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The Natural Law in the Church's Moral Teaching:
Physicalism or Personalism?
With A Brief Reflection on Contraception

The moral teaching of the Catholic Church is based upon a sound theory of natural law.   There are two foundational points upon which the Church bases its natural law theory: 1) God has created the natural law, and 2) the natural law is manifested in the human person.  Before giving a detailed explanation of the natural law theory and building upon these two foundational points, I would first like to focus my attention on one criticism that has been leveled against the natural law theory as it is proposed by the Church.  By focusing on this criticism first, it will help us to understand why there is a need for a proper understanding of the natural law rooted in a Christian anthropology.

The criticism that certain moral theologians have put forth is that the Church's natural law theory is too physicalistic.  What does this mean?  Simply put, some theologians argue that the magisterium has placed too much emphasis on human nature itself; or, more pointedly, on the biology or inclinations of the human person. They argue that the magisterium has fallen prey to the naturalistic fallacy by deducing moral principles from biological data.  This is most clearly seen, they argue, in the Church's teaching on human sexuality (1).

The charge of physicalism came to a head in the wake of the encyclical Humanae Vitae written by Pope Paul VI in 1968.  In this encyclical, Paul VI restated the Church's long-standing teaching that any means of artificial contraception is contrary to God's divine plan and thus is against the natural law and is sinful.  A host of theologians immediately protested against the encyclical.  What followed was nearly three decades of "new" moral theories which purported to be consonant with God's eternal plan for human beings.  These moral theories did not focus on natural inclinations in the human person, but rather on the ability of human reason (apart from natural inclinations) to deduce moral principles
in certain situations.  What took on greater significance in these moral theories was not natural inclinations in the human person, but rather the circumstances and situations that the person found himself in and the ability of reason to come to moral conclusions in those situations and circumstances (2).  

My intention here is to argue that the natural law theory in the moral teaching of the Church is not physicalistic.  Rather, it is an integral theory based on a proper anthropology of the human person, an
anthropology which takes the unity of body and soul in the human person as its starting point.

Before speaking of the natural law itself, it is important to speak first of the eternal law, for the natural law can only be understood in this context.  Pope John Paul II says that the eternal law is "…none
other than the divine wisdom itself."(3)   The eternal law is God's divine wisdom governing creation.  He has created the world, and he has created how the world is to be.  Not only has he created how the world is to be, but he knows the world and he loves what he has created.  In other words, God is not distant from the world, as the Deists would hold.  He did not create the world and leave it on its own as one would make a snowball and role it down a hill only to be left to the whim of gravity.  God has normed creation.  There is a God-given reason why trees don't have eyes and ears and why humans don't have wooden branches instead of arms and legs.   Just as God has created what it is to be a tree, so has he created what it is to be a human being.  And just as he created what it is to be a human being, he has created what it is to be a good moral action.  With this perspective in mind, the natural desires and inclinations within the human person take on significance in moral action.   God created the desires and inclinations that exist within the human person.   He has given man the capacity to be a co-creator: the human person has the capacity to bring good moral actions into being.

The Divine Wisdom decreed that man was to be the only creature created in the image and likeness of God.  What does this mean?  Simply put, man is the only creature who possesses reason and free will (4).   And, we know from divine revelation, that man is called to conform his life to the divine law so that he might one day enjoy eternal happiness with the Blessed Trinity.  Understood thus, the life of man is not static, nor are his choices atomistic; rather, the life of man is dynamic.  The human person is set on a path: he comes forth from God and is to return to God. In this context, the end of the human person (that is, the beatific vision) is always to be the guiding norm for all his moral actions.  In this sense, the moral life of the person is teleological: his end ought to shape his choices.  God has called man to perfection and he has created man with the conditions that are needed for perfection.  If this were not the case, man would live in a state of constant frustration not knowing what to do with his inclinations and desires.

In the above reflection I have, in many ways, already spoken implicitly about what the natural law is.  St. Thomas Aquinas defined the natural law as mans participation in God's eternal law.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,

"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 "divine and natural" law 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 (5)."

