The second in a four-part weekly series on the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, “Called to Holiness and Mission: Reflections on Christian Moral Living Today.” See part one: The Splendor of Truth: How to live by learning from God
Our society has a tense relationship with laws. On the one hand, we pass thousands of them every year. Even at a time when many consider democracy in danger, legislatures at the state and local level pass all kinds of laws about topics both controversial and mundane.
We know, of course, that every law contains within it rights and obligations. A law must have a system of enforcement if it is not to be a dead letter. Even if we may find them irksome, most people who aren’t anarchists accept the premise that the state can compel us to carry out or avoid certain actions.
But the laws of civil government are not the only kinds of law. Nor are they the most important. The church recognizes that all reality begins with the eternal law of God. St. Augustine defines the eternal law as “the reason or the will of God, who commands us to respect the natural order and bids us not to disturb it.”
In almost every creature, this eternal law is carried out perfectly: bees pollinate flowers, the stars produce brilliant heat and light, electrons float around protons. None of these things is capable of deviating from the eternal law, lacking as they do intellect and will proper to persons.
Human beings and angels, of course, are persons. We are beings in relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with all creation. We are capable of an “I”/” Thou” encounter with another, which means we are able to love. Love is a choice; it is an act of the will. The choice to love can only be made by one made in the image and likeness of the God who is love itself.
Because human beings are invited to participate in God’s stewardship of creation (which includes ourselves!), we are able to internalize the eternal law. I can experience it not simply as a reality which exists outside of me, but something which is written on my heart. This is called the natural law: the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law of God (VS 43). The natural law inclines us to our flourishing as human persons. In making choices in accord with the natural law, we grow more perfectly into the likeness of our creator.
I mentioned last time the first principle of morality, which can be stated briefly as do good and avoid evil. Yet while this is presumed to be universally accepted by rational creatures, things start to get fuzzy when we get to the principles that derive from this. After all, how do I know what is good? This is at the heart of what the young man asks Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17)
Due to the fall of our first parents, we experience a tendency to sin (concupiscence) which remains even after baptism. Our intellects are darkened: while we are still rational creatures, knowledge does not come to us with the same ease and clarity as it did before the Fall. We can be attracted by apparent goods, things which seem good to us but which are not actually ordered to human flourishing. Examples of such apparent goods are legion.
And even if we identify an authentic good worth pursuing, our weakened wills do not always choose the good presented to us by our intellect. Instead of choosing to pray or read Scripture, we spend empty hours on a cell phone. These are choices made against the natural law. They tend away from our happiness. The church’s tradition gives this the name “sin.”
While our unaided reason can know the principles of the natural law, the reality after the Fall is that the discernment of good and evil is especially aided by “reason enlightened by Divine revelation and faith” (VS 44). For this reason, the church can and must serve as the authentic interpreter of the principles of the natural law, obedient to the command of Christ to teach all nations.
Returning to the young man, Jesus responds to his question with a familiar list of laws. Jesus told him, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother’” (Mk 10:19).
In short, those who keep the natural law can inherit eternal life. Jesus is identifying for this Jewish man the center of the Torah, the ethical standards which transcend all time and place. This list of commandments which Jesus gives the young man is simply stating in an explicit way the law written on our hearts. In practice, we are in need of the clarity which these words give us.
These non-negotiable moral laws are not meant to take away our freedom. Quite the opposite: they free us so that we might grow in virtue. It is sin which wounds us by isolating us in our own ego and cutting off our relationship with others, especially God, who is the author of all that is good.
These laws are preparatory – not in the sense that they ever become optional, as for instance, the ritual laws of the Old Testament (cf. Mk 7:14-23), but because one who lives according to them is able to embrace the new Law of the Gospel. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, this new law is first and foremost about a relationship with Jesus Christ by which we are moved by the Holy Spirit to give our unconditional yes to him. The law of the Gospel is the grace of the Holy Spirit itself, which enables us to do whatever the Spirit prompts in us at every moment.
This is nothing less that the very life of Christ lived in us, just as he lived in perfect obedience to the Father’s will under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus invites the young man to when he says, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21).
The natural law – confirmed by Divine revelation as interpreted by the authentic magisterium – is the beginning of our journey in holiness. The goal is union with Christ, who calls us even now to follow him into the life of grace.
Father Eric J. Banecker is pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Philadelphia.
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