I number myself as a drop in the flood of formerly Evangelical Protestant scholars and writers who have become Catholic in recent decades. The purpose of this post is not to boast that we are right, and I certainly don’t want to bash the Evangelical community, among whom I first heard the Gospel as a child. God bless you.
But in the interests of ecumenical understanding, and with all respect, I think Evangelicals who criticize the motives of Catholic converts ought to work harder at getting them right.
Just now I read yet another article in an Evangelical outlet trying to explain why people become Catholic. A number of motives were suggested: That Catholicism is older and more traditional, that its liturgy is beautiful, and that the clarity of its teachings makes people feel secure.
Never was it suggested that we might simply find Catholicism more convincing -- that we may have concluded that what the Catholic Church teaches is simply true.
Wouldn’t these critics be miffed if someone suggested that people become Evangelicals only because Evangelicalism is a recent development which breaks with tradition, that it has bouncy worship services, and that the Evangelical belief that “once saved, always saved” makes people feel secure?
Not that the antiquity, tradition, and doctrinal clarity of the Catholic Church don’t matter to Catholic converts; of course they do. The question, though, is not whether they carry weight, but what sort of weight they carry. Protestants believe that the Catholic Church has distorted the Gospel since earliest times. Yet when we converts studied the ancient Christian writers, it seemed to us that a different picture emerged. Catholic doctrine appeared to have developed continuously and faithfully since the time of the Apostles. Even if our critics think we were mistaken, they should try to see that we were not pursuing the antiquity, tradition, and doctrinal clarity of the Church instead of the truth, but for the sake of the truth.
The same goes for liturgy. Beautiful words and sacramental actions devoid of truth would not be an argument for the Church. What we found, though, was that the content of the liturgy was profoundly resonant with the Word of God, and that we experienced the presence of Christ more powerfully in Catholic worship than we had ever experienced it before. The strange surmise crept over our minds that the Church may be just what she says she is.
How dreadful it would have been to prefer beauty above truth. But how good to see more of truth’s beauty.
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During the Constitutional ratification debates, the skeptical party worried that a state that tried to govern too many people and too much territory would inevitably degenerate into despotism. That is why they believed in keeping as much authority in the localities instead of exporting it to the top.
Their principle can be generalized. A republic turns despotic not only when it tries to govern too many people and too much territory, but also when it tries to govern too many things. A massive bureaucracy, topped by an emperor, staffed by members of the knowledge class, suffering conceits of all-knowledge and all-competence, inexorably becomes the true rulers.
All other influential classes become subservient to it; more and more, for example, the directors of large businesses expect to make profits less by producing new wealth, than by courting patronage and manipulating the regulatory apparatus. Under such a regime, the governing norm is no longer the rule of law, but the rule of the deal and decree.
How doubly unlucky for us that these patterns have repeated themselves at the same moment that our knowledge class has repudiated the natural law.
One suspects that the renunciation of nature will have unanticipated consequences. But our emperors and bureaucrats do not believe in unanticipated consequences. How else explain lunacies like transgender bathrooms?
If they ever waxed philosophical, they would claim to rule nature herself.
Ancient chroniclers have preserved a pair of apocryphal stories about this error. Although the two stories end differently, they begin similarly. When the Emperor Caligula had brought the Roman army to the English Channel, he had his troops bring artillery pieces and form a line of battle on the shore to intimidate Ocean. When King Cnut had attained “the summit of his power” over England, Scotland, Denmark, and Norway, he ordered a throne set up on the shore, commanding the waters neither to flow over his land nor to presume to wet his feet or clothing.
But Caligula declared victory over Ocean, commanding his soldiers to gather shells as spoils of conquest, and then fleeing. By contrast, when the waters poured over Cnut’s feet and legs, he rose, stepped backward, and cried to his courtiers, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. No one is worthy of the name but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
As only one of these sovereigns admitted, it is God who compassed the sea with its bounds and set a law to the waters. Nature limits human laws, but by His laws nature came to be.
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I’ve been waiting for Cambridge University Press to release the paperback edition of my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, so that bookworms who long for it will no longer have to mortgage their firstborn children. This happy event has finally transpired; your children are safe.
All this reminds me of one of my favorite book jokes. A certain scholar sent his manuscript to an academic press. After the reviewing wheels had turned, the editor emailed, “Fine book. We’d like to publish it, but it’s too long. Could you trim it by ten percent?”
The scholar answered, “I’ll get back with you.” The very next day, he emailed a ten-percent-shorter version of the manuscript back to the press.
Astonished by the swift turnaround, the editor telephoned. “The new version is fine,” he said, “but how were you able to cut it down so quickly?”
“Easy,” said the scholar. “I removed all the transitions.”
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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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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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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 is indifferent between a Democrat who supports the culture of death, and 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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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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