A Whole Lot More on Natural Law

November 25, 2003 | 3 comments

In a mad attempt to throw together Kaimi’s post on the “Christian Right” and Nate’s post on natural law, while also tossing in a bit about Catholic and Protestant theology…

A few years ago I dug a little into a group called the World Congress of Families. It, like United Families International, has its roots in a loose network of politically conservative churches that saw the United Nations as beholden to an anti-traditionalist agenda. This is hardly a new complaint; it dates back to the 1960s and 70s, where you can find old John Birch Society stuff warning against the “unisex” and collectivist designs of the U.N. But it really seems to have picked up steam in the 1990s, perhaps because the weight of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic hierarchy really began to be added to the agenda (especially in regards to the role of U.N. agencies in promoting birth control and “family planning” (i.e., abortion rights)). Whatever the reason, a lot of groups joined the bandwagon. At some point in there, some LDS lawyers began participating, setting up their own parallel organizations and writing and publishing a lot on the anti-traditionalism implicit in the evolving international law regime. (Bruce Hafen gave a big speech at one of their conferences in Europe on the “natural” role of mothers and how the main U.N. documents of women’s rights is either oblivious or hostile to that role.) Of course, with the Proclamation on the Family, it was probably inevitable that legally and politically savvy Mormons would see the opportunity to make an LDS contribution to this debate. They’ve done it nationally (like through the “Defend Marriage” movement), and continuing to do it on the international scene.

As I wrote yesterday, I’m bothered by a lot of the rhetoric these organizations usually use. If you check out United Families International’s website, you’ll see they define the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” Now, maybe that’s just boilerplate. But I don’t think so–I think a great many of these folks probably really do think of the family as “natural”: that is, the family (the traditional family, mind you) is “of nature.” Such natural law discourse–which is, of course, what we’re talking about here, whether or not any of these folks ever discuss the “laws” of nature–assumes nature has an enduring, objective normative status; it assumes that history (to say nothing of the human will) is separate from and in fact subservient to nature; it assumes that human beings, by virtue of being part of God’s natural creation, can in fact reason out God’s will by observing the natural facts implicit in that creation. This is (partly) the philosophy of Aristotle, and (more specifically) the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and it is a powerful way of thinking. But doesn’t Mormonism believe a God–or at least, didn’t we at one time believe in a God–who can, and does, intervene into our lives without making any reference to nature whatsoever? Was polygamy “natural”? Who knows? Is monogamy “more natural”? Again, who can say? Our theology, such as it is, arises from a series of divine edicts and pronunciations which have played themselves out across our own history, and the history of the ancient peoples discussed in the Bible and the BoM: “nature” never seems to come into it. (Though the authoritarian priesthood structure of contemporary Mormonism is quite in tune with the magisterial assumptions of current Roman Catholic theology, I for one am basically convinced that the Augustinian-Protestant emphasis on a direct, “a-natural” submission to God better suits what I think we are supposed to believe the prophets to have told us.) Thus, I don’t think it’s at all helpful in terms of building Zion (which involves intellectual work as well as physical) to take the basically conservative sensibility of most American Mormons and align that with arguments–against homosexuality, or against abortion rights, or in favor traditional family and sexual roles–which are premised solely upon the “fact” that gay sex, killing fetuses, and letting husbands stay home with the kids is “against nature.”

Of course, natural law thinking is more subtle, and supple, than all that. I respect its power. I’ve used in plenty of times. It is a strong and persuasive and in many ways correct thing to be able to talk about “natural” forms of life, about the ordained telos of a being or a community. And who is to say that such nature-based theological discourse isn’t the future of Mormonism? Medieval Christianity (or at least a good portion of it) turned to such philosophy because it helped them answer important questions, it was a way of making sense of how to live a Christian life in the public, and political, world. Mormonism may yet become philosophical, in a particular Roman Catholic sense: certainly a great many conservative Protestant churches have done so without realizing it (which gives no end of amusement to conservative Catholics, who have watched, over the last ten or fifteen years or so, many otherwise totally Americanized evangelical Southern Baptists suddenly “discover” John Henry Newman or Pope John Paul II (who is a hero of mine, I should note)). That may be our arc, and it is not, by definition, a bad or “apostate” one. The whole reason so many conservative Christians have embraced the idea of our time being “a Catholic moment” is that their Thomist tradition truly presents an intellectual alternative to the individualized spirituality of modern America. To the extent that Mormonism has been Americanized, discovering a different ontological frame within which one might politically situate one’s faith can provide socially conservative Mormons with a great deal of solace. But still, I believe it is a tradition that we should not embrace too easily; there is, in the history of our doctrine and our ecclesia, too many differences that should not be elided, and that is exactly what I feel many “Christian Right” groups like United Families International are asking us to do when I read their stuff.

