What Has Paris to Do with Augsburg?: Natural Law and Lutheran Ethics

[1] As Thomas Pearson’s essay so succinctly illustrates, questions about the usefulness of Roman Catholic versions of natural law theory to Lutheran ethics — or even to ecumenical conversation about ethics in which both traditions participate — have many layers. Does natural law exist? If it exists, in what exactly does it consist, and what is its theological status? What is it “good for” in a practical sense? Might it be useful confessionally, ecumenically, or politically even if its theological status is uncertain? Making matters more complicated, the conversation bounces back and forth between classic, theological statements on natural law and on salvation and the contemporary challenges of a not just ecumenical but interfaith, self-consciously global, post-modern age.

[2] In order to exert a bit of control over this complexity, I limit myself to three tasks: 1) a brief description of the classical features of Roman Catholic natural law theory as it was articulated by medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas; 2) my own account of the features and scope of natural law that I, as a Catholic feminist, still find valid and credible; and 3) some tentative reflection on Lutheran objections to natural law theory, including those implied in Thomas Pearson’s paper.1 On the Catholic side, I argue that a credible natural law theory must be much more humble about its ability to know God’s mind and do God’s will than some of the approaches embraced in high scholasticism and recent neo-scholasticism.2 On the Lutheran side, I argue that a claim about the universality of natural law carries implied theological warrants and so, Luther’s bluster aside, does not get us off the theological hook. But I argue that this complaint may have limited relevance to dialogue. If Lutheran theologians concur that natural law exists and is useful in worldly affairs, disagreement on its precise theological meaning may not stand in the way of ecumenical moral reflection. In addition, Lutheran views of pervasive sin and the consequent necessity for coercive civic institutions and regulations provide needed reminders of the inevitable incompleteness and imperfection of even ostensibly just, consensual social relations.

Roman Catholic Natural Law Theory
[3] As Thomas Pearson argues, classical pre-Christian natural law theories rest on realism, a belief that an objective, discernible, good order exists both “out there” and in “in here,” in the mind, in the form of natural law. Although natural law has implications for legal theory, in this broad context “law” is another word for “rational insight into optimal function and right relation” in this order. All beings have natures, “true” selves. If they faithfully enact their natures to the greatest degree possible, they will also effectively fulfill their roles in the jigsaw puzzle that comprises the over-arching order. As rational beings who love and pursue the good, people are to follow the insights of reason rather than the instincts or physical laws that govern non-rational beings. Thus this natural order is a natural moral order insofar as it provides guides for relations among free, reasoning human beings in their earthly lives.3 Hence, as Pearson notes, to the degree that ethics relies on knowledge of the structures or standards of right relation, natural law ethics hinges upon epistemology.

[4] Christian theology adds further dimension to this sketch. Pearson points out that Thomas Aquinas’s account of theological anthropology reaches beyond classical natural law’s capacity for practical earthly guidance to link natural law to the logic of salvation in God’s all-encompassing providence. God creates human beings for beatitude: perfection in and union with God. God also provides them with revelation — which confirms reason and explicates this implicit higher end — and grace, the additional means necessary to achieve it. The most basic definition of the natural law in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is “the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (ST I-II 91.2), which is “the very Idea of the government of things” in God’s providence (ST I-II 91.1).4 This participation is universal. To be human is to be capable of recognizing and pursuing good ends. In fact the most succinct statement of the natural law is that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided” (ST I-II 94.2).

[5] In addition, Catholic natural law thinkers have faith, based in revelation, that God intends human beings to flourish holistically in this life, not merely in the next. In God’s providence, on this account, human moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical flourishing are coherent and to a degree connected. Thus Thomistic natural law’s eternal ends continue to support practical human flourishing. Especially since the late nineteenth century, Catholic accounts of natural law have argued that although salvation is by no means dependent on physical welfare, if physical and social needs are fulfilled not just minimally, but more generously and flexibly, people can more easily “be becomingly” (for example, ST II-II 141.6.2) in all dimensions of their lives.5 In addition, God’s providence ensures that personal, communal, and even global flourishing are generally coherent if communities, societies, and international relations are organized so that they promote and protect all the dimensions of flourishing. Consequently, despite its connections to the theology of salvation, Catholic natural law reasoning about flourishing remains practical, pursuing a vision of the good life; it is also inductive, asking what habits, acts, structures, and qualities promote that life or cause it harm. Believers root natural law in God’s providence, but its universality implies that it functions even where this source is not acknowledged.

