Because Natural Law is Catholic

I’m going to have to borrow a line from U2‘s Bono and say, “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya,” as the Edge’s guitar solo rises to a crescendo. I’m talking about my last few posts, which uncharacteristically have touched on politics and things political.

Blame it on my reading of Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths if you would like. Blame it on the political season if you must, or on my moving toward the half century mark and engaging in the seemingly hopeless task of trying to make sense of it all. But if you really want to put the blame on what I’ve been sharing with you of late, put it squarely on the Catholic Church and her embrace of the concept of Natural Law.

Fr. Murray writes of it extensively in his book. Here’s an example,

In the order of what is called ius naturae (natural law in the narrower sense, as regulative of social relationships) there are only two self-evident principles: the maxim, “Suum cuique,” and the wider principle, “Justice is to be done and injustice avoided.” Reason particularizes them, with greater or less evidence, by determining what is “one’s own,” and what is “just” with the aide of the supreme norm of reference, the rational and social nature of man. The immediate particularizations are the precepts in the “Second Table” of the Decalogue. And the totality of such particularizations go to make up what is called the juridical order, the order of right and justice. This is the order (along with the orders of legal and distributive justice) whose guardianship and sanction is committed to the state. It is also the order that furnishes the moral basis for the positive legislation of the state, a critical norm of the justice of such legislation, and an ideal of justice for the legislator.

Have I got your head spinning yet? Let me simplify things by reminding you of what Our Lord told the sharp legal scholar when he was asked which law is the most important.

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

He names two, see, which summarize in the first case all the precepts of the “First Tablet” of the Ten Commandments, and in the second case, all that summarizes the precepts of the “Second Tablet.” For the first five commandments are for keeping our relationship with God in order, and the last five are for keeping our relationships with our neighbors in order. Pretty simple when we are reminded of it in this way.

Another simple way to remember “the Way” is to visualize the cross, with the vertical member pointing us to God (think “First Tablet”), and the horizontal member pointing us to our neighbors (think “Second Tablet”).  And as crosses go, we don’t have to look much farther than Our Lord to see where truth led society “in the world” to place him. Natural law, even though reasonable, will lead us to the cross.

There are brighter minds than mine (thank God!) who have studied natural law and thankfully there is a huge body of work that informs us of its application to modern day problems. St. Thomas Aquinas delved deeply into the natural law and modern folks have been bringing it’s light to us ever since. Fr. Murray is one to read to get an understanding of it. Jacques Maritain is another. For those writing on it in light of the Catholic tradition in the present, Francis Beckwith is one worthy of reading as is Hadley Arkes, a recent convert to the Church whose long study and grasp of the natural law propelled him to Rome.

Hadley Arkes, the Ney Professor in American Institutions at Amherst College.

Today I’d like to bug you some more with an article that Arkes wrote for First Things entitled, Natural Rights Trump Obamacare, Or Should.  I’ll get you started here,

It seems to me that Harlan’s argument, returning to the axioms of personal liberty, was the most critical ground for the resistance to that expansion of the Commerce Clause in 1937. But axioms of freedom were rather dismissed by the lawyers for the government, and when they were pushed aside, they faded from prominence in our recollection of the key cases here. What lingered was the box score, and what faded from the furnishings of mind of our lawyers was that concern for the axioms of freedom.

The lesson for our own day is that our lawyers are getting fixated on certain portions of the argument of the Commerce Clause that might just convince the courts, but they may be missing the arguments that really go to the root of the problem with Obamacare. And because they do go to the root—because they do touch the matter of natural right—those arguments may be far more readily understood by the public than arguments that depend on tutoring people on Wickard v. Filburn and the chains of argument that have been contrived under the Commerce Clause.

How might that case be made then again as a matter of natural right in regard to Obamacare? Not by insisting that we have a natural right to not be coerced into buying things we have no wish to buy, but by pointing out that this scheme of national medical care is virtually bound to produce a scheme of rationing, as it has produced that rationing in Britain and Canada, denying medical care to people now entirely reliant on the government for their care. The serious question then is whether this denial to people of the means to preserve their own lives, with means quite legitimate, touches the ground of natural rights.

