Democracy and natural law

By  Donald Demarco, Catholic Register Special
  • January 4, 2008

{mosimage}Pope Benedict XVI told members of the International Theological Commission, in an October address, that the natural law must be the foundation of democracy, so that those in power are not given the chance to determine what is good or evil.

We human beings, of course, cannot “determine” what is good or evil in the strict sense of the term. Our lot is one of “discovery” rather than determination.

There is an old song from the Walt Disney movie, Lady and the Tramp, in which two animated cats pay respect to the rigourous continuity of the natural order of things: “We are Siamese if you please. We are Siamese if you don’t please.” Being a Siamese cat is a reality that is established independently of external opinion. Disney’s oriental felines are not relativists in any sense. They know who they are and really do not care what other people might think or say. They illustrate the adage that the order of naming should always conform to the order of being.

There are certain goods that are essential to democracy as being Siamese is to a Siamese cat. They include, as Pope Benedict enumerates, “human dignity, human life, the institution of the family and the equity of the social order.” These essentials, he says, have been clouded over so that “skepticism and ethical relativism” threaten to undermine the foundations of democracy and a just social order. The mistaken belief prevails that relativism offers “tolerance.”

The truth of the matter, however, is that relativism leaves people vulnerable to those in power who determine that something is whatever they want it to be. Thus, the human unborn are referred to as merely “tissue” while elderly people who are incapacitated are said to be in a “vegetative state.”

In appealing to the natural law, the Holy Father is affirming a rich philosophical tradition. In stating that the natural law is “the norm written by the Creator in man’s heart,” he is not being theologically narrow, but philosophically broad. It is a tradition that embraces the thought of Cicero, the Stoics, the great moralists of antiquity, as well as the great dramatists. Antigone, the eponymous heroine of Sophocles’ play, appeals to her king to honour “the unchangeable unwritten code of Heaven.” Antigone remains, according to Jacques Maritain, “the eternal heroine of the natural law.”

The natural law can be ignored, disregarded, contradicted or misunderstood; but it cannot be either changed or broken. It is rooted in who we are as human beings, taking into consideration our natural inclinations to act in accordance with what contributes to our fulfilment and happiness. Perhaps Maritain has expressed it most accurately and concisely when he speaks of “an order or a disposition which human reason can discern and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the necessary ends of the human being. The unwritten law, or natural law, is nothing more than that.”

St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out in the First Book of his Summa Theologica that there are two senses in which a thing is said to be natural. The first is a matter of necessity, such as the upward movement of fire. The second is an inclination that, in order to fulfil its end, requires reason’s discovery and the will’s affirmation. The Angelic Doctor then states that matrimony and political life exemplify the natural law in this sense. Consequently, there is an important difference between the “laws of nature” that operate out of necessity, and the “natural law” that requires the use of reason and  the assent of the will.

One might say that the entire historic drama of man lies in whether or not he will heed the natural law or vainly attempt to live by his own prerogatives. Benedict, therefore, is not overstating his point when he proclaims, “The advance of individuals and of society along the path of true progress depends upon respect for natural moral law, in conformity with right reason, which is participation in the eternal reason of God.”

Benedict, Pope and theologian, is ironically making an appeal that is more politically democratic than what passes for democracy in most of today’s polities. He is advising everyone that it is far better to live in accordance with our natural inclinations than to relativize real, natural values and delegate to some the power to rule, not wisely, but as they wish.

(Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy from St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.)

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