We began the “Nature of Marriage” blog series by discussing the basic philosophical concept of nature: why? For the past year, we have discussed the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality, and the family — tackling some tricky ethical questions in the process. Just to name a few, we have discussed the ethics of contraception, divorce, chastity, and in vitro fertilization. It was the purpose of this blog to explain how a proper understanding of human nature is essential for answering such questions. As Catholics, we believe that human nature is the grounding for certain truths about the human person. For instance: that mankind was created male and female, that the human being is ordered toward procreation and family life, and that the human being is by nature a social creature. It is impossible to understand what is good for us, our families, and broader society without knowing who we are and who God designed us to be.
One idea stressed in this blog was that the human being holds a unique place in the whole of God’s creation. Today, it is common to appeal to “nature” without considering the uniqueness of human nature. That something occurs “in nature” does not necessarily mean that it is good for us. There are many activities that may be natural to, say, a beaver, bird, or fish that are not natural for human beings.
Our human nature is the standard against which we judge whether or not an activity is good. In fact, the ability to deliberate about activities is a defining trait of human nature. Human beings are not mere animals but rational animals. Natural reason means, among other things, that we have the ability to guide ourselves in our actions and lead a good life.
But, as Catholics, we believe that human nature is caught up in the divine. What does this mean? First, consider the fact that human beings are the creation of a wise and loving God. We are able to recognize that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. From this, we know that each and every human person has inherent dignity and deserves to be treated as such. Second, we believe that all human beings naturally seek God Himself insofar as human beings naturally seek the truth, desire to understand their place in the world, and wonder about what they must do to be a good person. In the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, “No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil? The answer is only possible thanks to the splendour of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit…”
St. Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas we discussed in this blog series, also recognizes the certain divine quality of human reason. St. Thomas teaches that God designed human reason pre-programmed, so to speak, with the basic moral principle to do good and avoid evil. This is written into our human nature. The predisposition to seek goodness is a way in which we “participate in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator” (CCC 1978). Interestingly, then, the division between the natural and the divine is not so cut and dry. This blog has sought to explain that Catholic moral teaching on the issues of marriage and family life is founded upon the notion that mankind was created by God for a unique purpose and that God cares about who we are and what we do.
Of course, this blog didn’t and can’t cover every issue pertinent to Catholic moral teaching, and new challenges face us every day. But I hope that this blog laid a foundation for approaching a wide array of ethical questions that one may face as a Catholic person in the modern world. To reiterate the introduction to this blog series: it is more important than ever to understand and promote the true nature of the human person and the true nature of marriage. It is more important now than ever to remember that nothing in God’s creation is arbitrary, that (in the words of Aristotle) “nature does nothing in vain”—to remember that not only is marriage unique, it is unique for a reason.
 Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 6 August 1993. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html
About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. This blog post concludes her work as a part-time intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A few years ago, I was discussing the Church’s position on contraception with a friend of mine. He said, “Well, getting sick is natural, and we take medicine to stop the process of becoming ill. Why is taking birth control to stop the process of becoming pregnant any different?” I must admit, I was a little stumped. I knew that the two cases—becoming ill and becoming pregnant—were different, but I couldn’t quite parse out how. I had an intuition that it had something to do with the way my friend was using the word “natural.” Surely, I thought, getting sick and getting pregnant are two different kinds of natural processes. But how?
We all have a general—perhaps a vague—idea of what “natural” means. Such is obvious by the fact that we assume the existence of nature in our everyday language. When two dogs struggle against their leashes to sniff and inspect one another, we say, “Well, they’re just doing what comes naturally!” We say things like, “I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so naturally, I was starving come dinnertime.” Not only do we talk about the natural, but we also have an intuition that what is natural is good. For instance, many of us favor natural remedies as opposed to prescriptions. Many of us gravitate toward brands that include the word “natural” in the name, brands that promise products free of chemicals and food free of additives and preservatives.
As Catholics, we have an especially rich understanding of the natural as good. We take human nature to be the grounding for certain truths about the human person: that mankind was created male and female, that the human being is ordered toward procreation and family life, that the human being is by nature a social creature. All these things we regard as good insofar as they are integral aspects of human nature, and to live out these aspects of human nature is what enables the human being to flourish. When we recognize a common human nature and recognize this nature as good, we therefore know also that it is good for everyone to flourish. In other words, we recognize that to flourish is a right, so to speak, of each and every person. To recognize this fact gives way to the concept of human dignity, which means to respect and, indeed, to help our fellow human beings flourish and live-out their human nature. We cannot, therefore, truly know what it means to say that human beings have worth and dignity, what is good for mankind, without a concrete notion of human nature.
In 1993, St. Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Veritatis Splendor in view of widespread confusion and disagreement in the areas of ethics and moral theology. The mission of the encyclical was to recall and restate the fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine as it pertains to the Church’s moral teaching. The overarching theme of Veritatis Splendor is to affirm the natural and eternal law, to affirm and defend a real and immutable human nature, and to affirm the fact that “the power to decide good and evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.” (VS, no. 32) In other words, St. John Paul II teaches us in Veritatis Splendor that to know human nature and to know it as good and created by God are essential to understanding the Church’s moral teaching.
Taking for its inspiration St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, this blog series will answer questions about the Church’s teaching in the areas of human sexuality, marriage, and the family— with an eye toward human nature and natural law. For example: What does it mean to say that marriage is a natural institution? In what sense is marriage natural? Why are unity and procreation marriage’s natural ends?
In the blog entries to come, I hope to provide some clarity and insight into the nature behind Church teaching and to answer some of these tricky questions that sometimes leave us stumped. These are questions that Catholics and non-Catholics alike struggle with and, if left unanswered, can be a source of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is more important than ever to understand and promote the true nature of the human person and the true nature of marriage. It is more important now than ever to remember that nothing in God’s creation is arbitrary, that (in the words of Aristotle) “nature does nothing in vain”—to remember that not only is marriage unique, it is unique for a reason.
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.