Thursday, July 24, 2014

“Science Proves Natural Law”, I: What’s the Problem?


Knowing our interest in explaining and promoting an Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the natural law (the basis of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic social teaching as well as that of ethical pagans who follow Aristotle), one of our correspondents sent us a link to a recent article in The National Catholic Register, “Science Proves Natural Law,” by Agnes M. Penny.  The subject line of the e-mail read, “For Your Reading Pleasure.”

Unfortunately, it was not all that pleasurable.  Before that sends you into a state of righteous indignation for our saying anything even moderately disparaging about a Laborer in the Vineyard of the Lord, and how we must maintain a solid front even if we don’t agree with what somebody else is saying, doing, eating, wearing, or anything else, take a step back and a few deep breaths.

Before you go off in a huff (or, apologies to Groucho, a minute and a huff), you should know that we recognize and applaud the evident goodwill of the author, and her evident good intentions.  Today’s seeming split between faith and reason and the resulting confusion, even chaos, is a serious scandal, as virtually every pope since at least Pius IX has pointed out.  The differences even among Catholics on this issue have divided members of that church into different camps, even driven some people out of the institution altogether (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, § 67), caused acrimony, and even spread slander and calumny as adherents of one camp rush to judge and condemn all others who fail to toe the party line, or toe it in the presumably prescribed manner.

That being said, the article is a very good example of the sort of massive intellectual confusion that abounds today even within the Catholic Church in religious matters, and in the United States in political matters, about the foundations of the social order.  This is because both institutions were originally established solidly on principles of natural law, discernible by the force and light of human reason (cf. the Declaration of Independence and Canon 2.1 of the First Vatican Council, as well as I, q. 1, a. 1 of the Summa Theologica).

Unfortunately, intellectuals and even many believers and citizens in both Church and State have gotten away from the sound principles of natural law discerned by reason, and have based their understanding of the natural law on a supernatural faith in either Church or State unsupported by sound reason.  In the case of the article “Science Proves Natural Law,” the author has confused the natural law and the supernatural law, or (to put it other ways) faith and reason, knowledge and opinion, or the Intellect and the Will.  While glib and plausible, the article is, frankly, rather startling to anyone who has even an inkling of the basis of the natural law, the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and the respective roles of faith and reason.

The basic error in the article is so prevalent that the Canons of the First Vatican Council anathematized it, and Popes Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII explicitly condemned it.  We could add more, but our research only covers 1850-1950 for a project we’re currently working on.  However, we take it as a given that no pope will knowingly contradict what previous popes have already taught as infallible, despite what many people seem to believe.  Catholics, of course, believe that the pope cannot err in discerning matters of faith and morals, so — according to Catholic belief — no pope even has the power to contradict any of his predecessors.

St. Pius X listed this error first among the doctrines of the “modernists” in his 1906 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (§ 6).  The noted Aristotelian philosopher Mortimer J. Adler called it one of “ten philosophical mistakes” that were undermining modern civilization.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen called it “mental suicide,” his translation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s “intellectual self-annihilation.”  Before he was a Catholic, G.K. Chesterton called it “the suicide of thought” (Orthodoxy, 1908).  After his conversion, he called it “the assassination of Thomism” (Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”, 1933).

Under the label of “legal positivism” this error has undermined the very foundations of western civilization and has gone a long way toward transforming what Christianity, even religion itself, means in the minds of many.  So widespread is this error that if Catholics did not believe that the Gates of Hell could not ultimately prevail against their Church, they would probably have thrown in the towel years ago; the inmates have taken over the asylum in many local areas.  Even so, there are many Catholics who just don’t seem to “get” what the popes are saying on this issue.

So, why is the confusion between faith and reason such a disaster, and why has this confusion caused such disruption in religious society (the Church), civil society (the State) and, increasingly, even domestic society (the Family)?  We’ll leave you in anxiety over the weekend, and post the answer on Monday.

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