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Nature Part Three

Posted Oct. 29, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Intro to Nature: Part Three

Today, we are going to address some ambiguities with regard to the way we often use the word “nature,” building on the last posts. Last time, we finished discussing Fr. Wallace’s two-fold conception of nature, breaking it down into (1) natural things and (2) their activities. When combined, natural things and their behaviors make up the whole world of nature. We emphasized strongly in our last post the importance of inherent natures, which are both the source of and that in virtue of which natural things live-out their particular behaviors and activities. In today’s post, we are going to talk in more detail about specific natures and why distinguishing them is so important for deciding what is natural and unnatural.

It is a mistake to use the word “nature” univocally, which means to treat all senses of a word as if they were the same. We often fail to distinguish “nature” in a general sense—the sense which characterizes the whole world of nature—from substances which have specific natures and activities which derive from those natures. We often do not realize that when we call something “natural” or “unnatural,” we actually mean that it’s either natural or unnatural in a certain way or a certain respect. Remember the example in our last post about the dog wearing a Halloween costume? For dogs to wear clothing is unnatural – it doesn’t belong to a dog’s nature to wear clothes. But we can still say that it is natural for human beings to wear clothing (we’ll discuss this in more detail later).

To make matters more complicated (or more fun depending how you look at it!) the same activity could be considered either natural or unnatural for a subject, depending on which way you look at it. For instance, it is “natural” for beavers to eat potato chips when they are offered them, insofar as they are animals, and animals need to eat to survive. If you starve a beaver and then offer it Doritos, it will eat them. But potato chips are not a typical food for a beaver. A beaver does not seek and find potato chips in its natural habitat; in fact, we would find it odd and “unnatural” for a beaver to seek out, eat, or crave potato chips. We know what a beaver is, and a potato-chip-eater is not what comes to mind. So in this case, it is the specific nature of the beaver that makes the eating of potato chips unnatural. Eating potato chips is both natural and unnatural for a beaver, depending on how you look at it.

Now, humans are defined as rational animals. Our rational nature is what sets us apart from other animals, and we engage in particular activities in virtue of our rationality. When we use our reason to deliberate and make decisions, when we use our free-will to act on our choices, this is natural for us. Recall what we said about how it is natural for human beings to wear clothing. St. Thomas makes this helpful distinction in the Summa (while discussing marriage, no less!):

A thing is said to be natural in two ways. First, as resulting of necessity from the principles of nature; thus upward movement is natural to fire. In this way matrimony is not natural, nor are any of those things that come to pass at the intervention or motion of the free-will. Secondly, that is said to be natural to which nature inclines although it comes to pass through the intervention of the free-will; thus acts of virtue and the virtues themselves are called natural; and in this way matrimony is natural, because natural reason inclines thereto in two ways.[1]

What St. Thomas explains here is that interventions on the part of our free will are unnatural in one sense, and natural in another. Using matrimony as an example, he explains that some things that humans do are not natural in the sense that they “just happen” according to the world of nature, e.g., the way that fire tending upwards “just happens.” However, some things that arise from intervention or force can be natural insofar as the impulse for them comes from our nature.  So, we don’t just somehow “become married” by natural forces; We choose to marry. However, we do so because we naturally seek union with someone of the opposite sex in order to help rear, educate, love our children. It is reasonable. Likewise, human beings wear clothing not only because it protects us from the elements, but also to adorn ourselves and to safeguard modesty. To wear clothing therefore follows from our nature, as it is a reasonable thing to do.

In our next and last post, we are going to wrap up our discussion on nature by using what we have learned to tackle a moral dilemma. Remember our friend from Part One, who argued that contraception is no different than any other “natural” process? Well, next we are going to show how this position falls into the very trap that we have been discussing today, and then we are going to formulate our response. Stay tuned!

[1] ST Suppl., Q. 41, Art. 1

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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Nature Part Two

Posted Oct. 16, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Intro to Nature: Part Two

Today we are going to talk more about the 2nd way of conceptualizing nature as mentioned in the first post and see how it is related to the 1st way. [1]

Last time, we began by talking about Fr. William Wallace’s two-fold conception of nature: (1) What is free from human intervention and contamination and (2) activities or behaviors that originate from within an agent. Then, we took a closer look at the first conception and clarified the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. Now, we are going to go into Fr. Wallace’s second conception.

