We live in a world plagued by moral relativism, where even the word “morality” can be controversial. As Catholics, we are blessed to have guides in the Magisterium and Scripture for properly forming our consciences, knowing right from wrong, and living a moral life, along with gentle and loving remedies for when we get off track. However, the world at large rarely adheres to the Church’s guidance on moral issues, claiming we follow arbitrary rules imposed by a distant, non-existent, or irrelevant God. Likewise, often Church and biblical teaching is considered antiquated and even unapplicable to an ever-evolving society and set of circumstances. Hence, we see growing confusion and disagreement over right and wrong.
Of course, the truth is that there is an objective moral law that determines right from wrong, whether or not everyone can currently identify it. What’s more, in his goodness, while preserving for us the freedom to make choices for ourselves, God imprinted on every human heart a natural law that is “established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties” (CCC #1956). So, while we might sometimes be frustrated by the confusion surrounding right from wrong, we can rest in the fact that God has provided every person with a desire to seek objective good and, therefore, plenty of opportunities for conversion of heart.
In his book Morality: The Catholic View, Servais Pinckaers, O.P. summarizes St. Thomas Aquinas’ precepts for the natural law, which find themselves in basic human nature outside of religion or written law. He states there are five inclinations in every person’s nature that are the origin of our choices and actions. I will outline those here.
The Natural Inclination to the Good
Pinckaers describes this inclination as a “primitive spiritual instinct,” as we are naturally attracted to what is good and repulsed by what is evil. Goodness is attractive because it stirs up things like love, joy, and happiness in the human heart. When goodness is absent, we have a desire to seek it.
Now, you might be asking yourself, if this is true, why do you see so many people attracted to evil and repulsed by what is good? The author clarifies that our conscience and reason can convolute the perception of good and evil. He says, “our moral judgment can become distorted and our tastes can become disordered.” However, he says, “underneath the agent’s faulty judgments and corrupt loves, the sense of good and evil remains, just as the desire for health remains throughout a sickness.” This is where God’s love and mercy shine through. He allows us the freedom to form our own opinions of what is good and evil, even if it means we get it wrong while making the inclinations inherent in our very nature to keep seeking what is objectively good so that we might eventually find it.
The Natural Inclination to Preserve Being
This next inclination drives us to defend our existence, value our health, and seek to provide ourselves with the basic necessities of life. We instinctually know that to exist is good and that we ought to do the things that ensure our continued existence. However, this inclination extends beyond mere existence and compels us to seek the things that make us thrive and live more fully, and to turn away from the things that stifle our existence and flourishing.
The inclination to preserve our being comes with a natural attitude of self-love, but also extends to the love of others as we recognize and want the existence and thriving of our neighbor. The love of others speaks to the moral codes to not steal, kill, or do harm to other people and to help facilitate their own inclination to exist and thrive when correctly ordered.
The Inclination to Marry
This inclination finds its roots in our sexual nature but extends beyond mere biology. Human sexuality has a two-fold purpose: it is both procreative and unitive. While we have an instinct to procreate, we also have an instinct to share a unique bond of affection with one other person over any other relationship. Similarly, beyond simply procreating, we want to live in a family with our spouse and children, creating an individual community of love, nurturing one another, and learning about life. Family life is the foundation of society.
Pinckaers identifies that the threats to the inclination to marry begin with a disordered view of the purpose of human sexuality. By isolating the physical act and its associated pleasure from the bonds and affection of the couple and the family unit that comes about because of it, we reduce sexuality to instincts and feelings rather than the authentic love and charity for which sexuality exists to serve. As a result of this view of sexuality, we see many disruptions to the duties and responsibilities of family life that ought to be rooted in properly ordered love.
The Inclination to Know the Truth
Our human intellect is rooted in the desire to know and seek the truth. All human history is an exercise in experimentation, trial and error, and learning from consequences. We find this in scientific and philosophical studies. We instinctively know that truth exists and seek to prove it through observations. As we come closer to objective truth, we grow in wisdom and prudence and make choices that adhere to what is true.
Today, we find ourselves in a world that says truth is subjective and up to individual interpretation. However, as stated above, since the dawn of time, man has pursued truth and proven it to be objective through study, allowing for the advancement of humanity. Just like the goodness we seek can be confused, so can the truth, since we form ourselves to only see what we want to see and nothing that we don’t. However, also like goodness, God has given us the inclination to pursue truth continuously, allowing for it to be adequately revealed to us when we are ready to see it.
The Natural Inclination to Life in Society
Humans are social beings. We gravitate toward communities, relationships, and associations. Living in societies facilitates physical survival and satisfies our innate needs for bonds, affection, and love. Pinckaers tells us that the most significant evidence of this inclination is language. Language lets us express our thoughts, needs, and feelings to others. It also enables us to express the goodness and truth we all seek to one another. Language also helps us to express the differentiation between “me” and “us,” which facilitates a sense of charity toward the other, existing in a communal group that should serve the good of every member.
From the inclination to life in society springs the virtue of justice, which holds each member to a standard code of conduct in which each member receives his due according to his actions. We all desire peace and harmony, which both spring from justice because they signify a healthy and flourishing societal life. A disordered societal life is revealed in disunity, opposition, fighting for power, and conflicting self-interests with differing perspectives on goodness and truth.
After reviewing these five inclinations of the natural law, it is easy to see how individuals with any viewpoint on any issue can use them to “point the finger” at any opposing view. Suppose two people follow their natural inclinations but do so in opposing ways, with each firmly believing his is the right way. In that case, there will be discord, which might make one wonder about the greater purpose of the natural law. Rather than being discouraged, have hope that God instilled the natural law in us to provide a way for each of us to continually seek him. The precepts of the natural law never allow us to be stagnant and compel us to keep moving forward in pursuit of good things, eventually leading us to God. The hope is that no matter how obstinate people are in recognizing rightly ordered morality, God loves us enough for us to seek it for ourselves and provides abundant opportunities to do so. Consider a moral teaching of the Church that you might have difficulty accepting. Ask God to help illuminate the truth for you and offer thanksgiving for the desire and the inclination he has put on your heart to seek it out.
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