Fall 2008

Natural Law: From Neo-Thomism to Nuptial Mysticism

Tracey Rowland

“Catholic scholars need to go beyond a theologically neutered conception of natural law as a lingua franca with which to engage proponents of hostile traditions.”

1. Introduction: Toward a theological natural law


Fergus Kerr subtitled a recent survey of twentieth century theologi- cal trends “From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism.”1  While this subtitle may stand as a one-sentence summary of the sweep of twentieth-century Catholic theological tendencies, a similar trajectory can be observed at work in the more micro-level territory of natural law doctrine. For decades now natural law has been presented to Catholic undergraduates as a kind of lingua franca for dialogue with non-believers, precisely because it was deemed possible to sever it from its theological roots. This is notwithstanding the fact that Protestants have never really been all that keen on it, regarding it as something of Stoic, rather than biblical provenance, and notwithstanding the further fact that it depends on a conception of nature as something stable, and that this has been rejected by most contemporary post-moderns. When one eliminates Protestants and post-moderns, those left standing are usually Liberals. It is largely in order to find a common language with them that attempts have been made to formulate a version of natural law that does not rely on any particular theological framework. However, leaving aside all the theoretical objections that have been raised against this project, the sociological fact is that it has not been a strategic success. Liberals just don’t buy the medicine, even when the theological ingredients have been expressly excluded and the principles have been repackaged in explicitly Liberal idioms.2 This often leads to a situation in which Catholics talk to other Catholics in an idiom which was devised for dialogue with unbelievers, while the unbelievers are either not persuaded or so poorly educated as to be unfamiliar with the idiom. When natural law is marketed as universally reasonable without any accompanying theological baggage, it can begin to sound, in Russell Hittinger’s memorable phrase, like “a doctrine for Cartesian minds somehow under Church discipline.”3

It was perhaps for such reasons that Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was, described natural law as a “blunt instrument” in dialogues with secular society.4 This was not because he personally rejects belief in natural law, but because he believes that it presupposes a concept of nature in which nature and reason overlap, a view which he further claims was “capsized” with the arrival of the theory of evolution.5 Without a foundational belief in a divinely created cosmos, the doctrine falls on incredulous ears. It lacks persuasive force. Post-moderns will never buy it because they have rejected a notion of nature that includes stable essences, and Liberals will never buy it because individual autonomy occupies such a high place in their hierarchy of goods that it trumps any appeal to a notion of there being one single vision of a “good life.” For John Rawls, arguably the most influential Liberal theorist of the twentieth century, if people want to devote their lives to counting blades of grass, then that is the good for them.6 Reason has been truncated to finding efficient ways of achieving ends and nature is now subject to scientific manipulation, so neither reason nor nature is a strong foundation upon which to build a bridge to the contemporary Liberal tradition. Nonetheless, Catholic apologists for several decades have been attempting to defend a Catholic view of the good life in the forums of Liberal society using the vocabulary of natural law. Many have done so in an almost axiomatic belief that it is a lingua franca for dialogue with non-believers. They have been told that this was recognized at the Nuremberg trials and that it was a project promoted by the French Thomist and advisor of Paul VI, Jacques Maritain, who contributed to the drafting of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), which itself is upheld as the project’s greatest achievement, or at least an example of what can be achieved.


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1. F. Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007). The terms “neoscholasticism” and “neo- Thomism” are often used interchangeably though the former is a little broader, encompassing the whole range of modern Christian retrieval of the thought of the medieval period. In this article the work of Jacques Maritain will be treated as the flagship of neo-Thomism.

2. For a partial analysis of this lack of strategic success see K. Lee, “Contemporary Challenges to Natural Law Theories,” The Catholic Social Science Review 12 (2007): 41–50.

3. R. Hittinger, First Grace: Re-Discovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003), 62.

4. J. Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 38–39.

5. J. Ratzinger and J. Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006): 69–70.