In our first post, we talked about how Fr. Wallace’s first sense of the natural is to be contrasted with the artificial. In this post, we will see that his second sense of nature also gives way to an important contrast: natural activities are to be contrasted with activities that result from force and coercion. In order to make this contrast more apparent, let’s start by talking about activities and their agents. An activity is something done by an agent, and an agent is who or what does an activity. Let’s give a few examples of some activities and their agents: Human beings play sports, eat, watch television. Birds fly; dogs bark; beavers build dams. Notice that all of these agents are things that we identified as “natural” according to our first conception of nature. That is, none of these agents are artificial. It is, in fact, impossible for artificial things to be agents of activity. We see this clearly if we contrast the activities of a natural thing with those “activities” of an artificial thing, such as a kitchen appliance.

A natural thing, like an animal, has a body that self-maintains; it eats, it moves around, it builds itself a shelter, etc., and all of these activities it does “spontaneously” [2] and from within. The animal doesn’t need to be told or convinced to do these things; it just does. This is because the animal has its own “source” of motion or activity—itself; its nature. This is, in fact, the definition of nature laid down by Aristotle in his Physics, “a natural principle of motion or rest in the thing to which it belongs primarily and in virtue of that thing, but not accidentally.”[3] Aristotle is saying that natural things, those things which come into being and function on their own, have an internal principle—something they possess— which accounts for this coming into being and functioning. For example, the beaver has a “beaver nature,” which accounts for what it is and what it does. In virtue of this nature, it builds dams. Building dams is one way that a beaver lives out its nature. Now, we can see that a nature, a “source” of activity, is much more than just what prompts an activity or sets an activity in motion. A thing’s nature is also that for the sake of which it performs all of its activities. In other words, a nature “dictates” the kinds of activities that promote and maintain the flourishing of the thing and its nature. Everything that a beaver does is done in virtue of its beaver nature and for its beaver nature; e.g., beaver nature dictates that the beaver build dams, and the building of dams in turn allows the beaver to flourish in accord with its very nature. This is what prompts our intuition that natural things, like animals, “do what comes naturally.” We know and anticipate that things will act according to the kind of thing that they are. For example, if a beaver grabbed a bag of chips in its paws and sat down next to us on the couch to watch Friends, we would be surprised.

Now that we understand the way in which natural things are agents of their activities, we are in a place to see how artificial things can never be agents of activity. A kitchen appliance, like a toaster, is an artificial thing. Human beings designed and fashioned it for the purpose of toasting—we decided what its function would be.  We decided how it would work as well. Because everything that the toaster does is pre-determined by the way we designed and built it, nothing that the toaster does can be said to originate from “within” the toaster itself in the way that actions arise from “within” natural agents. As we discussed above, for an action to arise “from within” an agent means both that the action is a result of the agent’s nature and that the action is done for the sake of the agent’s nature. The toaster, however, does not have its own source of activity, its own nature by which and for the sake of which it performs its functions. On the contrary: everything the toaster “does” is for the sake of the person using it. Toasters are actually for the sake of human nature. For this reason, nothing that a toaster does arises from “within.”

This is why activities that artificial things appear to do on their own are actually things that we have done to it. For example, we don’t physically heat up the coils of the toaster or make the toast pop up ourselves. It appears that these actions really do originate from “within” the toaster. However, the fact that we don’t do these things immediately or directly doesn’t mean that they therefore originate “from within” the toaster, that the toaster itself “does them.” Even though we do not heat the toaster ourselves, we nonetheless put in place the mechanisms that make it do so. In this way, everything that the toaster “does” is really just a by-product, so to speak, of the way we have designed the toaster to function for our ends, our sake, our nature.

Now that we have Aristotle’s account of nature, it is easy to explain why Fr. Wallace contrasts natural activities with those that arise from force or coercion. Sometimes, force or coercion is called “violence.” These terms—force, coercion, violence—have a negative connotation in our language, often meaning something that is intentionally mean or malicious. In this specific context, however, these terms don’t have any such implications. To act from force or coercion means that a thing is acted upon externally so that it does something opposed to its natural inclination. For example, rocks by their nature tend downward. If I pick up a rock and throw it in the air, I have just done violence to the rock. This motion is, therefore, unnatural for the rock. When Fr. Wallace says that natural behaviors are those which arise from within an agent and thus arise without force or coercion, he is emphasizing the fact that certain activities follow necessarily from the natures of things, and any activity done to a thing which is contrary to its nature is unnatural.

