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NATURAL LAW/ The Pope's foundation for positive law

Angelo Campodonico clarifies the Pope’s emphasis on natural law, going back to St. Thomas Aquinas, and comments on why many people today have difficulties accepting it.

Saint Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico Saint Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico

For some time, the current Pope has repeated the theme of natural law as a necessary foundation for positive law. The most recent time was in his speech at the German Parliament. It seems to be important to make three clarifications in order to contextualize the speech.

In the first place, the difficulty today of accepting natural law on a theoretical level, as the Pope affirmed, is based on an empirical and neo-empirical thesis, which states that ethical imperatives cannot be derived from mere descriptions. It should be noted, however, that in the medieval tradition of natural law, especially in Thomas Aquinas, this does not happen: one cannot go from descriptions to norms, in fact, but from some inclinations common, in principle, to all men, to norms (see Summa Teologica I-II. 94, 2). For example, from the desire for health, one can legitimately go to the duty to care for oneself, and from the desire to communicate knowledge, one can arrive at the rule that it is good to communicate knowledge to others. The idea that natural law is based on the consideration of the order of nature is, instead, a modern and rationalistic conception that we can find, for example, in Locke and in the school of natural law.

In addition, it should be noted that, for Aquinas, natural is not solely biological, but is also the aspect of human rationality that allows one to capture the first speculative and practical facts (the "heart" of man). The inclinations are natural, like rationality at its source, which interprets and makes certain inclinations morally normative. Defending nature is, therefore, in this perspective, defending the unity of man, the link between rationality and biology, between reasons and motivations for action. And this is particularly true because of the fact that the culmination of natural law is in the ethical virtues. The first precepts of natural law are the seeds of the flowering which is the virtuous, fully human, man.

Secondly, if what we have just observed is true, to counter Hans Kelsen it is not necessary to believe, at first, in a God who created nature to affirm the truths of natural law, which are, in principle, accessible to all. It could be argued, however, that faith is necessary to establish natural law fully. This refers, ultimately, to the fact that "in the beginning was the Word and not Chaos" (J. Ratzinger).