Untying the Knots and “Nots” of Natural Law Theory

One of the most frequent questions I get asked from Catholic advocates of LGBT equality is how to counter natural law arguments which condemn lesbian and gay relationships.  For many people, natural law, with its basis in philosophy, can be a daunting area of knowledge to engage or refute.  People tend to shrink from it more because it seems impenetrable than because they don’t want to acknowledge what its negative messages about LGBT issues.  And the way it has been applied by Church leaders it seems to be not just a jumble of knots, but of “nots,” as well.

U.S. Catholic ran an essay “The Church might be approaching natural law in the wrong way,” by Patrick McCormick, a professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, which not only does a good job of explaining natural law theory, but interprets it in a way that can be used to affirm lesbian and gay relationships. This essay appeared in the magazine in October 2014, at the time we were busy covering the news of the first synod, so it eluded our attention, then.  It recently appeared on our desktops, and, even though it was not published recently, we felt it was too good of a resource not to pass along to our readers.

McCormick recognizes that huge numbers of Catholics around the globe are largely ignoring church teaching based in law, particularly with those teachings that concern gender and sexuality.  He traces the problem to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae encyclical in 1968, which re-affirmed the church’s teaching banning artificial contraception.  Paul, in writing the encylical, relied on natural law theory to persuade people, but it did not succeed.  McCormick writes:

“Unlike doctrinal teachings that we accept on faith, moral teachings should be supported by clear and transparent arguments with evidence capable of persuading people of good will. You should not just order Catholics to believe that contraception is always wrong. You need to persuade them, using reason to show the rightness of church teaching. So the pope relied on so-called natural law arguments to defend the church’s ban on contraception.

“Overwhelmingly, however, Catholic theologians, pastors, and laity were not convinced by the natural law arguments in Humanae Vitae. In the nearly half-century that followed, a growing number of Catholics around the world have found church teachings on sexuality, gender, and reproductive technologies unpersuasive and unreasonable.”

But our social relationships often get overlooked when church leaders discuss natural law, who use it simply as a primer for biology.  As sexuality deals with a great deal more than biology, this application is inadequate.  McCormick calls for a new understanding of natural law:

“According to natural law, we must act in accord with our nature as humans when making moral judgments. And since humans are by nature rational, free, social, and equal creatures made in the image and likeness of God, this means that we must always use our reason to solve moral problems. It also means that we must always and everywhere preserve and protect the sanctity, liberty, and equality of all people, and treat them as ends in themselves and never as mere means. It furthermore means that we must recognize and honor the social ties that bind us to others and defend the social networks and communities that allow persons to flourish.

“Natural law obliges us to use reason when solving moral problems and to treat all other humans with respect and dignity. The duty to be reasonable obligates us to look long and hard for the truth, examining all the evidence, listening to all the experts, attending to everyone’s experience, and acknowledging our own mistakes and biases. This is extremely hard and humbling work, which must be done in conversation with others, and which is never finished. Meanwhile, the duty to respect others obliges us to practice justice, to defend a wide range of human rights and liberties, and to honor our obligations to persons and communities everywhere.”

Looking at sexuality through an interpretation of natural law that only examines biological data ignores the many other facets of human personhood we experience.  McCormick critiques the biologically-based interpretation:

“The problem with this kind of natural law reasoning, which tends to show up in church teachings on sexuality, is that it overlooks the big picture of our human nature. It confuses the nature of people with the function of their organs. When individuals or couples are trying to figure out what God is expecting of them in their bedroom or marriage, it is simply not enough to know how our organs are supposed to work. We have to pay attention to the bigger picture of our lives and families, and to the circumstances, contexts, and consequences of our actions, not just the function of our sexual faculties. “

One of the biggest problems associated with the way Church leaders have applied natural law is that it is often employed with the threat that no dissent or discussion can be allowed.  For McCormick, this is most un-natural:

“Our nature as humans obliges us to use our God-given reason to sort out moral problems in the area of sexuality, and to use this reason in ways that respect the dignity of all people and communities. We need to work together to understand the meanings and purposes of human sexuality and the answers to our moral questions in this area. As noted, natural law demands that we examine all the evidence. That means paying attention to everyone’s experiences, listening to differing and opposing opinions, self-critically examining our own biases, and entering into dialogue with others.”

