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Fighting Eugenics

In “My Brittle Bones” (March), Philip C. Burcham makes the excellent point that decisions related to genetic illnesses are not medical decisions; they are social decisions.

Recently our local community witnessed, via a carefully manipulated media campaign, the suicide of a terminally ill euthanasia advocate, whose pain was clearly mismanaged and whose family appeared to be completely absent from her care and daily life. When people are in constant pain and neglected by their increasingly resentful families, who can blame them for advocating active voluntary euthanasia? They have been told for years in words and in actions that they are a useless burden.

This is so often the refrain of the murder-suicide pacts increasingly seen among the elderly: that they dreaded “being a burden.” Where and how did they get this message?

This forces us to ask: What do I do to welcome one of these “little ones”? Do I complain about my workplace having to be modified for a disabled person? Do I object to public funding being spent on improving their lives? Do I welcome them to my church community and say hello, or do I duck away, too embarrassed to speak to them?

What example do I set for my children in the way that I speak about aged people and those with disabilities, privately and publicly? Do I visit my aged relatives in care homes and am I vigilant about their treatment? Am I kind and helpful and patient with the mother in the supermarket who is struggling with a wheelchair-bound child?

All the pro-life marches in the world won’t make any difference unless we send a positive, loving message to the “survivors.”

Philippa Martyr
University of Western Australia
Crawley, Western Australia

Philip C. Burcham replies:

I thank Philippa Martyr for grounding my piece on the New Eugenics within the issues of daily life and how we as individuals interact with those struggling around us. I regret if my article suggested nothing more than a grumpy research scientist aggrieved by the arbitrary process whereby one mutation-ridden human being is able to dismiss another simply for possessing a single additional mutation that is not personally to their fancy.

I hope the article conveyed concerns hatched in a different social setting to the rarified air of my medical school office. As a lay leader in my local congregation, I am increasingly struck by the number of parishioners who, following our weekly gathering for worship, have divulged over a cup of tea in the parish hall the distress they experienced during unsatisfying encounters between themselves or their loved ones and over-reaching doctors or hospital staff.

Are the bleak assumptions concerning the disposability of human life fostered in genetics clinics quietly rebooting the entire health-care endeavor? Is this, then, the new role for the Church within the emerging twenty-first-century social environment: to serve as a sanctuary for those seeking solace from what King Solomon called the cruel kindness of the godless?


While I disagree with much of what Rabbi Gilles Bernheim offers in “Homosexual Marriage, Parenting, and Adoption” (March), I too am concerned with the long trend toward individual definition of reality and morality even as I applaud the move toward the inclusion of once-marginalized peoples, including the LGBT community.

I am for gay marriage because I see it as an affirmation of marriage and commitment, and the institution itself. When a culture or moral system begins to unravel, all sorts of possibilities will arise into the vacuum. Anarchy becomes a real possibility. The question at the end of deconstruction becomes: What shall be rebuilt in its place? We are just beginning this process now, and gay marriage, I believe, is a positive step.

Children’s genealogical connection with their parents, which Bernheim emphasizes, certainly does not set a clear standard, except in protection of the patriarchal assets, including and especially the patriarch’s children. This provided some cultural and family stability which enabled individual identity to form, but the freedom and efficacy of such a structure for people varied greatly depending on whether one was a patriarch, a firstborn son, another son, a wife, a daughter, a concubine, a concubine’s child, or a slave. For the descendants of a poor slave, generational succession would be more like a cage than a protective boundary.

Surely there will be a loss with increased detachment from biological parents, and from a loosening of the parents’ relational commitment to each other. Yet there is nothing about being heterosexual that determines whether parents want to become parents for the “right reason” or whether they will be good parents. Given the choice of giving a child up for adoption to an unhealthy heterosexual couple or a loving homosexual couple, I would choose the latter, and I think the child would too, if he or she had the choice.

Bernheim simply assumes that children form their identities by knowing who they resemble and that one needs a clear and coherent genealogy in order to develop a healthy individual identity. He presents no evidence, especially for the latter claim. I think we could find better evidence that what a child needs is adequate stability, some freedom, and a lot of love.

I have worked in an orphanage, and I know that what children long for is long-term love. It seems to me that it is Bernheim and those like him who would treat the child as an object to hold hostage at the orphanage, to make a cultural stand on their behalf, while the child would just like to go to a home and be loved.

