Lesson 5: Natural Law as Participation

Lecture 3A

In this lesson you will learn about Catholic teaching on natural law. Natural law, however, is not the only resource needed for a complete theory of Christian morality. A realist moral theologian recognizes that natural law provides a starting point for discovering the concrete forms of moral goodness. Further, since every end exists as an end only because it is ordered to the ultimate end (finis ultimus), the explanation of moral normativity that is offered by natural law must relate in a definitive way this normativity to the ultimate end. Because only God truly is absolute good, God alone obligates through promulgating the whole order of subordinate ends and acts via creation. Hence the natural, and therefore obligatory, is that which is necessary in order to attain the final end. This rooting of moral normativity in the absolute divine good does not locate natural law within a voluntarist framework, that is, one that makes divine will rather than intellect the whole source of moral obligation, because as established by God the order of ends flows from his will as informed by his Truth.

Natural law respects freedom. Rooting moral normativity within the divine good does not entail a denial of secondary causality. No end can be an end at all if it is not further ordered to the only end that can be sought purely for its own sake: the absolute good of the ultimate end. Similarly no created act is other than a natural but ontologically deficient imitation of God who is self-subsisting pure act. It may be argued that were there no divinely established order of ends, secondary agency would be impossible, because, without a final cause why action should be of one determinate character rather than another, action would be either unceasing or uninitiable. In any case, the order of ends--like the order of acts proportioned to them--is constituted in accordance with the divine wisdom and goodness, and this order participates the good of its transcendent source.

By maintaining the legitimacy of the natural law in theological ethics, moral realism does not therefore secretly champion a covert form of autonomous ethics. For instance, consider the argument that since natural law represents a participation in the divine law, the moral welfare of the human race requires no other divinely revealed law. To this argument, Aquinas answers that the human person participates in the eternal law in two ways. The first way presupposes a proportion with the capacity of human nature and, therefore, remains consonant with the natural end of the human creature. The second way, however, assumes the existence of a higher order, by which we are directed to our ultimate supernatural end, and to embrace this order, God's wisdom provides a divinely revealed law by which we also participate in the eternal law. While it is incumbent upon realist moral theology to demonstrate that its view of the Christian moral life neither presupposes nor generates a dual conception of the moral universe, the fact remains that the eternal law represents the single divine plan for the salvation of the world. The unity of the eternal law is not compromised by the twofold manner in which human persons participate it.

In the Summa theologiae, Aquinas provides a straightforward, uncluttered explanation of natural law. He says that "natural law embodies nothing other than a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature" (Summa theologiae Ia-IIae q. 91, a. 2). Natural law, then, derives from the eternal law, although, since the eternal law remains identical with the divine nature itself, natural law does not exhaust the eternal law. Because he held the conviction that the ontological priority of nature provides the necessary condition for maintaining the gratuitous gift of divine grace, Aquinas argues for an intrinsic relationship between natural and eternal law on philosophical grounds. This means that our understanding of human nature comprises something more than a deficient abstraction, or a "remainder concept." If it be the case that human nature is merely such a "remainder concept" or deficient abstraction, it is difficult to see how such a view does not compel its proponents towards holding one of two inadmissable positions concerning the nature and gratuity of God's creative action: either divine wisdom has produced an intrinsically deficient human being, that is, with something lacking in its bare essentials, or God is somehow obliged to bestow something which is not due to human nature in order to complete his creation in a basic way. These two alternatives logically precede any discussion of the hypothesis of "pure nature" and the thorny question about what human nature can accomplish without divine grace or on the supposition that Adam was created outside of original justice.

The key term in Aquinas's definition of natural law is "participation," or the human creature's share in the eternal law. Aquinas's use of the notion of participation in his definition of natural law possesses its own history. Some authors for instance have argued that Aquinas's deployment of the notion of participation in connection with natural law exhibits Platonic influences on the Thomist doctrine. For our purposes, it is also possible to translate Aquinas's "participatio" by the English word "share." The view that human nature shares or participates in the divine pattern of all that exists forms a central thesis of a realist anthropology. Jacques Maritain, in his The Person and the Common Good, recognizes in the natural law the foundation not only for the dignity of the human person, but also for the establishment of the common good.

The deepest layer of the human person's dignity consists in its property of resembling God--not in a general way after the manner of all creatures, but in proper way. It is the image of God. For God is spirit and the human person proceeds from Him as having a principle of life, a spiritual soul capable of knowing, loving and of being uplifted by grace to participation in the very life of God that, in the end, it might know and love Him as He knows and loves Himself. (Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good, trans. John J. Fitzgerald (New York: Scribner's, 1947), p. 32).

It is important to observe that Maritain speaks about our being capable of "being uplifted by grace." Natural law enjoys a central place in the development of moral theology, but it does not provide a substitute for the economy of salvation which comes always as a free and gracious outpouring from God and which alone makes it possible for the creature to enjoy a communication with God that exceeds the perfections of nature.

Reading Assignments

Introduction to Moral Theology, chap. 2

Benedict Ashley, "Scriptural Grounds for Concrete Moral Norms," The Thomist 52 (1988): 1-22.

Russell Hittinger, "Veritatis Splendor and the Theology of Natural Law," in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral TheologyStudies by Ten Outstanding Scholars. Edited with J. A. DiNoia, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999).


1) Explain the relationship of natural law to Eternal law. Include in your answer some specific reference to the Blessed Trinity.

2) Why is the biblical doctrine of the imago Dei indispensable for elaborating a moral theology? (See CCC 1702: "The divine image is present in every man. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves.")

3) How is the ontological priority of nature a condition for maintaining the gratuity of supernatural grace? What difficulties would be implied by derogating nature to the status of a mere "remainder concept"?

4) What is the relationship between God--as absolute good and promulgator of all lesser goods or ends in creation--and these lesser goods?


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