Suicide

Wesley J. Smith gives no reasons for his lamentations concerning the increasing frequency of euthanasia and assisted suicide (“Medicinal Murder,” May). Catholics realize that the suffering we endure should be offered with Christ’s in atonement for our sins and the sins of others. We, like St. Paul, should be “glad of [our] ­sufferings” (Col. 1:24).

Suicide and euthanasia terminate the sufferer’s mission. The sufferer refuses the cross God has asked him to carry. We can properly lament his willful refusal to serve. Those who do not have the Catholic viewpoint have greater difficulty finding a basis for Smith’s discomfort, settling at best for passive puzzlement.

Frederick A. Costello
Oak Hill, Virginia

The spread of assisted suicide across Europe is especially disturbing for those of us working with mainly ­aboriginal communities in the ­Arctic. The communities of Canada’s Arctic are profoundly religious in ways almost forgotten in the south. But Canada’s Arctic is part of the rest of the world, and ties to Greenland make Europe an intellectual source.

Among the Inuit of Nunavut, suicide is a leading cause of death. While suicide is alien to Inuit tradition, young people kill themselves with appalling frequency. Traditional society is ripped apart by the sudden deaths of despairing people. When interviewing people involved in the court process in the Arctic, I do not ask “if” but rather “how many” family members took their own lives. Suicide is contagious. One suicide is met with another and then another.

Recognizing the sanctity of life in a place where life is often short and harsh can be a challenge. Europe’s embrace of assisted suicide and euthanasia is unhelpful to this process (and a moral scandal in itself).

James C. Morton
Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada

Contrary to Wesley J. Smith’s claims, Belgians can’t claim the honor of being pioneers in killing people and then harvesting and selling their organs. The mainland Chinese are way ahead of them: a quick bullet (paid for by the relatives) in the back of the head and a trip to the butcher shop, followed by sale of the various parts. The Chinese may not be as sophisticated as the Belgians, but they are certainly more honest.

China is sometimes referred to as “godless.” Belgium is struggling to overtake it in this category.

Jack Kincade
Hilliard, Ohio

Wesley J. Smith replies:

Thanks to James C. Morton for his description of the suicide crisis among Canada’s Inuit people. Studies have shown that suicide is “catching,” and I have no doubt that advocacy to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia exerts a downward drag on people in the darkness of suicidal despair.

I certainly agree with Jack ­Kincade that China’s organ industry is an atrocity. But Belgium’s coupling of euthanasia and organ harvesting is being done under color of law—which not even China has done—giving an insidious reason for the despairing disabled to believe that their deaths are more valuable than their lives, while providing a plum to society in the deaths of such despairing (and expensive) patients.

In response to Frederick A. Costello: ­ My purpose in writing was not to explain why euthanasia is a cultural poison but to demonstrate that once the ideological premises of euthanasia are societally accepted, mercy killing cannot logically be contained to the few and imminently dying for whom nothing else can end suffering—the prime (and false) selling slogan to ­convince people to let the vampire into the house.

I also disagree that one need be Catholic to understand why euthanasia threatens moral decency. I am not Catholic, for example. Moreover, many implacable euthanasia opponents aren’t even religious. The famous civil libertarian Nat Hentoff—a self-declared atheist—has long been one of our most articulate and powerful voices against the killing agenda.

Mexico’s Suffering

Thank you for including in First Things the article by Antonio ­Anderson, S.O.L.T. (“Bullets and Beatitudes,” May). It presents accurately the contemporary arena in which we are called to live the Gospel of life, on both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border. It is not until we can see assassins as brothers and pray for them, and see abortionists and terrorists as brothers and pray for them, and see the political enemy as our brother and pray for him, that we are beginning to live the Beatitudes.

It is possible and it is our mission to witness to Christ in this way because, as Anderson writes, Jesus “is no pacifist; he doesn’t stick a daisy in the muzzle of your rifle. No, he spatters you with his blood. He does not teach us to run from violence; he teaches us to confront violence by standing firm and offering our other cheek.” Until we love our enemies, and until we are ready to live the Gospel in the face of violence—verbal and physical—we are not ready or able to be witnesses to the Lord Jesus. I am deeply grateful for Anderson’s words and example.

