“The case for modern man can be better understood when it is realized that in this century [the twentieth], he has hit the bottom of his soul. The cheap Liberalism, the spineless indifference, the false tolerance which failed to distinguish between good and evil, night and day, wrong and right, did but to make man inactive and unhappy….His beliefs of right and wrong change like the weathercock.”
-Archbishop Fulton J Sheen, Thought for Daily Living and Way to Happiness
In our modern and highly scientific civilization, it has long been a trend to discuss “the laws of nature.” The secularists amongst the scientific community and their myriad followers in society would have one believe that salvation—by which is meant the salvation of a society and not a soul—can come only from education. Specifically, such salvation will be attained only be an enlightened and scientific community, one thoroughly instructed in the laws of nature. On the other hand, the late scientist and philosopher Stanley L Jaki noted—quite correctly—that “Actually, crime is becoming universal, owing in no small part to the misuse of tools provided by science and technology. Today, we have more science than ever and more scientific education than ever, but also a crime rate which is skyrocketing.”
In its rush to learn more of the scientific laws of nature, the West has all but forgotten the natural law of morality. Those things which men once knew—right and wrong, a law written on the heart, as St Paul put it—have become distant memories. Valiant efforts have been made to keep the Natural Law alive in the West’s conscious; no less a figure that Cardinal Ratzinger—Pope Benedict XVI—has lent his support to these efforts; as have such American philosophers as J Budziszewski, Hadley Arkes, Russell Hittinger, and Robert P George.
Budziszewski’s latest work on this subject is The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction. This book is written in two parts: one to tackle the moral implications of the Natural Law, and the other is to outline the political implications. Whereas some books have been written for a wider audience, Budziszewski here concerns himself with a predominantly Christian audience, and thus begins by stating that the Natural Law is a fact.
“Of course the ‘thereness’ of natural law is questionable in a certain sense….One might maintain that it is not there. But insofar as we are serious about being Christian philosophers…we should already know the answer to that logically possible question. At this stage of the game, it would be frivolous—a squandering of what has been given to us—to waste breath on whether the human person has a constitution, just as it would be frivolous for a mineralogist to ask whether there are minerals, or an oceanographer to ask whether there is an ocean.”
Yet, to state that a thing is fact does not close the door to the possibility of theorizing about it. Indeed, the very act of calling a thing fact is also an act of theory, as Budziszewski himself notes. “Law may be defined as an ordinance of reason, for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated….The claim of the [natural law] theory is that…natural law is both (1) true law, and (2) truly expressive of nature.” The basics of the natural are indeed written on the heart of men, and can’t not be known. As an example, Budziszewski might cite murder: all men know that murder is wrong, that it is indeed objectively wrong; moreover, murder is against the common good, and it has been authoritatively forbidden, e.g. by God the Creator.
All of this leads to a brief discussion of conscience—man’s natural guide to the natural law. The conscience has three modes of operation: it cautions, it accuses, and it avenges. It cautions against breaking the natural law, and does so more strongly if the break is greater (e.g. the conscience is more averse to murder than to insulting). When the law is transgressed, it accuses through remorse. And if a man ignores his remorse and does not repent, then his conscience with avenge the wrong, sending the four Furies of atonement, confession, justification, and reconciliation to pursue him.
“Even when remorse is absent, as it sometimes is, guilty knowledge generates objective needs for confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification. These other Furies are the greater sisters of remorse: inflexible, inexorable, and relentless, demanding satisfaction even when mere feelings are suppressed, fade away, or never come. And so it is that conscience operates not only to caution, not only to accuse, but also to avenge, punishing the soul who does wrong but who refuses to read the indictment.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas makes the claim that the basic principles of morality are “the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge.” Budziszewski furthers this claim by contending that there are no real moral skeptics, only people who are playing games with the natural law.
“To be sure, the game is played very hard, and not only by skeptics. I must not take only innocent human life—but only my tribe is human….A law is written on the heart of man, but it is everywhere entangle with the evasions and subterfuges of men….For natural law theory, the consequence of the Fall is that we don’t want to hear of the natural law. We cannot fully ignore it, because its first letters are written on our hearts. But we resist the inscription, and the letters burn” (emphasis in original).
Thus does the natural law exist as a sign of contradiction, for fallen man chooses to ignore what he knows, and thus also to pretend that he does not know it.
In light of this dilemma, Budziszewski goes on to pose a question: “Can the unnatural become natural to us?” This is not so suggest that man’s nature itself changes: it cannot. “If it could, it wouldn’t be our nature. Nor…[can we] create a new morality to suit ourselves. Morality is something that obligates us whether we like it or not.” Neither nature nor morality may be changed, but this says nothing about so-called “second nature” or “connaturality.” A thing which is unnatural can become like second nature if it is practiced habitually. Budziszewski uses the analogy of coffee: “We naturally avoid bitter flavors, and I have never heard of anyone liking coffee at first taste. Yet it is possible to learn to enjoy that particular bitter flavor, even to savor it.”