I believe that it does. We now have in place the scheme for commissions of unelected people, wielding vast discretionary power, set to be loosed entirely from tethers of restraint in 2019, and likely to ration health care as it is now rationed in England. The New York Times reporter John Burns has remarked that in England his son, born weighing only one pound, would not have been given the life-sustaining treatment that brought him through in the United States. I know people in their eighties on dialysis in this country, a procedure that would be denied them in England.

Under Obamacare, medical care will not be denied by an insurance company, under arrangements people had chosen and accepted themselves. If experience offers any guide, there may be more layers of appeal, review, and reversal in the procedures of insurance companies than in a system of command and control run by the central government.

The crucial point, then, is that treatment would be denied by a government that may have the monopoly power to grant or withhold medical care that seems to any person quite necessary to preserve his life. The government, in other words, would deny the right of a person to seek the preservation of his life through means that are thoroughly legitimate, involving no threat to the lives of others and no moral injury sustained to himself…

That lingering doubt about the truth of moral reasoning may mark the condition of the conservative judges in our own day. But it may also be the screen that now works to filter out for them the deepest axioms of the law, and the most powerful arguments that may be brought to bear against the statism and controls of Obamacare.

Go and read the entire article. Because if Joe Six-Pack can understand it, so can you. For another brief primer on natural law, I shared a little post on it once. But be warned: you will find an inexhaustible supply of ore to mine in the Catholic Church and her traditions relative to the natural law. Whole libraries are overflowing with volumes dedicated to its study as well. The Catholic tradition is steeped in its precepts as she combats moral relativism, and she will be carrying on that campaign until the end of time. For as Our King and Lord said in yesterday’s gospel reading,

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine
but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

The natural law rests upon the Rock.

You can read about Hadley Arkes’ conversion at Francis Beckwith’s blog. Now, how ’bout some of that U2 song, eh? Bono and the boys singing about a plutocracy that imploded.

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  • Martin T

    I’ll read your post later, I’ve bookmarked it for the moment, but I just listened to Ed Fesser talking on Catholic Radio to an atheist and Ed presented the idea that morals rest on natural law, natural law leads to God, and, of course, the inevitable. See Ed Fesser’s blogspot for the link.

    • Frank Weathers

      I haven’t heard his talk, but that he said as much is one of the reasons why his blog is in my list o’ favorites in the sidebar.

  • Byron

    I really like your blog. I am also a convert, a American soldier, an amateur writer, and an attorney. As you may know, most Catholic in the United States are moderate Democrats. I’m also Black, Catholic, and progressive.

    As a lawyer, I have used natural law jurisprudence to explain several legal issues. For example, I support school voucher on the principle that the separation of church and state does not prevent states from giving public money to individuals to educate their children in private parochial schools so long as states provide individuals with true choices (even parochial choices, which are protected by the constitutional right to freely exercise one’s religion). [Sorry! That was a long sentence, but it's loaded with several legal arguments.] Justice Thomas took my position on vouchers in a Supreme Court case that upheld school vouchers.

    I only mention all of this to expose my point-of-view and potential biases. I believe the natural law supports President Obama’s healthcare reform.

    First, you have to answer the legal issues of whether Congress can require individuals to buy health insurance. The Commerce Clause gives Congress the authority to regulate activities that substantial affect commerce between the several states. The Supreme Court has also ruled that Congress can regulate traditionally localized, individual commercial choices when those individual commercial choices — when considered collectively or in the aggregate — substantial affect interstate commerce. The court made this ruling in a case involving the authority of Congress to stop states like California from allowing individuals to growing marijuana for medicinal purposes. The Court rightly held that these small, localized choices would affect the national prohibition on the sale of illegal drugs. Health insurance is a portable, intangible service that one can carry from state to state. Moreover, the cost of healthcare is substantial affected by the individual choices not to purchase healthcare and to use “free” emergency healthcare instead. We cannot lower healthcare costs if individuals are allowed to use the healthcare system for free. The rising cost of healthcare also affects other commercial activities. The rising cost of healthcare is a major incentive for business can hire foreign workers. America has the most educated and highly skilled workforce, but we demand costly healthcare and retirement benefits from our employers. These costs are not only a hidden tax in goods and services, but they encourage profit-seeking business to produce their goods in foreign countries. So under a normal legal analysis, I would argue that Congress has the right to require individuals to buy health insurance because individual healthcare choices in the aggregate are substantial affecting healthcare and other interstate commercial activities.