Reverend Max Lynn
St. John’s Presbyterian Church
Berkeley, California

Catholic Reform

Thank you for George Weigel’s essay on both the tradition and timeliness of the Evangelical Catholicism of his Church (“Evangelical Catholicism,” March). Note should also be taken of the nineteenth century’s Evangelical Catholicism of John Williamson Nevin, Philip Schaff, and the “Mercersburg theology” associated with them.

Convergences with characteristics of Evangelical Catholicism identified by Weigel are notable. The leading theme of “friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ” has its counterpart in Mercersburg’s strong Christological focus, as in its signature hymn by Henry Harbaugh, “Jesus, I Live to Thee” (c. 1860).

The company kept with the risen Lord is centered on his real presence in “the Holy Eucharist,” as expounded in Nevin’s classic work, The Mystical Presence (1846)—the sacramental characteristic. Mercersburg is pronouncedly “a liturgically centered form of Catholic life,” drawing on ancient traditions in its contest with frontier revivalism then, and today’s subjectivist fads.

Its Evangelical Catholicism is also “a biblically centered form of Catholic life,” albeit, as with its companion, read with the glasses of the Great Tradition, especially the ancient creeds. It has a record, slender by comparison, of being both “culture-forming and countercultural,” and has entered the public square attentive to the voice of reason yet always grounding the same “in gospel conviction.” It shares with its counterpart “the eager anticipation of the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory” and “is ordered to mission.”

Divergences there are, of course. Mercersburg is unapologetically Reformed (see Schaff’s 1845 Principle of Protestantism). It is not “hierarchically ordered,” nor does it have a comparable magisterium, as it understands the communication of divine truth to be through the whole Body of Christ, with the pastoral office being the resource, not the source, of the same.

However, its semper reformanda premise, developmental understanding of Christian history, and ecumenical passion open it to other possibilities in doctrine and polity, always under the Word. Thus Mercersburg’s interpretation of Christian history as the movement of “the church of Peter” (hope), to “the church of Paul” (faith), and toward “the church of John” (love).

Mercersburg flourished in several Reformation churches in the nineteenth century, was formative of ecumenism in North America, and remains influential in the ecumenical vision, liturgical and sacramental practices, and theology of various denominations, most prominently in its heir, the United Church of Christ. In addition, the Mercersburg Society, which was founded in 1983, continues to study Mercersburg theology and publishes the New Mercersburg Review twice a year.

Gabriel Fackre
Andover Newton ?Theological School
Newton, Massachusetts

George Weigel writes that “Evangelical Catholicism is a hierarchically ordered Catholicism in which a variety of vocations are respected,” mentioning the episcopate, priesthood, and laity, but he leaves out the office of permanent deacon. The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium clearly defines the role of the permanent diaconate in the modern Church as a ministry of liturgy, the Word, and charity.

Considered to be the eyes and ears of the bishop within the community, deacons are directly responsible to the bishop and complementary to priests. In a parish setting, the deacon is expected to take direction from the pastor. Duties of the deacon include: proclaiming the gospel at Mass, preaching, and serving as minister of baptism and holy matrimony. The most important and time-consuming ministry of the deacon is the ministry of charity within the community.

Deacons are generally employed in a secular establishment and perform their ministry without compensation. The ministry of the diaconate has greatly helped the modern Church in carrying out the role of evangelization.

Deacon James Smallhoover
East Troy, Wisconsin

George Weigel made many incisive points in his “Evangelical Catholicism.” But his first proposition that “Evangelical Catholicism is friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ” just seems a bit . . . weak . And that’s not something we usually expect from Weigel. Friendship with Jesus? That’s what it’s all about?

I realize that Jesus tells the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion that he no longer calls them servants, but friends. But I also see that at the table in the upper room, a few hours before that, Jesus says: “You call me Teacher and Lord and rightly so.” He may call us friends. Where exactly does he teach us to call him “friend” rather than “Lord” or “Master”? Isn’t Christianity (or Evangelical Catholicism, if you like) more about worshipping Jesus than it is about being his friend?

Were the angels and archangels palling around with God in heaven when Isaiah was whisked up there for a brief encounter (Isaiah 6)? Weren’t they all worshipping him with thunderous anthems and incense? And didn’t it practically kill Isaiah, the splendor and majesty of it, as the roof beams and the lintel shook and all the house was filled with billowing smoke? Is “friendship” a strong enough word to describe that?

