Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

5/2/2012 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

In the order of being, there can be no natural moral law without the existence of God.

In the order of being, there can be no natural moral law without the existence of God.  In the order of being, implicit in the belief of a natural moral law is the existence of God.  A moral law makes no sense without a Divine Legislator.

Highlights

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

5/2/2012 (3 years ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Natural law, moral law, social teaching, social justice, Atheism, Thomas Aquinas, knowing, being, philosophy, Andrew Greenmell, Esq.


CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In a comment to a recent article I wrote, the notion that God is necessary for a natural moral law to exist was challenged by reader who identified himself as an atheist.  God was unnecessary for morality to exist, he argued.  "I am an atheist," he observed.  "I do good for goodness' sake," as if Christians don't.

There is no reason not to take him at his word.  If we take him at his word, our atheist reader believes in the first self-evident principle of the natural moral law: do good and avoid evil, which is the same thing as "do good for goodness' sake."  This is in keeping with St. Thomas Aquinas who says that the first self-evident principle of the natural law is to do and seek the good, and avoid evil.  Bonum est faciendum et prosequendum, et malum vitandum.  (S.T. IaIIae, q. 94, art. 2)

My atheist reader recognizes moreover that there is such a thing as a particular "good," the good which we ought to do at any particular instance x1 (and x2, x3, etc.), and that there is such a thing as a general good ("goodness") for which we ought to do the particular good at time x1, x2, x3, etc.  This suggest a rule, a law that is to be followed at all times and in all places.

There is, in short, within his knowledge, a moral law which tells him to do good for goodness' sake.  This informs him that he is not to do bad for goodness' sake, and informs him that he is not to do good for badness' sake.  His law governs both act and intent.  And this is quite in keeping with the natural moral law.  There is an old maxim: bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu.  To be good, an act must be good and be done with good intent.  Any defect in the act or in the motive makes the act bad.

Now, my atheist reader acknowledges the natural moral law at its most basic, and he knows it though he does not acknowledge any divine Legislator. 

This is, of course, possible.  As any good Thomist will tell you, the basic principle of the natural moral law-at its most basic: to do good and avoid evil, or, as my reader put it "do good for goodness' sake"-is self-evident.  On the other hand, the existence of God is not self-evident to us; rather, it is knowledge learned a posteriori, and can be demonstrated from the existence of things. 

We can know one without knowing the other because they are known in different ways.  The natural law is known because it is writ in our heart.  God is known from the things that are made.  (Compare Rom. 1:20 with Rom. 2:15).  We can acknowledge one without acknowledging the other.

However, here we must distinguish between the order of knowledge and the order of being, between what we know, and what is regardless of what we know

In the order of knowledge, it is possible for us to know the self-evident principles of the natural moral law, but not acknowledge the existence of God.  Unlike the first principles of the moral law which are self-evident, the existence of God is not self-evident to us.

But what is true in the order of knowledge, is not true in the order of being.  In the order of being, there can be no natural moral law without the existence of God.  In the order of being, implicit in the belief of a natural moral law is the existence of God.  A moral law makes no sense without a Divine Legislator.

So if my atheist reader is sincere that he believes in a natural moral law which tells him that he ought to "do good for goodness' sake," then he already implicitly recognizes, in the order of being if not yet in the order of knowledge, that there must be a God.

Why is this? 

It is because the existence of a moral law implies a Lawgiver, a Mind behind the law.  There is either Mind behind this law or there is not, and if not, then the moral law is built on arbitrariness, which means it is not law at all.

As the poet Eugene Warren put it in his poem "Christographia XIV":

Is it chance
or dance moves
the world?
Is the world
blind and dumb
or bloom, festal?
A vain jest,
or holy feast?


What is true of the world is true of the moral realm, and so we might adapt Warren's poem to our purposes:

Is it chance
or dance moves
the moral law?
Is the moral law
blind and dumb
or bloom, festal?
A vain jest,
or holy feast?