It is similarly possible to pursue vice, even savor it, through time and practice, though such takes an extreme act of the will. It is similarly possible for man to train himself to practice virtue, even in his fallen state, through practice and habituation. Such acquired virtues or vices are termed “connatural.”
“Initially, it is difficult to be good, to be brave, to be true—difficult and most unpleasant. Yet if, with the help of grace, one persists in this unpleasant discipline, then one can see a day coming from afar when it will be more difficult and unpleasant not to be good, honest, and true than to be that way. On that day, the actions that virtue require will be second nature” (emphasis in original).
On the other hand, vice can just as easily become connatural.
“A human being may be drawn to something, or take pleasure in it…because of a corruption of nature incident to that being in particular….Someone who does suffer such corruption will connaturally think and do and feel in a way that is radically contrary to his connatural good, even to the point of finding his anti-good lovable….Not only can a man come to oppose his connatural good—he can even come to hate what promotes it. He can learn to loathe the very things that tend to the happiness we humans are fashioned to seek. Evil of some kind has become second nature to him.”
This is not to say that natural law theory is itself unified. Among other things, there is a division between the mainstream of natural law theorists and some of the less religious adherents of the theory as to whether or not the reality of God is a part of the natural law. There are some who would have the Second Tablet of the Decalogue while discarding the first. There is, therefore, a movement to divorce the morality of natural law from its theology—a sort of “Second Tablet Project” as Budziszewski calls it.
“The Second Tablet Project is probably more popular among lukewarm religious believers who wish to make the moral law palatable to nonbelievers than it is among nonbelievers themselves. Nonbelievers who want to get rid of the first tablet usually have doubts about the second, too—and for the same reasons.”
Such attempts to retain morality are doomed to failure. It has become something of a favorite expression of the popular apologist Mark Shea that “You can’t derive (or obtain) an ‘ought’ merely from an ‘is.’” Morality is reduced at best to a form of prudence, a consequentialist thing which can be circumvented. Morality is reduced to little better than legalism. “The Second Tablet depends on the first; whoever denies his duty to God will find, if he is logical, that he can no longer make sense of his duty to his neighbor. Conscience will certainly persist, reminding him of both, but it will seem to him an absurdity in a sea of absurdities.”
The Second Tablet is lost without the first. On the other hand, it is illumined by the first, so that not only is it not lost, it also becomes more clear. “Through the prism of revelation, at least five different colors of light shine on the natural realities. We may call these perceptive, affirmative, narrative, promissory, and sacramental.” Put plainly, the natural law is ordered by a reasonable God, and so it commands or forbids only things which the mind can understand as either right or wrong. Further, it does so in such a manner that reason can work out the implications of the natural law. The natural law is tied to the story of creation-fall-salvation, and so it becomes clearer when thought of in these terms.
“If we had never seen healthy feet, it might have taken us a long time to discover that broken feet were broken—to reason backwards from their characteristics even in their present broken condition, to the principles of their purpose and design, to the fact that their condition deviates from that design”
Revelation also brings out the light of divine promise, revealing both divine forgiveness and divine providence—all wrongs repented will be forgiven, and all wrongs will be set right. And finally, revelation sheds light on to the natural law through the sacraments.
Natural law is not limited to its moral implications, but rather has political implications as well. For example, the Fifth Commandment abolishes murder: “thou shalt not kill.” Specifically, man is commanded not to take the innocent life of another person. But who counts as a person? This debate is at the center of many issues which are treated politically, including abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty. And, as with any debate, there are two sides to the argument.
“The Western tradition, including revealed religion, traditional medical ethics, and the common law, favors [that]…. ‘Though shalt not kill’ means that we are not to take human lives. Modernism—including feminism, ‘bioethics,’ liberal jurisprudence, and the euthanasia movement favors [that]…People are not entitled to absolute regard unless they can do things like feel, think, have friendships, ponder themselves, and carry out their plans—unless they can exercise capacities like sentience, cognition, self-awareness, sociality, and ‘full deliberative rationality.’ Should someone be deficient in these respects, extinguishing him becomes a moral possibility, even if he is human….[But] People can be more or less sentient, more or less cognizant, more or less self-aware; they can be more or less adept at sociality, more or less clever at making plans. Plainly, then, they can be more or less abundantly endowed with what modernists call personhood, from which it follows that overpersons must rule and underpersons serve….You cannot make moral personhood mean just what you want it to mean and nothing else. The cloth of our common nature is too tightly sewn; it is made of a single strand. Pluck loose one stitch, and the rest unravels, too” (emphasis in original).
Indeed, this scenario has already been played out in the twentieth century, both in Germany and in the old Soviet Union. In Germany, it began with lebensunwerten Leben, and ended in the death camps. In Russia, it followed a similar course. It was ended only with the overthrow of those governments. In the West as a whole—Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia—it has begun again with abortion, and has continued with euthanasia and infanticide, with no end in sight save to return to the traditional morality.