On the mountain in Galilee, were the disciples gathered at the end of the Gospel of Matthew to befriend Jesus? Or were they gathered in order to worship him as Lord and God, almost as if they thought that it was only by the worship of Jesus that they partook of his divine nature through his perfected humanity? The early Christians, Luke tells us in Acts, spent “much time together in the temple, breaking the bread, eating their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God.” I don’t sing doxologies for even my closest friends, do you?

Being “friends” with Jesus sounds like something the Quakers might do. It doesn’t really sound very Evangelical, or very Catholic, either. Whereas the worship of Jesus as Lord—now that sounds like something to get your teeth into! That sounds like a venture worth even losing one’s life over. That sounds like something with a real future in it. And wouldn’t making our first thing the worship of Jesus, rather than friendship with him, make all that follows—our liturgy, our theology, our practice of the faith—a bit more athletic, a bit more serious, a bit more like the sort of thing Weigel usually extols?

Kevin Martin
Raleigh, North Carolina

George Weigel replies:

I am grateful to Gabriel Fackre for some interesting historical reflections, and to James Smallhoover for reminding us of the role of deacons in the New Evangelization. Permit me to suggest that deacons might well benefit from reading the section in Evangelical Catholicism, the book, on the kind of expository preaching that will “equip the saints” for mission in the Church of the twenty-first century.

Kevin Martin might recall that “friendship with Jesus Christ” was the signature phrase of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who was certainly not weak doctrinally or biblically. Perhaps “friendship with the Lord Jesus [Christ]” would be the ampler, more evocative phrase for the Christocentric Church of the New Evangelization, but in any case, the main point should be clear enough: Counter Reformation ecclesiocentricity is giving way in Evangelical Catholicism to a Christocentricity from which is formed a Church that understands itself as a communion of disciples in mission.

Three Faiths

Ephraim Radner, in his review of Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (“Fathers Abraham,” March) , reports that “there are no ‘coequal’ Abrahamic traditions, only mutually exclusive ones.” He concludes that “if there is to be peace among the religions, it will need to be constructed” among the self-understandings of the three traditions. We “stand toward one another differently now because of our past actions, and it is this difference, not some uniform set of historical-theological principles, that needs to be investigated” (italics added).

The anthropological and Kantian alternatives he describes do not exhaust the possibilities for interreligious peace. Within the Muslim self-understanding, the hadith says: “There is not a child that he or she is born upon this fitrah, this original state of the knowledge of God. And his parents make him a Jew, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian . . . and if they are Muslims, Muslim.” Fitrah is variously defined as “natural disposition, constitution, temperament, e.g., what is in a man at his creation, a sound nature, natural religion (and) the germ of Islam.” This “germ of Islam” echoes classical thought’s more distinct and complete natural law.

Similarly, the Old Testament concurs: “For the command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you . . . . No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts ” (Deut. 30:11–14, emphasis added). St. Paul concurs: “When the Gentiles who have no law do by nature what the Law prescribes, these having no law are a law unto themselves. They show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:14–15).

Those involved in interreligious dialogue might consider natural law and its universality. Authentic natural law is constricted and engulfed within the unitary “Islamic social ordering,” while it is increasingly sidelined in the secularist and postmodern West. The West then muddies things further by too quickly “addressing theologically the imperative for dialogue,” in Radner’s words.

How much of the truth is to be discovered reasonably—not “constructed” theologically atop humanity’s actions in history nor divinely “dictated” only in Arabic between the covers of the Qur’an? Rather than constructing a “peace among religions,” we might also pause before the already and always gifted commonality and friendship found in each of us personally—within and among the chosen people of the Decalogue, the faithful witnesses to Christ, and the pious followers of Islam.

Peter D. Beaulieu
Shoreline, Washington

Ephraim Radner replies:

Peter Beaulieu wonders if, in reading Jon Levenson, I am too quick to limit Christian engagement with Islam to two options. The first, the one Levenson argues against, is informed by a belief in a common “Abrahamic” religious core that the two faiths share along with Judaism.

The second is based on a reading of God’s historical judgments, according to which the Church sees Muhammad’s faith as one granted by God in the face of Christian failures (e.g., at evangelism and witness). This faith, although not grasping the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ, is to be respected by the Church as truly divine. This was Massignon’s view (and it was tinged, it needs to be said, with an accompanying sense of judgment upon Judaism too).

Beaulieu suggests a third possibility: a common “natural” faith, one that is not so much tied to Abraham as to the basic law of God planted in the hearts of all peoples, as attested to by many in the Christian tradition. He has argued this more extensively in his Beyond Secularism and Jihad?