The natural law my atheist reader acknowledges-"do good for goodness' sake"-is the result either of chance, or the result of dance.  It is the result of blind and dumb forces or the result of the "bloom, festal" of design.  It is a "vain jest" or a "holy feast."  And whether it is on one side or the other depends upon the existence of a Mind, what the Plato and Greek recognized as Nous, which is to say God.

To see why this is so in the order of being, we might refer to an illustration courtesy of Francis Beckwith.  In his book Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, Beckwith explains why "if moral norms have no mind behind them, then there is no justification to obey them."  There can be no moral law without Mind, without Nous, without God.

Imagine that while playing Scrabble, the letters randomly spell out "Go to Baltimore."  Is this random event sufficient to compel me to go to Baltimore?  The answer is obviously no.  This seeming "command" is not a command at all.  It is the product of chance, not of dance.  For there to be a command, a law, there must be mind on both sides of the law: the mind of the Legislator and the mind of the subject of the law.  A command, a law-even if it is the fundamental law "do good for goodness' sake"-if built upon something other than Mind, i.e., God, it is no command at all, no law at all.

Law, St. Thomas Aquinas says, is an ordinance of reason, a command of reason from the mind of the legislator to the mind of the subject.  If the first principle of natural law-"do good for goodness' sake"-is to be law at all, there must be mind on both sides of it.  There must be Mind, and there must be the mind of my atheist reader.

In the order of knowledge my atheist reader denies the existence of Mind, of God.  In the order of being it cannot be denied.  I would suggest to him that this law he finds in his heart-"do good for goodness' sake"-is the hound of heaven, and it beckons him to the Mind beyond it.  With the voice of law, this self-evident principle "do good for goodness' sake" tells him, in the words of Francis Thompson's poem "Laus Legis."

By me what sprung, by me shall die:
Back to God's stretched hand I fly
To perch there for eternity.

The natural law--"do good for goodness' sake"--perches in eternity.  It is a participation in the Eternal Law, and the Eternal Law is, nothing other than God.  For, as the Mirror of the Saxons put it, Gott is selber recht, God himself is Law.  In the order of being, there can be no moral law without God.

The existence of God adds an entirely new dimension to the moral law "do good for goodness' sake."  For the "good" includes the worship of God, and if God is "goodness" itself, the law my atheist reader acknowledges exists compels him, if he but look to the order of being, to worship God for God's sake.

And one more thing.  If "do good for goodness' sake" is a law, what is an atheist to do in the event of its breach?  How is the evil to be dealt with?  How is conscience to be assuaged?  To whom shall sacrifice be made?  The need for forgiveness, for conscience to be assuaged, for wrong to be righted is itself is another call to the Mind behind the law breached, and this a call for forgiveness.

As J. Budziszewski put it in his excellent book on the natural law, What We Can't Not Know:

"It may seem that the possibility of forgiveness matters only on the assumption that there is, in fact, a God--that without the lawgiver, there would be no law, and therefore nothing to be forgiven. The actual state of affairs is more dreadful, for the Furies of conscience do not wait upon our assumptions. One who acknowledges the Furies but denies the God who appointed them--who supposes that there can be a law without a lawgiver--must suppose that forgiveness is both necessary and impossible. That which is not personal cannot forgive; morality 'by itself' has a heart of rock. And so although grace would be unthinkable [via Reason], the ache for it would keen on, like a cry in a deserted street."

But the cry is not a cry on a deserted street.  Our cry is returned by another cry.  This one from the Cross.  "Father, forgive them!"  (Luke 23:34)
-----

Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

---


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'


Copywriter 2015 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for May 2015
Universal:
That, rejecting the culture of indifference, we may care for our neighbours who suffer, especially the sick and the poor.
Evangelization: That Mary's intercession may help Christians in secularized cultures be ready to proclaim Jesus.