    Finally, we must consider how Congress’s authority to regulate healthcare in such a manner affects other constitutional rights. This is where the natural law comes in to play. There is always an interplay between constitutional rights and constitutional grants of authority. As a general principle, Congress has to tailor its authority narrowly so as to minimize the affects on other constitutional rights.

    Here, we are concerned about the Tenth Amendment rights: individual liberty and states’ rights. Individual rights are protected under the current healthcare reform because the current reform provides individuals with meaningful choices. Yes, Congress is requiring individuals to purchase healthcare, but they are also providing meaningful choices to support individual liberty. Citizens can keep their current healthcare plans. Medicaid is extended to encompass the poor and working poor, so the mandate is not a tax on the poor. You can choose not to purchase healthcare and pay the tax penalty instead. What you cannot do is continue to get “free” emergency healthcare at the cost of other people. Those are all meaningful choices.

    Finally, the healthcare reform also protects a state’s right to regulate healthcare within its state. Under the current healthcare plan, states (not the federal government) will set up health exchanges that provide citizens with a menu of healthcare plans. The US Dept. of Health & Human Services will review these state health exchanges to make sure they include adequate healthcare coverage. Again, the reason for federal oversight is so that there is a minimum, national standard that will ensure that healthcare cost are lowered.

    Natural law is certainly a gift of the Catholic Church, along with the Church’s teaching on social justice. I appreciate your post, and I hope you post my comments. I just wanted to present an alternative, Catholic viewpoint on President Obama’s healthcare reform.

    May the peace of God be with you always,


    • Frank Weathers

      Thanks for your comment Byron and for reading the post on Natural Law (another which I will be posting shortly is forthcoming). I hope you left this comment over on Professor Arkes’ original post at First Things too, for he would appreciate the chance to respond to it, I’m sure.

  • Montjoie

    I think you make an excellent case that natural law is, in fact, Jewish.

    • Frank Weathers

      Great comment Montjoie! Actually, that is what the young scholar probably believed.

      But the New and Everlasting Covenant is not only for one race, one country, or one region, but is free and available to all who seek it. That is why the Word became flesh, to “bring light to life of men.” For as it was written in the first chapter of Sirach (1-4),

      All wisdom is from the Lord
      and remains with him forever.

      The sands of the sea, the drops of rain,
      the days of eternity—who can count them?

      Heaven’s height, earth’s extent,
      the abyss and wisdom—who can explore them?

      Before all other things wisdom was created;
      and prudent understanding, from eternity.

      Later in the 24th chapter, this explanation is given us,

      Among all these I sought a resting place.

      In whose inheritance should I abide?

      Then the Creator of all gave me his command,

      and my Creator chose the spot for my tent.

      He said, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling,

      in Israel your inheritance.’

      Before all ages, from the beginning, he created me,

      and through all ages I shall not cease to be.

      In the holy tent I ministered before him,

      and so I was established in Zion.

      In the city he loves as he loves me, he gave me rest;

      in Jerusalem, my domain.

      I struck root among the glorious people,

      in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.

      Is it any wonder than that the Church Fathers understood that the the Church is the New Israel?

      CCC 765 The Lord Jesus endowed his community with a structure that will remain until the Kingdom is fully achieved. Before all else there is the choice of the Twelve with Peter as their head.168 Representing the twelve tribes of Israel, they are the foundation stones of the new Jerusalem.169 The Twelve and the other disciples share in Christ’s mission and his power, but also in his lot.170 By all his actions, Christ prepares and builds his Church.

      • Montjoie

        I was just having fun, Frank. Nice article and website.