What is the “natural law”? We sometimes hear this term batted around, especially in Catholic or politically conservative circles. But when we begin to think about objective grounds for moral judgments, things appear complicated. Is there a clear foundation for society’s moral norms or are they conventional? Can we make ethical judgements universally applicable to all or are they typically expressive of a particular culture or time in history? If there are such universal norms, how do we determine their content? Evidently such questions are essential to our practical lives. Civic and familial justice, common law, and political consensus are all based on the premise that we can deliberate about and identify shared moral norms.

When Thomas Aquinas discusses the foundations of the natural law (in Summa theologiae I-II, q. 94, a. 2) he characterizes these primarily in terms of basic human tendencies that are inherent to our nature as rational animals, ineradicable, and therefore common to all persons. Every human being has a natural tendency to desire existence, and health, that is to say to thrive as a living being. There are deep inclinations in human nature toward sexual reproduction, and the education of children. Human beings desire to live in community according to norms of friendship, justice and civic polity. They desire the truth and the pursuit of understanding. They desire knowledge of God, or of the absolute origin and source of their existence, so as to gain perspective on all things in light of what is primary.

Based on these basic human tendencies, all human beings and societies derive a set of responsibilities and rights: the responsibility to protect innocent life, to support and protect the family, to establish civic justice, to seek the truth through education and common deliberation, and to support the religious pursuit of knowledge of God and corporate worship. Of course, this is only the beginning: Aquinas goes on to details the virtues and vices, laws and practices that help human persons pursue a life of happiness in accord with the natural law. His vision is classical, and some would say quite traditional, but it also reflects well what one finds in most societies across the ages. How can we make sense of that vision in our own time, characterized by the constitutional framework of modern democracy, and in the service of our cosmopolitan world of the 21st century?

This coming summer in July 2018 the Institute for Human Ecology will begin a new collaboration with the Thomistic Institute to initiate the Civitas Dei Scholars program. Named for the “City of God” of St. Augustine, this program will invite graduate students and advanced undergraduates to apply for a fellowship to study for a week in Washington, D.C., in a collaborative program at the Catholic University of America and the Dominican House of Studies. This year’s theme is on The Foundations of Natural Law: An Introduction, and will feature Prof. Joseph Capizzi (Catholic University of America), Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., (Dominican House of Studies), and Prof. Adrian Vermeule (Harvard Law School). The seminar will be inter-disciplinary, considering the topics of moral knowledge and the natural law tradition as they appear in the thought of Augustine, the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, and traditions of interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Expenses are provided by the fellowship. To apply, students can find more information here.

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