[6] This common heritage of Christian natural law theology, especially as it is elaborated in Thomas Aquinas and the later scholastics, introduces two ongoing tensions. First, because human beings participate in a small portion of God’s providence that enables them to recognize and pursue the good rationally, to act “according to nature” is to act according to reason. But if the natural world is also part of God’s providence, to what degree is the “law of nature,” the set of rules that apparently governs the operation of the physical world, an indicator of the integral goods that human reason is to pursue and the means that it is to employ? How extensively and strictly do the optimal processes evident in the law of nature determine the content and pathways of the human good? In short, what is the connection, if any, between natural law and the “law of nature”?6

[7] At first glance the coherence of reason and revelation might seem to serve as arbiter of this debate. If natural law is simply human participation in God’s providence, then revelation, which is equally part of God’s providence, should be a check on misguided or wounded reason. But how is revelation to be interpreted, and who is qualified to do so? Here we have a second tension. A strong doctrine of providence implies that the members of the pairs natural law/law of nature and reason/revelation must not contradict each other. But in cases of apparent conflict, it is not always clear which member of a pair should hold steady and which adjust. These tensive implied coherences are the source of most of the conflict, both creative and contentious, in the moral tradition.

[8] In addition, Thomistic natural law and its scholastic and neo-scholastic inheritance are associated with further problematic claims. First, Thomas and many of his successors assume that because God’s providence is changeless the central content of humanity’s participatory practical reasoning is changeless as well; natural law is a stable system of rules that simply comes into greater focus gradually over time, with only slight local adaptations in application. Neither God’s provident wisdom nor the considered results of human participation in it ever change appreciably.7 Reflective human experience simply cannot contradict the firm conclusions of natural law already laid down.

[9] Second, although natural law does teach that “all human beings are equal,”8 from Thomas to the democratic age this was true only ontologically, or perhaps even only eschatologically, but certainly not socially, politically, or ecclesiastically. The allegedly changeless “best practices” that Thomas, his successors, and even Martin Luther embraced included universal hierarchies of gender, class, vocation, and other factors in which the categorically superior ruled over the categorically inferior. For all of these thinkers, relationships of domination and subordination based on divinely-intended differences in excellence were essential to the ordered harmony on which human communal flourishing depended.

[10] Finally, as a consequence, in these periods only very general knowledge of the natural law was thought to be universal. Reason is a heritage that must be cultivated. From the classical era forward, those who had the most education and opportunity for reflection were believed to be the most reliable discerners of natural law’s detailed content and application. In the Roman Catholic Church, these criteria were joined to the authority of ordination, which gave license to interpret the revelation that confirms reason. Increasingly, the magisterium — the teaching authority of the Church — exercised by its highest leaders became the de facto arbiter of the natural moral law.9

[11] From one angle, these problematic claims can be read as implicit acknowledgments of one of the central Lutheran objections to natural law: sin. If, as Catholic natural law theology also holds, moral and intellectual virtue are connected rather than independent, then a life of vice damages one’s ability to discern the natural law accurately. Changelessness, coherence with revelation, and authoritative certification all look like calculated protections against the vagaries of sinful self-interest and intellectual lassitude. They seem to confirm that in practice human reason is undependable. But from another angle they are problematic: they stymie the inductive flexibility that is natural law’s prime virtue.