Thomas J. Olmsted
Bishop of Phoenix
Phoenix, Arizona

In contrasting the lives and choices of Antonia and Antonio, Antonio ­Anderson addresses some fundamental questions of freedom that dominate the south-of-the-border world where he lives and works, which those of us north of the border would do well to understand and address as well.

I find it useful to draw a distinction between supernatural freedom and temporal freedom. The first sort allows us to make choices directed toward the good, the true, and the beautiful even when the other sort may be partially or completely absent. It can never be taken away by men or by economic or political structures. It allows us to live heroically, as Antonia did, living with joy in the face of poverty and suffering. This freedom acts upon hope, that certain capacity (based on trust in our ­Creator’s good designs for us) that brings divine ­perspective to every event, act, word, and thought of our lives.

Of course, another reaction to limitations on temporal freedom is ­Antonio’s. He chose to respond to a very real attack on his temporal freedom by embracing and perpetuating its abuse. He reacted to the limitations on his economic freedom by abusing the freedom of others, in the process also abusing his own moral freedom. Ultimately, his lack of hope led him to this. He failed to value the en­during good promised by the Creator, choosing rather to seek that good that abides only in this temporal reality.

Anderson’s conclusion is perfect: The only solution for the problem of the mafia is the conversion of the mafia—the gift of hope, the canvas for supernatural freedom.

We who live north of the border should employ this same approach in addressing the erosion of freedom in our own world. When the freedom of the individual is attacked, I suggest a third way to address attacks upon the freedom of the individual: Fight back in a selfless, manly way, employing all the reason and courage at our disposal, and keeping in mind that this fight for temporal freedom must be accompanied by conversion and growth in hope so that we do not give undue importance to our own will and grow desperate (and selfish) when our Creator permits successful attacks on our temporal freedoms.

Joseph Anderson
Phoenix, Arizona

Antonio Anderson’s description of the joy that characterizes the lives of the poor in his parish in the midst of all the horror of the war between the drug cartels brought to mind Paul-Émile Cardinal Léger, Archbishop of Montreal from 1950 until 1968. When the cardinal retired in 1968, he sought and received permission from Pope Paul VI to become the chaplain at the leper colony in the Republic of Cameroon.

After some years he returned to Montreal, and, when asked by a reporter if he found the people changed, he replied, “Yes, they enjoy peace, have everything, and yet they seem so unhappy. Perhaps they seem so to me because I left the lepers in Africa who have nothing and who live with such horror and yet are the happiest people I have ever known.”

René Henry Gracida
Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi
Corpus Christi, Texas

Antonio Anderson replies:

I thank the respondents for their kind letters. They remind me that five hundred years ago an evangelized woman came to these latitudes. She impacted a continent; she wrote history; she lived the Beatitudes. Meekly she obeyed God and the fledgling hier­archy in New Spain. From warring tribes and cultural chaos Mexico was born; a suffering mother forged a people.

She brought us a Word, a Logos that meant order and unity and light for the American continent. If hatred for the truth is the source of all violence, hatred for the Word she brought is the most dangerous violence. A bullet can separate body and soul, but a lie can separate creature from Creator. Disdain for the Word that Our Lady brought to America is disdain for peace and humanity itself.

Love for the Logos, on the other hand, and for she who speaks the Word, is even now a sure way to peace. Holy Mary of Guadalupe taught us to worship. The man of violence is caught up in self-worship, and secular humanism has institutionalized violence because it rips man from his roots, it rips man from God. Our lot is violence until we again listen to the Mother who calls us to meek acceptance of our contingence.

Raising Children

I very much appreciate Sally Thomas’ article “Not Duffers, Won’t Drown” (May). Some additional thoughts come to mind.

First, the original telegram was even stronger and more startling than her paraphrase of it. I recall it as, “Better drowned than duffers; if not duffers, won’t drown.” This is hardly designed to comfort an over-protective parent!

Second, the Walker children’s father was an officer in the British Navy. As such, he would have known both discipline and responsibility from an early age. Didn’t the Navy put fourteen-year-old midshipmen in charge of boat crews and work p­arties? He certainly would have given his children a similar training. Not many of today’s children are raised with that sort of structure in their lives.

