Regarding Ryan’s ruminations on S.M. Hutchens’ review of E.O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (warning: I’ve read neither the book nor the review, just Ryan’s post about them), I think Ryan has it right in concluding that in Wilson’s account of Christianity “nature has become only a vehicle for supernature.”

It’s easy enough to see how this might happen. Suppose that, as Aristotle and Aquinas and eudaimonistic ethicists generally have thought, there is a natural end for man knowable by human reason and that this end is normative for human beings in the sense that human beings should order their actions to it. Suppose further that some religion teaches that there is some other end disclosed by God in revelation and that religious believers ought to treat this other end as normative, ordering their actions to it rather than to any other. If all this is the case, then it’s easy to see that those pursuing the natural end for human beings and those pursuing the supernaturally revealed one have adopted quite different agendas and that these agendas may come into conflict.

The solution to this problem in the Catholic moral tradition has been to point out that a difference of ends need not make for a conflict of ends if the one end is appropriately subsumed within the other. For example, the end of running an excellent emergency room need not conflict with that of running an excellent hospital, and the end of being a good father need not conflict with that of being a good man, for in each case the former end is subsumed in the latter. Hence, the Catholic tradition has taught that the natural end for human beings is subsumed within the supernatural end, with the result that there is no conflict between them. Although the supernatural end, as something grander and more expansive than the natural end, requires us to do more than the natural end does, nevertheless no action enjoined by the supernatural end is contrary to the natural end (theology never commands what natural ethics knows to be wrong), and every action contrary to the natural end is also contrary to the supernatural one (what natural ethics forbids, theology forbids too). This is one of the things Catholic theologians have traditionally meant when they said that grace does not destroy nature but perfects its.

It’s worth pointing out in this context that Wilson seems to be writing against some of the Protestant traditions, not the Catholic one. If a person thinks that nature is wholly corrupt, that there is no natural morality knowable by human reason, that grace completely supplants nature, that the basis of morality is the divine command and not the essences of things as created by God—and some Protestant theologians can plausibly be read as having said such things—then all bets are off. Then there really can develop a conflict between a natural human morality and a supernatural, divinely revealed one.