Natural Law Reconstituted
[12] What layers of scholastic summae and later neo-scholastic fine-tuning obscure is the highly inductive character of scholastic method. Natural law ethics is about holistic flourishing, which in turn is a criterion of justice, or right relation, and ideally is a product and accompaniment of virtue. Conversely, Thomas believes that sin undermines God’s providence, in which natural law shares, by insulting reason and subverting the “best practices” that God has set up for our welfare. When we discern and observe these practices, flourishing usually results; when we use them badly or ignore them, harm tends to follow. Thomas Aquinas in particular, even when he was citing theological and philosophical authorities, appealed constantly to common sense and to observed, “tried and true” means to human flourishing. In our era, likewise, “participation in God’s providence” should imply an ambitious, inductive, practical epistemology of self-critical humility rather than over-confidence.

[13] A viable natural law must emphasize this inductive quality. Despite his reputation for inflexibility, Thomas never implied that there is only one right way to accomplish flourishing. To the degree that he embraced the Arisotelian mean he embraced the idea of fittingness, or what we might call the Goldilocks standard: neither too much nor too little, but “just right,” a quantity that varies by situation, person, time, and place. Diet varies by climate, health, and personality; there is more than one workable form of government; local custom plays a large role in human law, even within the universal natural law’s criteria for justice.10 Even apparent absolutes were described in this way: for instance, sexual intercourse was unnecessary, and therefore forbidden, where procreation was inappropriate and permissible in moderation where it was.

[14] A viable contemporary natural law approach must amplify Thomas’s dicta about variety and change in natural law’s application. Most basically, it must embrace his dictum that the secondary precepts, or specifications, of the law vary according to time, place, and person because the practical requirements of holistic flourishing, and therefore of the mean of virtue, are different in each situation. For instance, I know that if I do not exercise vigorously several times every week, a depression will descend that makes it all but impossible for me to cooperate with God’s charity, with unpleasant consequences for me and all those close to me. But your holistic flourishing may have slightly different preconditions. Variety is a consequence of fittingness.

[15] In addition, an inductive natural law theory must be open-ended about even its more basic precepts, always ready to receive new information and humble about its ability to know the right. This does not mean it easily discards the past; if for millennia wise people have agreed that killing others is usually a bad idea, we should be cautious about overriding that judgment. But by the same token it is willing to revise judgments based on archaic interpretations of human nature; if sex no longer seems to be only or even primarily about procreation, we may want to reconsider the ban on intentionally non-procreative sex. Thus natural law must be humble, in a broad and cautious sense “evidence-based,” and open-minded. As Thomas did, then, contemporary natural law makes use of the sciences and social sciences to analyze the conditions that seem to promote flourishing generally. And, like Thomas, it knows that deeper insight often alters human understanding of the “same” phenomenon. But, unlike Thomas, a viable natural law cannot assume that this is merely a process of refinement; wholesale re-orientations will occur from time to time.11 This evolving, scientifically-driven vision is a further source of variety and change.12

[16] These caveats help us to respond to the remaining objections noted earlier. Contemporary prophetic versions of natural law assert that individual and communal holistic flourishing is the measure of society’s success in promoting the common good. If all human beings are destined for union with God, and if God’s providence includes the full, holistic flourishing of all human beings individually and in community, then the differences in their needs are secondary variations rather than socially limiting determinations. Biological gender, for example, occasionally inflects only the concrete preconditions of human flourishing (simple examples: women need access to prenatal care and maternity leave, but men do not; men need access to prostate cancer screening, but women do not). The requisites of personal flourishing maximize, rather than limit, individuals’ “excellence” as human beings and constructive citizens. Flourishing is a good in itself, but it also increases the human capacity to contribute constructively and thoughtfully to the social, political good.

[17] Moreover, a theological anthropology that envisions the same heavenly beatitude and the same earthly virtues for all cannot coherently support the belief that women — or any other class of people — are categorically inferior, intended by God to be less capable than others of holistic flourishing and destined to be subordinate to others throughout their lives. As Jean Porter has written, we must privilege Thomas’s central theological anthropology and his method over his less generous conclusions.13 Individuals — and perhaps even classes of individuals — may accomplish this holism in different styles, but variations in personality and circumstance that are not the products of sin and injustice are opportunities for, rather than divinely mandated limits upon, the forms that flourishing may take. Consequently, flourishing forbids rigid, ontologically-based hierarchy and demands tolerance of a certain degree of flux and disorder.