The human person, endowed with the gift of reason, is able to discern right from wrong and good from evil.  Without the light of divine revelation the person is able to know, by using his reason, that he is to
do good and avoid evil (synderisis).  There are a few questions that can be asked at this point to help us
explicate the relation of reason and inclinations in the human person: Does the human person simply use reason to create natural law precepts? Does reason grasp the precepts of the natural law autonomously, apart from the specific nature of the human person?   Or, Do inclinations play an important role in the ability of reason to grasp the precepts of the natural law?  The first question would seem to avoid the physicalist interpretation of the natural law, but it would fall into a kind of subjectivism where the person would be the creator of his or her own truths.  John Paul II addresses this issue in Veritatis Splendor.  He says,

"The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law….The rightful autonomy of the practical reason means that man possesses in himself his own law, received from the Creator.  Nevertheless, the autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself creates values and moral norms" (6).

The second question also seems to avoid the issue of physicalism.  However, is it a truly proper anthropology of the human person to say that reason works completely autonomously apart from human nature?  Isn't reason intrinsically linked with the experiences of the human person; that is, doesn't the person's experience of reality inform reason and reason help the person to reflect upon reality.  Yes, it is true that reason can understand the natural law; yet, reason is an integral part of
the human person.  To say that reason grasps the natural law precepts apart from the specific nature of being human seems to create a false dichotomy in the human person.

This leads to the third question: is it possible to say that the natural inclinations within the human person play an intrinsic role in the ability of reason to grasp the precepts of the natural law?  This
question, unlike the other two, does take into consideration the specific nature of the human person.  But, does this mean that it tends toward a physicalist interpretation of the natural law?  It seems that the only way one could say that this is a physicalist interpretation is if he or she believes that inclinations within the person are simply sub-human drives, or are simply accidents within the person that play no role in living an authentically human life.  Here it is important to ask, Did not
God create the human person to experience certain drives and inclinations?  If this is the case, are these inclinations simply to be repressed or ignored, or are they to play a role in living the moral

The human person is a unity of body and soul.  Man possesses both reason and will and a body.  God created the person as a specific nature; and this specific nature possesses certain inclinations which were also created by God.  In other words, it is no accident that man desires to know the truth, or that men and women experience the sexual urge, or that man desires to do the good and to be happy.  The human person experiences these inclinations within himself; there is nothing he can do to shun them.   They are at work within him prompting him to act.  Is reason not to reflect upon them when we are about to make moral decisions?  What role do they play in the moral life?  Again, John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor sheds much light upon this issue, and consequently upon the charge of physicalism.  He says,

"…reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties.   The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts.  The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression of the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator.  It is in the light of the dignity of the human person - a dignity which must be affirmed for its own sake - that reason grasps the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined" (7).

Here, the Pope speaks of how the entire human person, the body, soul, and all its inclinations, must be taken seriously when speaking of the natural law.  The human person cannot be split in two, reason being one part and natural inclinations being another.  They are inseparably linked together.  The person is the subject of his own actions.  And, as the Pope says, he discovers in his body the "anticipatory signs" of his good moral actions, indeed of the gift of himself that God calls him to make.  These inclinations in the person point to virtuous actions; they are seeds of virtue.  It is the work of human reason to "grasp the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined."  This is the correct synthesis between reason and inclinations.   Reason is not left on its own to discover (or to create) the precepts of the natural law apart from the inclinations of the person, nor are the inclinations alone to guide the human person; if this were the case he would simply be an animal left to his natural drives.

It is my hope that the above reflections have made it clear that it is not physicalistic to speak of the body and natural inclinations as an integral part of the natural law.  Indeed, it is a more integral and sound theory to speak of reason and the body together, rather than creating a false dichotomy in the human person between the two since the human person is a body-soul composite.  But, how can this natural law
theory which takes both reason and inclinations in the person seriously be applied to the issue of artificial contraception?  What follows is not an attempt to give an exhaustive, technical answer, but rather is a short reflection on the principles which have been spelled out above.  The natural inclination toward sex (or the sexual urge) is something that human persons have in common with the rest of the animal world.   However, human persons possess reason, something that other animals do not.   Whereas other animals are not able to reflect upon their sexual inclination, persons can reflect upon it.  The difficulty for human persons is that they are plagued with concupiscence which weakens the will and darkens the intellect.   Although concupiscence is a stumbling block in living the moral life, it is not impossible for man to understand God's plan for human sexuality.  After all, God created the sexual urge, and therefore he has given man the ability to understand it and to live it virtuously.   As was stated earlier, natural inclinations are the seeds for virtuous living.  They point to certain moral goods that the person is to choose.  Reason is able to reflect and understand these natural inclinations and
the goods to which they point.  Man is a unity of body and soul, therefore it is impossible to compartmentalize the different dimensions that exist within him.  In speaking about establishing a moral teaching on marriage, Servais Pinckaers elaborates on the concept of the unity of dimensions in the person.

