Defending the Faith of our Fathers!
Christ's Faithful People

Apologetics Page Library Page TOC Index Page Foot Notes Previous Next

Class 25

Saint Thomas is always searching for the manifestation of divine fecundity in the image of God, the free mature human acting person. We have perceived how we move toward the ultimate act, through free choices of good acts; we’ve seen how emotions are good but need to be integrated by good habits, virtues, and through and with the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit we are led by God to beatitude. Then we looked at the contradicting forces, sin, blocking divine fecundity within us. At this stage, Saint Thomas focuses on God outside of us. That which flows from within of man is most descriptive of us. We can say who we are by saying what makes us tick. The moral qualification of our acts comes primarily through our reason, which is not infallible. Our conscience needs to be well-formed in truth, but we cannot have the stance of an uninvolved assessor, but from within. In the making of moral decisions, the reason of the agent is supported by the divine law: ratio lege informataź At this stage, Saint Thomas introduces the study of moral law, the exterior principles of moral action. These exterior principles are the devil who leads to evil and God who leads to goodness. The devil was tackled in the prima pars. Saint Thomas says, "The external principles moving us toward goodness is God who teaches us by law and helps us by grace."

The treatise on law

We’ve been looking at God’s influence in our moral life from within. Now we turn without. The study of moral law looks at the divine instruction addressed to our reason. We are looking at the signposts. God instructs us and allows us to follow, or not to follow, his instruction. We are left free to follow or to refuse. This external movement is distinct from the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The movement of the Holy Spirit within our soul cannot be verbalized, though we perceive it. We have a difficulty in recognizing it with precision, and it cannot be written down, whereas law can be written and studies and assimilated. The second part of Saint Thomas’s introductory sentence to this section is about grace. This doesn’t mean that grace isn’t active in our souls. Saint Thomas has been studying all along the interiority of grace. Saint Thomas will look at the interiority of the infused virtues in the secunda secundae. Now he will look at grace only in its exteriority, grace coming from without: the necessity, primary effect, etc. This final section is not a full treatise on grace, but one looking at it as it comes from without. For a full presentation on grace, we should look at what was said in the treatise of the Trinity, of the divine Indwelling, the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the treatise on Christ and the Incarnation. It’s important to see that these two final treatises on law and grace focus on exterior aid given by God in our moral action. The instruction of God coming into human action can be objectively transmitted, but it functions only when they are assimilated and accepted, and operate from within. For law to be fruitful, it must be perceived and accepted by reason. Grace, too, needs the operative habits of the theological virtues to function well in life. When we look at moral law from within the human person, we call it the conscience. Conscience is our reason which has been transformed by moral law. Conscience is the eternal application of the external moral law. When we look at grace from within, we call it the infused virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This sets the treatise of law in the context of what we’re doing in Fundamental morals.

Saint Thomas gives a definition of moral law, "lex est rationis ordinatio ad bonum commune ab eo qui curam communitatis habet promulgata." The question is where we should place the commas. The traditional interpretation of this definition saw four causes: the material cause (the order of reason); the formal (promulgata, announced); the official cause (ab eo qui curam communitatis habet); and the final cause (ad bonum commune). Is this translation correct? If we translate ratio ordinatio as the order or ordinance of reason, the question is "whose reason?" The answer would be of that person caring for the community. Then law would be the expression of the rational solicitude of that person or institution which governs the subjects. The law is a collection of rules by which the care of the common good of the community is expressed. The laws are the fruit of the rational reflection of the law-giving authority and expects the law-abiding rational acceptance of the citizens. Saint Thomas wouldn’t accept Scotus’ and Suarez’s definition of law as ordinatio voluntatis. The conclusion would be that the law doesn’t have to be rational or reasonable. For Saint Thomas, the law wouldn’t be according to the authority’s fancies. Such a notion of possibly-irrational precepts would be tyranny. The essence of tyranny consists in the imposition of irrational precepts, and this isn’t law but iniquity. Such a system creates great moral problems for people. The great objection to Ockham is that God could require people to murder and then it would be good. The modern distrust of legalism and the rejection of the moral teaching of the Church flows from a voluntaristic conception of moral law. If law just expresses the whim of someone who just happens to hold the keys to the kingdom, then we don’t want to follow it, because it just expresses his will not soemthing rational.