My own view is that this option is not really a third alternative at all, but a version of the “common Abrahamic core.” That is, in its modern articulations, the assertion of such an Abrahamic core is less about Abraham than it is about just this “natural” religious orientation that all people share, Christians, Muslims, and Jews especially.

Hence the widening sphere of what counts as “Abrahamic”: Did not Leibniz in the eighteenth century, among others, already claim that the Chinese were also children of Abraham? The “Kantian” paradigm is only a general and anachronistic tag, one that embraces, I would think, almost all contemporary versions of the idea, and even those that preceded him.

Finally, I am less clear about the import in this regard of the biblical texts Beaulieu cites than is he. Certainly, the Christian tradition, Catholic and later Protestant, has had a range of views about “natural religion” and the scriptural warrant for identifying it in the contemporary world. It is certainly a legitimate line to follow. But I think that Levenson’s book properly uncovers some of the dangers inherent in doing so if one wishes to understand religions as they actually are, rather than as we would wish them to be.

Natural Law

David Bentley Hart has written a bracing critique of modern adaptations of natural law (“Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws,” March) and the idea that it can be used to clearly teach moderns specific moral truths in isolation from the philosophical and religious tradition in which they were articulated. It seems to me there is some truth in this, although I think he makes the reason hinge on the wrong thing.

Hume’s is/ought distinction works well enough as a criticism of the eighteenth-century political and social thought of his time, but as a general principle it falls short. Surely the transition from “is” to “ought” is deeply embedded in human “moral psychology.” The logic of “If I am this thing, then I must continue to be it” underlies human action—one might call it the principle of persisting moral identity.

In practice, in reasonably well-brought-up people it usually develops together with at least some realization that the “other” is a person in close analogy to me and has many of the same basic human goods inherent in myself, which thus obligates me in respect to him or her, at least in some measure. Most people recognize that some excellences relate to the fundamental integrity of their person, and are thus moral goods.

None of this requires exposure to any great philosophical and ethical tradition or to religious faith. Its influence on us doesn’t even require us to be explicitly aware of it. It can, even so, be the basis for further reasoning.

Indeed, the conclusions to which it leads become obligatory on us, as our persons and their integrity become entangled with our ongoing actions in respect to others (or even ourselves) in the various concrete cases we experience in life. We can see the imprint of this dynamic in very widespread moral principles, starting from the Golden Rule and extending to more specific applications like prohibitions of theft and murder. Even the Nietzschean, arguably, wants to take control of this process of “moral application of the is” and redefine its contents as he or she sees fit according to taste, rather than to abolish it entirely.

Most of the difficulties with making natural law convincing that Hart points out lie on the level of the particular applications, it seems to me. It is not easy to reason well about slavery or abortion, especially given the great weaknesses of human nature; shortness of time we have for deliberation; social, economic, or cultural pressures; and just the sometimes-fearful difficulty of life.

Of course, this is not new, for “forgetfulness” of the natural law was a problem of which thinkers like Aquinas were already aware. And yet it is precisely here that the traditions of natural law thought and religious faith are so immensely helpful to correct moral reasoning, while currently fashionable mistakes about where the precise value of the person lies, and how to reason about it, are most unhelpful. In this, I agree with Hart.

Still, I think classical natural law reasoning in general can be built up by making it—with due caution—present in the public sphere. Although we should not have illusions about its easy widespread acceptance, especially by the elite classes of today, neither should we underestimate its potentially universal appeal.

Paul J. Radzilowski
Madonna University
Livonia, Michigan

David Bentley Hart reminds us of the uselessness of natural law purely against the backdrop of naturalism. There is a strong and undeniable correlation between natural law and nature’s laws, but correlation is not derivation, and so I have always sung the praises of the formal approach to morality when the religious one is not possible.

To wit, abortion really is economically unsound, socially and psychologically harmful, useless to prevent tragedy, a response to the failure of the sexual revolution, etc. Its inevitable harm corresponds to the proscriptions of natural law.

The perennial rightness of our faith can, and ought to, be justified in the court of secular humanism. While we can never quite get from the “is” to the “ought” before the belligerence of the will to power, correlation, as one engineer has put it, “doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘Look over there.’” Instead of pretending that our faith can be derived from nature alone, let’s first confront our opponents with the furtive gestures of correlation.

