A Metaphor About Natural Law

A battleship was sailing through a storm. That night the lookout reported a light up ahead. "Is it steady or moving?" called the captain. "Steady," replied the lookout. "Signal it that we are on a collision course," the captain ordered. "Advise it to change course twenty degrees."

Back came a message, "Advise you change course twenty degrees." The captain said, "Send, I am a captain, change course." Back came this reply, ‘I’m just a sailor. You’d better change course."

The captain, now furious, ordered the lookout, "Send, I’m a battleship, change course." Back came the flashing light, ‘I’m a lighthouse." Needless to say, the battleship changed course.

Think of this story as a metaphor about natural law. Natural law is like a lighthouse that guides us through the darkness and storms in our judgments about good and evil. In a certain sense, we do not break natural law. It breaks us if we go against it.

Before we consider natural law, let us review what themes we have treated from Chapter Two of Veritatis Splendor. So far, John Paul II has said that bishops, pastors, and theologians should instruct people in true Christian morality; and that God has given us the gift of freedom, which we should exercise in reference to moral truth, divine law, and the gift of responsibility.

Now, he reflects on the role of natural law in moral life. We hear people say, "It’s not right to fool with Mother Nature." That is a popular way of speaking of natural laws that govern the physical world, such as gravity or the cycles of night and day or the moon and the ocean tides.

Natural law in the moral order refers to reason’s ability to tell the difference between good and evil: Reason contains the light of that insight placed in us by God. The natural law is the reflection of the divine law in our hearts and minds. We all share in the wisdom and goodness of God. The natural law expresses the basic moral sense that enables our thinking powers to judge what is right and what is wrong.

"In his journey toward God ... man must freely do good and avoid evil. To accomplish this he must be able to distinguish good from evil. This takes place thanks to the light of natural reason, the reflection in man of the splendor of God’s countenance" (No. 42).

The Declaration of Independence reflects natural law when it says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . .Today’s culture pays no attention to natural law because it has broken the link between humans and God. When Justice Clarence Thomas was preparing for the judiciary-committee hearings, he was told by his handlers, ‘Don’t get into a discussion of natural law. It will hurt your chances of being selected for the Supreme Court." So the American people were denied a national discussion of a foundation of moral thinking.

The revealed Ten Commandments of the Bible are expressions of the natural law. Though we could know them from reason, we would tend not to because of darkness caused by sin. God corrects this problem with revelation. "Man is able to recognize good and evil . . . by his reason enlightened by Divine Revelation and by faith.... Even if theological reflection usually distinguishes between the revealed law of God and the natural law ... these distinctions refer to that law whose author is God" (Nos. 44-45).

Of course, people today still think they can judge what is good or evil. But because they have not been educated to see that this ability comes from God in the natural law, they imagine that the skill comes from themselves alone. This removes the possibility of universal moral principles: Each one presides over his or her moral kingdom, but nothing is universally binding. So we reap the moral malaise we have sown.

Natural law is an essential building block in the return to morality. God’s lighthouse is here not to break us but to see us safely to home, love, and hope.

Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated 1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by permission.