The Natural Law and the Family Today
In the beginning, God placed within the works of his hand a law that would govern creation. The natural physical law – expressed in something as simple as the law of gravity – is built into creation. So it is with the natural law that governs his human creations.
People today are often uncomfortable with the idea of law. They want to be able to do whatever they want and, increasingly, they want to be whatever they want. In today’s climate of relativism there is no longer any acknowledgement of objective truth – everything is open to subjective choice. Some even want to choose their own reality and impose it on the rest of society.
But there are certain universal precepts, certain permanent realities imprinted upon our being as humans, made male and female. They are inescapable truths that are intrinsic to our human nature, and they are knowable to all by right reason whether or not one chooses to acknowledge their existence and conform to them. If we choose to ignore these laws which prompt us to do good and avoid evil, an adverse effect will inevitably follow just as sure as something bad will happen if we ignore the law of gravity and step off a cliff.
We need look no further than the state of marriage and family today to see that this is so. In the working paper that is intended to guide the discussion at the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family, we read that “the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible [and] perceived as an outdated legacy” (Instrumentum Laboris, 21, 22). In turn, “the demise of the concept of the natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today” (Id., 26).
We live today in a world that is constantly substituting our way for God’s way. As a result of this lack of appreciation for the created order and our human ability to grasp it, many areas of societal life have collapsed, leaving many wounded and broken victims.
Many today resist what the Church has to say about the natural order because they have a different understanding of the meaning of “natural” or because they think it limits their freedom. But in expressing the original truth about the good of the person, the natural law indicates the path that leads to the authentic realization of freedom. As Pope Benedict XVI said during an ad limina visit with American bishops in 2012, the natural law “is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a ‘language’ which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world. [The Church] thus proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future.”
Perhaps one contribution of the deliberations of the Synod will be to recognize that we need a new vocabulary. We have to find words intelligible to our secular culture to describe the reality of God’s creative love and how we are special manifestations of that love. The challenge is to express the truth in a way that it can be heard and appreciated.
As the Synod, and as our society as a whole, confronts the issues facing families and the human person today, we need to consider the manner in which the voice of faith serves our world. In our culture which suffers increasingly from individualism and materialism, the voice of faith – the voice of the Church – has been a constant beacon in the darkness, a light for those seeking the right path and a support to those who have nowhere else to turn.
This is part two of a series on the family.