Morality and the Natural Law Go Hand in Hand


A friend of mine was given the assignment of preparing a group of young people for confirmation. He soon discovered that this "assignment" was more like a formidable task.

On the topic of morality, many in his charge held positions that were anything but compatible with Catholic teaching. One young man proudly supported Hitler, arguing that the Fuehrer "was only trying to fulfill his dreams." Do we need to point out that one man’s dream can be an entire world’s nightmare? My dear friend had his work cut out for him.

Traditionally, the responsibility for handing down moral values belonged to the family, the churches and the schools. The family is now in disarray, churches are divided on current moral issues, and schools have capitulated to secular imperatives. Trends have replaced traditions. Good becomes "what is good for me."

As a result, approaches to morality such as values clarification, moral relativism, situation ethics and other forms or subjective thinking have eclipsed traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on morality. Teachers now avoid "imposing" values or assuming that their values are superior, while students are expected to do something that is not done in any other field of education, namely, to reinvent a subject out of their own limited experience.

One educator accurately summarized the situation when she stated, "We believe that students should be free to choose whatever values they want — and that teachers should be neutral. We may not like what students choose, but we basically are not responsible to confront the values of a person."

Fairy tales may begin with a dream, but not morality. Morality is practical and down-to-earth. It provides the light by which we live well from day to day.

The basis of morality is the nature of the human being. We must live together in a society with justice and charity. Therefore, morality must have a basis that transcends private preference.

The natural law provides a basis for morality that is both objective and universal. It is a grave mistake to think that, although it is the underpinning for Catholic morality, it is peculiarly Catholic. The natural law is for everyone and should not be dismissed from secular schools simply because Catholics have found it to be realistic and practical.

In ancient Greece, Heraclitus alluded to a natural law that, although often disregarded, is both binding and universal. "One must follow that which is common to all. But although the law is universal, the majority live as if they had understanding peculiar to themselves."

In Sophocles’ play Antigone, we read: "The immutable unwritten laws of heaven/They were not born today nor yesterday./They die not; and none knoweth when they sprang." The Nuremberg Trials were justified only by an appeal to a higher law.

Because they share a common nature, human beings have a great deal in common. They possess a strong sense of self-preservation, desire happiness, thirst for knowledge, fulfill themselves through love, are communal and yearn for justice. The natural law is a "law" inasmuch as it is an ordinance of reason that reveals how a person should live if he is to fulfill himself as a person.

The human laws against homicide are ultimately based on the natural law. In fact, all positive laws derive their lawfulness by virtue of their relationship with the natural law. An analogy with love and virtue may help clarify this statement.

St. Thomas Aquinas has aptly summed up the Christian understanding of virtue by stating, "Love is the form of all virtue." Therefore, a virtue derives its virtuousness by the degree to which it participates in love. What may appear to be the virtue of courage may be an act that was motivated by factors that had nothing to do with love.

The desire for fame, a rich reward or simply showing off could motivate a person to perform acts that have the veneer of virtue but, in the absence of love, are not truly virtuous. Laws may be created for a variety of reasons, but their status as true and good laws owes to how they promote what is good for human beings and protect them from harm, the fundamental principle of the natural law.

The first temptation of our eldest parents was to believe that creating one’s own morality, in defiance of God’s, would enlarge their freedom. It led to a choice of moral independence from the natural law (which is, as Aquinas points out, a reflection of the eternal law). The consequence, as is well known, has been calamitous. It is ironic that the moral philosophy of the serpent has been reinstituted in so many schools in North America. This is a direct result of discarding the wisdom of the Bible, given the mistaken belief that it is based solely on faith, and substituting a collection of poorly thought out and mutually incompatible private whims.

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International.

He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario,

and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.

He is a regular columnist for

St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be

found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.