[18] Finally, as liberationists drawing on natural law have noted, the socially marginalized are the litmus test for human and communal flourishing. Their welfare — and their insights into its obstacles — must be at the central impetus for natural law’s self-criticism.

[19] If natural law is defensible, however, this does not mean we should cheerfully assume that good minds will always speak or, more importantly, always be heeded. A healthy liberationist skepticism injects a needed dose of humility here.

[20] For instance, feminism points out that we cannot rely on science to uncover all barriers to flourishing. The pursuit of scientific truth is always biased in one way or another and must be analyzed critically; for instance, studies designed to teach us about human disease and healing have increasingly been revealed to illuminate the flourishing of most adult men but not of women or children. In addition, although scientific method is continuous and relatively consistent, scientific knowledge is not precisely cumulative; new discoveries constantly qualify or even reverse the correlations and causes we thought we knew, even introducing new paradigms for the creation that we believe reveals elements of God’s providence. Again, if we truly believe in the coherence of practical, moral, and spiritual flourishing, our understandings of human goods and even of virtues must be open to transformation on the basis of what we learn inductively.

[21] Thus precisely because it is keenly aware of the biases that limited experience can introduce into the reasoning of whatever group happens to be culturally ascendant, a viable natural law ethic must be skeptical that honest, inductive reflection will always confirm the wisdom of the present, let alone the past. No matter how much we think we already know, we need always to be busy discerning what constitutes flourishing and how to promote it, in particular for people who are in any way marginalized. Even more importantly, we must let them speak first and freely, and we must be prepared to have our assumptions challenged.

[22] In addition, an inductive, prophetic approach to natural law is, if possible, more aware of the obstacles that sin creates for flourishing than traditional natural law thought might be. In particular, rational, hierarchical social systems and customs can be toxic, and their toxicity can afflict individual lives on a grand scale in ways that are not simply a matter of material suffering. The consequence of this realism about sin is a non-complacent search for the violence and oppression that an apparently peaceful order can hide. For instance, societies that systematically forbid education to women embrace cultural traditions that stunt their political and social participation, traditions that must be rejected on those grounds. More to Luther’s point, a political and economic situation in which survival demands a habit of dishonesty and manipulation warps or “burdens” virtue so that “the mode of survival in this place and time” does not match the shape of a virtuous life in more congenial circumstances.14 Thomas’s solutions — for example, that taking another’s possessions when one is in desperate need is not sinful (ST II-II 66.7) — do not quite capture this insight. Natural law scholars should dedicate themselves not only to correcting glaring injustice but to looking under the surface continually to determine whether injustice resides there unnoticed and uncriticized, perpetuating itself in burdened virtues and dysfunctional systems.

[23] In sum, to follow natural law thought means to understand structures and relations that encourage flourishing in order to protect and promote them. As William Mattison has pointed out, natural law is practical reason. It must commit itself to a particular vision of the good before it can proceed.15 What critical, self-critical approaches natural law add to this argument is the claim that our commitment to the good of holistic flourishing is real, but our insight into even this good is nonetheless limited, evolving, and inductive, affected by our histories and our social positions, inflected by the needs of our situations.

[24] If all these practical points do not chasten reason, one final, theological point should. Natural law ethics is not raw utilitarian calculation. Its emphasis upon each person’s variable rational participation in God’s providence is a consequence of a prior, more basic belief in each person’s identical end in God. By the late nineteenth century, under the influence of Enlightenment principles, this belief had yielded an emphasis upon human dignity, an affirmation that questions capital punishment, abortion, torture, racism, war, genocide, euthanasia, unsafe working conditions, and a whole host of other dangers and violences.16 The goal of practical flourishing cannot contradict the transcendent dignity of individuals. This dictum is both a brake on and a source of controversy about the content of natural law. But the principle is not in dispute: communal, earthly flourishing and individual, transcendent dignity form another tensive, coherent pair in natural law thought.

