Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

1/30/2014 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (

St. Peter of Damascus (ca. 675-ca. 749) wrote regarding the moral law of God: "We have the duty of keeping the commandments--or, rather, being kept by them."  St. Peter realized that by keeping the natural moral law, we both keep a duty to God and keep ourselves.  By disobeying the natural moral, we not only disobey God, but we also lose ourselves.


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

1/30/2014 (1 year ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: natural law, moral law, autonomy, heteronomy, Kant, utilitarianism, moral absolutes, Enlightenment, abortion, Andrew M. Greenwell

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - One of the greatest of all modern misconceptions about the natural moral law--a law that is founded upon human nature, its sound inclinations, and right reason--is that it restricts or encumbers freedom.  In fact, this view prevails in modern life.  It is one of modernity's shibboleths. 

Indeed, it is hardly a stretch to say that one of modernity's distinguishing features is the common will that there must not be such a thing as the natural moral law.  There must not be such a thing, the modern story line goes, because such a concept necessarily restricts or enslaves man.  It limits his freedom.  Hence, man must be rid of it.

"Man is born free" of all law and custom, Rousseau declared in modernity's cri de coeur, "yet everywhere he is in chains!"  Modern man thus wanted moral emancipation, saw it as a good devoutly to be wished for, and over the centuries believes he has achieved it. 

Immanuel Kant wrote in his famous essay, "What is Enlightenment," that "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred not-being-of-age (Unmündigkeit)."  "Not-being-of-age (Unmündigkeit)," Kant goes on to explain, "is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another." 

This was Kant's essential message:  Grow up and get rid of restrictions and directions that are imposed upon you from the outside--whether that be traditions of the elders, the natural moral law, the teachings of the Church, or the revealed commandments of God.

This unyoking from the natural moral law and received moral teachings took place over a number of generations, but by the mid-20th century it was apparent to the moral theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we had arrived.  It was he who, drawing from Kant's Essay "What is Enlightenment," famously stated that man had finally "come of age," was fully mündig

By the mid-20th century, the emancipation from moral law was, from a practical perspective, complete, a fait accompli.

This is what the Enlightenment, at least from its vantage point, was all about: coming of age, Mündigkeit.  But for the Catholic--who saw things perched upon his city on a hill and believed himself the salt of the earth--this was not growing up.  It was to go from Fiat! to Non serviam!  It was Deviltalk. 

In the Enlightenment view, man had no need of any religious or even natural tutors, much less restrictions on his freedom of action.  These two sources of moral law--the modern argument went and still goes--are imposed from without and so are an imposition on man's freedom.

Modern man yearns for autonomy.  It is modern man's "god."  In reality, it is self-idolatry, a sort of self-worship, self-divinization.  You shall become as gods--goes the Devil's suasive song disguised in the fancy words of the Enlightenment philosophes--knowing good and evil. 

The faithful Catholic was not fooled.  He had heard it all before: in the third chapter of the book of Genesis, to be precise.  Popes fulminated against it, but no one but saints and the faithful heard.  The modern world laughed.  The Popes were called regressive.

Finally, this way of thinking so infiltrated into the church and captured the minds of many a moral theologian that a Pope-Blessed John Paul II-took the historically unprecedented step of writing an encyclical on the natural moral law: Veritatis splendor.  It is a must read for any educated Catholic.

The word "autonomy"--which is the central feature of modern ethics--is itself an artifice of the Enlightenment, at least as used in moral philosophy.  The word comes from the joinder of two Greek words, "autos" meaning self and "nomos," meaning law. 

Autonomy: we are our own legislators when we are autonomous.  We make our own values.  We answer to no one but ourselves.  This circuitous, self-regarding, moral reasoning does not bode well.  It contains within itself a massive conflict of interest.  Without an extraneous measure, there is no measure.  Man is then the measure of all things.

But man is inherently fickle and unstable, and a law based upon fickleness is not law.  When the moral law is what we want, then there is no real moral law at all, for the moral law is sometimes what we, who suffer from disordered desires, don't want.

Because modern man wants to be autonomous in this illegitimate way, any law which he does not impose upon himself is viewed with suspicion.  Such a law is seen as "external" or "other" to man, and so is believed to limit his freedom.  Such laws are labeled heteronomous.  This word was also coined in the Enlightenment and is the result of the joinder of the Greek word "hetero," meaning "other," and "nomos."  Someone else--an "Other"--is our legislator.  And this--in modern man's belief--is a very bad thing.  It is Unmündigkeit.

Of course, modern man at first rebelled only against religious law, emphasizing only the law of "pure reason."  A large part of the impetus was not evil, but was an effort to find some common moral ground after the theological devastation brought in by the Protestant revolt and the social devastation brought about by the "Wars of Religion."  But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.

Kant was and still is the most famous of the exponents of this new natural law which was not a natural law at all.  For it was a law based upon "pure reason."  That is to say, it was allegedly a "distilled" reason, free of any natural, social, traditional, or religious accretions or concepts.  Certainly, any authority outside man was anathematized. 

However, "pure reason" is not something that really exists.  It does not exist because man is not unbodified reason, but his reason is always bodified.  And reason ignores the body at its peril, just like the body ignores reason at its peril.  Reason is not meaningless, but neither is the body.  To get the full meaning of man, you better keep a tight hold on both reason and body while doing any kind of moral thinking.

Slowly, however, even a law based upon "pure reason" came to be seen as unduly restrictive.  Kant's duty-based ethics, which at least entertained moral absolutes, gave way to utilitarian ethics, an relativistic ethics which has no moral absolutes.  In fact, it is an ethics that is not really an ethics.  It is a assort of inhuman mathematics.  It is the nadir of ethical thinking if it be ethical thinking at all. 