M. Ralph Schmidt
Mount Rainier, Maryland

David Bentley Hart is to be commended for reminding contemporary natural law thinkers of what their classical forebears knew well: Moral philosophy cannot instruct or even persuade those who do not already believe (at least slightly) what the ethicist seeks to prove. As Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics, while moral philosophy seeks the self-evident principles of natural law, it begins with what is evident to us, i.e., our vague, intuitive grasp of right and wrong, as developed or hindered by our upbringing. Hence, “one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just . . . must have been brought up in good habits.”

It was for this reason that Aquinas considered it both fitting and necessary that truths knowable by reason be revealed by God, since, given the ignorance, malice, and weakness to which fallen humanity is subject, “the truth about God such as reason could discover would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.”

Yet in saying that nobody can deduce moral laws from a knowledge of nature, Hart succumbs to the same error as those he criticizes: the view inherited from Descartes that what is evident in itself must be evident to all . While this assumption leads natural law theorists to conclude that moral laws are evident to everyone because they can be demonstrated, it leads Hart to deny their demonstrability because not all grasp them. Both forget what Aquinas points out: Propositions can be “self-evident to the learned” but not self-evident to all if their terms can only be understood after much reflection.

It is this distinction between self-evidence to all and to the wise that refutes Hart’s agreement with Hume that one can’t deduce an “ought” (or at least not a categorical one) from an “is.” While this statement is true if the “is” refers to the materialist’s false understanding of nature, it does not apply to a truly philosophical grasp of nature, which recognizes, as Msgr. Robert Sokolowski has observed, that one cannot know a thing’s nature, or what it is, without simultaneously knowing its end, or what it is for.

Just as one does not understand what scissors are if one does not know that they are made for cutting, so one does not understand man if one does not see that he is made for knowing and loving. This fact, however, does not make the prospect of convincing secular moderns any less bleak, since it shows that they are confused not only about what we humans are for, but even about what we are.

Hart is therefore right that natural law arguments cannot by themselves achieve a moral consensus, but wrong in suggesting that such arguments are futile. For as Aristotle says just after declaring ethics useless to the immoral, “to those who desire and act in accordance with reason, knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.” Hence, natural law arguments will illuminate and confirm people of faith in their convictions and practices, and convert those unknown souls outside the fold who earnestly seek virtue and truth.

The primary value of a demonstrative knowledge of natural law, however, is not as a means to virtue—since it presupposes at least some virtue, as said above—but as its prize. Augustine tells us that “the reward of faith is to see what we believe.” Thus, insofar as we come to know what until now we believed, we acquire a foretaste of our beatitude—something we will need to give us courage in the battle ahead.

Michael J. Rubin
Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

That there are “first things” in the sense of enduring metaphysical principles, David Bentley Hart concedes and—one judges—even champions. Still, he contends, the existence of such principles—perception of which is known as syneresis—does us little good, for we lack the moral vocabulary to “talk intelligibly about natural law” until we agree upon its content.

Hart’s piece is a kind of natural law Pyrrhonism: The natural law exists, but we are lost in its, and our own, shadow. There is only moral chiaroscuro. We, the saturnine denizens of Plato’s cave, will never see the sun—unless our social conventions reveal it to us.

To suggest moral law clarity is, says Hart, little more than pia fraus. There is no hint here that he appreciates the idea of anima naturaliter Christiana, holding that the human heart is drawn toward Christian truth or, more broadly stated, toward divine truth, much as, say, Ezekiel (36:27), Jeremiah (31:33), and Paul (Rom. 2:15) suggest. Certainly the Psalmist says as much (42, 63), for he acknowledges our longing for God and his laws, obedience to which bestows peace (119).

But Hart’s version of things has it that God does speak to us about the natural law, but mumbles so badly that we can’t understand. He insists that there is “no logically coherent way” to move from, at best, murky knowledge of Aristotelian final causes to phronesis. With a sigh, he concludes that our concept of nature “is entirely dependent upon supernatural . . . convictions.” But isn’t that precisely the point? Not for nothing did Chesterton write that to “become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think,” reasonably suggesting that his graced view of the supernatural now gave him both moral vocabulary and political perspective.

We move, as did Newman, ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem; and we do so by grace. Like Bartimaeus, we ask to see, moving from shadow (1 Cor. 13:12) to certainty (Heb. 8:10, 10:16) because God isn’t playing a game of cosmic “telephone.” That we may not possess truth wholly here and now by no means confirms that truth doesn’t exist or is essentially unknowable; that we do not know everything by no means establishes that we do not know anything; that there are some things we will and must argue about by no means proves that, foundationally, there is nothing worthy of knowing, cherishing, debating, or defending.