Post-modernity and Globalism
[25] Lutheran ethicists re-examining natural law have the same sort of a leg up on their project as third-world telephone communications planners: the advantage of designing a system that responds to present circumstances without having to incorporate outdated, intermediate infrastructure. The question is whether any version of natural law can adequately address the challenges raised by post-modern, global culture.

[26] In crucial respects the version of self-critical natural law thought I have been sketching can survive post-modern moves in philosophy and theology, although the latter certainly must be accounted for. The position that all social identities, beliefs, visions of flourishing, and institutions are the out-workings of social power is compelling in an era of profound global and historical awareness. An indispensable tool for critical ethical reflection, it shines a harsh light on our actions and ideals, revealing the problematic mix of motives that underlies social mores. But it cannot produce an ethic. It provides no critical leverage for an argument that we should stay or change the course, and it can generate no vision of the good unsullied by problematic, self-interested use of social power.

[27] Likewise, philosophies of essentialism and radical otherness honor the deep differences of experience, perspective, and wisdom that characterize us in a diverse world, but they have difficulty explaining how we should collaborate and toward what good common end. They can also be limiting, forbidding individuals to transcend their groups and identities.

[28] Self-critical natural law thought has the advantage of combining the post-modern capacity for rigorous, inductive, open-ended criticism with what is lacking in both of these approaches: a substantive if flexible vision of the good and a moral mandate to pursue it, for oneself and others. For example, through commitment to holistic flourishing and to inductive reflection, it embraces both the traditionalist view that our bodies and the natural world in some sense encode information about God’s provident desires for us and the post-modern view that bodies and their goods are, for better and worse, socially constructed. What we “see the body as” profoundly affects how we treat it. Even more pressingly, how we treat the body socially turns out to affect who we are emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. For instance, we now know that the way we interact with infants socially affects their growth and probably even their brain structure, permanently affecting their future flourishing.17 In addition, we know that our cultural eating habits can affect the workings of the genes that produce or prevent type II diabetes.18 Individual virtue and personal and communal flourishing are connected, and often they are connected literally through physical bodies.

[29] In short, the post-modern argument curves back on itself. Natural law’s concrete contribution to the post-modern discussion is that human social embodiment contains within itself opportunities and limits that in turn set shapes and boundaries to the still-infinite variations upon flourishing.19 We are aiming at the good, for individuals and for humanity corporately. That good has a content, which we are forever discovering and which determines the expansive borders that the conditions of our being create for us. The growing list includes bodily, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health; social and political relations; developmental concerns; and environmental sustainability. For example, as Christine Gudorf has argued, “humans cannot be human without relations to other humans”20 and the variable social structures and institutions that these connections demand. In addition, although biology never has the last word in human relations of any kind, social construction “does not imply a total plasticity” either.21 There are ways of being that force our bodies, our spirits, and our surroundings out of balance with themselves and each other. Our social interactions are loosely constituted by our bodies and minds as well. For example, we cannot contradict the “certain inner structures” of embodied human relating “that predispose humans to seek patterns and order and to rely on them for fulfilling tasks.”22 To flourish is to respect our character as inevitably social, embodied, rational, spiritual beings.

[30] One objection rooted in post-modern experience does stick: the elements of flourishing are rarely harmonious in practice. Personal sin, the vagaries of nature, larger geopolitical systems, and just plain bad luck often converge in such a way that the varieties and scales of flourishing are literally incompatible in a particular time and place. Trade-offs must be made.

[31] Here too we must follow the logical trail of Thomas’s central commitments rather than accept his conclusions uncritically. Thomas knew that social and political relations would not realize the goals that participation in God’s providence implies; circumstances would be imperfect; holistic flourishing would not always, or even usually, be possible in the moment. And yet virtuous action must still be within reach. Thomas often appears to solve such puzzles by backing down from the ideal of holistic flourishing. In part because his vision of heavenly beatitude did not include the earthly body, Thomas tended to prefer the soul’s good to the body’s good; because of his convictions about hierarchy, he tended to prefer an orderly if unjust state to a disorderly one; and so on. And yet time and time again Thomas returned to two ideas: that in cases of conflict, self-preservation trumps all other goods (for example, ST I-II 94.2), and that pursuit of one’s own spiritual beatitude trumps all other ends, even physical survival. Self-preservation, whether physical or spiritual, was the virtuous response, for the individual and for the state.

