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The Scandal of Natural Law | An Interview with J. Budziszewski, author of The Line Through the Heart | March 17, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
J. Budziszewski, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale University,
is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books,
including The Revenge of Conscience and How to Stay Christian in College. A new edition of his book, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, will be published by Ignatius Press in 2011. His
most recent book is The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of
Contradiction (ISI, 2009), which has been praised by Peter Kreeft as "a powerful, convincing, high-level yet
commonsensical piece of philosophizing" and as "clear, analytical, persuasive" by the late Ralph McInerny.
Carl E. Olson, the editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Dr.
Budziszewski about The Line Through the Heart, the importance of natural law, and the intolerance of liberalism.
Ignatius Insight: What is a pithy, less-than-three-sentences definition of natural law?
Budziszewski: The expression "natural law" refers to the
basic principles of right and wrong that are true for everyone because they are
rooted in the very nature of the created human person, and knowable to everyone
because we are endowed with conscience and the power to deliberate.
In principle, the natural law provides a point
of contact, a common ground, among people of every culture -- although, as I've
written, it is a slippery one.
Ignatius Insight: You
point out throughout The Line Through the Heart that there are many misconceptions about and
misrepresentations of natural law. What are some of most common of those
misconceptions and misrepresentations? Where or who do they tend to come
Budziszewski: Some of these misconceptions concern nature in
general: We may think that nothing in created reality has any value or
significance except as "stuff" for the powerful to work their wills
upon. Others concern human nature in particular: We may imagine
that we aren't "persons" but only thinking meat, and that we have no
"nature" but are only a meaningless and purposeless result of a
process that did not have us in mind. Still others concern
conscience: We may be taken in by the idea that conscience is completely
arbitrary, that it is merely a leftover from the way we happen to have been
socialized, and that right and wrong are for each person to decide for
A final sort of misconception concerns
history: We may confuse natural law with a particular theory of natural law that happens to be gravely deficient,
for example the view of early modern social contract thinkers who began from a
non-existent "state of nature."
Ignatius Insight: You
paraphrase the view of Cardinal Ratzinger by saying that natural law is a
"scandal," a "sign of contradiction." What has he
said that suggests this view to you?
Budziszewski: "The Christian faith," he has written,
"holds that the creation has been damaged. Human existence is no
longer what was produced at the hands of the Creator. It is burdened with
another element that produces, besides the innate tendency toward God, the
opposite tendency away from God. . . . This paradox points to a certain inner
disturbance in man, so that he can no longer simply be the person he wants to
be. . . . There is a collective consciousness that sharpens the contradiction.
. . . [T]he stronger the demand made by the law, the stronger becomes the
inclination to fight it."
In the old-fashioned meaning
of the word, a scandal is something that makes us stumble. If we are
enraged by and kick against the very thing that is meant to help us stand up
straighter, I would say we have a scandal.
Ignatius Insight: What
are some ways in which Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has promoted, defended,
and explained natural law?
Budziszewski: He has often discussed natural law, both before and
after his elevation to the papacy. During his 2008 visit to the United
States, for example, he emphasized to U.S. Bishops the need for "a greater
sense of the intrinsic relationship between the Gospel and the natural
law" in both personal and civic decisions, and spoke of the danger of
"dictatorship of relativism."
In his address to the United Nations, he warned that if we try to understand
the rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights apart from the natural law, "the meaning and
interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be
denied." On several occasions, he has written to Catholic
universities asking them to sponsor and encourage public talks about the importance
of natural law to contemporary society.
Ignatius Insight: What
has been the state -- the health, so to speak -- of reflection on natural law
within Catholic circles in recent decades?
Budziszewski: The good news is that the last few decades have seen
an explosion of first-rate Catholic scholarly work on the subject. On the
other hand, as Ratzinger/Benedict has pointed out, the truths of the natural
law are "obscured" not just in secular dogma, but sometimes even in
the teaching that takes place in Catholic universities.