At its core, Hart’s essay uneasily celebrates a relativism that has, by convention, matured sufficiently to prevent our eating the neighbors. Such natural law agnosticism, rooted in the notion that we deduce physis only, or principally, from nomos, reminds one of the good sense of Samuel Johnson’s admonition: “If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.”

Deacon James H. Toner
Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church
Greensboro, North Carolina

In his critique of natural law theory, David Bentley Hart cites Hume’s famous statement, “In every system of morality I have hitherto met with . . . instead of is, and is not, I meet with . . . an ought or an ought not. ” But in truth, Hume’s critique was directed at the abstract moral systems of Ralph Cudworth and Samuel Clarke, who ignore feeling and sentiment and try to deduce moral truths by reasoning from “external” facts. Hume’s own system is based on the recognition of “internal” facts, and he was a member of the “moral sense” school of thought on morality. His is/ought restriction is often taken out of context.

Hume gives the example of our disapprobation for a vice and writes that when you “turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action[, h]ere is a matter of fact, but ’tis the object of feeling, not of reason.”

When St. Paul in Romans 2 points out that there is a “law engraved on the hearts” of all men, and cites the Ten Commandments, he is not invoking any “metaphysical” presuppositions. Hume himself agrees that if there is any moral opinion common to all mankind, this opinion is “perfectly infallible. Nor is it less infallible because men cannot distinctly explain the principles on which it is founded.”

In his critique, Hart mentions “classical natural law theory” and says “names are not important,” leaving the reader not knowing whether he is referring to Cicero, Aquinas, Suárez, Grotius, Richard Cumberland, Samuel von Pufendorf, or someone else. Presumably, he is not referring to “new natural law” theorists like John Finnis and Germain Grisez. It is important in a case like this to name names, because natural law tradition has a long and noble tradition in the Church and in the world, but with multiple variations that have to be noted before making critical assessments.

Most important, if some other approach would offer better direction for modern moral life, this should also be mentioned. Utilitarianism? Kantian discarding of inclinations in favor of “categorical imperatives?” Good-Reasons theory? Presumably not moral relativism. Presumably not washing one’s hands of any attempt to forge moral truths. “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for the battle?”

Howard P. Kainz
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I am unclear whether David Bentley Hart wants natural law theorists to abandon an approach to natural law that is silent on God (“a hopeless cause”), or if he wants folks to stop talking about natural law altogether in an age with “a neo-Darwinian view of life.” I fear he means the latter when he writes: “The truth is that we cannot talk intelligibly about natural law if we have not all first agreed upon what nature is and accepted in advance that there really is a necessary bond between what is and what should be.”

The problem (and, I’d argue, the solution) is: If not natural law reasoning, then what? The question of the American Civil War was whether all men are born with certain rights that are imprescriptible because they come from God, or whether the government is the highest authority that has the final say about one’s rights. Even if someone doesn’t yet believe, he might want to.

Pope Benedict pointed out that if Europeans share his diagnosis of Europe’s problems they might consider “revers[ing] the axiom of the Enlightenment and say[ing]: Even the one who does not succeed in . . . accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try to live . . . as if God did indeed exist.” Or, if Benedict is too churchy for our non-believing friends, there is always Tocqueville: “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”

Another recent and brilliant answer to all this was proposed by the nonbeliever Marcello Pera in his book Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies. He argues that whether or not you believe in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Western idea of freedom cannot survive without it. Pera has proven such a great advocate of natural law—though he does not share the belief in the bond between what is and what should be—that Pope Benedict wrote the preface to his book.

That said, nonbelievers who stand on the side of natural law ultimately do so for utilitarian reasons, and in the end the faithful (should) want nothing to do with the philosophy of utilitarianism. It is not enough that nonbelievers are on our side; we have an obligation to make them jealous of our belief.

And this, it seems to me, is where we proponents of natural law often get ourselves in trouble, banging our fists on the table, trying to win arguments. The trick is to persuade not by argument, but by witness. If a man has to lay out a perfect syllogism to prove that he loves his wife, I’d be inclined to think he doesn’t love his wife. Likewise, if a natural law theorist first finds it necessary to explain that he believes in God, then that might be the problem. The answer then is not to abandon reason but to double down by living our lives as if it were actually true.