[32] A viable contemporary natural law must come up with its own base-line affirmations. Most of us would follow Thomas in embracing self-preservation under duress: women’s self-defense against battering partners, for instance. And yet we must insist that “burdened” virtues like these are not ideal, that it is not enough simply to say “it is no sin” or “it is good” for a woman to defend herself. Rightly, we pair such affirmations with a condemnation of the violence and abuse of power that necessitates such choices. Natural law’s commitment to flourishing implies an eschatologically-driven dedication to establishing the material, social, and political right relations that will reduce such conflicts, lessening the burdens on virtue that arise specifically from individual and corporate sinfulness.

[33] An honest critical natural law theory must also admit that human life in society will never resemble a perfectly balanced gyroscope, even assuming that humans are universally virtuous; it is buffeted by too many factors. Both natural events and the very critical and self-critical methods we employ to understand flourishing and establish justice create a jarring dynamism. Randomness, incompleteness, change, and even growth — and not just direct attacks on the good — can produce suffering and conflict. Flourishing depends on the dynamic, ongoing capacity for maintaining — or regaining — holistic balance. Preconditions for a good life on both the personal and the social scale include the external resources and internal resiliency for keeping one’s balance when these forces impinge. This is where our energy must lie: in doggedly insisting upon the background conditions of welfare and political justice that make the collaborative project of flourishing possible.

[34] Natural law has one further important virtue in this global, post-modern situation. The Christian believer who embraces natural law theology has a theological reason for placing faith in the good will and insight of people the world over who come from every or no religious tradition. The theological claim that all are children of God destined for virtue and flourishing in this life and for heaven in the next grants the benefit of the doubt to the Other or Stranger with whom we must work or, sometimes, against whom we must fight. Christian natural law believers are not naïve about sin, but they attribute sinful behavior to others’ refusal to desire the good and pursue it, not to their rejection by God.23 In addition, the claim that all are God’s children requires Christians to affirm the genuineness of the Other’s moral virtue or solid moral reasoning, and even to learn from it.

Lutheran Objections
[35] So far I have outlined a version of natural law that balances natural reason with the law of nature and with revelation and checks the utilitarian potential of flourishing with the criterion of transcendent dignity. This version of natural law is permanently provisional in its details, employing voices from the margins to help protect against the sinful, self-interested epistemological, authoritative parallax that besets all systems of belief and knowledge. In comparison with the old stereotype, it is epistemologically humble (cognizant of history’s and sin’s effects on reason), flexible, pragmatic, and self-critical, in particular more conscious of the ways in which its global and social location and even its theological commitments might affect its arguments. It remains capable of pointed liberationist prophecy on the basis of its claims about human dignity, both subjectively (in terms of privileged speakers) and objectively (in terms of content). It has retained its ability to converse with non-Christian others. But it has lost the apparent definiteness of manuals of moral theology, with their questions, sub-questions, and exceptions. As for Thomas originally, the more it “descends” to specifics, the more tentative and limited its particular conclusions are.

[36] This chastened version of natural law answers some of Luther’s and Lutherans’ objections, but not all. First, Roman Catholic theology holds that even original sin cannot cut so deeply as to excise the desire for the good. The unity of the moral and the intellectual virtues implies that the intellect, with its desire for truth, similarly maintains a degree of integrity. Both will and intellect require grace in order to heal, but both contain usable raw material. A pessimistic reading of Luther can imply that the wound of sin from which Christ rescues humanity damages the will so deeply that — in a fashion actually quite consistent with natural law’s theo-logic — it scrambles the intellect fatally. Under these conditions, as Pearson argues, agreement on practical matters would be at best pragmatic agreement on the management of civil society and at worst agreement in error. In addition, as Luther argues in Galatians, even justification does not eradicate wrong behavior; the “old man” remains imperfect in human will and action if not in human desire.

