Holloway on… Conscience and the Natural Law
Holloway on… Conscience and the Natural Law
It is impossible to treat of “conscience” without coming at once into the domain of the Natural Law. Yet, this expression is straightaway a great “turn off”, and many read no further when mention is made of “the Natural Law”. This is not because of modern controversies in faith and morals which impinge upon the subject. It is because the treatment of the subject, the very concept itself, is so often presented as appallingly dry and hopelessly abstract. One will try to avoid that approach, and consequently the great turn off, while admitting that once again an article is being attempted at the instigation of young theologians. To their needs we try to defer, because their needs are urgent. At the same time, there is no reason why the subject of conscience in relation to the abstract sounding “Natural Law” should be a turn off for everyone else.
Scholastic manuals, whether ancient or modern, do tend to be but little related to the supreme thing which the intelligent Catholic, and Catholic student, wants to know about - the living root of conscience, in its relationship to the living and loving God. St. Augustine is excellent on the Natural Law, because whether you agree with him or not, he writes in all topics, from the real, the existential, the approach from real life. He does tend to be very diffuse. St. Thomas Aquinas, although he writes in the essentialist, rather dry shorthand of the medieval schoolmen, is magnificent on the whole theme of the Natural Law.
Law of Life and Being
Conscience is a judgement, even when it is a vague, implicit judgement - a confused feeling of “not being quite happy about all this”. It is a judgement about right and wrong, good and evil, perfect and imperfect, and it is not abstract at all. It goes to the root of our own being, and into the depths of our relationship in life, and in prayer, to God. In the higher degrees of application, it may be a judgement about God loved with more perfect, or less perfect, communion - nothing concerning “sin” at all. This inner judgement
which brings happiness or unease may be about the “inspirations” of God, i.e., deeper insights into truth or charity carried out, or refused, in our day to day spiritual life.
Whether the judgement is about basic and binding good and true, or about the loyalty to God of perfect friendship, conscience is always the recognition of a law of life and being. From the Ten Commandments level of “must” to the highest level of “could” in the generous saint, this judgement at once intellectual and emotional rises through grace into communion with the Eternal Law and the Persons of that lawgiver. For the Eternal Law is spoken not in code, but in the being of Him who said:- “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Or again from John: “I am the Light of the world, he who follows me walks not in darkness but has the Light of life” (John 8:12). The light of the spiritual creation is at once transcendent and outside its being and, again through grace and love, immanent to its being. It is then both the law of the soul, and the “draw” upon man (John 6:44) implicit in the recognition that is “conscience”.
The Spirit that fills the Earth
Theologians in their manuals usually address the Natural Law from the creation of mankind, and that recognition of God’s law in the powers of the spirit which we call the voice of conscience. This is a pity, and because of it they miss a lot of points. Natural Law begins with what in FAITH is so often called The Unity-Law of Control and Direction, the mutual ministry of one being upon another which holds in balance the equation of creation. From the beginning, in its first explosion, matter-energy is built upon a Natural Law of action and reaction to development and fulfilment. Through it comes the overall ascent of being in Evolution itself. This Law prompts and mutates to higher forms of being, and ultimately to life, and the body of man. It is quintessentially the Law of the good and the true: only through this Law are all natures framed, and they all seek from God their life and fulfilment in due season. Where there is due season there is the Law of Nature, i.e., the Natural Law.
This is the law by which natures below man are framed, minister, and are ministered to within Nature, the harmonics of what Augustine and Aquinas called “the Universal Law”, the providence of God. These older masters do glimpse the majesty of that Unity-Law which holds all things in balance under the Law of the good and the true, until it climaxes in the Incarnation of the Eternal Word. They do not develop it. Today we could do better on a larger canvas than theirs. A lovely line in the book of Wisdom (Wis. 1:7), aptly chosen for the Entrance Antiphon of Pentecost Sunday, sums up what is seeking to be said:- “The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole earth, and that (orb) which contains all things has knowledge of his voice”.
Seeking the Good and True
In Him we live and are and have our being. What the ancients called God’s providence was the mediation to matter, and in the material order, of the Natural Law. It is the seeking for one’s proper good and true, in the harmony of wise order, from the roots of one’s being. It is also the finding of this harmonic law of creation in the natural environment within which one lives and moves and has one’s being; for the merely material (and pace Rahner, material life cannot “transcend” itself directly into the spiritual). It is deterministic, environmental law. Life below man is not reasoning, but it is reasonably ruled. Therefore if man was created by a process of Evolution according to the body, all through long ages of the ascent of the brain, Nature in him had sought its good and true, its Natural Law, its times and its seasons in innocence and due obedience. When the spirit was created into the final mutation within the universal order - the brain that needed the spirit to be intelligible even as brain, - man already had knowledge of the Natural Law. Nature in man brought a good inheritance to the soul.
When man is made, it is no longer true that it is the Natural Law immanent within the environment of matter in which man lives and moves and has his being. That law of determinism passes now under the control of the soul, which is like a personal god within man, although that “god” can, as free, disobey the eternal God. It is not exactly true that man overpasses the Natural Law within matter. That Law is synthesized in him with the law of the spirit, just as man’s being is matter and spirit in synthesis. The spirit needs its own law of life and being, which is the thrilling meaning of St. Paul to the Athenians when he says of God: “in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God himself is the Environmental Law of life and fulfilment for man. Immediately, we begin to see from afar how the Natural Law, the basic law of man’s nature and his good and true in any order, is about to pass into the order of grace and divinization and culminate through priest, prophet, and Old Covenant, into the Covenant of communion of spirit and of flesh with the Being of God Incarnate. This is the climax of the law of life and being which was spawned in the flash of Creation.
Conscience a Positive Judgement
Man, through his spiritual soul, the principle in us all of reflective knowledge and free will, has direct knowledge of good and of evil. He knows without demonstration that “good must be sought and evil be avoided”. This is the root of conscience. All know this, because we are made substantially and essentially to the image of God. In God, being, good, and true, are convertible terms because supreme spiritual reality cannot be thought of or defined except as the all-wise, the all-good, and the all-perfect. Wisdom and truth and good define the very concept of God and the actual reality of God. The soul is simple in its nature, so within us, in the synthesis of matter and spirit which is man, the recognition of good and evil, and the power to judge of good and evil, are of the simple nature of the soul. This is the root of conscience in us all.
God is the just judge, and the judge of all that exists, simply because in Him, the true, the good, and his reality itself are all one thing, one living, non-abstract perfection of being: “Actus Purus”, i.e., Being God. Conscience in our own being, at the root of our being, is also a judgement proceeding from the simple root of the spirit, because just as God cannot be conceived except as defined through the good and the true, so also no being created to God’s substantial likeness can exist without the habit, i.e., inner capacity, to know the true and the good and to distinguish good from evil. That is why God judges us, and we live in holy, i.e. filial, fear of his judgements; that is why willing and unwilling we judge ourselves, - and with prudence, and not to passing of sentence, we judge others. We have power to judge, because we have power to discern.
Natural Law as Ministry of Well-Being
Pleasure and pain are simple judgements of animal organism concerning a good to be sought, or an evil to be fled from. What is physical in man concurs with the judgement of the soul concerning good and evil. So when conscience “gnaws” us, we sense a response jointly in body and in soul to evil done, to the lie lived. But, as earlier said, the body through its history and pedigree has had knowledge of the Natural Law. Of its own nature the flesh cooperates with the spirit in the judgement of conscience. The Natural Law as it applies to the body of man, teaches us that all organs must work together perfectly for the good of the whole. If there is excess or defect in any operation or secretion, there is disease. The same principle applies to the power of the spirit to judge the due proportion, the “organic” relationship so to speak, of pleasure to function, and to overall meaning in the right and wrong of life.
Our very spiritual nature
Thus by our very spiritual nature we can, and must, judge that eating for its own sake, alcohol in excess, the pleasures of sense, including the sexual, unrelated to meaning and ministry ... that these things are “wrong” because the whole point of Natural Law is that it is the Law of the wise, proportionate, and fulfilling in every order of being. What is true of the internal workings of the human body upon itself is true of the proportion, the “providence” which governs our seeking, or acceptance, of pleasures in relation to the meaning and ministry which Nature itself has placed upon them. In all aspects and relationships, the Natural Law is the recognition of that law of life and being by which our reality is constituted in its integrity, and in the governance of its fulfilment.
Sin as Disaster Natural and Supernatural
Sin, the power to rebel against a law of life upon which one is made, and over which one is not the master, destroys the harmony of man’s nature, both unto God, and unto the balance and due proportion of his own psyche or psychological make-up. The basis of sin is self-adoration. Thus every power of the spirit, especially of the intellect is bent to self-righteousness, self-assertion, self-opinion. Alas, we have no self-righteousness; the measure of our righteousness is the Eternal Word, the Logos, the mind of God. The root of sin as arrogance, self-adoration as our natural end and law, is indicated with precision in Genesis, in the temptation of Adam and Eve: “You will not die, the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, you will be like gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). In other words, you are able to do as you like, accountable to yourselves alone. God is accountable to himself alone. God is self-adoration, because God is the ontological measure of all good, of all laws of natural fulfilment. God is the Law, by definition of his reality; we are not, nor any angel, nor anything created whatever.
Original Sin, the Interior Wound
The presence and power of the soul is godlike to the flesh within man’s being. The effect of the very first sin is to bring an imposed “law of disobedience” into the flesh and the psyche of man. We cannot now treat of it. St. Paul touches profoundly upon it in the Letter to the Romans, and St. Augustine treats magnificently of it especially in his works against the Pelagians. The Church, unlike a certain modern Jesuit, did not find in Augustine “a flawed genius” but one who expounded clearly, and in detail, what was her doctrine of Original Sin. Augustine expounded, and Aquinas accepted without demur, the effects of concupiscence which follow the loss of original gracious communion with God: addiction to passion for its own sake, the jangling disarray of all our pleasure principles, of which we are sadly aware. Original Sin itself is not concupiscence as disobedience to wisdom. Original Sin is the interior wound, the existence of a principle of intrinsic disobedience of nature to God, by which we lose the immanent justification of grace, and even when redeemed, are unable to ascend in holiness to God in a straight line.
Natural Law and Positive Divine Law
Conscience is a judgement of conformity to God’s law, whether concerning the basic use and proportion of our being, and its pleasures of flesh and spirit, or whether it concerns the measure of the justice and charity we owe to God and our neighbour. The effect of sin is to confuse and coarsen the judgement of the spirit, but sin can never destroy its basic capability. Social pressure, social evil (and guilt in society is not Original Sin, either as fact, or as inheritance), passion and the example of others, all these can deeply wound the judgement of conscience. It is imperative for us fallen men that God should reveal, and in revealing underline the perspective of conscience. It is like putting correct lenses to very disordered eyes. St. Augustine is precise upon this: “so that men could not claim that the law was uncertain, God wrote on the Tablets of the Law what men would not read in the i r hear t s . As suredly these commandments were written there, but men did not want to read them there. So God thrust them under their very eyes, that they might be constrained to see them also in their consciences. At the voice of God moving in upon them from without, men as it were fled to their inner being, finding the same testimony”. (Ennarr. in. Ps. 57. n.1.)
This is the first half of the Editorial for the January/February 1991 issue of FAITH magazine. Part II will be published in our next issue.