A Clarification on My “You Don’t Have to Grok Natural Law” Shtik

A Clarification on My “You Don’t Have to Grok Natural Law” Shtik May 31, 2015

(I’ll take any excuse to jam both “grok” and “shtik” into the same headline.)

Now and then I find myself saying that you can accept Catholic teaching on [whatever, usually about gay stuff somehow] without being persuaded by or caring much about natural law theory. E.g. in the book I say, “This book is not a theological treatise defending the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality. I admittedly don’t always understand that teaching, and I don’t think you need to understand every single element of a Church teaching in order to assent to its authority in your life. And you certainly don’t need to accept any one school of theology–such as natural law–in order to accept and live by the Catholic ideal of chastity. If you do want to explore the reasoning and scriptural interpretation that shape the Church’s teaching, I’ve included some reading recommendations in appendix one, but you really don’t have to spend a lot of time on this stuff if you don’t want to.” (emphasis added)

A couple people have been confused by this, and that’s my fault. A helpful person on Twitter pointed out that the Catechism uses the term “natural law” to mean something inherent in all people, not a specific theological school. So my using this example is really confusing. Let me clarify here.

When I’ve been using the term “natural law” I’ve been using it to designate a school or style of philosophical/theological argument based on reasoning from first-principle goods to specific moral or political outcomes, in ways which attempt to be accessible to non-Christians.

So think of the sentence, “In this article, Robert P. George offers a natural-law argument against same-sex marriage.” That distinguishes George’s school of argument from e.g. a theology of the body argument. I’d expect George to talk about the purposes of sex and the sex organs, but not to rely on Scripture, whereas I’d expect a theology of the body argument for the same conclusion to invoke Genesis and discuss the “nuptial meaning of the body.”

As you can see, this is different from the Catechism’s use of the term, which is much broader. I completely forgot that the Catechism uses “natural law” (e.g. here) to mean something more like “our desire for God and our recognition that other people are equal to ourselves, which culture can obscure but which nonetheless remain written on our hearts.” In this sense the natural law is real and beautiful: It’s what allows the Spartan, however fleetingly, to recognize himself in the face of the helot–or the American to see the unborn child as someone like herself. It’s what makes humility possible even in cultures that despise humility.

If I’d remembered this I would have used a completely different example–I would have said, e.g., “You don’t have to be an adherent of the theology of the body to accept [Church teaching on marriage, or whatever].”

My sole point in talking about natural law in this way has been to say that you don’t need to be persuaded by any specific school of theology in order to accept the Church’s teaching. So if George’s arguments leave you cold (they leave me icy), that’s fine; you don’t need to reject Church teaching because you haven’t been persuaded by any of the specific arguments you’ve heard for it so far.

It’s a point I think is important to make because there’s an undercurrent in contemporary thought which makes people feel that it’s immoral to accept an ethical claim that you can’t defend or reason to yourself. We live not in a relativistic age but in an intensely moral one, and part of the moral code of our culture is that it’s wrong to accept restrictions on your life (maybe especially your sex life) based on trust of an authority. We’re intensely aware of all the ways trust and authority can be abused, and I obviously think that’s an important thing to remember; but we have no way of talking about the need for trust in the ethical life. (See here and here for more.) And so we end up acting, subconsciously, as if every single person should be able to understand every single issue in the ethical life, from start to finish, and if we can’t reason our own way to an ethical claim it must be wrong. This places unrealistic demands on even the most intelligent person’s intellect.
Moreover, because man is mortal and we only have so much time to spend on ethical claims we dislike even when they’re proposed by authorities we would like to trust, we’ll often hear one okayish argument for an ethical claim and realize that either a) it relies on first principles we’ve already rejected or b) it relies on first principles which are incommensurate with other first principles we hold dear. (This is the After Virtue problem.) And so we not only reject the argument but reject the ethical claim, and feel good about it because we are following our moral code, which tells us we should reject any ethical claim we can’t support by our own reasoning.
This is related to my point in “Beyond Critical Thinking,” that we teach people how to poke holes in arguments or spot contradictions but not when to accept paradox and tension, or when it’s okay to take something on trust. We even make it hard for people to take some time to live in tension; we pressure people to figure out whether they say “yes” or “no” to a specific Church teaching, rather than a) suggesting that this checklist approach is not really Catholic and also b) you know, people need time to sort out how Church teaching relates to their particular lives and struggles.
So when I say “You don’t have to grok natural law” I could really sub in any specific theological school. But I hadn’t realized that using this example was really confusing, and again, that confusion is my fault.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!