Natural Law and Natural Inclinations

Why do natural inclinations of human nature give rise to an obligation of natural law?

Is it the mere fact that humans are inclined to this or that good? If so, must one concede the argument in favor of homosexual relationships, that some persons are just naturally inclined to such relationships (granting the premise that it is a natural inclination or at least a natural predisposition triggered by some experiences of one kind or another)?

Or is a natural inclination merely an objective fact, which receives moral value extrinsically, from the purpose imposed on it by human reason. Is a natural law connected with human inclinations only because human reason judges that the good involved in these inclinations (e.g., the good of reproduction, the continuation of the human species in time) is a kind of ultimate good that one cannot reject without in some sense rejecting goodness itself, and offending one's own humanity? In that case, isn't the notion of natural inclination irrelevant? Wouldn't it be just as good, for example, to preserve our lives, and just as bad to commit suicide, even if we didn't have a natural inclination to self-preservation? It is the judgment of reason and the seeking of what is good that is important, not the physical/biological facts.

The International Theological Commission, in its recent document on Universal Ethics and Natural Law holds a mean between these two positions:

79. The rehabilitation of nature and of corporeality in ethics cannot be equated with any kind of "physicalism." Some modern presentations of natural law have seriously denied the necessary integration of natural inclinations in the unity of the person. Neglecting to consider the unity of the human person, they absolutize the natural inclinations of the different "parts" of human nature, approaching them without hierarchizing them, and failing to integrate them in the unity of the entire plan of the subject. [This criticism would (also) apply to the "new natural law" approach taken by Germain Grisez, who enumerates many inclinations (e.g., the inclination to live, to avoid pain, to play, to enjoy aesthetic experiences, to know theoretical truths) which he sees as irreducible, and thus as absolutes–although he sees them as immediate givens of experience, rather than as deduced from the observation of one's inclinations.] Now, John Paul II explains, "natural inclinations do not acquire a moral quality, except insofar as they are connected to the human person and to his authentic realization" (Veritatis splendor, n. 50). Today therefore there is need to hold fast to two truths. On the one hand, the human subject is not a union or juxtaposition of diverse and autonomous natural inclinations, but a substantial and personal whole called to respond to the love of God and to unite himself through a recognized orientation towards a last end, which hierarchizes the partial goods manifested by diverse natural tendencies. Such a unification of natural tendencies in service of the higher ends of the spirit, i.e., such a humanization of the dynamisms inscribed in human nature, does not at all constitute a violence done to it. On the contrary, it is the realization of a promise already inscribed in them.74 For example, the high spiritual value that is manifested in the gift of self in the reciprocal love of spouses is already inscribed in the very nature of the sexual body, which finds in this spiritual realization its ultimate reason for being. [Holding to this one point, we must reject the extreme of "physicalism," which would take the natural inclinations as absolutes that are not subordinate to any higher principle.] On the other hand, in this organic whole, each part preserves a proper and irreducible meaning, ["irreducible" probably means here that the role and value of each part of human nature is not reduced simply to its utilitarian aspect (what does it produce for me?), but that each part of human nature participates in its own way in the human good.] of which reason should take account in the elaboration of the entire plan of the human person. The doctrine of the natural moral law should therefore affirm the central role of reason in the actualization of a properly human plan of life, and at the same time the consistency and the proper meaning of natural pre-rational dynamisms.75 [Holding to this point, we must reject the other extreme, which would take the natural inclinations as mere "matter" for human action, devoid of any intrinsic human teleology. This is explained in further detail in the footnote.]

Notes
[74] The duty to humanize the nature in man is inseparable from the duty to humanize external nature. This justifies the immense effort made by men to emancipate themselves from the coercions of physical nature in the measure in which they hinder properly human values. The struggle against illness, the prevention of hostile natural phenomena, the improvement of the conditions of life are of themselves works that attest to the greatness of man called to fill the earth and to subdue it (cf. Gen 1:28). Cf. Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 57.

