The Synod of Bishops and Divine Law

La legge naturale non è negoziabile

The Synod of Bishops in October will discuss on the basis of Instrumentum laboris – “the worksheet” which summarizes the responses to the “preliminary questionnaire” received from the Bishop Conferences, ministries, and more in general – dioceses, parishes, movements, ecclesial associations,[all] consulted on the topic of marriage and the family.  

Besides the sociological slant which characterizes it, the document contains some disturbing passages. One of these is the implicit and often explicit devaluation of the idea of the natural law. In the Instrumentum laboris, in fact, we find this: “In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.” (n.21) The solution suggested would be to abandon the concept and term of the natural law, or “to re-read” it in accessible language, with particular attention to the young being part as a direct interlocutor on these themes.

We seem to understand then, that since the Catholic world no longer comprehends the idea of the natural law, it might as well be shelved and substituted by something more suited to the current mentality. This position appears even more surprising as all the recent Pontiffs had vigorously proclaimed the importance of the natural law.

Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, of July 25, 1968, with regard to the moral doctrine of marriage, taught that this is “a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.” (Humane Vitae, no. 4). Pope Montini referred to the natural law in order to reiterate that, according to the Church, “every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” (Humane Vitae, no.11).

In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae of March 25, 1995, John Paul II based the sacred value of human life (from its very beginning until its end) on the same law. In this important document, he affirms “every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end” (no.2). In the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, of the August 6, 1993,the Pope who has just been canonized, denounced the rejection of the natural law as the fruit of “a more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship with the Truth.” [It is] on the basis of such a law – he affirmed on February 6, 2004 – that a platform of shared values can be built, around which constructive dialogue is developed with all men of good will, and more in general, with secular society.”

Also Benedict XVI frequently referred to the importance of this doctrine “there is an urgent need to reflect upon the question of natural law and to rediscover its truth” which “is common to all mankind.” […] “All legal systems, both internal and international, ultimately draw their legitimacy from their rooting in natural law, in the ethical message inscribed in human beings themselves. The natural law is, definitively, the only valid bulwark against the abuse of power and the deceits of ideological manipulation.” (Discourse at the Pontifical Lateran University, February 12, 2007).

In a clear little volume dedicated to The Natural Law in The Doctrine of the Church (Consult Editrice, Rome, 2008), Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect for the Congregation of Catholic Education, explained how the ordinary Magisterium, on the primary level of its infallible teaching, includes, alongside the deposit of the faith, whatever is connected to it, ergo, also the natural law. Therefore, the natural law which the Church is guardian of, enjoys infallibility. Not even the Pope, who exercises absolute authority inside the Church, can modify or render relative the Divine and Natural Law, which he has the duty to transmit, diffuse and defend. Those who are asking the Church to update Her morality i.e. putting cohabitating couples on a par with the family, are asking the Church to exercise an authority which She does not have.

Alongside the declarations of Pontiffs, the numerous interventions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should be remembered and in particular the document, Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, of June 3, 2003, dedicated to restating the truth of marriage. The entire question is treated starting from the concept of natural morality. In this text from the Magisterium it is stated clearly that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.” (no.4).

The natural law is not a confessional truth, but in primis, a truth that belongs to universal right reason. It is in fact, an objective reality written in nature, not of this or that man, but in human nature itself considered as such, in its permanence and stability. In this sense it is not a law imposed from the outside, but, as Leo XIII in the Encyclical, Libertas, June 20, 1888, informs us, it is indelibly written, rather “engraved in the soul of every man”. The difference between the natural law and any other positive law, is that the positive laws are elaborated by men, that is to say external, whereas the natural law belongs to the spiritual nature of man himself.

The main difficulty in the understanding of the natural law is in the fact that today the notion of nature [itself] has been lost. Pope Benedict XVI noted that the natural law has become “an almost incomprehensible word for many due to a no longer metaphysical concept of nature, but a merely empirical one.” (Address, February 12, 2007). The natural law is not in fact the physical-biological law of human nature, but the moral and metaphysical order of creation, which man can discover through his reason. All the Fathers and Doctors of the Church spoke about this law, defining it at times as the scintilla animae, the spark which enlightens conscience. St.Thomas Aquinas is the one who studied and summarized the concept best, defining it as “the participation of the eternal law in rational creatures.” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 91, a.2).

If the concept of the natural law is lost, we will be compelled to accept the theory of gender based on the denial of the very concept of human nature. Man is thought of as a purely material entity, modifiable at will, according to the needs and interests of the moment. The natural law which comes down from God, is substituted by positive law imposed by pressures from political and mass-media groups. Instead of reflecting on the natural and Divine Law, laws and human behavior are adapting to the opinion of fluctuating and anti-Christian trends.

It is clear that on this issue, the discussion at the next Synod of Bishops will be very hot.