Natural and Supernatural Ends


In our last post we discussed the goal of morality, namely, happiness with God. This is the principle of all of morality and the foundation for all moral rules. There is a lot of confusion in today’s world about right and wrong even means because of a number of factors including excluding God from morality (in some circles), rejecting the idea of inherent purpose and real essences, and a dismissal of imperatives in general. However, as we have discussed at length, morality is objective and universal because it is based on human nature which is directed towards God.

Man’s natural end is in God. Therefore, by definition, a man is good insofar as he is directed towards this end and evil insofar as he is not. Similarly, the more man uses his faculties in accordance with their individual purposes, the more man is using his faculties for good and thus directing himself towards his end. Man necessarily wants what is good by his nature, however, because he is free, has the ability to direct his will to lesser goods, that is, goods which are not in accordance with man’s last end (and thus reason). We can know man’s last end is in God from reason alone. St. Thomas gives a number of arguments in both of his Summas. Even besides deep philosophical demonstrations, the average person can see that our end is in God. For instance, the average person can see that we all desire something beyond this world because no matter how much we have, we are never satisfied. On a slightly more philosophical level, we know that by nature we are rational animals. This means that our reason and volitional powers are the highest (will following upon intellect). Yet no matter how much we know about this world, we never are complete. Similarly, we all desire to love and be loved, yet it seems as though human love never satisfies. The reason is that our end is in knowing, loving, and being loved by that which is perfectly intelligible and good, this can only be God. Since we can never experience this here on earth, our end must be beyond death.

We can also know at least in part that there is some sort of life after death. One reason is given above, another has to do with the nature of the soul. A soul is that which makes a human being alive. It is the very life principle and organizing idea behind a body. Now, according to St. Thomas all living things have this animating principle (that which makes them alive) as the inherent idea of their natures (non-living things have this same sort of idea, referred to as a form, but the form of a living thing is called a “soul” so there is nothing spectacular about the idea of things like plants having souls). However, plants and animals have souls that go away when the body dies because the soul is the animating principle of the body so when the body is no longer animated (alive) then it follows that there is no more form to that particular body just as when wood burns up the form of wood is no longer present. The human soul however is different because in addition to being the animating principle of the body, it carries out immaterial operations and thus does not go away when the body does. We know the intellectual activity as well as the free will of the soul are immaterial. Put very simply, intellectual activity must be immaterial because material things cannot be intrinsically about other things (i.e. one chunk of matter cannot mean another chunk) so since our thoughts have meaning they must not be material in principle. Similarly, matter cannot choose so free will must be immaterial as well. We have to remember however that even though the soul survives the death of the body, it is not perfect. The soul is the animating principle of the body, not a ghost unwillingly chained to the body. Because of this, the soul without the body is incomplete, yet because the end of man is in principle the knowing and loving of God, it is possible that the soul alone participates in the last end of man (in other words, after death man can reach his end even though he has no body).

Clearly we can understand a lot in this area from reason alone. At the same time reason does not give us answers to all of the questions. Christianity has a lot to say about what we have discussed so far. First of all, the Church teaches us the nature of our last end in God and what it is like to fail to reach that end. Christianity also gives us hope because of the Resurrection. We know that we will not be forever in a state of imperfect existence where all we are is a soul. We know that we will be rejoined to our body and that this body will be perfected (if we are saved). Another important truth of Christianity is that we learn about our supernatural end.

Man has a natural end in God as is clearly shown. However, we know from revelation that man was raised to the supernatural order. By our natures we are directed towards God, however, God offered Adam and Eve a gift for all of their descendants, namely, the gift of grace. We discussed grace in an early post on this blog and defined it as a “supernatural” gift. In raising man to the supernatural order, God did not contradict or destroy man’s nature or his end. Rather, God lifted up man’s natural end to something greater. Through grace we can participate in the very life of God and experience the happiness of heaven. A common error is that anytime we say “supernatural” we are talking about something immaterial. It follows then that people can become confused when we talk about a natural end that involves God and the soul. Yet natural simply means in accordance with our nature. Supernatural goes above this nature. Man’s supernatural end is similar to his natural end in that it is in knowing and loving God. However his supernatural end is more perfect and complete. It is supernatural because man by his own abilities (even prior to original sin) cannot reach this end. His essence is not built such that it is directed towards this perfect union. He must be given something in addition to his natural capacities, and this is called grace. Grace therefore is said to build on nature rather than destroy it.

