The (Natural) Law: Not (just) a good idea…?

The (Natural) Law: Not (just) a good idea…?

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Gerard Mannion asks in a recent essay in The Tablet whether natural law is such a good idea (20 October 2007, pp. 12-13).  The way he sometimes describes it, you might not think so.

Mannion is commenting on Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the International Theological Commission in Rome on October 5, 2007.  In his address, the Pope is arguing that the occlusion of the natural law has consequences that reach further than the confines of the Catholic Church (if there really are any…), and he, the Pope, offers in Mannion’s words “natural law as a means of offering moral guidance not only to Catholics but those with different or even no religious beliefs–as a form of ethics that can transcend interreligious and indeed religious secular boundaries.”  But Mannion wonders: “So could natural law be a kind of moral Holy Grail?  Would it be right to perceive natural law as a definitive code of absolute moral norms, applicable at all times and all places?”

Mannion then goes on to help his readers understand just what is meant by “natural law.”  He rightly notes that there term has been used ambiguously and that there is a rich history of thought surrounding the concept.  He concludes

Thus “natural” means the attempt to ground ethics in existence and in a shared understanding of what it is to be human, while “law” means something very unlike the modern understanding of the term–principle or orientation might be a more appropriate term today, as opposed to fixed and rigid “laws” in a legalistic sense.  Even a shared understanding of what it means to be human does not mean that all persons must follow the same course of action in a given situation for we also share in common human uniqueness.

Every reader of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics would know as much (as would, of course, just about anyone).

Mannion is worried that the Pope’s address is one more example of the Magisterium’s asserting itself, and that the Pope is pushing “a particular understanding of NLT (natural law theory) as normative for all human beings” in an effort to “claim greater certitude or find ‘closure’ concerning numerous questions, be they moral, ecclesial, or political.”  Mannion opines:  “Certainty is appealing and safe. Uncertainty is not.”  Mannion sees this as the contunuation of the battle against the evils of postmodernism, calling a concern for what may appear as nihilsm as “reactionary Christian discourse” in which “all ‘relativism’ is shunned as somehow detrimental to the faith.”

Mannion says that a survey of history would show plenty of examples of positions once held to be absolute and binding being overturned as context-bound and relative to the times or situation.  Indeed, Mannion argues,

the Church’s moral tradition has changed.  There were no universal, immutable natural ‘laws’ teaching against religious freedom, against democracy, freedom of the press, human rights, ecumenism and so on, nor were there any written in the hearts of human beings in favour of allowing capital punishment, in favour of rigidly defined social-class hierarchy or permitting slavery.  And yet, in the past, the Church and many Catholics have spoken as if there were.

Mannion cites theologian Charles Curran in holding that

morality is best understood along a continuum that moves from the more general to the specific.  At the general end, we thus speak of wider moreal principles and of orientation.  At this end, of course, a great deal of agreement can be achieved.  At the opposite end we have the specific or particular situations and contexts whereby the more general principles need to be applied and the fundamental moral orientation needs to prevail.  Here there will be differences concerning the right course of action ‘relative’ to specific persons, communities and contexts, and there will even be legitimate diversity.

Actually, it is not “morality” that moves along a continuum, but rather our capacity for certainty in judgment.  If understood this way, this is, again, right out of Aristotle.

He continues: 

In between these two poles of the general and the specific will advance the norms, directives and guides of the moral tradition at one end, with the transition between objective principle to subjective moral practices coming somewhere in the middle: here concrete decisions need to be made and conscience plays a pre-eminent part and must do so.  Finally, in the specific and particular situation we find the need for casuistry, that process whereby we attempt to allow the general principles and norms to inform the particular situations and practices.

Mannion sees the “grey area” being shrunk by NLT according to the Pope’s tastes. 

Morality changes, says Mannion, but he is not arguing that just “anything goes.”  He counsels:  “General moral principles maintain consistency: do good, shun evil.  How one might best do good and shun evil in a given situation, at a given time, is obviously something less fixed and universally determinable.”  He reminds us, “NLT is not an ‘exact’ science by any stretch of the imagination.”  At best, such a “universal ethical system” (the Pope does not use this phrase, by the way) would offer guidelines more that strict rules.  But these guidelines for living would not be “infallible guides that will lead one effortlessly through every ethical forest, tunnel or cavern, for no such universal moral ‘map’ could possibly exist.”  Maps are for specific regions; a map for one city won’t do for another. But learning to read any given map might provide transferrable skills for reading another map.  And getting the advice of others who have gone before us into the land in which we are traveling certainly can help.  But Mannion says there can be no universally applicable Mapquest-like directions (go straight one mile, turn left, turn left, go straight, turn right) that would get anyone anywhere they’d want to go anytime.  And what if the maps, advice, or set of directions was bad in the first place?

No, what we need, says Mannion, is not postmodern nihilistic anything goes absolute relativism (love that phrase, btw…), nor an “equally absolutist ‘universal’ ethical ’system’.”  What we need, he says, is “a healthy and pluralistic dialogue between different faiths, churches, political, social and scientific ideologies and across diverse communities and nations.  The common good cannot be ‘defined’, it must be discerned.”  We don’t need a “voluminous rulebook,” just an “understanding of the nature and process of moral discernment itself.”

The problem with this essay is that Mannion makes it seem like he’s picking a big fight with the idea of natural law, but ends up describing and defending a fairly standard model of NLT.  NLT theorists do not think the result of their work will be “voluminous rulebooks” or algorithmic moral machinery.  From Aristotle on, natural moral law was taught and learned by studying cases.  Mannion is misleading by noting that St. Thomas “spends but few pages upon ‘natural law’ as such,” because the whole of Thomas’ analyses of the virtues depends on a prior understanding of human nature.  It’s all about natural law (and, yes, “law” in the sense that Mannion describes it, as principle and orientation, and not a mathematico-physical law).

I am not complaining about how Mannion would help us in essence to become more moral, more virtuous.  No one working for Metanexus is going to object to a call for the most wide-ranging dialogue!  My complaint is that Mannion seems to have an axe to grind with the Vatican in its application (but not necessarily its understanding) of natural law.  We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  The problem, seems to me, is with the execution, not the play that was called.  These are different.

Mannion, for instance, suggests that “morality has changed” and so the Vatican is wrong to persist in condemning certain forms of artificial contraception.  But how are the Pope and Mannion going to figure this out? 

And, this leads back to the title question of Mannion’s essay:  Cast in stone?  My question in response is “Is what cast in stone?”  The essential principles of natural law? Mannion himself notes the “consistency” with which those principles are maintained.  Perhaps the principles are cast in stone, only seeming to waiver when the will is weak.  But is any particular moral act set in stone?  The actual act?  No, in the sense that I could do otherwise.  And no, in the sense that there may be more than one act that would satisfy the demands of morality in this case (although perhaps…perhaps…not the demands of excellence).  But that the act will have moral significance?  Yes, that’s set in stone, too.

Read the Pope’s address.  See for yourself whether he is talking about systems and algorithms or whether he is talking about what underlies the complex richness of all human interaction, the occlusion of which has adverse consequences.  And see whether the Pope and Mannion are that far apart.