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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 2
30th Anniversary Issue

Have we lost the idea of natural law "written in the human heart"?


by Rita Joseph

Global survey on marriage and the family, examined in the preparatory document Instrumentum Laboris (Vatican, 2014) for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, finds that “very few responses and observations demonstrated an adequate … understanding of the natural law.”1

Natural law is “law written in the human heart” (Rom 1:19-21; 2:14-15). Truth and goodness, the invisible things since the creation of the world, can be clearly seen, known, revealed, and perceived through the things that are made. Saint Paul understood that even “the Gentiles who don’t have the law [through religious revelation of God’s commandments] do by nature the things of the law ... in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts among themselves accusing or else excusing them.”

So what is “ the natural law”?  It is a universal moral law, the moral imperatives that we can discover through observation of nature, not just through scientific (statistical/sociological) research of cause and effect but also through intelligent objective observation of the ultimate (teleological) ends of everything.  Natural law discovers and establishes for all human beings the fundamental design and purpose in our existence, thereby enabling our humanity to flourish. 

Indeed, all our fundamental human rights are based on this natural law that is available to all human beings. Natural law makes possible reasoned discussion, negotiation, and consensus on our human rights. As is explained in the Instrumentum Laboris, our human rights “need” to be founded on reason and natural law and it is this foundation that makes possible rational dialogue across all cultures and religions. 

We come to discern natural law through coming to know who we are.  It is in looking at ourselves in the ordered world of creation that we learn to see our moral obligations to ourselves, our families, and our communities.  Through observation and reason, and guided by conscience, we can know and respond to the call of truth and goodness, those inherent principles of the natural law that are written in our hearts. 

As human creatures we can come to know both what we ought to do and what we ought not to do by studying ourselves in a world ordered wonderfully and exquisitely to human flourishing. And even more than this, we come to perceive goodness, we recognize truth, in contemplation of the natural order.  “For from the greatness and the beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of the Creator” (Wis 13:5).

Reason confirms that natural order is neither mindless nor random

With our gift of intellect, we can perceive order; in wonder, we explore the beauty and truth in that order; and with our gift of reason, we can affirm that such order can be neither mindless nor random. Humbleness remains our only truly rational response to this awesome natural order displayed in our tiny blue world spinning in a vast purposeful swirl of stars and moons, planets, and galaxies in the vastness of an amazing universe. Our only rational honest response is always a humble appreciation and respect for this order, this beauty, and this truth that makes human life on earth not only possible but good. In humble admiration of creation, we learn an awed reverence for the Creator. 

Women no less than men are creatures of intellect and free will. However, free will is not to be confused with what we might call “willfulness without the restraint of reason.” The natural law requires a dignified governing of our free will by our intellect and our conscience. The absurd ideologically driven lie that Catholic women are constrained by a mindless obedience to the commands of sexual morality invented by a bunch of childless old men in the Vatican has done regrettable damage.

It is time for all Catholic women to reclaim our inherent dignity and worth and to proclaim the truth: that the commands of morality are universal natural law–based truths that every intelligent human being, irrespective of sex or religion, is called to discern objectively and to freely embrace and impose upon ourselves for the common good — our own good and the good of others.

With our intellect we search for truth and find purpose in our existence and in our natural morally ordered relationships with others.  We possess both the capability and the duty to understand our obligation to uphold the human dignity and worth of every human being through freely, intelligently, and conscientiously recognizing the natural moral laws and accepting the reciprocity of our human rights and corresponding duties. Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, observes:

Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.

Natural law written in the human heart — it is the heart that creates duty

In an age of unprecedented moral confusion, women especially have been duped by an extreme feminist ideology that has elevated autonomy or self-determination to the false status of an absolute women’s right. We have been persuaded to build a house called women’s rights while tearing it down with our abrogation of duties, such as the duty to protect and nurture our unborn children, the duty to respect our own bodies — including respect for our fertility by eschewing contraception and sterilization, the duty to refrain from disordered sexual relations, and the duty to be faithful in marriage. 
The Instrumentum Laboris discerns that we fail to see that our autonomy in human freedom is “necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things.” We misunderstand natural in the term natural law, placing too high a value on “the realization of personal desires”:

The responses and observations also show that the adjective “natural” often is understood by people as meaning “spontaneous” or “what comes naturally.” Today, people tend to place a high value on personal feelings and emotions, aspects which appear “genuine” and “fundamental” and, therefore, to be followed “simply according to one’s nature.” (IL 22)

Our autonomy, however, is limited by duty to ourselves and to others. This should not be a duty imposed from the outside but a duty that springs from the deepest and truest desires of our heart — to love and be loved — and can therefore be joyfully and freely embraced.
It is the heart that creates duty.  It is love that enables duty.  It is loving God, loving each other, loving our neighbors as ourselves, that prepares and equips us to do our duty even at the sacrifice of self-interest.