Though he doesn’t call it such, Nate points out that Mormonism could articulate and pursue a “Protestant” alternative as well, one in which we “redefine the Good in personal [which is not the same as individualistic] terms.” The force that binds together and to commends us to certain forms of life, in this case, would not be the moral imperative of the goodness of nature, but rather our willed covenant with God. I think this is a powerful idea, one much closer to my heart and my understanding of the Gospel; in particular, I like how Nate linked this to “what the scriptures (especially the Book of Mormon) are getting at when they talk about being “enticed” by both God and the Devil…[it is a question of] our affections and who it is that we ultimately want to be friends with.” The concepts of will, covenant, and friendship implied therein might take different forms in Mormon hands, but they are all classic Reformation conceptions: Luther’s writings on both the “bondage” and the “freedom” of our will; the Puritan and Calvinist doctrine of covenant; the whole idea of the church being a Gemeinde, a community of friendship. There are some real possibilities there. Then again, considering the many, many ways in which mainline Protestant congregations in the U.S. have failed to withstand the libertarian imperatives of modernity, perhaps covenant, when push comes to shove, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: after all, it is exactly those devout conservative Protestants, who are most anxious about social conservative causes and most active in “Christian Right” organizations, who have most frequently given up on their own theology, and turned to Catholic doctrines of natural law.

A Quick Addendum

Two qualifications to the above: 1) I shouldn’t imply that Roman Catholicism and natural law thinking are synonymous. The Thomist tradition is not only not the only philosophical tradition in Catholicism, it hasn’t even always been the primary one. However, I do think it’s fair to suggest that Roman Catholicism is the most philosophically developed of all bodies of Christian thought (at least insofar as we’re dealing with what has usually been called “philosophy” in the West), and hence that those Christians who come on their own, by whatever route, to the belief that certain behaviors or relationships are “unnatural” in God’s eyes usually find themselves, at least in my experience, turning sooner or later to papal encyclicals. 2) I don’t mean to imply that all Mormon talk about the “natural family” and so forth is wholly the creation of various recent intellectual endeavors; I’m sure any search of the Ensign could turn up dozens of sermons by General Authorities in which this, that or the other thing is defended as not “merely” scriptural but also “natural” (meaning: “good”). And some LDS academics have been flirting with natural law reasoning for a long time: years ago there was a professor in the BYU political science department years ago, Richard Vetterli, who would hand out this pamphlet on “Homosexuality and the Natural Law” by Harry Jaffa to his classes.

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3 Responses to A Whole Lot More on Natural Law

  1. Jeremiah John on December 1, 2003 at 1:48 am

    I’ll have to look up what you have to say about natural law in general. I should say that what Jaffa has to say about the matter has always been a bit odd, in itself and because of his being a Straussian. While Jaffa has written a very good book _Aristotelianism and Thomism_ related to the matter, his self-styled Jewish natural law stands in stark contrast to the “natural right” of his teacher Leo Strauss. Strauss’s position, in my opinion, is closer to a Nietzschean view that natural law leads to nihilism. In Strauss’s book on the decline of natural right, the exact middle page is about Thomas Aquinas.

  2. Aaron Shafovaloff on January 7, 2004 at 12:30 pm

    I hope this isn’t merely annoying, but these NT quotes make for a good contribution:

    “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:19-21)

    “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14-16)

  3. Jim F. on January 7, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    Aaron: It isn’t merely annoying for you to respond to items with quotations from the New Testament, but it isn’t very helpful if you aren’t willing to say something about those quotations. Some who participate in this list may be unfamiliar with the New Testament or with the quotations you cite in this comment and others, but I doubt that many of us are. We know the scriptures that you quote and we accept them as scripture. So, we make our entries and comments with those things in mind. It is possible that someone will overlook a scripture and will need to be reminded, but that isn’t usually the case. So if your comments are to make a contribution to the discussion, you should not only refer to the verses you quote but say something about how those verses make a contribution to the discussion.


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