J. Douglas Johnson
Chicago, Illinois

David Bentley Hart replies:

My thanks to all of the authors of these letters.

To Paul Radzilowski, I will point out that I said only that Hume’s argument is “formally correct,” which is philosophical parlance for “given its premises, its conclusions follow.” I was not advocating Hume’s premises.

To Ralph Schmidt, writing from the noblest state in the union, I have to remark that his argument may well be worthwhile, even if it looks a little utilitarian, but that it is not germane to my column. It is a point he should take up with persons who accept the mechanistic metaphysics of late modernity.

To Michael Rubin, I will observe that at no point in my column did I say that moral truths absolutely cannot be deduced from nature; that is not the issue that concerned me, one way or the other. I said only that such truths cannot be deduced from the understanding of nature that modernity presumes, and hence natural law arguments cannot be made from a position that has already conceded the legitimacy of that understanding (by trying to change natural law theory into either a form of Kantian categorical imperative or some sort of utilitarian calculus).

It may be that the only proper response to James Toner’s letter—given its confusion with regard to the central issue and its incautiously histrionic tone—would be an arched eyebrow. Perhaps he is right in saying my column fails to exhibit a sense of the anima naturalizer christiana—well, except for the second half of its first paragraph and the entirety of its third (but let’s not split hairs). It is surprising that he believes that the only way to enlighten that anima regarding moral truth, and to coax it out of the shadows of Plato’s cave, is with the full apparatus of natural law theory.

In any event, by invoking the natural desire of the heart for God, Toner shows that he understands natural law in classical fashion. My column concerned those who make no appeal to that desire, and who consent to secular reason’s decision to bracket the supernatural out of public consideration, and who think that natural law can be demonstrated in a purely naturalistic key: one tabula rasa to another, so to speak.

To Howard Kainz, I will note that I am perfectly aware of the context of Hume’s argument, and have made that very point on numerous occasions when arguing with captious Thomists. In fact, I had to trim a paragraph on just that issue to make my column fit into its word limit. And if he consults the original column, Kainz will find that the names I withhold are specifically those of thinkers who do not practice classical natural law theory at all.

As to what “other approach” he should take to “modern moral life,” I encourage Mr. Kainz to pursue classical natural law theory (which was not the topic I addressed), if he likes. The Great Commission also comes to mind. (Do what you think best.)

To Douglas Johnson, I have no significant reply to make, really. Who, for God’s sake, advocated abandoning reason?

I shall conclude with two general observations:

First, I underestimated the degree to which what I thought a simple distinction between classical natural law theory and “natural law theory” reconfigured as a form of modern practical reason would prove difficult to grasp. Had I thought about it more, I should not have presumed that the distinction was already clear in everyone’s mind.

Let me say this, therefore: I have very intelligent acquaintances who believe that, armed with natural law arguments of an oddly metaphysically denatured kind, they could plausibly enter the Supreme Court to argue a matter of great moral gravity, addressing the justices not as fellow creatures fashioned in the likeness of the God who is the final cause of all final causes, but as fellow tabulae rasae inhabiting a universe from which all spiritual and metaphysical certitudes have been scrupulously bracketed out, and still carry the day, on the basis of a kind of Kantian appeal to categorical imperatives, scaffolded within a consequentialist account of natural goods. It is they—not Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, or any of their intellectual kith—who were the subject of my column.

And, second, since there seems to be some question as to my own view of natural law theory, as such, I may as well be forthcoming on the matter (and confirm my critics’ worst suspicions). My view is that natural law as a moral concept makes sense only if one starts from the presupposition that nature is a supernatural dispensation, and I believe that the contents of that law are inseparable from the dispensation in which one believes.

Nature loves to hide, and left to herself she is too capricious and protean to provide us any sort of moral grammar that is truly binding upon us. The veil of Isis would not be so impenetrable, of course, were we not fallen creatures, and could simply, immediately, undialectically see through nature to the truth of things—that ultimate finality that is a moral as well as cosmic horizon, God or to agathon (epekeina tes ousias) or the Prime Mover—but we cannot; those are just the breaks.

However rich the tradition of moral and metaphysical reflection there is behind the language of natural law, I believe that most of the arguments it produces are formally incorrect (that is, even if both their premises and their conclusions should happen to be true, the latter do not actually follow directly from the former, and so some adventitious mediation—such as the synthesizing action of a supernaturally illuminated conscience, where the law is “written on the heart”—is required to bring them together).

