Is Natural Law Catholic?

Monday, 09-12-2016


I’m a graduate student in theology, and have returned to your work on classical natural law theory time and time again.  One of my professors, an admirer of Stanley Hauerwas, argues that the natural law position is not a good starting point for discussion with those outside the Catholic Church, because, as he understands it, natural law ethics is inextricably tied to Catholic theology.  What do you think about that objection?  Would you say that there are two different kinds of natural law theory, namely Christian natural law and natural law formally considered?


I can’t tell from your professor’s words whether he is speaking about the fact of natural law or the theory of natural law.  This is a little like not knowing whether someone is speaking about gravity (whatever it is that makes you slip on banana peels) or about the theory of gravitation (a hypothesis about the relation between mass and the curvature of space).  So instead of trying to respond to a statement that isn’t clear, let’s ask a few questions that might get at the issue more precisely.

1.  Is there something Catholic about the fact of natural law?  Of course not; this would be like saying that gravity applies only to Asians.  Natural law concerns the universals of human nature and experience.  I don’t say “what humans universally admit,” because sin is a universal too, and we have a bad habit of lying to ourselves.

2.  Is there something Catholic about the classical theory of natural law?  That depends on whether you mean its incipient or mature version.  The classical theory has lots of non-Catholic sources, antecedents, and parallels, such as Aristotle and Cicero, and this is just what we should expect if it is based on universals.  On the other hand, it was under Catholic auspices that the tradition of natural law theorizing reached maturity.  It is hard to see why this fact should he held against the theory.

3.  When we begin discussing ethics, should we avoid reference to the facts of natural law?  That would require talking about ethics without referring to any actual matters of right and wrong.  Where else is there to begin?  But we can talk about the facts of natural law without using the expression “natural law.”

4.  When we begin discussing ethics, should we avoid reference to the theory of natural law?  At the beginning, in many cases, yes, though you won’t be able to keep it up forever.  If you wanted to keep someone from walking off a cliff, you wouldn’t begin by arguing that gravity is a geometrical property of space and time -- you would simply remind him that things fall and break.  Similarly, if you wanted to keep someone from deserting his wife and children, you wouldn’t begin by arguing that the sexual powers are ordered to the procreative and unitive goods -- you would talk about broken hearts, broken childhoods, and broken promises.  Everyone understands the sentence “Betrayal is wrong,” because it expresses a fact of the natural law.  But not everyone understands the sentence “The wrong of betrayal is a fact of the natural law.”

5.  In such discussions, is it a mistake to make use of the classical theory of natural law?  By all means do make use of it.  If you want to speak well about broken hearts, broken childhoods, and broken promises, you had better understand the procreative and unitive goods as well as you can.  But you don’t have to litter your conversation with terms like “procreative and unitive goods.”

6.  In such discussions, is it a mistake ever to mention the classical theory of natural law?  In the long run, you probably can’t avoid doing so.  A conversation about falling off cliffs can do without explicit references to general relativity, but a conversation about how satellite global positioning systems work probably can’t.  In the same way, a conversation about not abandoning one’s wife and children can do without explicit references to the procreative and unitive goods, but a conversation about why societies need marriage laws probably can’t.

You ask whether it is correct to distinguish two “kinds” of natural law theory, Christian natural law and natural law formally considered.  Although I too would make a distinction, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.  I would say that we can consider natural law either with, or without, the illumination of grace.  The difference between these two accounts of natural law isn’t that they say different things, but that one of them says more.  It isn’t like the difference between red glass and blue glass, but like the difference between glass lit up by reflected light, and glass with the sun shining through it.

You see, the mind can know something about how to live by philosophy alone, and this is why natural law is possible in the first place.  But the mind can attain further insight and conviction about how to live with the help of sound theology (and divine revelation tells us about other things too, such as how to be reconciled with God).  For example, we don’t need to read St. Paul to realize that marriage has something to do with love and making families.   But we do learn from St. Paul that besides the procreative and unitive goods, a marriage aided by divine grace also achieves a third, sacramental good, because the spouses are joined by the same love that unites Christ with the Church.

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Treats! Treats!

Monday, 08-15-2016

For those who like sweets, I’ve added three new items to the recent articles and book chapters section of the Read Articles page.

One is my 1998 essay “Tolerance and Natural Law.”  Okay, I admit that 1998 isn't “recent,” but since people keep asking me about the topic, I thought I’d post the item anyway.

The other two are updates.  Understandably, the publishers of anthologies don’t want the authors to post their chapters on the internet until the books have been out a year or two.  Previously I was only able to post samples of my book chapters “The Strange Second Life of Confessional States” and “Only a Passing Fancy?  The Evangelical Engagement with Natural Law,” but now you’ll find the complete texts (it’s about time!)

