By Fr. Bud Grant
Teasing out Thomas Aquinas’ Natural Law takes awhile. In April’s article, Natural Law was defined. In May’s, the relationship between Natural Law and Biblical Truth was shown. In June we examined the “bonum naturalis” by which non-rational nature is shown to obey rational laws — God’s law. July used the Declaration of Independence to explore the “bonum conaturalis,” that is, the natural laws peculiar to humans as rational beings.
All along, like a Mississippi River boatman, I have tried to point out the snags and sandbars that we should assiduously dodge, such as claiming that Natural Law can be reduced to a “manual” or that humans are no more free than coyote. There is much yet to do, beginning with a clarification of what we may call the “bonum supernaturalis,” which for Thomas means union with God, perfection, ultimate happiness, or to use his term “beatitudine.” You may like this.
Thomas, like his mentor Aristotle, was an empiricist — he derived truth from studying the world around him (hence “natural” law). He noticed that non-rational nature purdures over time. Further, he observed that humans create moral communities based on the common good. Christians do both of these but, further, they sacrifice in Christ-like suffering for the sake of (get this) those who do not deserve it.
Self-sacrificial love (imperfectly translated as “charity;” I prefer Thomas’ Latin caritas) seems to conflict with the rational pursuit of the common good, but neither is it a dumb obedience to the laws of nature that, say, dictate that a kill-deer hen must lure predators away from her ground-nesting young by feigning injury. So what is this profoundly powerful drive? Does it eclipse free will? You must sense Thomas’ recoiling at such a notion.
The self-sacrificial love that compels Christians to care more about others than themselves is the greatest of the three theological virtues, including fides (the God-empowerment of dying to everything) and spes (the God promise that, having died, we will rise). Like these, caritas cannot be arrived at by the use of reason alone but neither can it be acquired by any but those who have mastered reason.
Caritas, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, is the beloved’s loving response to The Lover’s love (or, in his exact words: “Love Loves Love in the Beloved”). We love because we are loved by God. A candle, once lit, gives off light. It is worth pausing here: the candle, in giving off light, expends and ultimately extinguishes itself.
This is, to be frank, a crazy idea, always has been. Lucretius, the great Roman epicurean, writing before Christianity, condemned religion for using suffering as a tool to control us (de Rerum Natura, I, 100ff). Even more so does his reputed modern interpreter, the National Book Award winner Stephen Greenblatt who is incredulously mocking in his observation that ancient Christians “were determined to make the pain to which all humankind was condemned their active choice” (The Swerve, 105). St. Paul embraces this foolishness: “we proclaim a Christ crucified stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1: 23).
That Thomas embraces this notion within the framework of his Natural Law theology is worth praying about. He says that this virtue (infused by grace, not acquired by reason) is measured in three degrees. The first, insipiens, is to refuse to gain by others’ suffering. The second, perficiens, is to actively pursue the good of others, even at personal risk. The third, perfecta — achieved only upon death — is to love others as Christ loves us: the vision is exquisitely woven by the incomparable Thomist, Dante:
“I saw ingathered and bound by love into one single volume what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered: substances, accidents, and dispositions as if conjoined in such a way that what I tell is only rudimentary. I think I saw the universal shape which that knot takes … because the good, the object of the will, is fully gathered into that Light; outside that Light, what there is perfect is defective….(Paradisio XXX.85-93, 103-105).
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)