And, in McCormick’s view, a true use of natural law would also include the humility to re-evaluate our own opinions:

“More than anything else, natural law obliges us to be reasonable. It calls us to treat others as reasonable persons by presenting them with clear and persuasive arguments. The same natural law morally binds us to use reason to critically examine our own arguments and to listen to the criticisms and objections of those who disagree with us. It requires us to revisit and rethink our positions in light of new and broader experience and evidence. Natural law compels us to recognize the dignity, equality, and freedom of others.”

If you would like to read McCormick’s essay in its entirety, which I would recommend, you can do so by clicking here.  You’ll be treated to an understandable explanation of natural law and be supplied with some useful ways to counter-argue natural law ideas when they are tossed your way.   And let’s not forget that though McCormick wrote in 2014, since then Pope Francis has expressed a similar view of natural law to the theologian’s ideas. In his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has encouraged pastors and leaders to avoid a narrow understanding of natural law, and to embrace a more holistic approach.  In paragraph 305, the pope wrote:

 . . . a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult case and wounded􀀃 familie”. Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that ‘natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions’. Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin –which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.􀀃 Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



12 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    These tangled knots are part of what Pope Benedict once described, when still the much younger theologian Fr Joseph Ratzinger, as the “distorted tradition” in Christian history, which needs to be carefully guarded against.

    Untying the knots, and correcting the distorted tradition on natural law theory, is of crucial importance for restoring lgbt people to their rightful place in the Church. It’s one of my own primary interests, in which I’m steadilyadding to my own store of knowledge. Many thanks for this helpful addition.

  2. Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf says:

    Excellent, albeit incomplete. Natural Law explanations miss biological realities. It is in great part a theological approach to something that is outside the realm of theology. Religion/theology and science lie in separate, different and discreet realms. (Sadly, I cannot remember the original author of this thought.)

  3. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Patrick McCormick’s analysis of Natural Law is the best of our Catholic moral decision making. I have always felt that contemporary Catholics have dropped any serious consideration of Natural Law because it appears to be a primitive form of science–medieval science, if you will, and fails to take in to consideration the holistic consideration that Patrick McCormick presents.

  4. Friends
    Friends says:

    Fascinating to see those comments attributed to a younger Ratzinger! To me, “natural law” implies the natural desire of all competent human beings to LOVE AND BE LOVED, and also to wish this same gift of “loving and being loved” to all others — especially (but not exclusively) those who share our own faith in the love and protection of God’s Presence. I’m still haunted and perplexed by the item published a few months ago, concerning some young twenty-something parish priest out in the far west, who was also a canon lawyer, and who was BARRING FROM COMMUNION anyone whose life situation did not conform to HIS OWN PERSONAL rigorously conservative interpretation of canon law. Our editors can probably find and relink this item for reference by our readers. What sort of pastoral practice is that? I could only call it “horrific pastoral malpractice”. And then we wonder why young teen-and-twenty-something Catholics are fleeing the Church in droves.

  5. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    Thanks for the McCormick article. Jean Porter, Notre Dame, is a natural law scholar who unties the knots elegantly too. Her 1999 book is Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics. Her 2010 book is Ministers of the Law: A Natural Law Theory of Legal Authority.

  6. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    Thanks for this post, Frank.

    When I had the privilege of preaching regularly at Dignity/DC liturgies, I tried to include these types of arguments in my homilies, when possible. I’ve even make similar arguments online (cf. https://imageandlikeness.org/2012/10/11/wheres-nature-in-natural-law/).

    For a long time I tried to come up with a way to describe my understanding of our Church’s “official” understanding of human sexuality vis-a-vis LGBT issues. Instead of saying that it’s “wrong,” I think a better way to describe it is to say it’s “incomplete.” Incorporating the real, lived experience of God’s LGBT children into the Church’s understanding of human sexuality is the only way to make official teaching “more complete” than it currently is.

  7. Gary Preuss
    Gary Preuss says:

    Homosexuality may be a natural way of dealing with overcrowding. I recall a study many years ago in which rats were placed in very crowded conditions. As their environment became increasingly crowded, the rats’ sexual inclinations became increasingly homosexual. As such, natural law may very well embrace homosexuality as functional. This may seem to cheapen human sexuality, but it is shortsighted to assume that natural law does not include homosexuality.


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  1. […] are wrong. Morris’ piece contributes to a growing body of research and writing that reclaims natural law theory as a tradition used to advance social justice and, as such, the rights of LGBT people and their […]

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