The Scandal of Natural Law | An Interview with J. Budziszewski, author of "The Line Through the Heart" | March 17, 2010 | Ignatius InsightThe 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 from?

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 himself.

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 the Constitution?

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 dictatorship.

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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