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The Value of Reviving the Natural Law by Mario Alexis Portella

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The Value of Reviving the Natural Law

Frontispiece from Grotius: De iure belli ac pacis, Paris 1625

Several television channels—MTV Hungary, Comedy Central Hungary, and Paramount Network Hungary—and several magazines in Hungary have defied a ban on publishing LGBT+ content geared towards children. 

In June 2021, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality or sex reassignment to anyone aged under 18. LGTB+ activists, such as researcher at the CEU Democracy Institute in Budapest and author of the book Meseország Mindenkié (Fairyland is for Everyone) Dorottya Rédai have, for some time now, been targeting children, presenting them with alternative sexual lifestyles as normal.

Advocates of the LGTB+ movement sustain that, notwithstanding the natural order of things, issues like same-sex unions, transgenderism, and the like should be institutionalized as human rights. In fact, under US President Joe Biden, the United States, together with the European Union, have gone so far as to threaten with sanctions countries like Hungary for refusing to make laws to ‘accommodate’ ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer’ people. 

This rupture from the natural law on the part of the body politic, namely ‘a complete separation of morality and politics’, as the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev warned, ‘constitutes one of the prevalent errors and evils of our century’.

The dilemma in today’s western culture is that, unlike with the American Declaration of Independence, which makes reference to God as the author of ‘certain unalienable Rights’, in Europe there is no historical point of reference to the natural law as a founding principle of government. Or, as has become evident in the US, it is viewed as either an outdated religious doctrine or as a right-wing political tool that should have no place in the body politic.

It goes without saying that social embroilments are not going to dissipate anytime soon. And despite some so-called ‘human rights’, such as abortion and euthanasia directly contradicting natural law, the melodrama of “your rights end where my emotions begin” annuls any concept of what is natural to the human person and what is not. 

This is why it is vital for human civilisation to comprehend and revive the natural law, lest we become individual statistics that capitulate to the whimsical agendas of those who advocate what is not natural.

Defining Natural Law

Natural law, as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is ‘the unwritten body of universal moral principles that underlie the ethical and legal norms by which human conduct is sometimes evaluated and governed’, or ‘a body of law or a specific principle held to be derived from nature and binding upon human society in the absence of or in addition to positive law.’ Stemming from reason a priori, it is immutable and universal. Hence, ever since the concept of natural law emerged in Greek political philosophy, it has been the bedrock of political and legal order in civilisation. 

The term natural in natural law refers to the concept that every human being is a participant in a common moral order. Man, according to Cicero (106–43 B.C.), has an inborn concept of what is right and what is wrong, and law essentially rests upon nature and not on the arbitrary rule of a ruler or the laws of the many (non scripta sed nata lex). Cicero notes in his Oration For Titus Annius Milo:

‘This, therefore, is a law, O judges, not written, but born with us, which we have not learnt, or received by tradition, or read, but which we have taken and sucked in and imbibed from nature herself; a law which we were not taught, but to which we were made, which we were not trained in, but which is ingrained in us, namely, that if our life be in danger from plots or from open violence or from the weapons of robbers or enemies, every means of securing our safety is honourable.’

Natural law is not a juridical system per se that imposes or legislates on man a command on how or how not to behave. It, rather, serves as a guide on how or how not to behave in order for man to reach his ultimate goal: eternal life.

In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas came up with what is still the most influential formulation of natural law theory. He first defines law as ‘an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.’ And because God, the ultimate cause of all being, activity and development, ‘natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.’

Refuting Natural Law

In continental Europe, today’s understanding of natural law is rooted in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century

It dictates that human reason alone is the source of authority and legitimacy for governmental norms and individual freedom. Several Enlightenment thinkers restructured and eventually eliminated natural law as a prescriptive guide for human action. By the twentieth century, in what would be classified as positivism—the idea that all knowledge is based on the “positive” data of experience—the jurist and author of the 1920 Austrian Constitution Hans Kelsen, who was a fierce opponent of the natural law, held that a law could never be morally justified. He taught that in a democracy, the law’s commands are directed most fundamentally at officials of the legal system, such as judges, telling them what sanctions to apply to citizens on the basis of the latter’s conduct. Therefore, laws had to be obeyed simply because they were authoritative.

Natural law consequently became associated with the Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest. In his The Descent of Man, Darwin deemed Africans ‘low’ and ‘degraded’ with ‘insufficient’ powers of reasoning, thereby compelling white Europeans to ‘exterminate and replace’ the world’s ‘savage races’. This inspired Nazi Germany to try to eliminate the Jewish race in favour of their version of a naturally superior Arian race.

In the former Soviet Union, under the atheistic socio-economic philosophy of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the classical teaching of natural law—God’s unwritten law in the heart of the human person—was completely eradicated. Laws could not be derived from reason, nature, or let alone God. The law was none other than a ‘product of class struggle’, only to become an instrument of the dominant class—the sovereign elite—to strip rights, on the grounds of equity, from its citizenry.

Benedict XVI’s Revival of Natural Law

Pope Benedict XVI, prior to and during his pontificate, sought to reassert the teaching that natural law has always been expressed in terms of its rapport between moral truths and the state, namely the formulation of positive norms. As he taught, man is not the creator of his own moral tenets. Instead, those tenets are innate to his human nature, because man is created in the image and likeness of God. 

In the Pontiff’s mindsetnature is not a morally obligatory norm for knowing the Creator God, but rather it is the natural judgment of reason where what is good is formulated, as well as its practical use of reason in relation to the good in itself that becomes morally obligatory. In other words, ‘man is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself.’

Natural law expresses the fact that nature itself conveys a moral message. The spiritual content of creation is not merely mathematical and mechanical, dimensions that natural science emphasises in the laws of nature. But there is more spiritual content, more “laws of nature” in creation. It bears within itself an inner order and even shows it to us.

For the Pontiff-Emeritus, natural law is not a law in force. Rather, it is a moral law (lex/ius)—Benedict uses both lex and ius interchangeably—that demonstrates that which is under the ethical-juridical aspect that can legitimately be a law in force. Accordingly, the juridical character of positive law, under an ethical component, depends on its agreement with natural law, which has been well-developed in the history of western law. Otherwise, as it happened with Germany under the National Socialists, and what is happening in our Western body politic, the state becomes a tool to eradicate any moral law. 


Mario Alexis Portella, Archdiocesan Chancellor of Firenze

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