Third, and perhaps making the same point, Thomas’ children saw freedom and lack of supervision. What I took from these stories, I think, was quite the opposite: that growing up meant a challenge to ­accept responsibility, not a license to do just as one pleased.

On a different note, when I met C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books many years later, I was struck by the many resemblances between his Pevensie family and Arthur Ransome’s young ­Walkers. The popularity of Narnia today also bears out Thomas’ point that while today’s children can have their adventures only in fantasy or an alternative universe, the Walkers were sailing on a real, terrestrial lake.

Would that many of today’s ­children might discover this sane, challenging, and happy world.

Sr. Mary Jean, C.S.M.
Greenwich, New York

Sally Thomas replies:

I thank Sr. Mary Jean for her ­letter. I agree that responsibility and discipline are the ultimate end of the parenting these books present in the persons of Admiral and Mrs. ­Walker, who expect that left to their own ­devices their children will not be “duffers.”

These children do live largely regimented, disciplined lives at boarding school, their summer vacation offering a brief, idyllic respite. Sr. Mary Jean is right in observing the dependence of freedom on internalized discipline and a sense of responsibility. I would only add that in trusting their children to be responsible and disciplined, the Walkers allow respon­sibility and discipline to become real.

Rahner

I generally agree both with R. R. ­Reno’s critique of Karl Rahner’s theology (and even more that of his sundry epigones) and with the suggestions sketched regarding a future course for Catholic theology ­(“Rahner the Restorationist,” May). However, I fear that some of the terms he uses to delineate different approaches to the issues risk obfuscating rather than clarifying the challenge Catholic theology faces. For example, to speak of Rahner (and Vatican II’s) alternative to neoscholastic dualism as “integralism” can confuse the legitimate search for aggiornamento with the reactionary and undiscriminating opposition to “modernism” of the first half of the twentieth century.

Even more unhelpful, in my view, is labeling the considered criticism of Rahner by such theologians as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph ­Ratzinger as “extrinsicism.” This risks landing us right back in neo­scholastic dualism—the “sawdust Thomism” against which the foun­ders of Communio rightly rebelled.

As I read Balthasar and Ratzinger, they do not deny that the grace of Christ profoundly fulfills our deepest human yearning as the image of God. What they insist on, in a way that Rahner does not seem to stress sufficiently, is that such fulfillment requires conversion and transformation: a baptismal immersion in the paschal mystery of Christ, whether ­sacramentally or by ­self-expropriating desire. Rahner’s “supernatural existential” slips all too easily from invitation to accomplished reality, “always already.”

Rev. Robert Imbelli
Boston College
Boston, Massachusetts

We can uncover an implicit neoscholastic extrinsicism in Karl ­Rahner. From Ratzinger, de Lubac, and Balthasar to David L. Schindler, the Communio theologians have argued that neoscholasticism (tracing back to nominalism) represents a misunderstanding of Aquinas’ teachings on nature and grace, a misunderstanding that implanted the weeds of secularism in and outside the Church.

In his book on creation and original sin, Joseph Ratzinger affirms that God’s act of creation is itself a loving grace, and thus nature (creation) is a graced recipient in a naturally given relation to the Creator. The ­human person receives the triune God’s desire that all persons dwell in him and partake, as filial creatures, in the eternally vital dialogue of prayer that emits from the heart of the Trinity.

Thus, as St. Paul affirms, the human heart carries this desire, a desire for God that is actualized in ­every act, though in original sin, human desire for God is distorted and committed to evil. Nonetheless, Christian revelation is capable of reawakening and converting human desire.

Fatally, Rahner conflates the world with Christ and thus negates the urgent necessity for conversion. In this, Rahner adheres to an implicit extrinsicism because he melts God and the world into an indistinguishable ­metaphysical monolith.

The intrinsic, ontologically given communion—a communion redeemed and fulfilled in the Paschal Church—between God and creatures, grace and nature, maintains and requires the unity of and distinction between God and the world. Rahner obfuscates God with the world and thus ­implicitly ensures that the two ­remain separate or extrinsic (“distinct” doesn’t mean “separate”). A world indistinguishable from God is out of relation to anything transcendentally Other.

Rahner’s implicit ­extrinsicism—embedded in his monolithic-­meta­physical pantheism—eliminates the possibility of Christian revelation in history and ensures that a transcendent God is extrinsic from human experience and history. The seeds of secularism are sown.