[75] Reacting to the danger of physicalism and rightly insisting on the decisive role of reason in the elaboration of the natural law, some contemporary theories of natural law [e.g., those of Josef Fuchs, Charles Curran, or Richard McCormick] neglect, or rather reject, the moral significance of the natural pre-rational dynamisms. [According to these theories] the natural law would be called "natural" only in reference to reason, which would define the whole nature of man. To obey the natural law would be therefore reduced to acting in a rational manner, i.e., to applying to the totality of behaviors a univocal ideal of rationality generated by practical reason alone. This means wrongly identifying the rationality of the natural law with the rationality of reason alone, without taking account of the rationality inherent in nature. [An example in the text of such inherent rationality is the "gift of self" that is "already inscribed in the very nature of the sexual body."]

[Paraphrase/exposition of the note: Reacting to the one extreme, some theories see the "lawfulness" of the natural l-aw as entirely constituted by human reason, rather than as recognized and ordered by human reason, yet originally constituted by God's "reason". Practical reason does not perceive any moral value and signification in natural inclinations, but only "practical" value. While recognizing the truth that law is a work of reason, this position overlooks the fact that the natural law in us is a participation in the eternal law, which is a work of God's reason. This participation is found both in that which is essentially rational–the reason–and in that which reason by participation–the inclinations, which participate in God's plan as being directed by it.]

In accordance with the one truth, that reason exercises a discernment in regard to natural inclinations, we must recognize the possibility that reason discerns in a particular case that a natural inclination does not represent such "inherent rationality," but is rather contrary to reason. The affirmation that the inclination of nature is a participation in and expression of God's plan does not mean that every particular inclination of every particular nature is such. According to Thomas Aquinas, some individuals have a natural inclination to particular sins, on account of a corruption of nature, (ST I-II, 78:3) and he also, following Aristotle, states that something contrary to the human species may become per accidens natural to an individual, (ST I-II, 31:7) on account of a corruption of some natural principle–as evidenced in a connatural desire to eat dirt or coal or other human beings, or to have bestial or homosexual intercourse. Indeed, one might argue that there are very frequently present in men some natural inclinations that exceed the bounds of reason, as an inclination for a man to kill an adulterous wife, or (inordinate in a context where food is always plentiful) to eat a great deal whenever plenty of good food is available.

In accordance with the other truth, the goods and potential evils involved in the use of various human faculties is sufficiently determined by human nature itself, and sufficiently luminous to be not only a locus, but also a source of moral insight. Although the actual moral value of any particular action depends on our reason and will (what we do involuntarily or without appreciation of what we're doing may be good or bad, but not morally good or bad in the full sense of the term), "What we're doing" when we make use of those human faculties isn't so much imposed by us, as recognized by us.

The rehabilitation of nature and of corporeality in ethics cannot, however, be equated with any kind of "physicalism." In fact some modern presentations of natural law have seriously denied the necessary integration of natural inclinations in the unity of the person. Neglecting to consider the unity of the human person, they absolutize the natural inclinations of the different "parts" of human nature, approaching them without hierarchizing them and omitting to integrate them in the unity of the entire plan of the subject. Now, John Paul II explains, "natural inclinations do not acquire a moral quality, except insofar as they are connected to the human person and to his authentic realization" (Veritatis splendor, n. 50). Today therefore there is need to hold fast to two truths. On the one hand, the human subject is not a union or juxtaposition of diverse and autonomous natural inclinations, but a substantial and personal whole called to respond to the love of God and to unite himself through a recognized orientation towards a last end, which hierarchizes the partial goods manifested by diverse natural tendencies. Such a unification of natural tendencies in service of the higher ends of the spirit, i.e., such a humanization of the dynamisms inscribed in human nature, does not at all constitute a violence done to it. On the contrary, it is the realization of a promise already inscribed in them.74 For example, the high spiritual value that is manifested in the gift of self in the reciprocal love of spouses is already inscribed in the very nature of the sexual body, which finds in this spiritual realization its ultimate reason for being. On the other hand, in this organic whole, each part preserves a proper and irreducible meaning, of which reason should take account in the elaboration of the entire plan of the human person. The doctrine of the natural moral law should therefore affirm the central role of reason in the actualization of a properly human plan of life, and at the same time the consistency and the proper meaning of natural pre-rational dynamisms.75

4 thoughts on “Natural Law and Natural Inclinations”

  1. With all respect and acknowledging the well written material above I think there is a great danger of missing the essential. Arguments on natural law and defining sexual behaviour etc is and must always be secondary to a christian. The fact of the Incarnation is what has replaced moralism, not morality mind you. A man can be conscious of the wrongness of homosexual acts but still do them as with masturbation or any other act that falls short of our being in the image of God. But only the surpassing attraction of Christ and knowledge of his love is what makes a christian. I am not saying that you are not aware of this but it is important to affirm and re-affirm that moralism is not our game and that the encounter with Jesus is. I know men of a homosexual nature who are holy not through an ascetic path but through an affective relationship with Christ.