[37] Second and consequently, even in the best case — when consensus produces a workable, orderly strategy — one must not imply that reason has led to virtue. “Figuring out what God wants us to do” does not protect us from sin. We are and remain sinful beings even when we (more and less) do what is “objectively” fitting. Reason is a “pestilent beast”24 (Führer) precisely because over-confidence in its conclusions distracts people from God’s grace, the only source of salvation. Doing what is “right,” often for a questionable reason, cannot make us “good.”

[38] Third, what is “good” about a “right” solution? It might reduce objective suffering, disorder, and injustice. But, as Pearson argues, Luther’s natural law does not reveal strategies that claim to be absolutely right or produce pure good. Rather, natural law is the label we apply to “good enough” practical approaches that can gain consensus. We are relieved of the pressured expectation of reaching a solution that is correct in the abstract.

[39] But Pearson’s vision of Luther’s natural law proves unsatisfying in two respects. First, its satisfaction with “whatever seems workable” to sinful people who have enough power to enforce it gives us little prophetic leverage to improve baselines of justice and flourishing beyond levels that merely discourage bloody revolution. So much the worse for the peasants. Do the marginalized have any voice in this natural law consensus, and if so on what basis other than their threat to the privileged classes? Can Luther’s view support intermediate goals between building (toward) the reign of God and merely keeping chaos at bay by any means expedient to the powerful?

[40] Second, if Luther’s natural law lacks robust, consistent theological anthropological backing, this does not mean that Lutheran ethics is off the theological hook. Why do “human beings recognize what is approximately good and right and appropriate in the mundane realm of civil righteousness”?25 Why do people tend to value this and not that? What is the origin of this common mode of reason? Is it merely bald self-interest? Isn’t it somewhat determined by possibilities for flourishing that people’s creation according to God’s providence dictates? What sort of moral or theoretical teeth does natural law have if it is not based in inexorable human dignity, or in basic human social and physical needs? One cannot avoid theology here. Even to speculate about the sorts of agreement people generally reach requires framing natural law within an arc of salvation history that begins with creation.

[41] Yet even without further development Lutheran and revised Roman Catholics can reach fundamental agreement on one very important practical claim about natural law: persons of any or no religious background can reach pragmatic, rational consensus about civic issues. They should also agree on two significant theological claims. First, knowing and following the basic dictates of the natural law in a sinful world often produces distasteful consequences. Whether or not we label them “compromises,” war, imprisonment, abortion, and other strategies for managing life in imperfect community are ugly and unsatisfactory. We should not undertake Ptolemaic justifications for them, labeling them unalloyed goods when they entail violence and suffering. The inexorable sinfulness and fungibility of human life yields morally defensible, burdened, not pure, virtues and actions. Second, both traditions affirm that even discerning and basically following the rough outlines of natural law is no indicator of salvation and is surely very difficult without sanctifying grace. Whether this is a matter of cooperating with grace in order to “earn” merit or a matter of something else may matter very little to substantive Christian dialogue about what must be done, and why. These two important points of theological agreement form a substantial basis for further conversation between the inductive, theologically-informed notion of the good embraced by a chastened Catholic natural law and the pragmatic theological realism of traditional Lutheran approaches to life in the world.

1. Some of these points will appear in a forthcoming essay on feminist natural law in a Concilium issue edited by Hille Haker and Lisa Sowle Cahill. See also chapters 1-4 of Cristina L.H. Traina, Feminist Ethics and Natural Law: The End of The Anathemas (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999).

2. For a still-helpful, if limited, treatment of Luther’s theological anthropology against the backdrop of late scholastic natural law theology see Denis Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology (Waterloo, ONT: Wilfrid Laurier, 1983).

3. A classic treatment of natural law’s history is Michal Bertram Crowe, The Changing Profile of the Natural Law (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1977).

4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (5 vols.), tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948).

5. See for example Jean Porter, “Chastity as a Virtue,” Scottish Journal of Theology 58 no. 3 (2005): 285-301.

6. “Natural law” and “the law of nature” are commonly erroneously equated. For instance, Wikipedia’s article on natural law begins, “Natural law or the law of nature….” (italics added). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_law, last viewed December 17, 2009.

