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Natural Order


The terms natural and natural order have been used extensively in modern theology to distinguish as sharply as possible what is meant by supernatural and supernatural order. While this contrast and correlation has had a long history in Catholic theology, its modern usage and emphasis appear to stem from the middle of the 19th century. Confronted with the spread of philosophical naturalism as well as various theories of natural religion, the theologians began to make the notion of the supernatural a fundamental category of systematic theology. As used in this context the notions natural and natural order serve to underline clearly the transcendent character of the divine order and the gratuitous character of the order of grace, which they incorporate into the notion of the absolute supernatural. The natural order, therefore, would be defined as a created order in which man would be directed to an end or destiny that is strictly proportionate to his capacities, powers, and exigencies. This end would be God as known through reason. In contrast the absolutely supernatural would be that which completely transcends the capacities, powers, and exigencies of created or creatable nature. The notion of the natural order played a very important role in the systematic treatment of such areas as apologetics, revelation, and grace. It enabled the theologian to bring out clearly the transcendence of the divine order and the gratuity of man's call to the beatific vision as well as his elevation by God's grace.

In recent years, however, there has been considerable questioning and debate over the exact content of this theological notion of natural as contrasted with supernatural. The basis of the criticism lies in the fact that the usage is built upon a more precise, specific, and detailed definition of natural than is legitimately possible. It is argued that historical man is a reality whose total actual nature can be known only through revelation. Revelation helps us to discern some elements proper to the natural order. Rational analysis discloses other elements. Hence while nature and grace are clearly distinct, nothing can be defined in such specific detail that a kind of clear and proven horizontal line could be drawn between the natural and the supernatural.

The theological opinion that gave rise to this critique began with the fact that God has called historical man to the beatific vision. From this fact it is argued that this divinely given vocation is not something merely logical awaiting some future actualization. Rather it is a fact; it is real and must have an impact on man that influences the very structure of his nature. Hence the supernatural, while gratuitous, is rooted in man from the very beginning of his existence. By reason of this he has a tendency to the beatific vision and a resonance of it in his very being. It is this situation that Karl rahner describes as "the supernatural existential." If, therefore, the supernatural is already present in man in the sense described, there is no element of his nature that is not in some way touched by it. Hence the difficulty or even impossibility of saying what precisely is natural and so belongs to the natural order. In all this it should be noted that the protagonists of this position do not reject the possibility that God could create intelligent beings and not call them to the beatific vision.

Bibliography: s. otto, "Natur," h. fries, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 196263) 2:217219. h. de lubac, Surnaturel: Études historiques (Paris 1946) 325395. m. j. scheeben, Nature and Grace, tr. c. vollert (St. Louis 1954). k. rahner, "Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace," Theological Investigations, v.1, tr. c. ernst (Baltimore 1961) 297317. j. p. kenny, "Reflections of Human Nature and the Supernatural," Theological Studies 14 (1953) 280287.

[e. m. burke]

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