Chapter III of Part I of the Instrumentum Laboris "The Pastoral Challenges Of The Family In The Context Of Evangelization" for the October Extraordinary Synod on the family is dedicated to the theme of "The Gospel of the Family and the Natural Law," where "the Gospel of the Family" means the biblical and Magisterial teachings pertaining to this topic. Here, I annotate each sub-section of this section of the Instrumentum, and then offer some cursory reflections on its treatment of the subject-matter.

The Instrumentum is a compilation, evidently aggregated without much effort to synthesize or comprehend, the responses and observations gathered by the bishops. My general view is that apart from diagnosing the rudimentary outline of contemporary impediments to fruitful reception of natural law arguments, the authors of the Instrumentum approach the subject-matter of this section too vaguely and without any clear sense of direction or prescription or appropriate syntax, ironically reflecting the same impoverished grasp that they lament in the general faithful.

1. The Relation of the Gospel of the Family to the Natural Law

The first sentence of paragraph 20 captures the thrust of the section's concerns:
Speaking of the acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family necessarily involves the subject of the natural law, which is often quoted in the Church’s magisterial documents and poses difficulties today.

The document goes on to note that "the large-scale perplexity surrounding the concept of natural law tends to affect some elements of Christian teaching on the subject of marriage and the family." Citing a document by the International Theological Commission "Alla ricerca di un’etica universale: nuovo sguardo sulla legge naturale"—The search for a universal ethic: A new look at the natural law—the Instrumentum roots the intersection of the Gospel of the Family and the natural law in "the necessary relation which the Gospel establishes with the human person in the variety of circumstances created by history and culture," emphasizing that natural law ethics respond to the need for a universal ethical language, and also inter-cultural and -religious dialogue.

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The key sentence in this section asserts:
[W]hat underlies the relationship between the Gospel of the Family and the natural law is not so much the defense of an abstract philosophical concept as the necessary relation which the Gospel establishes with the human person in the variety of circumstances created by history and culture.

What this assertion means is not immediately clear. Why is "abstract philosophical concept" the phrase invoked as a reasonable mode ("not so much the defense ...") of understanding this relationship, conjuring as it does the suggestion of an inaccessibly metaphysical web of theorizing? The use of "abstract" implies the criticism, raised in many Christian quarters of late (R. J. Snell dialogues these criticisms nicely in the opening of his recent book on natural law; Sherif Girgis does the same at Public Discourse), of natural law ethics that such ethical argumentation is inadequately representational or demonstrable.

If that criticism is accurate, why is the description of "an abstract philosophical concept" held forth as a sound (but not ideal) way of understanding the natural law's relationship to the Gospel of the Family? Yet if that criticism is inaccurate, why is the decidedly pejorative label "abstract" invoked at all?

This confusion is linked to another point of concern that the document does not address: the difference between natural law and the "concept" of natural law. Speaking locally, many (or most) Americans are natural lawyers; they endorse certain human rights, affirm moral norms against murder, rape, torture, non-consensual sexual activity, and so forth, and agree upon some basic, universal moral duties (charity toward the impoverished and other humanitarian efforts). Not many of these same persons are skeptical of the concept or theories or particular arguments for natural law, except insofar as these arguments or theories attempt to justify certain conclusions, usually sexual in nature, that individuals don't wish to accept. It is such folk, along with persons who accept such controversial conclusions but are frustrated or stymied by how few others do, who generate the critique that natural law arguments for these conclusions are hopelessly "abstract"; but certainly not more so than many appeals to "equality," "human dignity," and other concepts invoked in defense of one's personal convictions with respect to particular issues.

The second half of the key Instrumentum sentence is more puzzling. Where does the natural law come into play in it? Is it contained within the penumbras of "[t]he variety of circumstances created by history and culture"?

These interpretational difficulties derive from the radical flaw of the entire section: No effort is made, or even attempted, to define, describe, or otherwise lay out what the Church actually teaches about "the concept of natural law." (Nor does the phrase "natural law" appear in the Instrumentum before or after this section.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the natural law "expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie" (CCC 1954); the natural law is the highest and most fundamental expression of the moral law, rooted in the eternal law of God, the Logos (CCC 1952). The natural law is "present in the heart of each man and established by reason [...] universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties (CCC 1956). The natural law:

is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history; it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies (CCC 1958). The natural law, the Creator's very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community (CCC 1959).