I might add, however, that I am most definitely not a two-tier Thomist, and do not accept any concept of natura pura, and so I believe that the pressing need for a philosophically complete demonstration of enduring moral “facts” within the confines of purely natural reason follows from a false dilemma created by a grave misunderstanding of what both nature and reason are. My neo-scholastically inclined Thomist acquaintances are often dismayed at my nouvelle théologie sympathies, but those are not going to change.

But, frankly, the whole “What alternative do we have?” question strikes me as one corrupted by fantasy. It is not as if natural law theory, classical or modern, is some sort of effective dialectical strategy that has had any success in the secular realm, or that ever will have such success. Natural law theory is a practice confined to the circles of natural law theorists, because it requires enclosed, conservatory conditions to flourish; in the open air, it quickly withers.

Anyway, I address some of these issues further in my Back Page column this month, and so will defer further commentary. For what it is worth, I am in the end quite happy for believers in natural law theory to continue plying their oars, rowing against the current (so long as they do so in keeping with classical metaphysics), but I do not think they are going to get where they are heading; so I shall just watch from the bank for a while and then wander off to the hills (to look for saints and angels).

Male and Female

Hans Boersma’s article is judicious and timely (“Defending Marriage,” March). While I do not agree with him that the culture must be converted to a Christian idea of the common good in order to save traditional marriage, here I only want to quibble with the impression he gives of believing that traditional marriage contains a tautology if understood as the union of male and female.

This assumption of a tautology may be rooted in a false equation of comprehensive union and sexual complementarity. They are not the same. Marriage is (arguably and I believe factually) a comprehensive union. Marriage assumes complementarity—a different proposition entirely. There may indeed be something tautological about defining marriage in terms of a comprehensive union. But there is nothing tautological about identifying marriage with complementarity—and complementarity is all that the defense of traditional marriage needs.

The idea of comprehensive union requires a sexual morality that is alarmingly indebted (from the point of view of liberal public reason) to the Judeo-Christian revelation. Dependence on the idea of a comprehensive union thus introduces more civic vexation and moral quarreling than is strictly necessary in defending traditional marriage in a predominantly secular society.

Although Boersma doesn’t mention natural norms, complementarity is just that: a natural norm bearing on marriage, and on sexual morality generally, but without any necessary connection with religious belief. For an analysis that expands the idea of natural normativity beyond what Hume and Nietzsche—and Boersma?—seem to have contemplated, readers should consult Philippa Foot’s book Natural Goodness .

Ken Zaretzke
Spokane, Washington

Hans Boersma replies:

Ken Zaretzke helpfully distinguishes between comprehensive union and complementarity. The first notion (comprehensive union) is defined in What Is Marriage? as a bodily and mental union that is completed and deepened in procreation and that demands all-encompassing commitment. According to the authors, only where we have such comprehensive union do we have marriage. Homosexual couples cannot marry because they are incapable of such a comprehensive union.

The second notion (complementarity) is a term Zaretzke doesn’t define, but I suspect he means the gendered (and especially biological) differentiation that pertains between male and female, which renders same-sex relationships unnatural, so that by extension same-sex marriage is also to be rejected. He argues that talk of comprehensive union is unnecessarily complex, since talk of “procreation” and “all-encompassing commitment” leads inevitably to acrimonious discussions about religious commitments. We can avoid these fruitless discussions if we just focus on the unnatural (uncomplementary) character of same-sex relationships.

Zaretzke’s distinction is not just valid but also important. The main point of my review is precisely to take issue with the book’s refusal to tackle questions of the morality of homosexual activity, as the authors limit their discussion to the question of whether or not we should restrict marriage by sex. I concluded my review with the comment, “Perhaps, therefore, the gay marriage debate isn’t just about marriage, but must also deal with homosexuality after all.” I agree with Zaretzke that such a debate about the morality of homosexuality needs to deal with the question of complementarity.

Since, however, the book limits itself to the issue of “gay marriage,” my review discusses the authors’ definition of marriage as “comprehensive union,” and it seems to me that their thick description of such a comprehensive union is exactly right. They are also right, therefore, in their insistence that gay marriage isn’t just wrong but also impossible.

In short, I made my comment on tautology (“if marriage requires actions or relations unique to male-female unions, then to say that marriage is between a man and a woman is akin to a tautology”) to highlight the persuasive nature of the book’s definition of marriage. My comment, like the review, was not meant to gainsay the need for complementarity to which Zaretzke refers.