And just so you don’t think the title of this post was a trick, here’s a baking tip from my wife, who makes the best sweets in the solar system.  Suppose you want to dip cookies in melted white or semi-sweet chocolate.  You don’t have to make a ganache.  Just do this:  While you’re melting the chocolate, for every eight ounces stir in one tablespoon shortening (such as Crisco).  That way, after you dip the cookies, the chocolate will set up nicely as it cools instead of staying runny.

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Straw Man

Tuesday, 08-09-2016

I had expected criticism for my recent post explaining why, for the first time, I’m not able to vote for either presidential candidate.  That’s fine.

But, my dear critics, before blasting the beliefs you think I must hold, do me the courtesy of reading what I actually wrote.

In an exquisitely careless exhibition of disdain for such tedious chores, another blogger writes of me, “This man is indifferent between (1) Hillary Clinton nominating the next two, three, or four Supreme Court justices; and (2) Donald Trump nominating the next two, three, or four Supreme Court justices.  In other words, he's indifferent between (1) Evil; and (2) Good.”

Had the gentleman read what I had written, he might have noticed that I don’t accept his premise that the Republican standard-bearer would appoint better Supreme Court justices.  That is why I wrote, “although it is true that a victory by the criminal would spell the triumph of the party which is programmatically committed to death, a victory by the sociopath would spell the destruction of any pretense to the other party’s commitment to life.”

Would it have been reasonable for me to write of him, “This critic champions a Republican who would put an end to his party’s never-vigorous opposition to the culture of death?”  Certainly not, because he doesn’t accept my premise either.  Presumably, he doesn’t think the Republican candidate would destroy his party’s never-vigorous attachment to the cause of life.

I like to see everyone do the very best they can.  My critic could have avoided the straw man fallacy by using the following words instead:  “This man, Budziszewski, is so foolish and venal that he doesn’t concede that Donald Trump can be trusted to appoint better Supreme Court justices than Hillary Clinton.  If he were a better and smarter man, he would be willing to accept the assurances of a thoroughly consistent liar and lifelong supporter of the culture of death that this time he means what he says.”

But what do I know?  Perhaps the gentleman doesn’t agree with those characterizations of his nominee either.

Not that they are open to reasonable doubt.

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Saying No

Wednesday, 07-27-2016

This will be the first presidential election since reaching voting age that I’ve sat out.  I will not vote for either major party’s standard-bearer.

The nominee of one party has never believed in anything but self-promotion.  He is characterologically incapable of holding any principle, save that one.  He is a narcissist; he is a sociopath; and as a consequence of having so little interest in external reality, he is not of sound mind.

Long ago, the other nominee seems to have believed in principles, but they were profoundly wrong ones.  Besides, she has promoted herself as a means to her ends for so long that at last her means have displaced her ends; the principles to which she once devoted herself have at last become a mere means to herself.  Her ideology persists, but only as a sort of reflex, or mental tick.  So although she has reached it by a different path, her destination is much like the other nominee’s.

It is hardly necessary to add that neither nominee believes in the Constitution.  One of them does not even know how many Articles it contains; he has thrown out the figure twelve.  The other probably knows, but does not care.  Sic volo, sic jubeo, sic pro ratione voluntas.

Some honest people, many of them my friends, believe they must vote for the sociopath to keep the criminal from taking office.  Others think they must vote for the criminal to keep the sociopath from taking office.  Both groups think one must choose between a wild card and a known evil.  As they see it, the only question is which is worse.

I sympathize with both groups, but I think they have misconceived the nature of the choice.  The analogy with poker is misplaced, for this wild card is wilder than they think.  It does not just take different values; it is playing a different game.  And the reference to “known” evils is misplaced -- not just because evil cannot be “known” in itself – for it can certainly be known in its effects – but because this sort of evil is the sort that breeds.

Besides, there is a third alternative.  One can say “No” to both nominees.

My honest friends think saying “No” to nominees is irresponsible.  One group fears that to say “No” to the sociopath is to elect the criminal; the other, that to say “No” to the criminal is to elect the sociopath.  Understandably, they say one must follow the path that minimizes evil.  One must try to save as much as one can.

I do not disagree.  The question is what it is that one is saving as much of as possible.  By saving as much as one can, my honest friends mean saving as much of one’s policy goals as one can.  But in the first place, there is no longer any path to saving decent policy goals.  For example, although it is true that a victory by the criminal would spell the triumph of the party which is programmatically committed to death, a victory by the sociopath would spell the destruction of any pretense to the other party’s commitment to life.  In the second, this time the stakes are greater than policy.  We are not playing for this law or that; we are playing for the rule of law itself, in which neither nominee believes.

