Neuhaus’ Law and Beckwith’s Law

“Beckwith’s Law” is the title of  the latest column I published over at The Catholic Thing. It concerns what I have dubbed, unsurprisingly,  “Beckwith’s Law”:

Whenever a practitioner of a traditional vice appeals to the right of privacy as the justification for the state to leave him alone to engage in that vice, he will inevitably demand that the state require that those who morally disapprove of his practice cooperate with it, either materially or formally.

My column begins this way:

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things (the journal, not the book), coined the following maxim, which he appropriately called Neuhaus’ Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

According to Fr. Neuhaus, in theology, orthodoxy entails that there are right and wrong beliefs, that some beliefs fall outside or inside what is permissible within a theological tradition. So within Catholicism, on the matter of divine providence

and human freedom, one can embrace Molinism or Thomism, but not Open Theism.  Catholic theology allows a variety of options on many theological issues, but those options must remain within the confines of Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

John Finnis, Fr. Neuhaus, yours truly, & Jeffrey Stout at Princeton in 2003. We were part of panel discussion at a conference on religion and secularism

If the requirement to embrace orthodoxy becomes optional, however, it follows that it is wrong for a church to require that its members believe that there are right and wrong beliefs. Consequently, “when orthodoxy is optional,” as Fr. Neuhaus put it, “it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false.”

For this reason, a new “orthodoxy” will arise, one that entails that it is in fact wrong for a church to act as if there are right and wrong theological beliefs. Thus, the cleric who suggests an ecclesiastical trial to prosecute an alleged heretic will be marginalized and punished by his superiors for his suggestion.

You can read the rest here.


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