Saint Thomas has rationis ordinatio, and a careful reading of the text of Saint Thomas shows that if we translate it as "order of reason" it is still not exact. There is still a heritage of Nominalism here, for there is still a spark of voluntarism here, for the will follows the judgments of reason. It could be the law of a stupid law giver. It is not clear in the definition of Saint Thomas that we’re dealing with the reason of the person who has care for the community. At the end of article 90 there are four questions tackling the definition, and in the one on rationis ordinatio, there’s no link to this person. There’s a link between the orders (commands) and a counsels (suggestions). If we translate ordinatio as "command" there’s an obligation. Ordinatio can mean "order" in the sense of an arrangement, pattern, harmony, interior logic, symmetry. Ratio may also mean the nature of, logic of, reason behind things. If we understand the expression as a pattern of the nature of things, we get a different understanding. We are not tying the ordinatio to the reason of the law giver, but to a wise and existing harmony.

Medieval kings didn’t invent laws, but the generation of laws was quite different. The people had certain ways of solving problems, and they worked out certain customs which expressed a natural intuition of justice in complicated human situations, and for the more complicated situations, the smarter men got involved. Society had a pattern, a function, which expressed a natural awareness of justice, which was retained and transmitted in society. A king listened to the common wisdom of society, wrote them down, and applied them to situations. Medieval laws weren’t expressions just of the king. The law has its origin not uniquely in the will of the legislature, but in the nature of things.

Law has its source in reality

Law has its source in the objective rights of people. The basis of any law, including moral law, is reality itself. God, the creator of reality, created a reality which is coherent, sensible, and rationally known. This reality grants to law its ultimate foundation. Saint Thomas stresses that when a just man acts in an appropriate way, he follows a pre-existing order which he prudently applies. This logic of things is superior to the prudence of man and is its ultimate rule. If reason perceives the inner logic of a situation, it generates acts of prudence. The wisdom can be handed down and presented to other people. If we apply this understanding of law to Saint Thomas’s definition, we see that the reception of the moral law is to be rational and not emotional. If we look at law voluntaristically, fear or a pharisaical acceptance often follows. If we see it as rational, it doesn’t impose, but points the direction toward the good. If you choose to go the wrong direction, you’ll cause an accident. Our attention is not on the signpost exclusively but on the end of the journey, where I’m going. This end, and the way of reaching it, entails consequences which become obligatory. The fact that you’re going somewhere means you won’t suddenly turn back or go to another city. Law doesn’t create moral obligations but reveals them. The obligations have their source in the nature of reality and law aims at the instruction of what is truly good. Moral law doesn’t only give us some exhortation, but instructs. It is not just a suggestion. It shows where true good lies, but doesn’t command it.

Up until Nominalism, law was seen to be sapiential, a gift appealing to the hunger for truth within the structure of our reason. Voluntarism focused exclusively on the will of God. Nominalism envisioned law without attraction, but with authority, to impose his will on the masses by brute force. The will of the individual and the will of the legislator were in constant opposition. Saint Thomas doesn’t mention obligation in the definition of law. He doesn’t mention obligation when he’s discussing the effects of law in question 92. He does discuss it in an explanation of the etymology of lex, from legem, tying us to act. Immediately he says that reason is the first principle of action. Saint Thomas does see that we are tied by the law, but this aspect is not the full truth about moral law.

Thomistic texts often looked upon the ordinatio as an order, and distinguished between the commands and the counsels. Law is not an enemy of liberty, but is an essential component in the development of the liberty of quality, the capacity to choose and to persevere, a liberty formed by the adherence to true values, helped by the Holy Spirit. The moral law finds its supreme expression in the new law of grace, which is formulated ultimately in counsels. The Old Testament themes of torah and wisdom joins with the New Testament "word made flesh." We can perceive in the rationis ordinatio an echo of the Father. Rationis can be ordinatio logoi. Moral law is a participation in the light of God. It is not a code which would dispense us from thinking, but an aid helping us to grow in charity and the love of God. We are not entitled to ignore it; it is sapiential because it is linked to truth, and the truth binds.

The positive precepts always oblige, but how we do this depends on our virtues (honoring our parents), whereas the negative precepts point out the blind alleys leading to ruin. They forbid an action in all its aspects. We are free to accept this wisdom or not. You can get to the street by the stairs or by the tenth story window. Veritatis Splendor comments on this point. The negative precepts don’t allow for any exception, for the creativity of any contrary disposition, though there is room for creativity in the virtuous life. Moral law as sapiential appeals to our reason, though at times, due to our weakness, its difficult to perceive its rationality.

The common good

The second point is the reference to the common good. True law takes into consideration the authentic good of the entire community. A true law cannot deny this, though modern positivism denied this. Positivism denies that objective morality can be known — only factual, material things exist. The result is that society is understood to be an historical event, brought about by pressure groups without reference to moral values. Law is an instance of agreement by contrary forces. The legislative power gets sovereignty without reference to values. If it this modern thinking there is no reference to the common good, it is just a form of agreement between the parties, and they can both decide to do something immoral. This is a very serious problem in contemporary law.

Saint Thomas stresses that the care for the society belongs to the society or someone to whom the society gives the authority. Saint Thomas doesn’t get into a study of medieval law or rights. Someone has to fulfill the legislative role, and his focus is why, not so much how. We understand the divine by analogy to the human. A private person may persuade a person to virtue, but cannot prevent him from vice. A legislative authority must have the coercive power to prevent people from doing evil. The final part of the definition is that the law must be promulgated. People must be able to know the law for it to be promulgated.

Laws are more for evil people than good people. The law has four functions: commands good actions, forbids bad actions, permits indifferent actions and punishes evils actions. If the laws aren’t grounded in objective reality, they may follow the whims of the legislator and they won’t make people any better. If the law of the state is contrary to justice and common sense, it will force moral problems for people. If people are coerced to obey such a law, it ruins the binds of society. Such a state will contribute to the moral deprivation of society. People who try to defend themselves against the law pay bribes, etc. This was the system in communism, because everyone lived in fear because everyone is guilty to some degree. It’s the same thing in Italy to a large degree.

The types of laws

Saint Thomas speaks to us of several types of laws. At the beginning we have the eternal law, which is in the mind of God. This eternal law of God has an expression in the natural law, which we can perceive. This natural law is the basis of human law, the law of states and international law. Because the natural law is difficult to read, because we need a metaphysical perception, God in his goodness gave us his revealed law (in the Old Testament and New Testament). This revealed law has an influence on the human laws in various states. The Church has its own laws, which is influenced by revealed, natural, and in some cases the human law. The New Law is composed of two parts, the grace of the Holy Spirit which is given by God directly to those who believe in Christ; the second part is the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. This New Law, the natural, human, canon, revealed, and parental law all converge to influence our reason. We have first the theoretical reason, which allows us to make a general statement on what is good and evil, and then we have the judgment of the practical reason, which influences the will; after than we have the act. In the long sentence on the moral qualification we have all these factors. There is also another term which Saint Thomas discusses, the law of tinder, which he introduces out of respect to St. Paul. This sensuality only has an analogous use of the term law. Veritatis Splendor comments about this scheme.[37]

The eternal law

The concept of the eternal law was expressed by pagans as well, particularly Cicero. Seeing order in the world, one can come to the philosophical conclusion of the eternal law. There is some absolute from whom everything depends. The creator had a project in mind and ordered reality in accord with it. The idea of Wisdom in God grants the logic to the entire reality. The texts of the Old Testament speaking of this wisdom refer to it as older than the law of Moses. This eternal law in God isn’t promulgated, except perhaps by reference to the internal processions and to creation, which is more the natural law. Saint Thomas locates the eternal law in the divine intellect, as an act of wisdom, not just a concept, for in God everything is one. Only God himself knows perfectly the eternal law. The saints in heaven no it directly. We know it only by reflection on truth. Every knowledge of truth is a participation in the eternal law. When the pagans know some truth, they participate in some way in the eternal law. This is why the Church is optimistic about Truth. We’re not afraid of truth. Truth manifests the wisdom of God. All types of just law are tied to the root of all law, the eternal law of God. Traffic regulations are to be respected.