So I do propose saving as much as one can -- of something else.  Whether the republic itself can be saved is uncertain; time will tell.  But there will be no republic without conscience, and we can save every farthing of that.

Each must follow the certain judgment of his own conscience, and this is mine.  May God have mercy on us all.

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He’s Baaaack

Tuesday, 07-26-2016

People have been asking whether I’ve given up the blog.  No, I haven’t, though for the last few months I’ve taken a break from it to finish a large book project and begin another.  Now that the former is done and the latter is well underway, I’ll resume occasional posts, though I won’t go back to posting daily – that was exhausting, and other work is more important.  Tell you what, faithful readers:  Just to show I mean it, you may expect a post tomorrow.  How’s that?

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Advice for the Future Ted Cruz

Friday, 05-06-2016

A political movement can be based on shared virtues, shared interests, or shared passions.  The Founders of our republic hoped for the first, expected the second, and feared the third.  They desired the citizens to elect persons of virtue.  They tried to pit competing interests against each other so that none could overwhelm the common good.  As to passion, their best hope was to keep it from bursting the dams, and if it broke forth nonetheless, at least to delay decision until it dissipated:  For passion, once released, is a torrent that scorns boundary and restraint.

My slight acquaintance with Senator Cruz outside of politics had suggested that he was a person of good character who believed in the principles of the Founding.  For this reason, I was surprised and disappointed when he based his senatorial career on neither shared virtues nor shared interests, but shared passions.  Let me restate this point with more precision:  On a single shared passion, the passion of anger.

He did not create the anger.  The people were already disgusted and heartbroken by the failure of the political class.  But he stoked the passion, tried to make himself its representative, and sought to direct it to his ends.

This was a fundamental error.  Once unleashed, passion can no more be directed than a tidal wave.  It takes its own course, plunges through all obstacles, and chooses its own representatives, not only in defiance of virtue, but even in defiance of self-interest.

Enter The Demagogue, who despite his slight intelligence understood this fact this better than Senator Cruz.  Rather than trying to direct the flood, he rode it like someone surfing a tidal wave, slipping and skidding across the sloping water, now this way, now that, at each moment contradicting what he had said just a moment before.

The Senator was swept aside.  It is a wonder that he was not drowned.  This was a hard but necessary punishment for following a course he should have known better than to choose.  I hope he draws the right lesson, and next time follows a different course.  I believe that he can, and I hope I am right.  God knows that somebody has to.

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The Sign of Jonah

Tuesday, 04-26-2016

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I was refreshed the other day by a conversation with a young man I know.  It was not so much his wisdom that refreshed me, but that one should meet with it in a person so young.  Had I asked him where he got it, he would credit his father, whom he considers the wisest man in the world.  Perhaps he is.

Let me tell you about him.  He is recently married and has the beauty of it upon him.  Before long he will have children and have that beauty upon him.  As they grow up there will be beauty upon beauty entrained.

My young friend saw the oncoming winter of our institutions – withering marriages and families, increasing loneliness, declining trust -- and knew quite well that the green buds of Spring might be very far off.  So many give in to discouragement.  Not he.

He was confident that eventually the natural order of things would reassert itself -- partly just because it is the natural order, in which such great restorative powers persist despite the Fall, and partly because of providence of God, who does not allow nature to be so utterly ruined that its restorative powers are wholly overwhelmed.

The people who adore the gods of Winter have no such hope.  They cannot resolve to do the right thing and trust the results to God’s providence, because they believe neither in right nor in God’s providence.  Results is all they have.  Everything is all up to them.

Though my friend knew that the green buds of Spring might not open and sprout in his own lifetime, he was content to do what he could to make the winter a little warmer, and perhaps, God willing, to help the thaw to come a little sooner.  In the background – I know him well – was the thought that if the end of all things comes first, well, so much the better, for that too is in the hand of God.

He was confident that a man who does all he can, with all his heart and intelligence, has done enough.  So to discouraged young people I say:  Think like that.

And to the discouraged of my own age I say:  We too must think like that.  Many of the young people we know think differently than my young friend.  They are swallowed and go into the belly of the whale.  At such times we too become discouraged, because all we can do is pray for them.

But if that is really all we can do, and we do it with all our strength, then we too have done enough.

This is the last of my daily posts.  I will still post occasionally, as the thought strikes me, but I will no longer try to keep up the daily grind.  If you would like to be notified of new posts, I encourage you to subscribe to the RSS feed.