Rosaries, Crosses, Prayer Cards and more... by Catholic Shopping .com


Comments


More Living Faith

The Church Needs to Be Baptized Afresh in the Holy Spirit Watch

Image of Do I still believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are available for ordinary Christians? You bet I do! I believe that Pentecost still happens. I KNOW it still happens. We can ALL know it still happens because we can experience its effects in our own lives. We should not be afraid of the Holy Spirit! In fact, we should regularly seek to be filled with more and more of the Spirit.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

We need to pray for a New Pentecost for the Church in this hour! We need more of the Holy Spirit for the New Evangelization of the Church - so that a renewed Church can engage in the missionary task of the Third Christian Millennium. We need to be baptized afresh ... continue reading


Brotherhood of the Belt: Struggle, Trouble and Failure in the Christian Life Watch

Image of The Martyrdom of Peter

By Deacon Keith Fournier

Peter's wrong choices were not the end of the story of Gods plan for his life. Peter's denial crippled Peter emotionally and spiritually. He lost his way. That was until he encountered the Risen Christ. There, in that encounter, he allowed the belt of ... continue reading


The Purpose of Pentecost is the Birth and Ongoing Mission of the Church

Image of The purpose of Pentecost is the birth - and continued rebirth - of the Church.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

The Church was empowered by the Holy Spirit to live differently in the midst of a world awaiting the fullness of redemption, to live as a new people to lead the world back to the Father, in and through the Son. Through their experience of the Holy Spirit the early ... continue reading


Top 5 Roman Catholic colleges in the United States Watch

Image of

By Atarah Haely (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

What constitutes being the best university is oftentimes subjective and usually in adherence to one's beliefs and practices. Choosing a college is one of the biggest decisions many people are making. Some opt for those that offer the best training in the fields of ... continue reading


Don't take your children 'hostage,' Pope tells separated couples Watch

Image of Christian communities, Pope Francis says

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

In discussing the role of parents educating their children, Pope Francis in his General Audience, advised separated couples to "never, never, never take the children hostage!" LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Pope spoke on the role of parents in the ... continue reading


A Baltimorean's reflections on the Baltimore riots

Image of

By Tony Magliano

"The God of peace is never glorified by human violence," wrote the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Whether it's on an individual, city, national, or international level, violence always dishonors God, and makes bad situations worse. The recent Baltimore City riots ... continue reading


8 encouraging Bible verses to lift you up Watch

Image of

By Abigail James (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Sometimes getting up in the morning can be the hardest thing you'll do all day. When life's worries press down on you and take your soul hostage, the most important thing you can do for yourself is turn to God. He will always be there for you, through the good times ... continue reading


Pope Francis tells bishops to act more like pastors - and not 'pilots' Watch

Image of The meeting between bishops will last until May 21. At that time, bishops will discuss how their faithful have received Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and look at ways to implement its teaching.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Addressing bishops in Italy, Pope Francis told them to act more like pastors than "pilots" telling the faithful what to do. The pontiff said that bishops need "Ecclesial sensitivity." They should remain bold in denouncing cultural trends that offend human ... continue reading


Five-year-old boy brings people to tears with heartfelt act of kindness Watch

Image of

By Talia Ramos (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

During his meal at a Waffle House restaurant, 5-year-old Josiah Duncan's attention wandered to the man outside the establishment. The man, dirty and holding a plastic bag, became the center of the young boy's curiosity and concern. After learning from her mother that ... continue reading


Amazing 'Bulletproof' cross under construction in middle of Christian-hostile Pakistan Watch

Image of

By Hannah Raissa Marfil (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Everything changed for a Pakistani businessman, trying to build one of the world's tallest and first "bulletproof" cross, after God appeared in his dreams. MUNTINLUPA, PHILIPPINES (Catholic Online) - Parvez Henry Gill, a real estate businessman, claimed  God gave ... continue reading


All Living Faith News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Sirach 17:19-27
19 Their actions are all as plain as the sun to him, ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 32:1-2, 5, 6, 7
1 [Of David Poem] How blessed are those whose offence ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 10:17-27
17 He was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for May 25th, 2015 Image

St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi
May 25: It would be easy to concentrate on the mystical experiences God ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter