Academic journal article Theological Studies

Revisioning Natural Law: From the Classicist Paradigm to Emergent Probability

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Revisioning Natural Law: From the Classicist Paradigm to Emergent Probability

Article excerpt

For seven or eight semesters now I have taught an introduction to Roman Catholic ethics to undergraduates, a course in which we cover the sources from which ethical positions are derived, including natural law. I have discovered that it is impossible to teach about natural law without engaging in something of an apologia, or at least making an attempt to update it so that my students can relate to it. Richard Gula's text Reason Informed by Faith is very helpful here, but as an exercise in creative synthesis I have, with my students, grappled with an article by Sebastian Moore in 1989 in which he challenges the Roman Catholic teaching on contraception.(1) Moore's argument relies on an insight of Bernard Lonergan's that "the relationship between coition and conception is statistical."(2) Thus I have found myself giving lectures on the difference between the law of gravity, which is a classical law, and Cal Ripkin's batting averages, which are subject to statistical laws of probability, and, further, suggesting that conception is more like the latter than the former.(3)

A key insight here is that world process is governed by two types of "law." Classical laws explain one-to-one causality: the chemical and biological processes that occur once a sperm has fertilized an egg. Statistical laws explain the ideal frequencies that indicate when an event (such as fertilization) is likely to occur. If all of the created order were governed by classical laws (as presumed in the classicist worldview), natural moral law would involve determining how not to disrupt the given one-to-one causality. However, once one admits the probability factor into world process, the moral question shifts: How and under what conditions is it legitimate to affect the probabilities of various "natural" events (such as conception)?

A further distinction, emphasized by Gula, adds another dimension to the translation of natural law into our modern context. This is the fact that natural law incorporates two strains of tradition, that "according to nature" and that "according to reason." Here "nature" refers to the cycles of biology and animal sensitivity that humans have in common with other sentient species, and "reason" refers to the orders of will and intellect that are distinctive of the human species.(4) Most moral theologians are well aware of Ulpian's delineation of natural law as that which humans share with all animals. Many regret that Aquinas obeyed his sense of obligation to include this aspect of the tradition in his synthesis, since it perpetuated a reductionistic view of the human person.(5) Still, Lonergan's clue regarding the statistical aspects of the coition-conception relationship indicates that there is more involved in revisioning natural law than simply opting for reason over nature. Indeed, it seems that the rise of modern science and historical consciousness has meant that our cultural conceptions of both nature and reason have undergone a radical shift.(6)

In other words, beside the distinction between the two strains of natural-law tradition, and cutting across it, is the historical shift from a classicist worldview to historical consciousness. In the latter world-view, both nature and reason are conceived as dynamic and developing, so that the derivation of moral principles from either must shift its argumentation. The earlier worldview, which we will call "classicist," incorporates a static view of both human meaning and its underlying animal sensitivities. Reason, that is, human meaning, while it certainly incorporates the changes involved in learning, is understood to have an ahistorical character to it. Likewise, the physical, chemical, biological, and zoological cycles of nature, while subject to certain changes such as growth and reproduction, are assumed to be explainable in terms of unchanging regularities.(7)

The revolution brought about by the rise of modern science involved a radical shift in our understanding of both the processes of nature and the evolution of human meaning. …

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