  2. Joseph,
    How do you deal with the unreliable nature of the ordinary magisterium in really knowing what is against the natural law?

    I have no problem with the extraordinary magisterium which is perfectly guided in morals by the Holy Spirit but…but…that extraordinary magisterium rarely speaks on morals but did so three times in "Evangelium Vitae" against abortion, euthanasia and killing the innocent in wording that was a shortened form of the IC formula (EV sect.62): " Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation….I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium".

    In contrast to that is the ordinary magisterium and section 80 of "Splendor of the Truth"
    where the same Pope uses no such formal formula and proceeds to repeat a list within Vatican II but he adds that the actions listed are intrinsically evil. And several of them cannot be since God in the Bible using the first person gives the right to chattel slavery to the Jews in Leviticus 25:44-46. I hate slavery but my hate has to hesitate once the Scripture is clear on an issue. It may be that slavery in the context of primitive economies is due as an act while not being due now…very much like the exception Scripture makes for drunkeness which it usually condemns but not in Proverbs 31:6 "Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to the sorely depressed; 7 When they drink, they will forget their misery, and think no more of their burdens."

    Here is the passage from Leviticus on slavery which may be due in primitive economies:

    " 44
    "Slaves, male and female, you may indeed possess, provided you buy them from among the neighboring nations.
    45
    You may also buy them from among the aliens who reside with you and from their children who are born and reared in your land. Such slaves you may own as chattels,
    46
    and leave to your sons as their hereditary property, making them perpetual slaves. But you shall not lord it harshly over any of the Israelites, your kinsmen."

    There are similar passages that go against torture being intrinsically evil as John Paul alleges it is as when Christ whips the money changers out of the temple…thus using pain to change wills.
    As Brian Harrison has pointed out, there was papal cooperation with torture from 1253 til 1816 when Pius VII outlawed it in all Catholic territories…but that would mean that the ordinary magisterium and a very large number of Popes did not see the natural law the way we are now saying it goes as to torture.

    1. I'm not inclined to use the term "unreliable" to describe the ordinary magisterium, as the term tends to imply that something tends to err a lot.

      "Dealing" with the fallibility of the magisterium also might suggest a problem with it. It's a simple fact that when the magisterium is not speaking infallibly it can err. Of course. That fact is to be recognized.

      The particular list given in n. 80, which is taken from Gaudium et Spes, is not well made as a list of intrinsically evil acts–among other things, the list includes many things that aren't acts at all, whether good or evil.

      Whether treating someone as a slave or possessing (attempting to possess) someone as a slave is intrinsically evil may depend upon what you mean by slavery. If it implies treating a person as though he or she were merely property, not a personal subject oriented ultimately to human happiness, then it is wrong, being inappropriate to one's own human nature and to the nature of the other person. But in some contexts, especially where limits to the power of one person over another are clearly recognized on account of human dignity, something called slavery might not be intrinsically wrong.

      The same thing is true about torture. In any case, Veritatis Splendor, and pretty much everyone else, would mean something more by torture than just any use of pain to change someone's will.

  3. Word…as the rap world says….and honest…you are the first clerical on the net whom I've seen say such even though it is standard Ludwig Ott/ending paragraph of section 8 of the Intro to the Fundamentals of the Catholic Faith.

    E.g….."Deportation"…lol…try acting up or streaking in St. Peter's square and see how long you are within Vatican City's city's borders.

    Thanks for the honest answer which is rare on the Catholic blogs in this particular area. Infallibility is constantly implied in all moral matters. One would think that would increase obedience and yet the polls show that the very opposite of obedience is the result of such furtive overstating.
    Although intra clergy, something similar led an entire episcopate to non critically follow the last Pope as he led them against the death penalty per se (1999 St. Louis speech…death penalty is "cruel") while tossing tradition from Augustine til Pius XII right out the window along with Romans 13:4.

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