Andrew Favata
Yonkers, New York

Jarosław Kupczak in his book on Blessed John Paul II wrote, “Wojtyła also shares with de Lubac the conviction that the concept of pure nature—apart from the fall and grace—is a mere hypothetical, which does not and never did exist.” Here is the traditional doctrine (from John Tauler): “All teachers say that he is in the highest faculties of our soul, memory, understanding, and will, by means of which we are made rightly conscious of the Trinity. Yet all this is but in the lowest grade of perception of God’s presence, for it is merely in the natural exercise of the soul’s powers.”

In other words, the theological tradition did not think of human nature as definable apart from God; it was and is already participant in the divine image and likeness—graced therefore. But for this to be realized in time, we need religion.

Mircea Eliade writes that religion is integral to human nature; it is ­foundational for our nature’s possibility of being human and for any ­experience of God. So he writes about two modes of human being in the world: the religious and the secular. The non-religious man, he writes, “accepts no model for humanity” and makes himself.

Eliade calls this the second “fall” of humanity: the fall into the forgetfulness of God at the level of the unconscious. This actually would seem to me to mean that Rahner’s “supernatural existential” is under attack for all his promotion of it in his writings on “anonymous Christianity.” The call, then, is for some form of restoration, as Rahner attempted—of an understanding of humanity as “homo religiosus,” that is, of human nature understood as fundamentally graced in its very definition.

Macon Boczek
Novelty, Ohio

Vatican II emerged with a relational metaphysics embedded in Gaudium et Spes: Man finds himself by the gift of self. Karl Rahner remained with a substantialist metaphysics of the individual, souped up with trans­cendental accessories.

Rahner lost. Vatican II has been emerging in the last three pontificates and finding its voice in the common language of Pope Francis: Life is self-gift. Get out of yourself. End ­clericalism and self-referentialism. Go out to the existential peripheries. Think of others; forget self.

R. R. Reno’s “Rahner the Restorationist” is a helpful example of the epistemological shift that must take place if we are to solve the crisis of Christ and modernity. Reno offers himself as a disenchanted Rahnerian who had high hopes that his conventional scholasticism—powered with transcendental accessories on the subjective side—could introduce a metaphysics of being and conceptual apologetics with argumentative heft sufficient to take on modernity.

In reality, Rahner had added the bogus transcendental method to a philosophy of the object that could not bear it. What was needed was a phenomenology of the subject that would release the believing–acting person as “being.”

Vatican II was this full turn to the subject as ontological. The shift that took place was described by Wojtyła as passing from one epistemological plane to another, from “it” to “I,” something like changing the key that a melody is played in. All the notes are different, but the melody is the same. The revelation is the same because it is the same subject, Christ, but all the notes are different, and they are in tune with modernity and will purify it.

There is a metaphysics in Gaudium et Spes, and Reno longs to see it. It will not bring about a new integralism because it is already beyond it. The ontological believing “I” that finds self by gift of self becomes the explanation of Humanae Vitae and the entire social doctrine of the Church. Finding self becomes the principle of subsidiarity; gift of self becomes the principle of solidarity.

Instead of the still irreconcilable dualisms of supernatural–­natural, grace–nature, faith–reason, clerical–lay, capitalism–socialism, conservative–liberal, there is only Christ, and man imaging him. Christ, the God-man, is the meaning of reality. And man becomes real by ­transcending himself as gift.

And it is all secular, not secularized. Christ is the meaning of ­secularity because freedom is the mastering of self so as to make the gift of self. Christianity has no interest in “Christendom,” as it has no interest in clericalism . As then-Cardinal Bergoglio remarked: “It is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path.” A truly Christian society will be truly secular.

Fr. Robert Connor
New York, New York

R. R. Reno replies:

I’m not sure Robert Imbelli really disagrees with my account of Karl ­Rahner. Take, for example, his ­objection to the term “integralism,” which he argues confuses the legitimate search for aggiornamento with the earlier reaction to “modernism.” It is closely associated with Charles Maurras, the leader of ­ Action Française, who hoped to restore the Church’s privileges in France, as well as the monarchy.