However, as Budziszewski argues earlier, traditional morality is inseparable from traditional religion: Judeo-Christian at the very least, if not more explicit. Yet, liberal society is built largely on the on concept of religious toleration, which presents an apparent dilemma: that religious toleration discourages religious certitude, conviction, or specificity. Thus, a “broad” religion like those of the Unitarian Universalists or Anglicans is more tolerant than a narrowly defined religions, as with the Baptists or the Catholics. In short, the dilemma is based in the assumption that religious toleration must undermine religion, and that the more exact a religion, the more it must be undermined.
However, Budziszewski contends that this not necessarily so.
“Religious toleration is not supposed to eviscerate religion; had liberalism been sold to the Western nations on the promise that it would achieve peace among faiths only by undermining faith, it would have been rejected….If toleration does gut faith, we seem to be left in a logically impossible position, for in that case universal forbearance wreaks universal suppression; the thing that accomplishes the intolerant result is toleration itself.”
If this seems a paradox, it is only because the promoters of the liberal concept of tolerations share three faulty assumptions. “The first is that all religion is essentially intolerant; the second, that liberalism is essentially tolerant; the third, that the practice of toleration is essentially neutral—that it accommodates all varieties of belief, suspending judgment as to their merits” (emphasis in original). Indeed, the first assumption is false as regards at least some religions. Christianity, for example, largely views itself as a religion based on faith—and faith, unlike mere assent, is a thing which cannot be coerced. Thus, “Persecution for the sake of God would in this case be a rebellion against Him; persecution for the sake of faith would be a crime against it.”
For moral virtues must be correctly applied under certain circumstances and for the right reasons. It is true that one should not use force against an innocent; but using force to prevent a rape or murder is another thing entirely. Thus, “the virtue of toleration lies not in merely tolerating, but in tolerating for the right reasons, in the right way, at the right time, about the right objects, and toward the right people....A man is not properly called courageous for dashing into a collapsing building to save the pencil sharpener; nor is he properly called tolerant for putting up with perjury or theft.” Nor would a person be tolerant for putting up with any other kind of grave evil. Therefore, a truly tolerant religion must have “a sound understanding of goods and evils.”
Nor is liberalism itself properly tolerant, because it does not, in and of itself, have such a proper understanding of good and evil. For this reason, neutralist liberalism “undermines religion, not by making a virtue of religious toleration, but by enforcing a deadly misunderstanding of it.” Such a misunderstanding of toleration would have the various religions tolerating each other only be discarding their creeds—or at least the parts of those creeds which are unique to each religion.
Budziszeewski concludes by returning to an important practical question concerning the relationship between the Christians, revelation, the natural law and the civic law of the “earthly city.” The question is “What may Christian citizens demand of the earthly city, a city whose laws regulate not only themselves, but nonbelievers, too?” To this question, he suggests first an approximate answer, and then explains why it is only approximate.
“A good first approximation to the answer is that we may demand civic enforcement of the natural law, but that we may not demand civic enforcement of the divine law [of revelation]. The former is the law of God as reflected in the arrangements of creation, while the latter is the law of God as more perfectly reflected in the arrangements of salvations” (emphasis in original).
This answer is good as far as it goes, but “it fails to do justice to the dynamic elements of good and privation of good—of how the good is affected by salvation history” (emphasis in original). It reflects a sort of “two-story” understanding of the goods offered to man: the lower story being natural, the upper being supernatural. Budziszewski here proposes that to this architecture, a basement and a mezzanine ought to be added. The basement, because “Man after the Fall is injured even in his enjoyment of the natural goods….It may seem utopian to demand robust civic enforcement of the natural law. That is the ideal, but in practice, most of our energy will go toward robust amelioration of its most grievous and damaging violations. We are not even on the first story of the building. We are in the basement.”
This is the picture of a civilization which is left to itself: it falls below the first story (of natural goods) and partially (if not fully) into the basement of sin. However, men are not left to themselves—rather, there is the possibility of intervention by God, in the form of grace. In the simplest form, this grace grants men “premonitions” which “not only dispose us to seek something above nature, they move us to seek something within nature that is really a supernatural gift….Even in its shame, so powerfully does nature point beyond itself that the strings of the lute preserve a faint memory of the lost music” (emphasis in original).
“When the heavenly city bears faithful witness to the earthly, it prolongs and amplifies that reverberation, sharpening the longing for the music itself. This possibility transforms Christian citizenship. It turns out that keeping the earthly city out of the basement is not our only work after all. We may be able to uplift its imagination by singing the music of higher things [that] it has heard of.”
Such, then, is the ultimate duty of the Christian towards the earthly city. For natural law even points beyond itself, and beyond nature, into supernature. The "line through the heart" not only divides good from evil; it points the way to God.
This review was originally written for and published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute on their book reviews blog.