Benedict XVI and the Natural Law

Several friends have asked me questions about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent essay on “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” which has led to a few conversations about various aspects of the document. Since these issues may be of interest to others, I have decided to share some of what I said more widely.

Benedict XVI

Some of these questions—which I will address in future posts—concern controversial issues that I want to research and polish more carefully before sharing. The first, however, which I will address in this post, concerns a relatively non-controversial question about what Benedict said about the natural law: “Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation.”

A friend commented:

I agree that, in a sense, Greek philosophy provided a foundation for Catholic moral theology, but Benedict seems to be suggesting that Scripture just played a secondary role of providing a sort of support if things went sideways or if Greek philosophy needed further justification, as if Catholic moral theology is synonymous with non-Scriptural “natural law.” Or am I misunderstanding?

On its surface, Benedict’s statement is puzzling. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas devoted only one article (Ia-IIae 91.2) and one question (Ia-IIae 94) to the natural law. His moral theology is primarily developed (in the IIa-IIae) as a theory of virtues, organized around the three theological virtues (questions 1-46) and four cardinal virtue (questions 47-170). His account of natural law is also built on an account of human nature and moral psychology developed in the Ia-IIae, questions 1-89. Within this account, questions 55-89 are an in-depth discussion of virtue, vice, and sin.

Even where the treatise on law itself is concerned, Aquinas devoted significantly more space (questions 98-108 of the Ia-IIae) to the scriptural accounts of the Old and New Law, found in the Old and New Testaments, than he did to explicit discussion of the natural law.

On the surface, then, it would appear that even Aquinas, the most systematic of Catholic theologians, promoted a moral theology which gave more attention to Sacred Scripture than to the natural law.

However, putting it this way would involve some misunderstanding of Aquinas himself. He argued (Ia-IIae 94.3) that all acts of virtue are required by the natural law. His moral theory is an account of how human beings should act which is based on a systematic understanding of human nature. From that understanding of human nature, Aquinas discussed the virtues (habits of thought and action) which perfect that nature, and the opposite vices which corrupt it. In developing this account of human nature and human action, Aquinas often cited Scripture to settle various questions. Indeed, in the very first question of the Summa, he wrote:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

So Aquinas certainly took Sacred Scripture very seriously, but he also interpreted within a systematic understanding God’s nature and of human nature. (And he drew on a lot of Greek philosophy, as well.) His moral theory was deeply formed by what we can know naturally, and by what God reveals. And, interpreted correctly, both general revelation in creation and special revelation in the Sacred Scripture point to the same conclusions.

Given the prominence of Aquinas in pre-conciliar Catholic moral theology, and his importance for Catholic accounts of natural law, it seems very unlikely that Benedict meant to dismiss this kind of approach to moral theology, or base the natural law solely on Greek philosophy.

So what was Benedict criticizing? In order to understand his argument, I think it’s helpful to look at his next paragraph:

I still remember how the Jesuit faculty in Frankfurt trained a highly gifted young Father (Bruno Schüller) with the purpose of developing a morality based entirely on Scripture. Father Schüller’s beautiful dissertation shows a first step towards building a morality based on Scripture. Father Schüller was then sent to America for further studies and came back with the realization that from the Bible alone morality could not be expressed systematically. He then attempted a more pragmatic moral theology, without being able to provide an answer to the crisis of morality.

From this, it seems clear that the problem the Pope Emeritus is focusing on is the attempt to offer a “Biblical” morality apart from the kind of systematic account of human nature that Aquinas developed in the Summa.

And this, I think, is an entirely legitimate concern. Consider the problems created by trying to talk about the meaning of the Great Commandments in a contemporary setting. It’s certainly true that, rightly understood, all of the commandments may be reduced to the commands to love God and love neighbor. But much of the contemporary moral confusion, particularly in the area of sexual ethics, stems from confusion about the nature of love.

Under the influence of Freudian theories, which understand “love” as a complication of the sexual instinct—which is itself understood entirely in terms of a desire for one’s own pleasure—it becomes difficult for many people, including many Christians, to understand what Christians have always believed and taught about sexual ethics. I’ve spent a lot of time debating about what the Bible says about sexuality, and a great deal of the confusion I see in stems from trying to understand the specific rules without being able to place them in an adequate systematic framework. Or perhaps more accurately, trying to make sense of the rules from within an inadequate framework, informed too much by the categories of the surrounding culture

Scripture itself often requires interpretation (see, for example, Acts 8:31), and that interpretation must be guided by a systematic understanding of God, His plan in Creation, human nature, the fall, sin, redemption, and sanctification. It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s criticism of post-Conciliar “biblical” moral theology is that, at least in the forms he was criticising, it tried to pick out Bible verses to support a “pragmatic” understanding of how to live, without the systematic theological background which animated pre-Conciliar moral theology.

Image Credit: Massimo Macconi


5 thoughts on “Benedict XVI and the Natural Law

  1. I agree that Benedict was not so much emphasizing the Greek roots of Catholic moral theology, but rather emphasizing its basis in a complex system that can be understood through the exercise of reason, not revelation.

    The more curious thing about his statement to me, however, was when Benedict said that there was “probably something right” about the claim that “questions concerning morality should not fall within the scope of infallible decisions of the Magisterium of the Church”. That seems like a pretty dramatic weakening of the claim that the Church is infallible in matters of faith and morals. He qualifies it by saying that there is an infallible core to Catholic moral teaching, but it’s still very interesting in its own right. I’m rather happy he said it, because it could make the Catholic position more agile without (I hope) making it lose its flavor entirely.

    • My impression of that was that the church is definitely to be in the business of teaching about morals, but that the day to day application of the morals in concrete circumstances is the responsibility of each Christian. Basically, the Church can’t be a micromanager, but she remains a teacher.

      That, and is probably an instance of academic generosity in his part. ”There’s something to this, but…” kind of statements seem like an instance if granting an opponent’s claim as understandable or containing a legitimate point or two without agreeing with said opponent. Another time where Benedict did this was when he talked about male prostitutes using condoms to protect others from AIDS.

      • I respectfully disagree. I’ve been following Benedict closely on the issue of lying, and he’s pretty explicitly said that — despite the Catechism’s teaching that all lies are wrong — whether there are permissible lies is an open question. It’s clear that he doesn’t think all moral claims by the Church are up for grabs in that way, but it’s also clear (to me, at least) that he thinks some are.

  2. I’m coming at this as a Protestant, Even so, I see this as a fairly helpful take on the complexities tied to natural reasoning, and the fact that fallen people and institutions can be—and often are—prone to label their own experiences as “natural” and reject that which differs from what they know.

    As you note well, this is illustrated in no better place than in our discussions of sexual orientation. Within the Anglosphere, our thinking on the topics of love, sex, and marriage have been so influenced by Freud that we fail even to appreciate how foreign such concepts would seem just 150 years ago.

    As someone who’s asexual, I’m puzzled by the degree to which people seek to define particular identities around their sexual proclivities. Scripture certainly supports nothing of the sort, and neither does two millennia of Christian theology. This is purely an invention of the past century, with some influences from Rousseau.

    The more interesting question lies in asking why the Christian Church has so capitulated to the Freudian way of thinking. And why is it that those who purport to defend the Church’s traditional stance on questions of sexual morality embrace Freudian thinking with such tenacity. For example, the thinking of Denny Burk and his fellow travelers is so thoroughly indebted to Freud that he need not even make much mention of Freud. The mere fact that our culture has so thoroughly taken the Freudian turn is evidence enough that such thinking reflects the “natural” position. And one also sees the same error among conservative Catholics who persist in purposefully misinterpreting the Catechism’s use of the phrase “intrinsically disordered” as proffering some kind of psycho-social judgment against those whose sexual proclivities depart from those that have come to embody the heterosexual identity.

    • I’m not sure if it’s “purposefully misinterpreting”. The Catechism’s language was hashed out by a group of people with various perspectives, beliefs, and agendas. Some of them were probably Freudians in the relevant sense of your comment.

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