This social movement and the many others it inspired in Catholic countries seem traditional, but he urged politique d’abord, politics above all else, a distinctively and brutally modern slogan for a ­radical solution to the social dislocations and political conflicts­ triggered by the industrial revolution. His and other forms of Catholic ­integralism participated in a broad, early-twentieth-­century trend toward fascism.

Action Française was condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1927. Nonetheless, many leading clerics in France were enthusiastic supporters because they sighed for a restored Church, one capable of playing a powerful and central role in France’s future. It was this dream I meant to evoke when describing Rahner as a ­restorationist.

He held none of Maurras’ views, of course, and he was a great adversary of the theology and church­manship of the traditionalists who vested their hopes in Action Française . Nevertheless, he ministered to a vision of the Catholic Church restored to her central role in ­European culture, and in that sense he exercised a deeply conservative influence on twentieth-century Catholicism, which is why so many theologians, priests, and bishops so quickly and so thoroughly fell under the magic spell of his theology.

Imbelli also questions my use of “instrinsicism” and “extrinsicism,” two terms that emerged in the early twentieth century to describe positions in the great modern Catholic debate about nature and grace. The letters from Andrew Favata, ­Macon Boczek, and Robert Connor take up themes from that complex and multi-faceted debate as well. In view of the technical nature of this debate, I must beg the indulgence of the letter writers and speak somewhat ­cryptically.

To Robert Imbelli: No orthodox Catholic theologian willingly endorses intrinsicism or extrinsicism, but all tilt one way or another, and this often in spite of their explicit theologies of nature and grace. On the whole, ­Rahner tends toward intrinsicism, which is not the case for Balthasar and Ratzinger.

To Andrew Favata: Henri de ­Lubac popularized the view that the woes of modern Catholicism stem from a bad, neoscholastic separation of nature from grace. By all means learn from his analysis, but beware of over-interpreting the flourishing and withering of faith as a story of good and bad academic theology. Ideas have consequences, but prayer and holiness are, by my reckoning, far more powerful forces.

To Macon Boczek: Henri de ­Lubac also popularized the view that the concept of pure nature is the root of all evil. I’ve never been convinced. Forgetfulness of God seems as perfectly capable of flourishing when people think God is far, far away as when they think God is part of everything.

To Robert Connor: I appreciate the intellectual power and theological fruitfulness of Karol Wojtyła’s personalist philosophy. However, it is quite wrong to imagine that Vatican II articulates, endorses, or requires a particular metaphysical outlook. Also, I get anxious when Catholics start talking like Harvey Cox.

I have never doubted Rahner’s orthodoxy, nor do I think he set out to weaken the Church’s witness. But he was a man of his times. From the French Revolution onward, the men who governed the Church reacted with horror and amazement as European culture ejected them from their central roles as guardians of the ­political, moral, and cultural imagination of Europe.

It was against the background of these traumatic experiences that dreams of restoration came to define modern Catholicism. We need to understand Vatican II as part of those dreams. Yes, the great neoscholastic Joseph Kleutgen outlined a theology of restoration. But so did Henri de Lubac, as his great book Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man indicates.

Rahner was cut from the same historical cloth and dreamed the same dream. Thus his great influence. Thus his present irrelevance.

Jewish Trends

Edward S. Shapiro’s account of the current state of Conservative Judaism (“The Crisis of Conservative Judaism,” May) is hard to dispute, but his analysis of how it got there is incomplete. He acknowledges the revitalization of Orthodoxy as a key factor in the Conservative decline. He notes the widespread assumption during the movement’s formative years, and even into the early 1960s, that Orthodox Judaism would eventually disappear in America, leaving Conservative Judaism as the ideological address for traditionally oriented American Jews.

He does not address, however, the obvious next question. Why did the predictions of Orthodoxy’s impending demise prove to be wrong?

One factor in Orthodoxy’s unexpected success is the difference in religious outlook between the Jews who immigrated to the United States in the 1940s and 1950s and those who had come in the earlier waves of immigration. Earlier Jewish immigrants had been primarily motivated (as most immigrants throughout our country’s history have been) by the desire for economic betterment. Many knew that success in America might demand compromises in their religious observance as a price of that ­betterment, but they came anyway.

