Dear Conty (Fourth Letter, Part IV):
And, as long as I am at it, one last point. DH states that the right to religious freedom can be exercised only within due limits. See
These are startling implications of DH 13: “within due limits,” DH 2; “The exercise of this right is not to be impeded provided that just public order be observed,” DH 2; “Provided just public order is observed,” DH 3; “Provided the just demands of public order are observed,” DH 4.
Now, DH 7 spells out the elements of public order. Key among these is “objective moral order.” In other words, natural law. Thus, both the recognition of the dictates of natural law and adherence to these dictates is integral to the proper exercise of the right to religious freedom.
Key question: Can man, born of the curse of Adam, adequately recognize in detail the dictates of natural law? Answer: Not really. Practically speaking, every attempt to get a clear picture on the natural law, in its details, will fall short of the goal. Every such portrait will be flawed in one way or another. Some will get right the sexual elements: fornication always gravely evil, masturbation is always gravely evil, unnatural sex actions are always gravely evil, etc. The same group may get the dictates concerning usury wrong: All usury is evil. The same with preemptive wars. Can preemptive war be justified by natural law? Not in my opinion, Conty. And I think John Paul and Benedict and Francis would agree with that opinion. I’ll leave that one to experts, but it seems a violation of the principle that you cannot be the first aggressor. (If you ask me about the possible harm we could suffer, I’ll respond that we cannot do evil so that good may come. Better death than sin! While we’re on the topic, our atomic bombing of Japan’s cities was a gross act of terror. It was nothing but murder.) It is very difficult to put all the pieces of natural law together. That is why so many natural law enthusiasts err. They think that a purely rational approach can adequately arrive at a detailed description of the natural law sufficient to direct men aright. In this, they forget that our sinful condition makes it practically impossible to get an accurate description of natural law in details. Is our reason totally corrupt? Of course not. Is it unaffected by the corruption of sin? Of course not.
An analogy is our rational capacity to demonstrate God’s existence. We have sufficient wherewithal, even presently, to demonstrate that God exists. However, few will do this, and even these few will likely err in the attributes of God. For instance, Aristotle presupposes a real relation of God to the world. It is that presupposition that makes him think that the first effect of the Pure Act must be uniform. But it is false that the first effect must be uniform. Aristotle reasons that since Pure Act is not in potency, it does not change its activity. Therefore, the first effect must be uniform. This is to presuppose that the activity of effecting has a real relation to the effect and therefore must be uniform if it is not to involve potency in the agent. But the Christian faith holds that the first effect is not constant. Why not? “In the beginning….” That is, there was a moment of its flux that was its first moment, and this is what we mean by saying “before which” there was no flux, using imaginary time as the “before”. So, even the great Aristotle erred with regard the ultimate maker.
By analogy, we have the rational capacity to work towards knowledge of the natural law. On two levels, on the reflective or theoretical level and on the common sense level. The theoretical level is for the few, and even this is inmixed with errors. The common sense level is for all, and is sufficiently available to render each of us “without excuse” for recognizing the existence of God and for giving him honor. For the man who recognizes God not is “the fool”. And the one who glorifies him not is “without excuse”. Thus, the Bible. We can see that our natural capacity sets us on the road towards the details of natural law. But cashing that out without error is practically impossible for us offspring of Adam. All the more is this difficult because such truths as the natural law’s precepts touch our dear loves in life. It may be we really like our mansions in Maryland or Virginia. It may be we really love our gold in Texas. It may be we really love the movies in Hollywood. And what we take from our loves might be, respectively: Usury helped me build this house, so it cannot be evil; hoarding is provision for my family, so it cannot be evil; sexual license is had by handsome people who seem pleasant enough, so it cannot be wicked, even if “unnatural”. Thus, our dear loves confuse our minds and blind us to these precepts or those, depending.
Hence, just as we practically need revelation to get straight on the truths concerning God, all the more do we practically need revelation to get straight on the moral precepts of natural law. Thus, we cannot adequately establish a society on the basis of natural reasons’s approach to natural law. We need assistance from God’s illumination.