For the same reason, his predecessor, John Paul II, found it necessary to write
a whole encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, in order to reaffirm the universality and permanent validity of natural
law, and to correct the tendency of some confused or careless theologians to
deny it. I would say that the whole topic needs to be more carefully
presented in catechesis as well.
Ignatius Insight: What
are some basic ways in which understanding natural law can help Christians in
addressing "hot button" moral issues such as "same-sex
marriage" and abortion?
Budziszewski: Very few people know anything about natural law
theory. Yet "in our bones" we all experience the reality of
natural law, because it is rooted in our creational design, woven into the
fabric of the human person. We can't help but notice certain obvious
things about ourselves.
This gives Christians a certain advantage in conversation, if only we can learn
to rely on it. Who doesn't see that life and innocence are good?
Who doesn't know deep down that innocent life should never be deliberately
destroyed? Who hasn't noticed that men and women need each other, that
there is something missing in each sex which needs to be balanced by the
other? Who isn't at least half-aware that marriage is the family-forming
institution, the motor that turns the wheel of the generations, the only form
of association that can give a child a fighting chance of being raised by a mom
and a dad?
Don't start with what people don't know. Start with what they do
know. Weave together reminders of the obvious.
Ignatius Insight: You
write, in a chapter titled, "Constitution vs. Constitutionalism,"
that although we Americans aren't sufficiently on our guard about the
Constitution's flaws, we don't sufficiently cherish what is good about it
either. What are some of those good qualities, and how unique are they to
Budziszewski: In fifth grade, my teacher told the class that the
Founders of our republic invented checks and balances. Thank God, that
wasn't true. As I learned in later years, they were actually the
beneficiaries of more than twenty-three centuries of experience and reflection
on the matter.
For revolutionaries, they were unusually conservative, and tried to squeeze
lessons from every bit of learning at their disposal. They knew
that no Constitutional republic can endure without a certain level of moral
character, or without a certain respect for natural law, on the part of both
statesmen and ordinary citizens.
On the other hand, they knew that there is never enough virtue or wisdom to go
around, so they took additional precautions as well. Besides providing
for checks and balances, they established courts; they refused to concentrate
all powers in the same set of hands; they allowed the population to select
their own representatives; and they tried to make sure that no single faction
would ever be able to dominate the government.
Ignatius Insight: Modern
liberalism claims to be all about toleration, equality, and freedom. Yet
it seems to be increasingly intolerant, unfair, and controlling. What are
some of the essential flaws with modern liberalism that lead to such a paradox?
Budziszewski: Virtue requires the exercise of judgment. The
virtue of courage, for example, isn't just about suppressing fear, but about
suppressing it at the right times and for the right reasons. If a fireman
dashed into a burning house to save the pencil sharpener, we wouldn't call him
courageous, but rash and witless.
In the same way, the virtue of toleration isn't just about putting up with bad
things, but putting up with certain bad things in certain ways for the right
reasons. We ought to tolerate disbelief in God, because faith, by its
nature, cannot be coerced. But if someone thought we should tolerate rape
and murder, we wouldn't call him tolerant, but foolish and wicked. Do you
see the paradox?
In order to know which bad things to tolerate, we must judge well about goods
and evils. Liberalism, unfortunately, denies this. It redefines
tolerance as suspension of
judgment about goods and evils. Here enters a second paradox, because it
is literally impossible to suspend all judgment about goods and evils.
For example, there is no morally neutral way to define marriage. Laws that
conceive it as monogamous put polygamy at a disadvantage; laws that conceive it
as polygamous put monogamy at a disadvantage; and laws that attempt to be open
to both monogamy and polygamy conceive it, in effect, as polygamous.
The way so-called liberal tolerance actually works is that it condemns the
moral judgments of non-liberals, but enforces its own moral judgments by
pretending that they are not judgments. This is really a disguised
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Essays:
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Why the Bewilderment? Benedict XVI on Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A.
The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Religion of Liberalism, Or Why Freedom and Equality Aren't Ultimate Goals | An Interview with James Kalb
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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