So what are the first principles of natural law?

Put simply, there are five fundamental self-evident principles of natural law, five inherent duties, identified by Aquinas as deeply and irrevocably embedded in our human nature:

1) To do good and avoid evil 
In applying this principle to our human right to marry and to found a family, we can confidently perceive that it requires husband and wife to love, cherish, and protect each other and their children, faithfully and unselfishly. To avoid evil, it is a natural law imperative that husbands, wives, and their children are to resist lying, cheating, hating or harming each other, abandoning responsibilities, and breaking promises.

We may not do evil even that good may come of it. We may not use any human being as a means to an end. This rules out commissioning children through artificial means such as in vitro fertilization and surrogacy. It rules out also the deliberate artificial creation of motherless and fatherless families to sustain the pretense of “same-sex marriage” and “marriage equality.”  Genuine marriage is an indissoluble good — we may separate where conditions are truly intolerable or threatening; but we may not have sexual relations with another or remarry while one’s separated spouse is still living.

2) To preserve life: suum cuique — protection for what is one’s own
In applying this principle to the human right to marry and to found a family, husbands and wives and children undertake the human rights responsibilities to protect for each other the right to life, liberty, and security of person. For parents this includes inter alia the duty to preserve and to protect the lives of their unborn children and those already born; and for parents and children, the duty to preserve and protect each other from suicide or assisted medicalized suicide (euthanasia). This principle is, moreover, recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

 (Universal Declaration 3)

No one may destroy that right, nor deprive any human being of that right, nor transfer that right, nor renounce it — that’s what inalienable means. 

Human beings cannot be deprived of the substance of their rights, not in any circumstances, not even at their own or their mother’s request.

It is this principle that forbids invention by society and the State in norms or laws that remove human rights protection from unborn children at risk of elective abortion and from persons at risk of suicide, assisted suicide, or euthanasia.

Government and society also must honor the inherent dignity and integrity of every human being and every family:
The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
(Universal Declaration 16-3) 

3) To procreate through sexual reproduction, a good to be supported and favored, and what threatens it to be avoided 

In applying this principle to our human right to marry and to found a family, husbands and wives are to procreate responsibly, being respectful of each other and of the natural integrity of their reproductive gifts of self to each other.

What practices now threaten responsible and respectful procreation through sexual reproduction? The Instrumentum Laboris enumerates contraception, abortion, procedures of artificial procreation such as in vitro fertilization, and the manipulation of human embryos, as well as same-sex unions.

Fertility is a natural good to be protected — it is not to be deliberately rendered dysfunctional or to be wantonly destroyed.  Our bodies should not be artificially reprogrammed to incapacitate exactly what a healthy reproductive system is designed specifically to do.

Marriage between one man and one woman and restriction of sexual intercourse to within marriage are the age-old protective measures that in general have ensured the most secure environment for raising children — each child being ensured the right, as far as possible, to be raised by his or her own mother and father.

4) To live in community 
The right of men and women to marry and to form a family is critical to our ability to be able to live prudently, securely, peacefully in community: 

Everyone has duties to the community…

(Universal Declaration 29-1)

Those duties include being faithful to one’s spouse and upholding as far as possible every child’s right to know and be cared for by his or her biological parents. Our natural duties freely and willingly undertaken in our marriage vows are solemn ones and not to be reduced to provisional “if I feel like it” prevarication. As the Instrumentum Laboris explains:

The relativization of the concept of “nature” is … reflected in the concept of stability and the “duration” of the relationship of marriage unions. Today, love is considered “forever” only to the point that a relationship lasts.

Adult duties reach beyond what we owe our own children, to all children who are in need or at risk of harm.  It is a natural law imperative that we freely and willingly sacrifice some of our own autonomy, our precious individualism, to build and maintain solidarity, especially with the most vulnerable in our community. 

5) To exercise our intellects to search for truth, to reject falsehood, to dispel ignorance
In applying this principle to our human right to marry and to found a family we need to examine honestly and rationally the ideological conditioning that has been set in place to accommodate a “right” to same-sex “marriage” (so-called marriage equality), a woman’s “right” to abortion, and a “right” to have a child through artificial means.

