Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

5/2/2012 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

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.


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

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


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

Copywriter 2015 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for October 2015
That human trafficking, the modern form of slavery, may be eradicated.
Evangelization: That with a missionary spirit the Christian communities of Asia may announce the Gospel to those who are still awaiting it.


More Living Faith

Top 5 Bible verses to turn to when you're angry Watch

Image of What does the Bible have to say about anger?

By Kenya Sinclair (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

What makes you angry? Maybe you don't like the way your boss talks to you at work or your spouse spends too much money. What do you do when you feel anger coming on? Who do you turn to? LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - When we get angry we can say or do things we ... continue reading

Megachurch Pastor's new book tells people to 'get over themselves' Watch

Image of Pastor Kyle Idleman (YouTube).


Megachurch Pastor Kyle Idleman claims that to live life, "everyone simply needs to get over themselves" to truly "experience abundant life with Jesus," a theory he promotes in his new book The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. LOS ... continue reading

Parents of St. Therese of Lisieux to be canonized by Pope Francis Watch

Image of The canonizations of the married couple will coincide with the Synod on the Family, to be held on Oct. 4-25.


Pope Francis approved, earlier this year, the decrees necessary for Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin - known for being the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux - to be declared saints. VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) - The two blesseds will be the first couple ever to ... continue reading

Phoenix bishop encourages Catholic men to 'step into the breach' Watch

Image of Calling on all Christian men to take a stand in the Church's spiritual battle, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix asked men in his diocese to courageously pursue their vocations as friends, fathers, and spouses.


Calling on all Christian men to take a stand in the Church's spiritual battle, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix asked men in his diocese to courageously pursue their vocations as friends, fathers, and spouses. Phoenix, Ariz. (CNA/EWTN News) - "Men, do not ... continue reading

Interview with Archbishop Chaput puts U.S. papal visit in perspective Watch

Image of Archbishop Chaput offered his take on the historic papal trip, the challenges facing family in the U.S., and the upcoming Synod of Bishops in Rome.

By Michelle Bauman, CNA/EWTN News

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia hosted Pope Francis in his highly anticipated first visit to the United States. As the dust settled after the departure of nearly one million participants in the final Mass for the World Meeting of Families, CNA had the ... continue reading

Pope Francis speaks truth to power Watch

Image of

By Tony Magliano

From celebrating Masses at Havana's Revolution Square in Cuba, Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, to addressing the U.S. Congress and the United Nations - and with lots packed in between - the 78-year-old Pope Francis tirelessly proclaimed the Gospel ... continue reading

Pope Francis tells young people Jesus 'has so many things to say to each of you' Watch

Image of His Message for the 31st World Youth Day in Krakow 2016 invited young people to reflect on mercy and to visit the Divine Mercy Shrine in Krakow.


With World Youth Day coming up next year, Pope Francis has a question for young people: "Do you realize how precious you are to God, who has given you everything out of love?" Vatican City (CNA/EWTN News) - "You, dear young man, dear young woman, have you ever ... continue reading

Pope Francis understands why many victims are unable to forgive clerical sexual abuse Watch

Image of

By Ann Schneible, CNA/EWTN News

In his wide-ranging press briefing en route from the United States to Rome, Pope Francis spoke on the difficult subject of forgiving priests who have molested minors, saying that the strength to forgive, and to be forgiven, can only come from God. Vatican City ... continue reading

5 ways to live in love according to the Bible Watch

Image of Living with God's love (nrgtribe).


Love is a big word people use all too often. However, real love is tough and we may be living without the love we  profess to have and share with one another. Luckily, we have the Scripture to remind us what true love looks like. HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA (Catholic ... continue reading

Narrowing God's love 'is a perversion of the faith,' Pope Francis warns Watch

Image of


At the final Mass closing out the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Pope Francis warned against narrowing God's love and works to only a certain group of people. Philadelphia, Pa. (CNA/EWTN News) - "To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, ... continue reading

All Living Faith News


Newsletter Sign Up icon

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

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 4th, 2015 Image

St. Francis of Assisi
October 4: Founder of the Franciscan Order, born at Assisi in Umbria, in ... Read More