The natural law is the law of God which a person can discern by human reason alone, apart from any special revelation from the Lord. Until a few hundred years ago, almost everyone believed in it (at least implicitly), but now very few do. Thomas Jefferson was referring to this law when he wrote the now famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — in other words, “These truths should be clear to anyone who is thinking rightly. They are not known because they have been revealed by a particular religion. They are, in a certain sense, written on the heart of every human person. Thus, even pagans who are using their faculty of reason properly will admit that these things are true. They will also tell you that killing and stealing and coveting your neighbor’s wife are wrong.”
Because the Founding Fathers of our country believed this, they had no problem with teaching the Ten Commandments in public schools and displaying them in public places. They rightly understood that the Ten Commandments did not promote the establishment of any particular religion; they were simply the expression of some of the primary tenets of the natural law. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us in paragraph 1955: “The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. . . . Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments].”
Keep this in mind as you listen to the first reading at Mass this weekend, from Exodus 20. And pray that these commandments will once again become what our Founding Fathers intended them to be: the foundation of the civil laws and the moral life of our great nation.