One might object that such a summary of Church teaching would be out-of-place in this section, which only gathers responses and observations. But the earlier Instrumentum sections (titled "God’s Plan for Marriage and the Family" and "The Knowledge and Acceptance of the Teachings on Marriage and the Family from Sacred Scripture and Church Documents") fail to mention natural law at all, despite the Church's teaching that the revealed law acknowledges and in some ways depends upon previous, sound moral reasoning as upon a "foundation" (CCC 1952, 1960).

The misunderstanding of natural law's role in scripture and doctrine is the subject of this section of the Instrumentum. Yet neither do the sections on scripture and doctrine mention natural law, nor the section on natural law describe its own terms. Consequently the reader is left as unaware of the sound relationship between natural law, scripture, and doctrine as are the respondents to the bishops.

2. Present-Day Problems Related to the Natural Law

This section begins by acknowledging "the many problems highlighted in the responses concerning the question of the natural law." The "concept of natural law" is "highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible," according to many responses gathered by the bishops. While the "spousal aspect" of male-female relations remains as "an experiential reality," it is not understood to be universally given or morally normative.

Furthermore, the descriptor "natural" in "natural law" is understood to mean "spontaneous" or "what comes naturally" to oneself given one's proclivities, desires, and sub-volitional ends. This moral outlook, rooted in "underlying anthropological concepts" that "look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things," has no use for the natural law, which is perceived as "an outdated legacy." Additionally, scientific research further complicates the faithful's understanding of the relevant sense of "nature" as evoked in natural law; scientific positivism concludes that natural law ethics is not "scientific."

Human rights, as well, have been appropriated into this anthropological construct, and are as such regarded as a "highly subjective" call to "self-determination." Attendant to this individualism is the proliferation of gender theories that treat the body as a vehicle through which the substance-mind achieves its ends.

Positive law in many countries increasingly contradicts the directives of the natural law, sowing confusion about the moral uprightness of particular marital arrangements and sexual behaviors. The individualization of sexual and marital mores reduces the "forever" of the marriage vows to an ephemeral 'until love do us part.' Episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania, and East Asia, meanwhile, grapple with the slightly different issues of polygamy and divorce due to failure to produce a male heir.

In section 26, the authors note that "The natural law is then a universally accepted 'fact' by the faithful, without the need to be theoretically justified." But "the demise of the concept of the natural law" tends to erase the theoretical connections between "love, sexuality, and fertility," which connection is "understood to be the essence of marriage." Consequently, and due in part as well to criticism from many theologians, the concept of natural law loses traction.

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The Instrumentum astutely observes that certain experiential realities perdure in society despite the collapse of those realities' theoretical underpinnings, and people's ability to philosophically justify their assent to those realities. This 'moral epistemological residue' on the one hand bespeaks a cultural if not ontological 'remembrance' or 'trace' of the intelligibility (purpose, reason) of some of the norms and directives constitutive of the precepts of natural law of marriage and family; on the other hand it illustrates the urgency of the present project of the Church, viz., to rehabilitate the purchase and profit of natural law arguments among its faithful and within the public domain, with the reciprocal ends of underscoring the deeply synthetic nature of the natural and revealed law ("All law finds its first and ultimate truth in the eternal law [CCC 1951]); highlighting the mutual dependency of them both ("The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit" [CCC 1960]); and therefore enabling a more perspicuous martyria to the (domestic) Church's moral precepts in society.

The document also rightly observes the destructive fallout of the mixture of several ideologies, including body-mind dualism (with its derivative "gender theories”) and individualism, that together impede even intelligent reception of natural law arguments.