Alas--except for miscreants such as faithful Catholics some of whom might even say Eheu!--we are all utilitarians now.  

Modernly, moral law is always a matter of cost and benefits, and sociologists and other social scientists, along with political pollsters, help with this specious (im)moral calculus.  St. Paul--who taught quite plainly that you may not do evil so that good can come out of it (Rom. 3:8)--is old school.  There are no real moral absolutes in the utilitarian world. 

As a moral theory, utilitarianism which rejects moral absolutes is a pathology.  It is evil.  That's why as a society we kill innocent babies.  Utilitarianism justifies killing babies.  But there really is no morality to speak of when you kill innocent babies.  Give up the charade, utilitarians.  You are morally dead when you think killing innocent babies is fine.  If you can justify killing babies, you can justify anything.

All this modern moral muddle we call modern ethics--the vaunting of autonomy, the phobia of heteronomy, the adoption of moral utilitarianism--is based upon a fundamental error.
That error supposes a false dichotomy between the natural moral law and freedom.  Law--including moral law--is seen by moderns as opposed to freedom.   An objective moral law and freedom are viewed as contraries.  And this is wrong.

In fact, moral law and freedom are the opposite sides of the same coin.  You cannot have freedom without following the natural moral law, just like you cannot have a natural moral law if you are not free.  It is our being and human nature--a gift of God--which implies freedom--a gift of God--which implies morality--a gift of God.  A tripartite gift from the triune God.

It is therefore a false dichotomy to sever the natural moral law and freedom and place them in opposition to each other.  It is not duty to God--or our nature of which He is the Creator--above our freedom; nor is it our freedom above duty to God or our nature. 

For this reason, keeping the natural moral law is always in our best interest, always yields the greatest freedom, because keeping the natural moral is always to our good. 

Keeping the natural moral law or the commandments of God (they are the same thing) keep us human.  Disobeying the natural moral law makes us less human, and therefore also less free.

As St. Peter of Damascus put it: "We have the duty of keeping the commandments--or, rather, being kept by them."  St. Peter of Damascus realized the keeping the natural moral law is both in keeping with our duty to God as well as to our own good. 

By keeping the natural moral law, we keep ourselves.  By disobeying the natural moral law, we lose ourselves.


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

3 Biblical ways to achieve small victories in our Walk with God Watch

Image of Walk with God.


Life struggles are inevitable but to look at them more than just a bump in the road is like putting rocks in your backpack before a hike. God doesn't want that - our journey to Him is meant to shape us in a way He planned for us. Little by little, we achieve victories ... continue reading

Families 'free us from the sea of loneliness and indifference,' Pope Francis says Watch

Image of After recently concluding a series of catechesis on the family as a lead-in to this year's synod gathering, Pope Francis explained that he would start a new catechesis on the

By Elise Harris, CNA/EWTN News

Family rescues us from indifference and loneliness and teaches us the essentials of life, Pope Francis said - adding that as the family of God, the Church has the same role and must evaluate how to live this out. Vatican City (CNA/EWTN News) - "Like Saint ... continue reading

Respecting life the Gospel way Watch

Image of

By Tony Magliano

For the sake of our salvation, we need to pay serious attention, and act with purpose, to what Jesus teaches here in Matthew's Gospel: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will ... continue reading

Young girl blessed by Pope Francis during visit to U.S. believes the 'miracle has begun' Watch

Image of Julia Bruzzese was blessed by Pope Francis.


12-year-old Julia Bruzzese, who has been experiencing symptoms of Lyme disease, suffered from sudden paralysis that doctors are still unable to explain. However, following a blessing from Pope Francis, the young girl seems to be healing. NEW YORK, NY (Catholic Online) ... continue reading

'God did not create us to live in sorrow or to be alone,' Pope Francis says of marriage Watch

Image of Pope Francis' comments were made during his Oct. 4 Mass marking the official opening of this year's Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.

By Elise Harris, CNA/EWTN News

Pope Francis formally opened the synod of bishops Sunday, telling participants that the union between a man and woman is the foundation of God's plan for the family, and a solution to the many forms of loneliness in today's world. Vatican City (CNA/EWTN News) - ... continue reading

FULL TEXT: Family synod prayer vigil, Pope Francis's full address Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Presiding over a prayer vigil in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis led the beginning of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, at the Vatican. Drawing tens of thousands of the faithful, many were present in the Square since the afternoon for a ... continue reading

Vatican issues statement in regards to monsignor's declaration of homosexuality Watch

Image of


The director of the Holy See press office has issued a statement in response to Vatican official Msgr. Krzysztof Charamsa's declaration in a recent interview that he is homosexual and has a boyfriend. Vatican City (CNA/EWTN News) - Msgr. Charamsa, 43, granted a ... continue reading

Guardian Angels are always by our sides, Pope Francis says Watch

Image of Pope Francis explained that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God could have left them to fend for themselves. Instead, as an act of love and mercy, the Lord sent with them an angel to guide and protect them.


Each of us has a Guardian Angel who, acting on behalf of God, advises us and protects us from evil, if we only listen to him, Pope Francis said during his homily at Mass on Friday. Vatican City (CNA/EWTN News) - "May we ask the Lord for the grace of this ... continue reading

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

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

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Malachi 3:13-20
13 'You have said harsh things about me, says Yahweh. ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6
1 How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 11:5-13
5 He also said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 8th, 2015 Image

St. Pelagia
October 8: Pelagia, more often called Margaret, on account of the ... Read More