In general, faithful Catholics who responded to the Synod for the Family survey recognize the natural-law basis of marriage and the distinction between the sexes:

The responses point to a general belief that the distinction between the sexes has a natural foundation within human existence itself.  Therefore, by force of tradition, culture and intuition, there exists the desire that the union between a man and a woman endure. The natural law is then a universally accepted “fact” by the faithful, without the need to be theoretically justified. (Instrumentum Laboris)

Regrettably, however, many respondents (other than “the faithful”) don’t accept the natural law as a unique system of reference:

... from an emerging point of view, drawn from a widely diffused culture, the natural law is no longer to be considered as applicable to everyone, since people mistakenly come to the conclusion that a unique system of reference does not exist.

Our natural law duty to exercise our intellects to search for truth, to reject falsehood, and to dispel ignorance has been gravely neglected by the wider society.

Identifying and rectifying our mistakes
Clearly, our education systems and our legal systems have failed us in their duty to teach and support fundamental truths about marriage and the family.

The demise of the concept of the natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today. (Instrumentum Laboris)

We have failed in our natural law duty to educate children and adults to reject falsehood (especially when it is couched in the new manipulative “rights” language). We have failed to dispel ignorance of genuine rights and duties and failed too in our responsibilities to establish and maintain legal systems that protect marriage and the family.

Some responses … point to a willingness, on the civic level, to recognize so-called “multi-personal” unions between individuals of different sexual orientations and sexual identities, based simply on personal needs and on individual and subjective necessities. In short, this tendency accentuates the absolute right to personal freedom without any compromise: people are “formed” on the basis of their individual desires only. What is increasingly judged to be “natural” is more of a reference-to-self only, when it comes to their desires and aspirations. This situation is heavily influenced by the mass media and by the lifestyles of some people in sports and entertainment.

Perhaps our greatest failure at the present time lies in our feeble efforts to reject the “gender equality” falsehood of extreme feminism and to dispel the ignorance of those who continue to be  fooled and damaged by these inane but aggressive ideologies.

When it comes to moral law we are our own worst enemies.  Under the cunning tutelage of the Evil One we have misused reason and abandoned first principles to affirm our own willfulness, to wit: “My body, my rights” and “Two people of the same sex who love each other have a right to marry.” We have compromised our search for the truth. We have embraced popular ideology. We have suspended reason and replaced it with sentiment that cloaks our desire with a pretense of authenticity.

We have rejected the real world with its inherent moral principles as too hard or unfair or inhumane (summed up in nonsensically incoherent phrases such as “war against women” and “denying marriage equality”). We have assented to an ideologically reconstructed world where the natural law–based “interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage” is eliminated as antithetical to what some call our lifestyle choices.

It is now our duty to confront these ideologues, to reveal to them the often unintended negative consequences of these choices.

To dispel ignorance — education in natural law principles
Ideological and cultural propagandists who want to force the Church to endorse their favorite sins as “rights” are growing in political power and social influence.
Given the lack of reference to the natural law by many academic institutions today, major complaints result from the extensive practice of divorce, cohabitation, contraception, procedures of artificial procreation and same-sex unions.  Other complaints against the natural law come from the poorest areas and those least influenced by western thought — especially some African states — which cite the phenomena of machismo, polygamy, marriages between teens and preteens, and divorce in cases of sterility or a lack of a male heir, as well as incest and other aberrant practices. (Instrumentum Laboris)

We shall of course continue to encounter fierce organized resistance to educating in the truth — it is not uncommon these days for expression of natural-law truths to be denounced as hate speech. Hostility to moral truths continues to be whipped up by the mainstream media. Anyone who speaks out against the absurd dogmas of “marriage equality” or “reproductive justice” for women is likely to be systematically intimidated and stigmatized.

Persuading ourselves that what we would not like to be true is false or doubtful?
But as Pope Pius XII warned, our knowledge of natural-law truths is not enough to ensure we lead truthful lives:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of … the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths … are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin.  So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. (Humani generis, 561)

To this ignoble end, many Catholics have succumbed to popular ideology and to mischievous arguments that challenge genuine moral laws on marriage and reproduction as abusive and discriminatory, as violations of spurious new rights, as cruel and lacking compassion, and as denying equality for all human beings.

These dishonest arguments serve to generate enough doubt about the universal applicability of the moral law that even Catholics are turning to what Pope Benedict XVI called the dictatorship of relativism, which denies that there is an immutable,  inherent, and inalienable moral law written in every human heart.
Too many Catholics accept civil law based on legal positivism as morally right
A core problem confronting us here is that in many of our institutions and media there is no longer an honest search for truth. Arrogance has crept in and we deny that there is any higher authority than the positivist law we make and remake for ourselves. The Instrumentum Laboris identifies this critical fault line:

… much attention is given in the responses to the fact that what becomes established in civil law — based on an increasingly dominant legal positivism — might mistakenly become in people’s mind accepted as morally right.  What is “natural” tends to be determined by the individual and society only, who have become the sole judges in ethical choices.

Many academics, politicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals have grown arrogant in their uncritical embrace of popular ideology, stubbornly refusing to learn from history. It seems that memories of the disastrous results of legal positivism as the basis for morality in Nazi Germany have been erased. Does no one remember the dangerously defective nature of a moral law answerable only to the ephemeral and ever-fluctuating will of governments and the people? 

After World War II, the nations of the world came together and declared that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” (Universal Declaration preamble). In a moment of grace, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights saw the light of truth, that human rights are inherent and inalienable, that they are based on a small number of fundamental principles that are common to all societies, philosophies, and faith systems, and that are recognized to be universals — “permanent principles” that are not subject to change with each new ideology or opinion poll or democratic vote. And so the whole architecture of modern international human-rights law was rebuilt on a deontological basis, on natural-law principles.

At the Nuremberg trials the utilitarianism of the Nazis’ positivist laws that clothed atrocities in lawfulness was rejected and condemned. The drafters of the Universal Declaration also rejected the legal positivism that had emerged in the 20th century. They saw clearly that legal positivism had proved hopelessly inadequate to protect vulnerable human beings from shifting laws that were fabricated to advance popular new ideologies. 

They saw the victims of untethered morality and they pledged “never again!” 

Indeed, the drafters of the Universal Declaration recognized that human rights are logically antecedent to the rights enumerated in various systems of positive law and are held independent of the state. Human rights, they agreed, pertained to man as a human being and could not be alienated; they “constituted a law anterior and superior to the positive law of civil society.”2   One of the chief drafters of the Universal Declaration, philosopher Charles Malik, affirmed thus

A careful examination of the Preamble and of Article I will reveal that the doctrine of natural law is woven … into the intent of the Declaration ... dignity and rights are natural to our being and are not the generous grant of some external power. (New York, November 4, 1949)

Urgent need to correct misunderstanding of the basis of human rights
As explained in the Instrumentum Laboris, human rights need to be founded on reason. Natural law responds to that need and makes possible rational dialogue across all cultures and religions. Lack of respect for the natural law results in perverse behaviors that increasingly demand legal accommodation:

Generally speaking, the notion of “human rights” is also seen as highly subjective and a call for a person to self-determination, a process which is no longer grounded in the idea of the natural law.  In this regard, many respondents relate that the legal systems in many countries are having to make laws on situations which are contrary to the traditional dictates of the natural law (for example, in vitro fertilization, homosexual unions, the manipulation of human embryos, abortion, etc.)

In a homily to Catholic members of the Bundestag in 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger debunked the myth of the state as “a do-it-yourself paradise.” He also warned against the deliberate misinterpretation of “objective reason” as a value-free objectivity, independent of morality and God:  
To genuine human reason belongs the morality that is fed by God’s commandments. This morality is not some private affair; it has public significance. Without the good of being and doing good there can be no good politics.

Natural law — the wisdom of little children
The Instrumentum Laboris calls us to restore the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world.

We can all praise God for this gift of wisdom of the heart:

… Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do”. (Lk 10:21)

We need to become as little children to rediscover reverence for truth. Pope Benedict has said: “Truth is a person.” Indeed, Jesus said: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6) and “the Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30).

So whenever we seek what is true, we draw closer to the person of Jesus. To search, to find, to teach, and to defend the truth is not just a natural law duty but a human privilege and an honor.  Each time we speak the truth, each time we take a stand for the truth, we delight the Father, and with the tenderness of a father’s love for His little ones He lifts us up and we touch the face of God.


1 The Relation of the Gospel of the Family to the Natural Law, Part I Chapter III, of the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.
2 United Nations, Official Records of the General Assembly (GAOR), Tenth Session, Annexes, (1955) A/2929 Chapter III para. 6.


Rita Joseph, of Canberra, Australia, is a member of the editorial board of Voices and has represented family concerns at United Nations conferences. She writes and lectures on social issues, with a special interest in the universally agreed natural law foundations of modern international human rights law. She has lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. She is author of Human Rights and the Unborn Child (Leiden & Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2009.)




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