When Does The Person Begin?




Home Page Articles Links Contact Us




"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

A particular debt to St. Thomas Aquinas

This is the last part of Part II of this book.  It both constitutes a further illustration of the principle of 'unity-in-diversity' and begins to address another dimension of the question: what is the structure of man, within which to understand the place of 'natural law' and which, in its way, complements the structure of love?

A general note

While St. Thomas Aquinas sets his treatment of law in the context of Law and Grace,126 it is St. Augustine who sums up the relation of the one to the other when he says: "The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled"127.  Therefore it is necessary to accept an ordering, as it were, of law to grace; however, from the point of view of this work it is also necessary to presuppose this relationship and its application to human nature.

If, however, the objection is raised that natural law seems "independent of grace,"128 and what is understood here by natural law is St. Thomas's definition of it as a product of reason129, then in the sense that reason acts according to its own power of the soul which is distinct from that of grace, then it can be said, at least as a possibility, that reason is "independent of grace."

However, given the mystery that Christ already has, in the Incarnation, 'in a certain way united himself with each man'130., and that this is prior to the sacrament of Baptism and inseparable to the act of the Incarnation, then it follows that God wants us to understand His presence to man as a mystery inseparable to the identity of man131 132.

St. Thomas Aquinas: esp. Summa Theologiae, (I-II, q. 94, a. 1-2).

Perhaps because it is easy to come to this subject with a misconception about the meaning of the term natural law, it is necessary to begin with a brief consideration of the meaning of the term law.

God stimulates us 'to do good, teaching us by law and aiding us by grace'133.

Thus, in general, St. Thomas regards the end to which the law orientates us is that of doing good; and, secondly, the end of doing good is an end to which we are ordered by God and, because of this, it is an end to which God acts as agent134: God stimulates us to do good.  Finally, the law teaches us the good to do.

St Thomas begins with the question: What is law?, and in particular with a conception of law as an external 'standard of measurement for behaviour, fostering certain actions and deterring from others'135.  He concludes with four characteristics of a definition of law: 'law is an ordinance of reason, for the general good, made by whoever has care of the community, and promulgated'136.

This is then followed by a question on the Types of law.  In this he orders law in the following way: it begins with God137 and passes on through creation to creatures and, particularly, to reasoning creatures138.  He therefore describes, as it were, an implicit procession of law: from the eternal law, to the law that regulates creation and the activities of creatures, to human law, and then on to religious and political law, culminating with a pen-ultimate article on the law of God which 'divides into the Old Law and the New Law, less and more fully developed versions of the same thing, like child and grown-up'139.  Thus there is more than a suggestion of the unity of law in his conception of the unifying nature of the eternal law: the plan of God not conceived in time140.

Secondly, he recognises the participation of everything in the eternal law; and, at the same time, it is in each thing in a way which corresponds to the nature of that thing: 'Even creatures without reason share eternal reason in their own way ...'141.  Thus he recognises the diversity of the law.  Thirdly, his law proceeds from God, through creation and, in time 'through Christ' back to God142.  Finally, he has even, albeit in an incidental way, furnished us with the dynamic image of the growing person to both indicate the historical development of the law and, I would suggest, the possibility that the adult human being is the one in whom the unity in diversity of the eternal law is, as it were, definitively expressed: pre-eminently in the person of Christ143.

In the question on The effect of law, St. Thomas states that 'all law aims to control those subordinate to it'144; and, in the case of human beings, this subordination of man to God reveals the purpose of law to be, as applied to man: 'to foster virtue'145 in him.  Finally, in order to do this, 'Laws command, forbid, allow and punish, says Gratian'146.

St. Thomas goes on to differentiate a further sense to the term law when he says, in the question on The eternal law: God himself 'is the law'147.  Thus he distinguishes between the law as the will of God for creation, which is 'subject to the law as to God's wise plan'148., and the 'Law' which is 'a name of God'149.  Finally, with respect to how things are subject to the law, he says that we are subject to the law in two ways: 'in common with creatures lacking reason we have a natural tendency to do what the law commands (for we are born to virtue, as Aristotle says ); but what is peculiar to us is that we are aware of the law'150.

This concept of the 'Law' as a name of God, precisely because it identifies God as in Himself 'Law,' suggests to me that this sense of the term law is perhaps prior to all subsequent uses of the term; and, therefore, it is perhaps necessary to remember this meaning of law that centres it on the mystery of what it is to be God, while at the same time recognising the relevance of each of the other uses of the term.