Finally, paragraph 22 notes that the descriptor "natural" is typically misunderstood today. (Again, no attempt is given to offer a correct understanding of the term.) In respect of rehabilitating how "natural" is received and understood, the synodal participants would do well to explicitly reject the biological determinism of what Anscombe called the "naturalistic fallacy"—according to which the "biological end" is "good" and thus moral "ought" is derived from empirical "is"—via which so many Catholics (including clergy in formal venues of catechesis) advance arguments for sexual ethics and other subjects. This argument rightfully packs no evangelical punch, and not because of public misunderstanding.

3. Practical Objections to the Natural Law concerning the Union between a Man and a Woman

A "lack of reference to the natural law by many academic institutions today" is partially responsible for "major complaints" resulting from the "extensive practice of divorce, cohabitation, contraception, procedures of artificial procreation and same-sex unions." In some African states, "machismo, polygamy ... incest," and other practices are prominent.

Responders observe dual phenomena on the rise in Western society: an uptick in "blended families" in which children from multiple partners are living together or with a single parent, and an increase in childless couples and the average age of entrance into wedlock; "many times, especially in northern Europe and North America, children are considered a hindrance to the well-being of the individual and the couple."

Some responses indicate a "willingness, on the civic level, to recognize so-called 'multi-personal' unions ... based simply on personal needs and on individual and subjective necessities." This tendency "accentuates the absolute right to personal freedom without any compromise"; the self and its desires are taken as the referents of ethical directives. This ideology is seeping into countries with "traditional family cultures," such as in Africa, the Middle East and South-Central Asia.

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This section opens by noticing the "lack of reference to the natural law by many academic institutions today." The cultural and intellectual impact of the academy's opposition to classical notions of reality, truth, and nature is deadly. The same positivism that infects the university is mentioned elsewhere in the Instrumentum in connection with reductive understandings of the scope, grounding, and function of civil law. This positivism rejects classical inquiry's methodology (except insofar as it is adapted to the scientific method) and it therefore rejects (the possibility of attaining knowledge of) human nature as a grounding for ethics, which becomes strictly technical or pragmatic. As such, various forms of proportionalist ethics—technical ethics—dominate the academy, and even much of Catholic theology.

In such an academic environment, two ruptures ensue. First, a strict separation opens between a) the technical disciplines that adapt the scientific method not only to the natural sciences but to human affairs, thus producing and embedding the logic of the social sciences, which therefore are unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly hostile to natural law ethics (being teleological and metaphysical), and b) those natural law ethics and the human nature implicated therein. Second, a separation between theology and philosophy deepens even within the Catholic tradition.

This latter delineation has induced mutual suspicion between theology and philosophy at the academic level, which disciplines understand themselves to share little if any methodological properties. Ergo a present distrust of philosophical ethics evinced by theologians, and perhaps in turn the faithful's ambivalence toward natural law ethics and (some of) its conclusions as being constitutive of their Catholic faith; it is now fungible to it.

Benedict XVI repeatedly stressed the theoretical symphony between philosophical and theological disciplines, the full breadth of logos, and the deadly force of reductive techne-ethics. Recovering and applying the centrality of that message for the evangelism of the family will be a must for the Synod.

4. A Call for a Renewal in Terms of Language

This single paragraph merits full representation:
The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world (cf. the idea of the law written in the human heart in Rm 1:19-21; 2:14-15). Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters.

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The call for renewal in language, in order to bear fruit, must engage the Word of God and the scriptures more intentionally to underscore the harmony between philosophical ethics and theological ethics, moral philosophy and moral theology. Ironically, the program called for in this section would entail a different articulation of the Gospel of the Family and marriage than is present in the earlier Instrumentum, where in addition to "natural law," "reason" in the relevant sense, "conscience," "goods" in the sense of intelligible ends, and also "creation" in the relevant sense are absent from the authors' articulation of Catholic teaching on marriage and the family; in short, natural law vocabulary is absent. But in truth, very little of Christ's teachings on man's moral duties and obligations where marriage and family are concerned are intelligible without enrichment or interpretation by sound moral philosophy and significant elaboration by the Church.

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The Instrumentum's section on natural law at best describes responsibly some contemporary issues; but at worst it contains serious ambiguities and at times borders on incoherence. Let us hope that the Synod's practice is better than its theory in this regard.