7. The impulse to reduce natural law to a list of increasingly refined, changeless rules is modern, not medieval (see William C. Mattison III, “The Changing Face of Natural Law: The Necessity of Belief for Natural Law Norm Specification,” The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 27 no. 1 [Summer 2007]:251-277). Still, Thomas believed that most changes in natural law’s conclusions were matters of further specification or application; subtractions — reversals of earlier conclusions — occur “in some particular cases of rare occurrence” only (ST I-II 94.5). Apparent significant reversals (like Jesus’s repeal of God’s permission for Israelite polygamy) ended temporary divine concessions to sin but did not alter God’s original intent; they were certainly not based on new, inductive, reasoned reflection about the changed social conditions for holistic flourishing in first-century Palestine in comparison with the Abrahamic period.

8. “Martin Luther’s Pragmatic Revision of Traditional Natural Law Theory,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (March 2010) 10:3.

9. Since Vatican Council II, these claims of strong, though not absolute, moral authority have drawn criticism from Catholic moral theologians, most famously in the United States Charles E. Curran and the late Richard A. McCormick.

10. See respectively Diana Fritz Cates, “The Virtue of Temperance (IIa IIae, qq. 141-70),” in The Ethics of Aquinas, ed. Stephen J. Pope (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002) 321-39, at 325-27; Thomas Aquinas, excerpts of On Kingship, reprinted in The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Dino Bigongiari (New York: Hafner Press, 1953), 175-195; ST I-II 95.3.

11. For instance, arguably even official Roman Catholic ecclesiastical natural law teaching on war, capital punishment, sexuality, and democracy has undergone sea-changes in the past century.

12. Scientific and social scientific data must be used and analyzed critically, however. The scientific equivalent of proof-texting is dishonest and, from a natural law standpoint, futile. Obscuring investigations into the processes and conditions of flourishing is quite literally counter-productive.

13. Jean Porter, “At the Limits of Liberalism: Thomas Aquinas and the Prospects for a Catholic Feminism,” Theology Digest 41 no. 4 (Winter 1994): 315-330.

14. Lisa Tessman, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles, Studies in Feminist Philosophy, ed. Cheshire Calhoun (New York: Oxford, 2005).

15. See William C. Mattison III, “The Changing Face of Natural Law: The Necessity of Belief for Natural Law Norm Specification,” The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 27 no. 1 (Summer 2007) 251-277.

16. This social justice tradition is said to have begun with Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891), although previous popes did publish encyclicals with social content.

17. See the sources in Cristina L.H. Traina, “Touch on Trial: Power and the Right to Physical Affection,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 25 no. 1 (2005) 3-34.

18. “Don’t Blame Your Genes: They May Simply Be Getting Bad Instructions — From You,” The Economist (September 5, 2009), print edition, http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14350157, last viewed September 22, 2009.

19. For the argument that a postmodern ethics must balance its attention to culture with attention to “nature,” see Douglas Kellner, “Zygmunt Bauman’s Postmodern Turn,” Theory, Culture, and Society 15 no. 1 (1998) 73-86.

20. Christine E. Gudorf, “The Social Construction of Sexuality: Implications for the Churches,” in God Forbid: Religion and Sex in American Public Life, ed. Kathleen M. Sands (New York: Oxford, 2000) 42-59, at 44.

21. Gudorf, “Social Construction,” 47.

22. Gudorf, “Social Construction,” 44.

23. This raises a question important in interfaith dialogue: Is it appropriate for Christians condescendingly to declare, as Karl Rahner did, others of good will “anonymous Christians”? This is too complex a discussion to pursue here, except to say that all traditions must develop internal language for describing “others,” even if committed to hearing others’ descriptions of themselves.

24. M.L. Führer, review of Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology, by Denis Janz, Speculum 60 no. 3 (July 1985) 686-687, at 687.

25. “Martin Luther’s Pragmatic Revision of Traditional Natural Law Theory,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (March 2010) 10:3.

Cristina L.H. Traina

Cristina L.H. Traina is Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Northwestern University.