Secondly, when St. Thomas says we are subject to the eternal law in a way that is common to the animals, he begins, it seems to me, to suggest two things. &nsbp;The first of these is more obviously his sense: our subjection to the eternal law is just as much a 'given' to man as it is to the animals, precisely because what it is to be man is a manifestation of the will of God, just as much as anything that does not create itself is a manifestation of the will of its creator.  Thus the fact that we are born to virtue is indicative of a natural tendency within us, as St. Thomas says, 'to do what the law commands'151.  Further, being born to virtue would seem to be so fundamental to what it is to be human, that it is just as basic to us to be this as it is for an animal not to 'understand divine commands as rational creatures do'152.

A second suggestion, and one perhaps less obviously explicit in St. Thomas is that it seems as if he is suggesting an integrity to human nature such that there is an intrinsic order within each of us between, on the one hand, being born to virtue, and on the other hand, possessing what is peculiar to us, namely 'that we are aware of the law'153.  In other words, that there exists in us, a design of us, in which everything is ordered to the end of practising virtue.

Finally, this implicit anthropology seems to be a part of St. Thomas's grand conception of the law that, as it were, exists in the being of creation in imitation of its existence in God.  This conception of things seems to reach a particularly explicit expression in the question on The law we have in us by nature, without at the same time being worked out in all its details; but it is nevertheless sufficiently clear that it is an anthropology of man in the context of creation which, as it were, finds man to be creation's fullest expression of that imitation of God.

I will begin by a brief exposition of the main points of this article, from the perspective of what I see as its emerging vision of the created order and I will then make a brief comment on the main features of that anthropology which exist in the context of his doctrine on creation and God.

St. Thomas orders his presentation of man in the following way: first he refers to what distinguishes man's awareness of the law in its relation to reason: 'The law we have in us by nature is the sort of product of reason propositions are'154.  Then he says that these products of reason are to 'reason planning action what the first premises of the sciences are to reason pursuing truth: the self-evident starting points'155.  Thirdly he goes on to say that the first principle of the natural law 'is that good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided'156.

Then, I suggest, he orders the goods which are to be done and pursued in a way which, I would say, constitutes a hierachical expression of them.  For he has already indicated in the second article of this question that 'Man grasps things in a certain order', which could be taken as a starting point for the argument that man grasps things in a certain order because they exist in a certain order.  In other words, it is natural for the mind to grasp things in a certain order and they objectively exist in a certain order for the mind to grasp.  Thus, in general, St. Thomas does has a 'hierarchic conception of reality'157., which, while it is too complex to discuss here, is nevertheless necessary to advert to because it is the relevant context to understanding the significance of the place that he gives to a particular thing.  Furthermore, understanding this is particularly relevant to understanding the particular place that St. Thomas gives to the point concerning his doctrine that the natural law commands what is relevant to the right exercise of the natural inclinations.

The first good is the 'natural tendency every substance has to try and preserve its natural being: so the law in us by nature commands whatever conserves human life and opposes death'158.  The second order of goods are those of procreation and education, which he also considers to be what man has in common with 'whatever nature teaches all animals'159.  And the third and final order of goods which are particularly characteristic of man's rational nature, and of which he gives two examples are: 'to know the truth about God' and 'to live a social life'160.

Finally, one almost incidental point he makes turns out to be quite a key feature in all this; he says: 'the law in us commands whatever is relevant to such inclinations ...'161.

In conclusion what emerges from all this is, as I have said, that St. Thomas has used law to set out God's divine plan in such as way that he has been able to indicate the whole of it, man's place in it and the extent to which law comes into the constitution of man himself.  Furthermore, he suggests, it seems to me, that the nature of law cannot be apprehended in its full meaning without recognising that law is another name of God; and, what is more, that this bears on our understanding of what law is, therefore, in man.

Now two things follow from all this.  The first is from his systematic presentation of law.  For St. Thomas law is not something fundamentally external to man, because it is not something fundamentally external to creation - because it is not something fundamentally external to God.  Thus, while on the one hand law is as diverse as the phenomena to which he refers, nevertheless, on the other hand, law expresses a unifying reality which varies with the being of each of all these different phenomena: Law is like the unifying grain of creation162, which in some way manifests the mystery that 'Law' is a name of God.  Finally, while God is not a part of 'the system' in the same way that everything that is created is, nevertheless it is possible to see the relationship which God reveals between what He is and what He has made as in some sense that which makes it all intelligible and, in so doing, reveals God to be understood as 'the key part' of it.