We now understand both senses of nature that Fr. Wallace distinguishes and how they are related. Sometimes, we talk about natural things, and sometimes we talk about natural activities or behaviors. However, these two senses of the natural are interdependent. Natural things possess natures that account for what they are and what they do; natural activities are rooted in and depend upon the natures of their agents. Thus it is only by combining natural things and their distinctive activities that we have a full picture of the natural world:

“Combining the two senses, we may characterize the world of nature as what is capable of coming into existence apart from human influence and as made up of things that have within themselves natures or internal sources of their distinctive activities. Nature is thus populated by plants and animals of various kinds, by chemical elements and compounds, by hosts of elementary particles. by galaxies, stars, and planets…” [4]

We now have also a better sense of the way we use the words “natural” and “unnatural.” Sometimes, we say “that’s unnatural” unqualifiedly when referring to an object, the thought being “this thing does not belong to the world of nature.” For example, we say that a plastic water bottle is unqualifiedly unnatural because it only exists because of human technology; it’s not a product of nature but of man. Sometimes, we say “that’s unnatural” when referring to the behavior of a specific, natural thing if we know that it has been done out of force or coercion. For instance, someone might see a dog dressed up for Halloween and say, “that’s unnatural.” What they are really saying is “it is unnatural for a dog to get dressed in a Halloween costume.” It is important not to conflate these two senses of the word “natural.” That is, it is important to consider that some things are not unnatural unqualifiedly but may be unnatural for a certain thing and in a certain respect. In our next post, we are going to talk more about the difficulties that arise if these two senses fail to be distinguished. Stay tuned!

[1] See our previous post, Nature Part One.

[2] William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Catholic University of America Press: 1996), 4

[3] Aristotle, Physics 2.1, 192b20–23.

[4] Wallace, 4.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.


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Made for Love Ep 48: When a Loved One is in Prison, Part Two

Posted Oct. 16, 2019 by DOM 3 comments

When someone comes out of prison, what does the Church do to help them pick up their lives again? Today we’ll talk with Bishop Wack from the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and Fr. Dustin Feddon, of Joseph House, Angela Burrin, who ministers at a Maryland women’s prison, and Lindsay Myers.

Here’s a website about Catholic Prison Ministries.

On Podbean:

And Soundcloud:



USCCB Chairmen Issue Statement on Supreme Court Cases on Redefinition of “Sex” in Civil Rights Law

Posted Oct. 9, 2019 by DOM 2 comments

October 8, 2019

WASHINGTON— Bishop chairmen of three committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) commented on three cases argued before the Supreme Court today – Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., Altitude Express v. Zarda, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. These cases present the question whether the prohibition on employment discrimination based on “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” discrimination, respectively.

Bishop Robert J. McManus, of Worcester, Chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, Bishop Frank J. Dewane, of Venice, Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop James D. Conley, of Lincoln, Chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, issued the following statement:

“Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument regarding the meaning of the word ‘sex’ in federal law. Words matter; and ‘sex’ should not be redefined to include sexual inclinations or conduct, nor to promulgate the view that sexual identity is solely a social construct rather than a natural or biological fact. The Supreme Court affirmed that sex is an ‘immutable characteristic’ in the course of establishing constitutional protections for women against sex discrimination in the 1970s. Such protection is no less essential today. Title VII helps ensure the dignified treatment of all persons, and we as Catholics both share and work toward that goal. Redefining ‘sex’ in law would not only be an interpretive leap away from the language and intent of Title VII, it would attempt to redefine a fundamental element of humanity that is the basis of the family, and would threaten religious liberty.”

On August 23, the USCCB filed amicus curiae briefs in the cases, available at and

In addition, staff prepared a backgrounder on the cases.


Made for Love Ep 47: When a Loved One is in Prison, Part One

Posted Oct. 1, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Catholic families suffer separation when one of their members is in prison. What is Catholic prison ministry all about? Today we’ll talk with Bishop Wack from the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Bishop Cary of the Diocese of Baker, Fr. Dustin Feddon, of Joseph House, Fr. Michael Carson, who ministered in San Quentin, and Angela Burrin, who ministers at a Maryland women’s prison.

Here’s a website about Catholic Prison Ministries.

On Podbean:

And Souncloud: