Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Life, Reality, and Natural Law

Another excellent and timely homily, given yesterday, by our friend Fr. Anselm Ramelow, O.P.

Fr. Anselm is a Dominican Priest and Professor of Philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology here in the Bay Area.


“What do you want me to do for you?” He replied, “Lord, please let me see.” Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” He immediately received his sight. This story is countercultural. Far from crying out for Jesus to make us seeing, the present culture seems intent on preserving its blindness.


There is, for example, the blindness for what is called the natural law. Natural law, as its name says, is a law that is inscribed in the nature of things. There is something in how things are that tells us how they should be: If we see a cat with only three legs, we know that these are only three legs, and that the cat rather ought to have four legs. It is the nature of the cat to have that many legs.


We ordinarily do perceive these things. Yet, we are less willing to acknowledge that there is something like a nature of things, when it becomes inconvenient. The same perception should, for example, tell us something about our very own nature. For the most part, we acknowledge our nature, for example, when it comes to health care: when we perceive that we are sick, we do see that we are not how we ought to be – just like the cat with the three legs. And so we go to the doctor. We also know that we should not overeat, because it is unhealthy and leads to physical states that are contrary to our nature. People also exercise to stay healthy, although here it might already get inconvenient, and we are therefore more ready to be in denial about what our nature is.


That denial, however, becomes most pronounced when we enter the realm of sexual ethics. That certain organs and their use are made by nature for the sake of procreation seems to unduly limit our freedom. And I am not only talking about gay marriage here, but also about contraception and quite generally the promiscuity of our society. Even pregnancy is changed from the preciousness of fertility into an accident, an illness that is to be taken care of by abortion, with the help of one’s health-insurance. Here the nature of things is turned into it’s very opposite.

Any appeal to the normative demands of the natural law, which in ordinary life is unwittingly accepted, suddenly starts to become something of an outrage. We will even hear the accusation of imposing our faith on other people.


But this not about faith at all. It is natural law, i.e., it is about nature, not about grace or the supernatural. We do not need faith to see that a cat with three legs is missing something. This is something that is accessible to all people who possess reason. We are therefore also held responsible for any violation of the natural law. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse; we are supposed to know.

When the man in the Gospel asks Jesus to see, Jesus tells him: your faith has saved you. Faith can indeed make us seeing, where we have become blind even to the things that we can know by nature and reason. But we ought to know them even apart from faith; that is itself part of our nature.


The natural law, I said, is a law inscribed into the nature of things. Who wrote it there? The one who made these natures. The one who made our natures, our bodies and brains as well. God himself wrote that law, and not just on the stone tablets of the 10 commandments, but into the nature of things as well as into the very flesh of our hearts, as St. Paul says. He is the lawgiver who obliges us to follow the law; but he also gives us a law that is our very own: if we break that law, we break ourselves.


If on the other hand, there is no God, if the way how cats are and how we are, is just the meaningless outcome of a Darwinist evolution, then there is no natural law. Modern science since Descartes has made an effort to describe reality in such a way, that it could be understood without God. That included the emphatic denial of something like the nature of things, i.e., of anything normative in reality. Everything therefore was open to the boundless manipulation by the new technologies that this modern science yielded.

This eliminated therefore the theoretical basis for natural law. And so we find ourselves indeed in the situation that Dostoevsky described, when he said: if there is no God, then everything is permitted. And the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre emphatically stated that this is not a bad thing, but rather the liberation of man.


What we are looking at is therefore ultimately the attempt to liberate man from God. Because if God exists, then reality has meaning, then it will reflect God’s design. There will be a nature of things that expresses the purpose of God; it will be something that we have to respect, be it in animals, endangered plant species or in ourselves. It will put limitations on what we can rightfully do with each other, with ourselves and with embryos. The very existence of God implies this.

The next battle that we will have to face will be therefore not just about abortion or gay marriage; it will be about the very existence of God himself, including our ability to teach children about him. You might think I am exaggerating. But the movement called “New Atheism” is already producing bestsellers like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett’s "Breaking the Spell." It is already making inroads in the academic world. Even at a “hardcore” Catholic College like Steubenville students are reported to have lost their faith after reading these books.

The authors of these books claim that religion is just an aberration of the evolution of our species that should be eliminated. One of the ways to eliminate it, is to forbid parents to teach their children any kind of religion. Dawkins and Dennett declare religious education for children to be a form of child abuse. I have no doubts that we will face even this battle in the near future. Already now God is pushed out of the public square, replaced not by something neutral – for there is no neutrality in these matters – but replaced by an atheistic faith, which is proclaimed by silence and absence.


As awful as this is, it puts the focus where it belongs: it is not about this or that moral issue, it is about the very existence of God. If there is no God, then there is no natural law that would put any limitation on our freedom. If on the other hand, God exists, then there will be ethical consequences that people are increasingly inclined to reject.

The question for us is: would we want to live in a society in which God is declared dead? Would we want to live in a society, in which everything is allowed, not just to ourselves, but also to others, including those in government? How would we live together at all, with no common nature to appeal to? And would we want to live in a society in which there is no guidance anymore regarding right and wrong, except majority votes? In other words, would we want to live in a society in which might is right?

In the name of what would we protest against injustices against the health and well-being of people, if not in the name of our nature, a nature created by God, a nature that expresses his designs and laws, a nature that wants to be well and ought to be well? The appeal to human rights becomes vacuous, if it is not concretized in natural law.

Could we even appeal to the freedom of choice of those who are oppressed? How is their will not just another part of their nature? Would it not just be another brute fact that gets in the way of our own freedom, something that can be just as well trumped by a stronger, but equally brute fact, that of the majority choice? And how about those who are too old or too young or too sick to exercise their free choice?


It would seem that the words that the first reading from the book of Revelation addresses to the Church at Ephesus are addressed to our culture as well:

Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

It would seem that we have all reason to cry out with the blind man in Jericho: Lord, please let me see! It is our gift as Catholics that we have a faith that makes us see what everyone should be able to see by the light of his conscience: the law of nature, which is an expression of God’s gracious will. It is a faith that cures us from our blindness. And by curing us it will help others to see as well: the Gospel tells us that the blind man immediately received his sight and followed him (Jesus), giving glory to God. When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.
Those who perceive the natural law have overcome their blindness, they will follow Jesus, and they will know nothing less but God himself. And they will praise him.

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