The second point is really a corollary of the first: that if law cannot be understood except as a phenomenon internal to the identity of the subject, and if each type of law finds its particular place in a hierarchy of law, then it follows that to understand any particular aspect of this law one has to take account of the way that it exists as interior to the subject, and the point that it appears on this hierarchy of law.  Therefore the true context of the 'biologically given order' of the regulation of the woman's fertility is, I suggest, that it would fall within what St. Thomas would call that which 'the law in us by nature commands'163 precisely because it lies, as it were, as first in order of what is relevant to the inclination of human procreation.  Secondly, that within the hierarchy of law that is within us 'the position' of what is relevant to our natural inclinations is to be found, as it were, below the natural law, in the roots of the law within us: in the biological law which itself presupposes and 'builds upon' the laws of matter.




References
126 ST pages 276-324.    Back
127 De Spiritu et Littera etc., as it is quoted in VS art 23, page 38, footnote 30.    Back
128 An objection raised by Fr. Richard Conrad OP to the second draft of the essay from which this section comes.  He is the director of the MA in Catholic Theology at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, which I am currently trying to do.  I owe a debt of thanks to both Fr. Richard Conrad OP and to the director of the BA (hons) in Divinity, at the same institute, namely Fr. John Redford.  Finally, I would like to thank Archbishop Couve de Murville for his encouragement to me to go on writing.    Back
129 ST, page 286, Pt II, Qu 94, art 1: 'The law we have in us by nature is the sort of product of reason propositions are.'    Back
130 Gaudium et Spes, art 24, page 925 of VCII.    Back
131 Cf, Gaudium et Spes/i>, VCII, art 22, page 922.    Back
132 The simple exception to this is sin; but even then this is not simple.  For mortal sin is a different ontological condition to venial sin; and, moreover, the grace of God is at work in calling the sinner back to God.  Finally, the damned may suffer because they 'experience' the goodness of the grace of God as a torment instead of the blessing it is for the Blessed.  One could take account, here, of ST, page 286, Pt II, Qu 93, art 6.    Back
133 ST, page 276: introduction to Pt II, Qu 90.    Back
134 Ibid.    Back
135 ST, Pt II, Qu 90, art 1, page 280.    Back
136 ST, Pt II, Qu 90, art 4, page 281.    Back
137 ST, Pt II, Qu 91, art 1, page 281.    Back
138 ST, Pt II, Qu 91, art 2, page 281.    Back
139 ST, Pt II, Qu 91, art 5, page 282.    Back
140 ST, Pt II, Qu 91, art 1, page 281.    Back
141 ST, Pt II, Qu 91, art 2, page 281.    Back
142 ST, Pt II, Qu 91, art 5, page 282.    Back
143 Ibid.    Back
144 ST, Pt II, Qu 92, art 1, page 283.    Back
145 Ibid.    Back
146 As quoted in ST, Pt II, Qu 92, art 2, page 283.    Back
147 ST, Pt II, Qu 93, art 4, page 285.    Back
148 Ibid.    Back
149 ST, page 277: from the introductory comment by T. McDermott; but see Pt II, Qu 91, articles 1 and 5, on page 281 and page 282.  Further, on page 285, Pt II, Qu 93 on The eternal law, art 4: 'only God himself is exempt since he is the law.'  And finally, on page 303, Pt II, Qu 106, on The New Law, art 1: 'The New Law is first and foremost the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit to those who believe in Christ...'    Back
150 ST, Pt II, Qu 93, art 6, page 285.    Back
151 Ibid.    Back
152 ST, Pt II, Qu 93, art 5, page 285.    Back
153 ST, Pt II, Qu 93, art 6, page 285.    Back
154 ST, Pt II, Qu 94, art 1, page 286.    Back
155 ST, Pt II, Qu 94, art 2, page 286.    Back
156 ST, Pt II, Qu 94, art 2, page 287.    Back
157 A, page 95.    Back
158 ST, Pt II, Qu 94, art 2, page 287.    Back
159 Ibid.    Back
160 Ibid.    Back
161 Ibid.    Back
162 Cf, JCH WU, Thomistic Analysis, page 256 of Vol X of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, (USA: Jack Heraty and Associated, Inc., Palatine III, reprinted 1981).  Abbrev. NCE etc.    Back
163 ST, Pt II, Qu 94, art 2, page 287.    Back

Home Articles Top Next




Copyright © 2010 - All articles written by Francis Etheredge
Copyright © 2010-2015 - Website designed, written and maintained by Grace Mason
All rights reserved