"In order to establish a moral teaching on marriage, it is indispensable to rediscover a sense of the profound unity that joins the biological, psychological, moral, and spiritual dimensions within the human person, and establishes communication among these dimensions without confusing them.  Human sexuality has a psychological, moral, and even spiritual aspect….the life of the spirit permeates sexuality in order to regulate it.  We could even say that without the participation of the body, the human spirit could never find complete fulfillment.  We could then show how the natural processes of sexuality…have a vital connection with the deep relationships between man and woman, and how the orientation of sexuality to fruitfulness which precedes what we might call the law of giving, written at the heart of every love.  If it does not know how to give, if it is not fruitful, love will sooner or later die.  It is therefore because of the interior demand of love that marriage tends toward physical and spiritual fruitfulness in generation and education" (8).

Put simply, Pinckaers is asserting that sexuality has a meaning that goes beyond the physical and that this is manifested in the human person himself.  The sexual inclination points to the gift of the whole self which God calls the person to make in marriage (9).  As Pinckaers says, the orientation of sexuality points to fruitfulness.   In the sexual inclination, the person finds within him or herself the "anticipatory
sign" of the gift of self that is to result in fruitfulness.  Reason is able to grasp that the sexual inclination is not simply meant to bring pleasure to the person, but is to result in procreation and the loving union of man and woman.  There is a God-given reason why sex results in the creation of a child.  Reason is able to understand that the sexual inclination points to permanence of relationship (marriage covenant), fruitfulness (procreation), and exclusivity (one spouse).  Artificial contraception is not immoral simply because it does not fulfill the proper biology of man and woman or because it places a barrier between them, it is wrong because God did not intend for sex between man and woman to be sterilized but to result in fruitfulness and union.  And God's plan for sexual union between man and woman is manifested in the inclination of the human person.  This view upholds the dignity of human
sexuality as it exists in the person. The criticism that the Church's interpretation of natural law is
physicalistic is a criticism that stems from an improper anthropology of the human person.   The human person is a unity of body and soul.  As John Paul says, "…reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties." (10)   A proper interpretation of the natural law must take seriously the natural inclinations of the human person and the ability of reason to understand toward what good ends those inclinations point.  After all, God has created man in his own image and likeness, and the inclinations which he placed in human nature are a reflection of his own being.   These inclinations are to be informed by reason and formed by the will and are meant to flourish into the virtuous life.  

(1)  Some theologians would argue that the Church's moral teaching on human sexuality commits the naturalistic fallacy.  The naturalistic fallacy is when I deduce a moral "ought" from what "is."  For example, the sexual urge is a given in human nature; procreation is an effect of human sexual relations; therefore, a man and woman ought not to use artificial contraception because this interferes with the biological process in the human person.  This is what some would argue that the Church's moral teaching is based upon, and this is what is meant by physicalism.   
(2)  For a fuller treatment of physicalism see Veritatis Splendor nn.47-48.
(3)  Veritatis Splendor, 40.
(4)  On the issue of reason and free will John Paul II has this to say: "…God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons.  He cares for man not 'from without',
through laws of physical nature, but 'from within', through reason, which by its natural knowledge of God's eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions.  In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world - not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons - through man himself, through man's reasonable and responsible care." (Veritatis Splendor, 43.  My italics).
(5)  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1954-1955.
(6) Veritatis Splendor, 41.
(7)  Ibid., 48.  His italics. 
(8)  Servais Pinckaers, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics. (Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America, 1995), 441.  My italics.
(9)  The sexual inclination points to the gift of the whole self.  This is why John Paul II says contraception is a lie.  A man and a woman are to share the most intimate parts of themselves with one another; and if something is placed between them, then it is not a gift of the whole self.
(10)  Veritatis Splendor, 48.


Michael Najim, Seminarian, St John's Seminary, September 24, 1999

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