All creatures are subject to the eternal law of God, for God is supreme (with the exception of the identity of the divine nature with the eternal law). God impresses the principles of action on the whole of nature. Irrational beings obey the eternal law instinctively, executively. Animals obey the eternal law by acting in accord with their nature. Humans obey it by understanding it and conforming our actions in accord with it. In the human being, there is a natural capacity to know something of the eternal law and a tendency to conform our actions with it. In evil people, the natural tendency to good action is deformed by vices. So in good people, there is a much fuller possession of the eternal law.

False understandings of the natural law

The natural law is the sharing in the eternal law by intelligent creatures. Saint Thomas says, and Veritatis Splendor repeats, that it is "nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation." We can perceive something of the logic which God gave to creation. This is what St. Paul had in mind when the pagans follow their conscience. Paul perceives that the pagans can perceive the natural law and that it is binding. The harmony in the creation can be perceived by the human mind. The cognition of this harmony grants the light which we call the natural law. We have creation, which is reasonable, and our reason can draw out insights from the natural law. For a clear perception of the essence of natural law as understood by Saint Thomas, we have to clearly distinguish the natural law from misguided misinterpretations of natural law. All these faults come from a mistaken idea.

The first error lies in the opposition between the natural and artificial. This distinction separates two realities of nature and culture. In this understanding of this distinction, what is natural belongs to the biological sphere, whereas what is artificial is a product of culture and the intellect of man. Saint Thomas sometimes makes this distinction, and he differentiates between agere per naturam and agere per voluntatem. When we speak of the natural law, we mean both, both the biological laws but also our reason. We include our who composite beings. Everything which is fruit of our rational reflection, which is in accord with our nature, belongs to the natural law.

Education is natural for children. Being educated belongs to the rational nature of man. It would be contrary to send them into the jungle naked. The enlightenment brought in the romantic notion of nature, as devoid of everything human and civil. When the Church appeals to the natural law, the Church doesn’t appeal to such an understanding of what is natural for man. The Church is saying use your minds to perceive what is good for you. Sometimes Catholic ecologists are tainted by this notion of separation. The patron saint of nature should be St. Benedict, who gave to the world the means to work the fields. It is not contrary to the natural law to wear artificial law, whereas artificial contraceptives are against the moral law. The evil of contraceptives doesn’t lie in the artificiality, but in the fact that it is contrary to the nature of marital love and the finality of the marital act. Contraception reduces the man and the woman to the nature of an object, and contrary to the respect of the full personality of the other person. The act is reduced to the erotic dimension, sacrificing the other aspects of man. The fact that we use artificial means like a thermometer is not wrong, but the finality of contraception is wrong.

When we speak of the natural law, we should not oppose what is bodily to culture. Natural law includes both.[38] The Church doesn’t oppose nature and culture, freedom and body. Some have misinterpreted, and accused the Church of too "biological" a notion of natural law. We don’t look at apes. The human person is both bodily and spiritual.[39] The pope says that this objection is a false reading. The Church builds its teaching on the totality of human nature. The natural law involves a rational participation in the wisdom of God. It is not purely biological. The Church accepts artificial things which are not against our finality. The human person is composed of body and soul and it is not correct to denigrate either one. Descartes said that what is human is spiritual: values, relationship, dialogue, whereas the body is denigrated and can be manipulated. This is a resurrected idea of Manicheism. The Church perceives the body as a true part of man, and through the body are values, relationships and dialogue made concrete.[40] The Church looks at the human composite, what is physical and what is artificial, in which we perceive an inherent rationality which is an echo of the eternal wisdom of God. Our concept of natural law must contain within it the concept of a wise creator, even philosophically. We may not necessarily say that God is personal, but it is impossible to have an idea of natural law without God.

Apologetics Page Library Page TOC Index Page Foot Notes Previous Next

Click here to goto CFP Home Page