The European rabbis of that era strongly discouraged their followers from emigrating to America, and they usually succeeded in persuading their most devout followers to remain in Europe. Those who chose to immigrate anyway, for the most part, were the least religiously committed elements of European Jewry.

The later wave of immigrants, by contrast—those who escaped or survived the Holocaust—were primarily seeking not economic betterment but safety. Their ranks included devout Jews who would never have considered immigrating until the ­Nazis made immigration a matter of life and death. Many of these Jews were committed to replicating the religious lives they had led in Europe before the war. It was they who built the institutions that produced the post-war Orthodox renaissance.

The second factor was the impact of the two epoch-making events (to borrow Emil Fackenheim’s phrase) of twentieth-century Jewish history, the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. Before Hitler, American Jews could afford to treat their religious heritage with indifference, confident that their more religious cousins in Europe would preserve traditional Judaism so that it would be available to them in the future should they want it. The ­Holocaust left American Jewry an orphaned adolescent, prematurely called upon not only to take full responsibility for its own religious life, but also, especially in the early postwar years, to help and support its younger sibling, the Jewish community of Israel.

The third factor was the post-war changes in America itself. The shock of the Holocaust drove much anti-Semitism underground. The civil rights movement and its aftermath encouraged displays of ethnic pride. Increasing prosperity, combined with the five-day workweek, made traditional observance less burdensome.

These factors should have strengthened religious commitment in Conservative synagogues as well, of course, and in some places they did. But the resulting competition with a revitalized Orthodoxy exposed the fault lines that had always existed within Conservative Judaism, which even in its heyday had been primarily a coalition of convenience. The running joke that defined Conservative Judaism as Orthodox rabbis serving Reform congregants was more accurate than the movement’s leaders wanted to admit.

Douglas Aronin
Forest Hills, New York

Edward S. Shapiro replies:

Douglas Aronin faults me for not addressing the “obvious” question of why the predictions of the demise of Jewish Orthodoxy in America proved to be wrong, but the subject of my essay was the crisis of Conservative Judaism, not the renaissance of Orthodoxy. An essay along the lines proposed by him would be valuable, and he should suggest this to the magazine’s editor. I agree with much of what he says in his letter, but I would add some additional points.

The Orthodox are both Jews and Americans, and they have reacted in much the same ways that traditionalists in other American faith communities have to recent cultural ­developments. The Orthodox have been dismayed by the growing vulgarity of American culture exhibited in the mass media and in print since the 1960s, and their growth in numbers has been due in part to the af­filiation of those who see in Orthodoxy a means to protect their families from the more egregious aspects of this culture. (The growth in numbers has also been due to a high birth rate.)

Among the most amazing aspects of contemporary Orthodoxy is its school system. The Orthodox have established around five hundred schools, and one of their missions is to inculcate values contrary to those seen as dominant in the public schools.

And as the culture has become grosser, the Orthodox community and its schools have become more traditional. In Baltimore, for example, there is now no Modern Orthodox high school, and Modern Orthodox parents have to send their children to schools in other cities or enroll them in schools in Baltimore that advocate a more insular religious outlook than their own.

Orthodox Jews have also been distressed by challenges to the tradi­tional family seen in a decreasing birth rate, an increasing divorce rate, the legitimization of homosexual marriage, and the emergence of a militant feminism which seemingly deprecates traditional marriage and abolishes all gender differences.

The growth of American Orthodoxy is also a product of a new tolerance for unusual social and religious movements, for “doing your own thing.” What has been responsible for this is a question best left to historians and sociologists. In any case, one does not have to be Orthodox to believe that there is something ­seriously wrong with American ­culture and that traditional religion provides a wholesome refuge from some of its ills.

Natural Law

Concerning the debate within the pages of First Things between ­Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart over “natural law,” I wonder if the chasm is as vast as both Feser and Hart seem to suppose (“Nature Loves to Hide” and “Letters,” May).

Feser is right that Hart should distinguish the “new” rational natural law theory from “old” Thomistic natural law theory. But Feser still repeatedly uses that troublesome term “natural reason.”

This, it seems to me, is the real sticking point between Hart and ­Feser: What is “nature” and how does it relate to “grace”? Indeed this is a sticking point more broadly between some kinds of Orthodox theology (Hart) and some forms of Catholic theology (Feser)—not to mention in various intra-Catholic disputes (say, between the devotees of the nouvelle théologie and assorted ­traditionalists), between ­non-Protestants and Protestants, and even, in a sort of subterranean fashion, among various kinds of Protestants (those who favor a broad notion of prevenient or “common” grace that universally mitigates the effects of sin and those who do not).

