Liberalism is said to mean believing in liberality, which is generosity. Though generosity is a real virtue, it lies between opposite vices. The interesting question, then, is not whether you are in favor of liberality. Instead let us ask: How do you recognize and avoid covetousness on the one hand, and prodigality on the other?
Libertarianism is said to mean believing in liberty. But there is no such thing as liberty in general; there are only particular liberties, because every claim of liberty P entails denial of some liberty Q: If grown-ups have the liberty to kill babies, then babies lack the liberty to live. It isn’t helpful to know that you are for certain liberties, because everyone is. Which strictly defined liberties are you for?
Conservatism is said to mean desiring to conserve ancient goods. Yet even after telling us which ancient things are good, as a political stance conservatism is ambiguous. Is it your aim to conserve the ancient goods by means of the State, or in spite of the state?
Atheism is said to mean denying that God exists. But no one denies all gods, for in every human life, some object is given unconditional priority, and other things are chosen for its sake. It might be protested that people choose inconsistently, yet no one is completely inconsistent, for there is always a drift toward pursuing some things in preference to others. So the question for the atheist is this: Which gods do you mean to deny, and which one do you mean to affirm?
Agnosticism is said to means believing that the truth about the First Being is rationally unattainable. But to know God’s rational unknowability would be to know something about Him. Indeed, it would be to know a great deal about Him. One would have to know that even if He exists, He is infinitely remote, because otherwise one could not be so sure that knowledge about Him were rationally inaccessible. One would have to know that even if He exists, He is unconcerned with human beings, because otherwise one would expect Him to have provided the means for humans to know Him. One would have to know that this hypothetical being is completely unlike the Biblical portrayal of Him, because in that portrayal He does care about us and has already provided such means. So, in the end, the agnostic must claim to know quite a number of things about God just to prop up his claim to not knowing any. The question for him is this: How can he rationally justify his claim to know just those things?
Protestantism is said to mean protesting. What the Reformers protested is a matter of historical record: Luther, for example, protested the idea that being right with God requires anything more than sheer faith. What the latter-day heirs of the Reformers are protesting is far less clear. So for Protestants, the question is: What do you still consider so gravely, so certainly, and so irreparably wrong in Catholicism that it requires a continuing schism?
Since Catholicism is not universal in every sense – obviously, not everyone is Catholic -- I had thought of closing this post by asking in what sense Catholics claim catholicity. Alas for parallelism: The question would have fallen flat, because the Church has already answered it.
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We have come to expect vast and manipulative public relations campaigns mounted to influence the voters, who are then supposed to exert influence on elected officials. In an empire, however, the only constituency that matters to people who want things done is the courtiers, and the only constituency that matters to the courtiers is the emperor himself.
Mikhail Zygar, founder of Russia’s only independent television station, relates in his book All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin that on one occasion, wealthy Russians who stood to gain if Russia hosted the 2014 Olympics in Sochi staged an equally vast and manipulative campaign of influence, seemingly targeted at the public, but really targeted at Vladimir Putin. Zygar writes,
[Putin’s] initial reaction was lukewarm. So the bid committee turned to Dmitry Peskov, who was then the deputy of presidential press secretary Alexei Gromov.
It is said that Peskov proposed a low-cost advertising campaign focused on one man: Vladimir Putin. The bid committee produced billboards and radio spots advertising the Sochi bid. Peskov gave clues as to the route that the president’s motorcade took to the Kremlin, as well as what radio stations he listened to while on the move and at what times, and the media buys were targeted accordingly. The slogan for the public (i.e., for Putin) was “The Games We Deserve.”
A stooge caller was hired to call in during the president’s annual live Q&A session with the public and ask about when Russia would finally host the Olympics. It made Putin think that the people really wanted the Olympics and that, moreover, they wanted them in Sochi, so he gave the go-ahead. Al the state TV channels immediately climbed on board, and the bid committee’s money trough became bottomless.
Zygar suggests that this is common in far more important matters than the Olympics: The strongman is regularly maneuvered into his decisions by the persons with whom he has surrounded himself, persons we have imagined to be stooges.
The United States are not Russia. Yet considering the inclination of recent presidents to rule by decree, the eagerness of presidential candidates of both parties to promise to do so, and the suppine acquiescence of the Congress, one wonders when our own wanters of things done will begin following the same strategy.
Or have they begun doing so already?
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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.
Don't overlook: Book Trailer