Natural Law: An innate sense of right and wrong

Father John A. Kiley

Just about every culture on the face of the earth accepts some sort of Divinity. Christians happily acknowledge the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the one true God, creator, redeemer and sanctifier. The Jewish community joins the Christian community in embracing the one, eternal God, revealed initially to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Islamic world recognizes this common Semitic heritage when it worships Allah as the supreme and perfect being.

The Far Eastern religions that comprise the Hindu, Buddhist, and Shinto traditions, among others, suggest more ethereal and multiple images of divinity or at least of the spiritual. Native Americans, South Sea islanders, and African tribes tend toward an animistic or God-in-nature appreciation of the Divine. Atheism, or as it now fashionably labelled — humanism — is only very lately on the cultural scene and constitutes only 1.8 percent of the world’s population. This near universal acceptance of some sort of deity is also paralleled by the seemingly global phenomenon of a set day or set season of worship.

Not only in the religious sphere but in everyday life, mankind has a fairly universal appreciation of human nature. Family life of husband, wife and children is sometimes found among an extended family, but humans generally respect traditional paternal, maternal and filial roles. Marital fidelity is another inbred human instinct that mankind pretty generally respects at least in theory, if not always in practice.

Again, the average person worldwide knows that anger, violence, murder and rape are wrong. The average person anywhere knows also that stealing, cheating, deception and dishonesty are less than honorable traits.

Together, these statistical and anecdotal citations serve to illustrate the existence and importance of what Christian philosophers and theologians have long called the Natural Law. Mankind has an innate sense of right and wrong. Morality and decency are natural; it is immorality and indecency that are unnatural. Admittedly, dull minds and weakened wills often prevent the individual person from knowing what is best for him or herself and for society. Mankind does not always fulfill the sacred and secular obligations that come with being human. People do sin. Drugs are repeatedly smuggled across borders to be sold for easy cash. Human trafficking is only slowly being recognized as an international evil. Online pornography has bounded into America’s offices and homes. Sin does abound. But abuse does not negate use, and exceptions only prove the rule. Human nature is weak but not wicked.

Over the centuries, cultures have devised significant rules and regulations to guide human persons toward their greatest potential. The Ten Commandments, accepted by the ancient Mosaic community under Divine inspiration and thoughtfully cited by Jesus Christ on more than one occasion, are a prime and perennial example of the Natural Law codified into a handy and practical basis for daily life. Obligations toward God, his name and his worship are followed by duties toward lawful authority, bodily safety, spousal commitment, private property and public reputation. These responsibilities are and have been the very basis of every enduring society.

They truly express a Natural Law to which the vast majority of mankind sometimes graciously and sometimes onerously submits. The Christian world in particular must understand that these natural principles are ignored at society’s peril. Jesus wisely warns in this Sunday’s Gospel, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

In this Sunday’s first reading, the Old Testament preacher advises his listeners, “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Jesus takes the life-giving or death-dealing choices open to mankind and proposes them in greater detail in his Sermon on the Mount. Believers must choose maturely to follow the Natural Law as written in their hearts and clarified through Christian tradition.

Believers must not mindlessly ignore the Natural Law and yield to “the wisdom of this age,” the immediate gratification and superficial satisfaction cited by St. Paul in the second reading. Rather, all must mark well the words of Christ, “Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”