Natural law – the intuitive law of reason that gives priority to basic human good – has been defined and redefined in religious, philosophical and moral contexts throughout history. Today, varying definitions are still batted around and should be carefully considered so as not to strip natural law of its essence as the nature of reason, said Edward Cardinal Egan, D.D., J.C.D., during the Sept. 25 Natural Law Colloquium at Fordham’s School of Law. “We can make valid judgments…with pure reason,” Egan told lawyers, professors and students at the colloquium titled “Natural Law, Canon Law and American Law.” “These basic principles are part and parcel of Western civilization and shouldn’t be lost.” The colloquium is a new program, sponsored by the Law School and the Department of Philosophy, dedicated to encouraging reflection on the natural law tradition in politics, law and civic discourse. Natural law, derived from the teachings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, focuses on the moral function of law to further the common good rather than the will of sovereign governments.
Egan, a renowned legal scholar, chronicled the evolution of natural law from the Roman philosopher Cicero, who in poetic verse called it “a true law which is right, where reason is in harmony with nature,” to contemporary political philosopher John Rawls, who in contrast suggested people “set aside religion, philosophical and moral views when determining if a law is valid.” Egan presented before a filled McNally Amphitheatre and was followed by commentary from Law Professor Robert J. Kaczorowski, Ph.D., J.D., and Professor Charles Kelbley, Ph.D., J.D., associate chair of the philosophy department. Kaczorowski distinguished the significant role of natural law in U.S. history, describing how the language of the Declaration of Independence embraces natural law.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said quoting the Declaration. “Natural law is anterior and superior. The government existed to secure individual liberties. No government can deprive its citizens of that.” However, the government did just that by condoning slavery during the 17th century, Kaczorowski said, pointing out a contradiction to this law. The 13th amendment later outlawed slavery and declared life, liberty and property the right of all Americans, again invoking natural law concepts. “Natural law is objective law with deep roots in philosophy, and often in theology or the metaphysical,” Kelbley said in his commentary. “Natural laws are liberties and rights that are inherent.”
Egan earned a licentiate in sacred theology and a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he later taught canon law. He also spent 14 years as a judge on the Tribunal of the Rota, an ecclesiastical court. Following the Sept. 25 discussion, John Hollwitz, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs, presented Cardinal Egan with an honorary doctorate of laws.