Lesson 6: Natural Law and its Commands

Lecture 3B

How does natural law command? This is a question that occupies contemporary Catholic moral theology. In English usage, the language is awkward. In ancient Roman usage, however, it is accurate. For the Roman jurists, justice equaled ius suum cuique tribuere. Justice is the giving of a "ius." Technically, law or "lex" is the command to give it. So, the Christian jurists conceive of natural law as something more than a collection of iura. These natural iura stem from divine providence, and lex naturalis is not a metaphorical template laid over ius naturale. It represents instead a participation in the eternal law, God's very own wisdom.

That's the scholarly, philosophical answer. But one might want to say that actions are "required by" instead of commanded. Today, everyone seems to think (erroneously) the commands are chiefly acts of the will. There are commands which flow from how God knows the world to be, from how God has established the human order of existence.

One more thing. There is nothing especially odd about the idea that human law can command someone to give a natural "ius" to someone. Presumably, that's what we do when we require the government to give due process of law before taking someone's life, liberty, or property (5th and 14th amendments). Basically, the positive law requires the state or its agent to satisfy natural justice.

Back to natural law, think of the Decalogue which consists of iura to be given to God and neighbor. There is the ius to be given and the precept to give it. Moderns tend to conflate the two, sometimes for reasons of ideology (subjective rights), but more often for the sake of convenience. It gets cumbersome to speak of natural law, natural rights, human law, and legal rights. Too many moving parts for the modern mind to cope with. So we hive off what makes natural law "law," and begin with a moral norm grounded in something "in" or "about" the person. This is convenient for ordinary law, but it suggests a static picture of natural justice in which God no longer governs. It is enough for God to create natural values and goods. All the action, then, comes from human practical reason which supplies the motion -- viz. the leges.


Students who wish to do advanced work may find the debates among orthodox Catholic scholars about how to interpret natural law interesting. One must not misportray the most central elements of St. Thomas's doctrine of natural law. Some authors tend to superimpose two sets of presuppositions upon the doctrine of Aquinas that alter its character. The first set of presuppositions is drawn from contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and comprises notions not only alien, but contrary, to St. Thomas's teaching. These largely determine the form of such an interpretation, and distort St. Thomas's teachings regarding the relation of the speculative and practical intellect; the nature of the first precept of law ("primum princeptis legis"); the unified natural teleology of the moral life (i.e. the morally significant hierarchy of ends); and the analysis of moral object, end, and intention. The second set of presuppositions--which colors the end to which the earlier errors conduce--consists in a classically liberal reduction of the nature of the common good and of the role of religion in public life (and a negation of the very public character of revelation), as well as a denial of the practical significance of the theistic root of natural law doctrine.

As St. Thomas instructs us, a thing acts and moves toward its end by reason of its form. Some readings miscast both the form, and the end, of St. Thomas's doctrine of natural law. It is not an accident that on all these issues, the interpretation offered by certain authors is virtually always not only alien, but actually opposed, to the work of the Dominican commentatorial tradition from the 13th century to the present. The teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas is not an object of mere archeological interest, and for this reason it is important to distinguish his work from the exigencies of what--at the end of the day, and with due deference to the context--must nonetheless count as a transsignification of St. Thomas's natural law teaching to the requisites of analytic philosophic tenets starkly opposed to his own.

Reading Assignments

Introduction to Moral Theology, chap. two

Catechism of the Catholic Church nos. 1949-2016.

Russell Hittinger, "Natural Law as 'Law.' Reflections on the occasion of `Veritatis splendor," The American Journal of Juris Prudence 39 (1994): 1-32.

Summa theologiae Ia-IIae q. 93, aa. 1-6. Blackfriars Summa theologiae, vol. 28, pp. 162-164 (appendix 2).

Writing Assignment

Write a three-page paper that explains the place natural law holds in present day Church teaching. Consult Veritatis Splendor.


If law is the command bestowing a "right", explain the relation between natural law and the wisdom and providence of God?


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top