully assuming these rights “among the Powers of the Earth.” They were not only declaring their independence from the British Crown; they were asserting self-evident truths that were theirs not only as Americans, but as human persons.
“There can be no doubt that those delegates in Philadelphia who adopted that Declaration believed in, and based the nation’s independence on, the natural law,” states Robert Barker, professor emeritus of law at Duquesne University and an eloquent expert on the subject. Barker gives a concise definition of natural law: “God, in creating the universe, implanted in the nature of man a body of law to which all human beings are subject, which is superior to man-made law and which is knowable by human reason.”
This law, Barker emphasizes, was “traditional and essential,” not only to America, but to Western civilization for millennia. Barker points to Sophocles’ play Antigone, where the heroine (of the same name) is condemned to death by an unjust king. She bravely informs the king that his unjust act may be legal in his world but that doesn’t make it moral: “I had to choose between your law and God’s law, and no matter how much power you have to enforce your law, it is inconsequential next to God’s. His laws are eternal, not merely for the moment. No mortal, not even you, may annul the laws of God.”
Prior to Christ, in ancient Greece and Rome, the likes of Aristotle and Cicero spoke of this eternal law. Aristotle said this universal law transcended those of earthly regimes and was common to all human beings. Cicero saw it as true law: “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting.” In a particularly remarkable statement, Cicero asserted: “It is a sin to try to alter this law ... and it is impossible to abolish it entirely.” Yes, a sin. Cicero added that “whoever is disobedient” to the natural law “is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature.”
These ideas were affirmed and amplified by the Church Fathers.
St. Augustine said natural law is, simply put, “the truth” — the “light we call the truth.” St. Thomas Aquinas agreed: “God has given this light or law at the creation.” In his classic Summa Theologiae, Aquinas maintained natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.”
A less remembered but insightful source was the renowned contemporary of Augustine, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, whose soaring orations on the Trinity earned him the title “The Theologian.” Gregory, too, had some words on the “unwritten law of nature”:
“God has been merciful in the greatest ways, giving us, in addition to everything else, law and the prophets and, before these, the unwritten law of nature, the watchdog of our actions, by way of pricking our consciences and advising and directing us.”
This natural law helps guide us, advise us and navigate us; it is nothing less than a heavenly watchdog to help keep our consciences in line.
Of all the faith traditions, none has a library of understanding the natural law like the Roman Catholic Church. One of the richest compilations is the Catechism (sections 1954-1960), which calls natural law “immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history,” a universal “rule that binds men,” that is “written and engraved in the soul of each and every man,” that is “present in the heart of each man and established by reason.” Even when this law is rejected, “it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man.”
Importantly, one need not be a Christian or even necessarily religious to believe in natural law. A modern atheist can perceive a certain set law in nature, established through whatever origin or mechanism, either design or sheer evolution — an unmistakable biological ordering of things.
As applied to sexuality, a strict evolutionist could examine the male and female sexual organs and discern from nature alone they are compatible for purposes of procreation and conjugal union between a man and a woman; their distinct but complementary bodies go together in a way that the bodies of a male and male or a female and female cannot. That is why, after all, the sexual organs are known as reproductive organs.
Whereas an atheist could make this obvious observation from a strictly natural perspective, a religious person would take the observation a step further, arguing this natural fittingness was instilled by a Creator, who “made them male and female” for such complementarity, and that no man should tear asunder this design God conceived for nature.
As for the Church, she refers to the idea of a man and a man or a woman and a woman “marrying” one another (or even having sexual relations) as an unequivocal violation of the natural law, an arrangement “gravely contrary” to human nature, “objectively disordered” and “morally wrong.”
This brings me to the current debate in America: How does this unalterable natural law apply to the current debate over redefining marriage and family?
It means that our country, culture and courts can arrogate unto themselves whatever individualistic and relativistic standards they want for marriage and family. Yet the cultural and legal forces that rule the present day can never escape the fact that same-sex “marriage” violates natural law, that marriage is marriage — meaning marriage is a lifelong, exclusive union between a man and a woman open to procreation and the raising of children — just as a tree is a tree, a dog is a dog, a cat is a cat, and an unborn baby is a human person.
As sources from Aristotle to Cicero, Augustine to Aquinas, the Catechism to the Declaration of Independence and the Church Fathers to the American Founding Fathers affirm, the laws of this world and its politicians cannot escape the eternal natural law. Call “gay marriage” whatever you want, codify it into law if you’d like, but it will never be marriage.
So, my fellow Catholic Americans, take heart and refuge amid the cultural tsunami. There are fixed eternal laws man cannot, despite his efforts and his laws, change. That’s not a bad thing to keep in mind this July 4th.
Paul Kengor’s latest book is Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage.
His other books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).