In a recent letter to the editor of the Valley Breeze weekly newspaper, Lincoln, Rhode Island, physician Paula Carmichael shrewdly describes abortion as a religious issue. A month earlier, Governor Gina Raimondo even more craftily designated abortion as a matter of Catholic doctrine. Both of these women thus slyly remove unrestrictive abortion legislation from public discussion and make it an issue for believers only. Abortion, of course, is not primarily a religious issue and much less a Catholic issue. Abortion is an activity that offends clearly against the natural law — a law written in the hearts of mankind long before Moses accepted the Ten Commandments or Jesus Christ preached his Sermon on the Mount.
Stealing does not become wrong because the Ten Commandments condemn it; the Ten Commandments condemn stealing because stealing is patently wrong. Ancient civilizations in the Americas, or Africa or Asia, for example, which had no contact with the Hebrew Scriptures clearly condemned stealing in all its manifestations. Such condemnation is a matter of justice, not faith. In like manner, adultery is not wrong because Jesus condemns it; Jesus condemns adultery because it is blatantly wrong. Cultures that would not know the New Testament from Aesop’s fables know in their heart that one man and one woman in an unbreakable bond open to new life is the very essence of marital life. Religion does not manufacture right and wrong; religion recognizes right and wrong as it exists in nature and then wisely warns society of the dangers of violating the natural law and in the benefits of keeping the natural law.
Although the natural law does not itself readily lead a person to the nearest house of worship, it is true that the natural law itself indeed obliges humanity to pay heartfelt homage to God as creator. The Deism of many American founding fathers is evidence of this innate, natural recognition of a Supreme Being. So the natural law and religious duties often overlap. But they are distinct. The world’s religions certainly have rules and regulations that bind their faithful to certain practices and observances. No meat on the Fridays of Lent for Catholics, circumcising baby boys within the Jewish community and expecting Islamic women to wear head-dresses are indeed religious obligations. And clearly, non-Catholics and non-Jews and non-Islamics are not expected or obliged by nature to observe regulations that are exclusively religious.
The present generation, including our Holy Father Pope Francis, has become keenly aware of the ecological perils that occur when mankind neglects the natural law that orders our planet. Smog in cities, trash on beaches, global warming throughout the sphere, deforestation in the Amazon region, neglect of wetlands and wildlife habitats nearer home and a variety of other valid and pressing concerns rightly occupy the alert contemporary mind. Respect and concern for the natural order is a valid and commendable pursuit. Yet many of the same people who are concerned about the planet’s natural environment are woefully neglectful of the human family’s natural environment. Affronts to the true nature of family life grow apace in today’s society.
Abortion clearly is a sin against nature, exterminating budding life in the womb. Assisted suicide and all forms of euthanasia usurp the normal, even if difficult end of life process, again offending against nature. The choice of same-sex unions, single parenthood, cohabitation, divorce, surrogacy, artificial contraception and fertilization and gender novelties all strike at the heart of the family unit as found in nature. Pope Francis powerfully re-affirmed the natural core of family life when he spoke recently at the shrine of Our Lady of Loretto: “It is necessary to rediscover the plan drawn by God for the family, to reaffirm its greatness and irreplaceability in the service of life and society,” the pope observed. At that shrine that celebrates the family unit of Nazareth, His Holiness continued, “In the delicate situation of today’s world, the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman takes on an importance and an essential mission.”
Even though these thoughts come from the lips of the leader of one of the world’s great religions, these words are not only meant for believers. The Catholic pontiff is simply re-affirming the natural law regarding marriage and family that obliges all humanity. In this Sunday’s first reading St. Paul boldly states, “We must obey God rather than men.” He might have added with equal authority, “We must obey nature rather than society.” Secular fashions come and go, but the plan of God expressed in nature endures always.