I’m certain that if we asked Feser to explain more carefully what he means by “nature” in connection with “natural reason,” he would not divorce that concept from the category of creation and thus would retain an essential connection between nature and grace. In fact I suspect he would refer to Aquinas’ oft-quoted aphorism that grace perfects nature.

No doubt he would also refer to Aquinas’ account of the natural law (particularly in the Summa’s ­“Treatise on Law”) as flowing from creation’s participation in God’s ­goodness. For Aquinas, the natural law was not the product of some sort of dera­cinated natura pura but a fruit of creat­ion, which is God’s entirely free and loving act—that is, a gift of grace.

Similarly, I suspect Hart would agree that the creation of the human being in God’s image and likeness implies a universal human nature that participates in God, and that this in turn implies some common human capacity for intuition, perception, and reason in which each particular human being participates. I’m certain that Hart would agree with Feser that the Fall did not entirely erase these participatory relations, though they have been marred or obscured by sin.

So I would suggest that the difference between Feser and Hart is not so great as it may on the surface appear. Perhaps, to avoid confusion with modernity’s reduction of “nature” to something less than “creation,” we should use a phrase like “participatory law” to capture more fully what we (ought to) mean. In the end, it always comes back to grace.

David W. Opderbeck
Seton Hall University
School of Law

David Bentley Hart replies:

My thanks to David Opderbeck for his intervention. I am not aware of having “debated” with Edward Feser, since I have not found his responses germane to what I actually wrote. I will grant, however, that there is a disagreement on the relation between nature and grace: At least, Feser’s characterization of the separate spheres of theology and philosophy, or of the qualitative difference between supernatural revelation and natural reason, seems redolent of the tidy categories one associates with “manual Thomism” (of the sort one finds in, say, the works of Garrigou-Lagrange), which is a tradition I regard as disastrously misguided.

But Opderbeck somewhat inverts the significance of this difference. He suspects that I reject certain kinds of natural law reasoning out of some anxiety regarding the fallenness of human reason and its incapacity for a perception of ultimate things. But that is precisely the opposite of what I said.

I suffer from quite the contrary “dangerous” impulse: I reject the partition between natural and supernatural knowledge precisely because I believe that the “natural” cannot be contained in that way in a realm of its own. I believe that “natural” reason is always already a mode of ­“supernatural” illumination, and that the “natural” end of human reason is union with God, and that the distinction between supernature and nature is (let’s say) a formal rather than real one.

Reason “naturally” knows far more than any “purely natural” ­dialectic can demonstrate. Mine is, that is to say, a more Greek ­patristic, integralist, or Eastern view. As ­Opderbeck says, it all comes back to grace.

The issue, then, is one of avowed method. One can believe in a natural knowledge of moral truth without believing that natural law philosophy, when confining itself to “purely natural” terms, is capable of pro­viding adequate demonstrations of those truths. I doubt not the power of natural reason, but rather the exhaustive rational power of philosophy (or of, for that matter, any other discrete discipline, theology included).

So the opposition appears to be this: Feser says that “natural reason,” apart from all “revelation” (narrowly understood), is capable of proving certain objectively true moral propositions (probably by resort to an over-determined metaphysics of final causality in nature allied to an underdetermined metaphysics of reason’s orientation to the “good”).

I believe this to be impossible, that at no point in the entire history of human thought has it actually been done, that all “purely natural” moral arguments are defective, and that every “successful” natural law argument (classical or modern) is one that covertly incorporates certain ­ supernatural principles that cannot be proved dialectically, but must simply be seen and asserted. And the ­cultivation of such moral vision cannot be accomplished by any single discipline or method, but requires an immense variety of tacit and explicit forms of knowledge and spiritual sensibility.

I deny, in fact, that there is such a thing as “purely natural” philo­sophical reasoning, which could prove the existence of moral truth at all. Thus, if I believed that natural reason were coterminous with “natural” philosophical method, I would be in a very sad condition. But fortunately I believe nothing of the sort.