Here is an analogy: man’s natural end is to become a friend of God. What he is is ordered towards this friendship. The built in purpose of man’s life is a sort of relationship with God. God made man this way and it follows from the fact that man is made in God’s image. Man’s supernatural end is not opposed to this friendship, man’s supernatural end builds on this friendship because it is like God invites us to be part of his own family. Rather than being merely a friend, we can become an actual child of God by grace. Now, man has no inherent tendency towards this end and for this reason needs something external, namely adoption by grace.

Since God raised man to the supernatural order, it is impossible that man reaches his natural end but not his supernatural end (at least this is the common opinion. I am not sure if the limbo of the infants counts as a counterexample). Original sin made man’s will corrupt and thus he is no longer inclined to reach his end. Similarly, it made man positively unworthy of grace (as opposed to simply not deserving grace, sin made man such that he deserved to not have grace, hence the need for redemption). Christ bought back (redeemed) grace and our good standing with God who was offended by original sin and all of our individual sins. Thus, we can be forgiven of our sins and reach our end. When we sin we direct ourselves away from God, therefore, we needed Christ to save us. He died so that “sins may be forgiven” meaning that Christ’s death is not sufficient alone for us to be saved, we need to cooperate and accept God’s invitation, repent, and live a life of faith, hope and charity. In this manner, we cooperate with God’s help and direct ourselves to He who is our last end.

What then is law? Law is the codification of the way to live so that we reach our end. From what we have said above, it is clear that there are different kinds of law. I will discuss each in brief:

Eternal law of God- this means the overall scheme of God’s eternal will for the way things are. Eternal law is the foundation for all that exists. We know there is a such thing because we see the order in the world which is caused by the divine intellect. We however can never fully comprehend God’s eternal law.

Natural law- given our natures and our natural end, natural law is the articulation of how we must live in order to reach this end. Natural virtues are those habits by which we live according to the natural law. The natural law can be known through reason and Scripture tells us “it is written on our hearts.” For this reason, all men are accountable for the natural law. The natural law is unchanging as is our nature. The Church has the authority to teach the truths of natural law which are often confirmed in revelation because sinful man makes errors regarding morality. Most “moral issues” are considered part of natural law including but not limited to the immorality of contraception, murder in its various forms including abortion, the permanence of marriage, the importance of kindness and the observation of secrecy.



Divine revealed law- the specific law pertaining to those things which involve the life of grace, in other words, reaching not only our natural end but our supernatural end. Because this involves reaching our supernatural end, we can only know this form of law from revelation and thus we believe it on faith. Divine law builds on natural law. For instance, we know by natural law that we must adore God and recognize our dependence on Him. Many throughout history have done this through sacrifice. The divine law specifies how Christians are to do this, primarily through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Other examples of Divine law include the necessity of joining the Catholic Church and the obligation to obey the Church’s laws. The Church has the authority to teach the divine law but not to change it.

Human law- lawful authority can make laws which others are obliged to follow. Human law can take on the form of government laws, the rules of superiors in religious orders, the authority of parents over children, etc. Each of these various situations derive from either natural or supernatural law, however the specific rules are often contingent on circumstances. Since human law is fallible, it is subject to error and change. When human law is given by a lawful superior it ought to be obeyed even if unwise, however, it can be ignored if it contradicts divine or natural law. This is because lawful authority only extends to certain matters, so if a parent commands a kid to lie for instance, the parent has issued a command that does not bind as the parent has no authority to give a command that goes against the natural law. This is why St. Augustine says that an immoral law is in fact no law at all.

Canon Law- This is a specific kind of human law given by the Church. Canon law specifies certain areas of natural and divine law, for instance, certain marriage rules. The Church alone can change cannon law.

To summarize, morality is about living a life in accordance with our nature in order that we may reach our last end in knowing and loving God and being happy with Him forever. God in His goodness however has made it so that we may have a more intimate relationship with Him through the beatific vision in heaven. Also, God has promised the resurrection of the bodies and therefore we know that one day we can spend eternity, body and soul, with God. This relationship with God is beyond our natures and therefore we need something special to get us there in addition to following natural law, and this is what we call grace. Since we are talking about law, it seems appropriate to ask the prayers of the patron saint of Lawyers, St Thomas More for his prayers that we might understand the eternal law and follow God’s will.

St Thomas: Pray for us!


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