The Natural Law= Bigotry? Please.

On Nov. 3, Ken Cuccinelli was elected attorney general of Virginia in a landslide. His 15 percent margin of victory strongly suggests that Old Dominion voters were unimpressed by a shrill Washington Post editorial published on Oct. 30, which opined that Mr. Cuccinelli “would likely become an embarrassment for the commonwealth” as his “affability and quick wit … have tended to mask his extremist views.”

What, you ask, were those “extremist views”? Well, the Post’s indictment-in an editorial titled “Mr. Cuccinelli’s bigotry”-centered on the fact that candidate Cuccinelli had described homosexual behavior as contrary to “natural law” and had further suggested that natural law was a useful guide to public policy. Mr. Cuccinelli did not propose to prosecute, much less jail, every gay and lesbian between the Potomac River and the North Carolina border, and no sane person thought he intended to do so. Yet the Post’s anonymous editorial writer described Mr. Cuccinelli’s appeal to natural law as a “retrofit (of) the old language of racism, bias, and intolerance in a new context.”

Baloney. What’s being retrofitted here is old-time anti-Catholic bigotry, tarted up in the guise of tolerance and extended to those who think there are moral truths built into the world and into us-truths that we can grasp by reason.

Ken Cuccinelli is a serious, practicing Catholic. He’s also a sophisticated politician who knows that you don’t argue public policy in the public square on the basis of uniquely Catholic theological premises. Rather, you make your arguments in a public vocabulary, accessible to all. That’s the grammar and vocabulary of the natural moral law: the basis on which Thomas Jefferson argued the case for American national independence, Martin Luther King, Jr., promoted the civil rights of African Americans, and John Paul II passionately and effectively defended the religious and political rights of all.

Was Jefferson a bigot when he staked America’s claim to independent nationhood on “self-evident” moral truths derived from “the laws of nature?” Was King a bigot when, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he argued that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law”? Was John Paul II a bigot when, at the United Nations in 1995, he suggested that the truths of the natural moral law-“the moral logic which is built into human life”-could serve as a universal “grammar” enabling genuinely cross-cultural dialogue? Please.

On the 20th anniversary of the Revolution of 1989, it was a sadness that the editors of the Washington Post misread the moral texture of the American founding, the civil rights revolution, and the revolution of conscience that brought down the Berlin Wall-revolutions in which believers, non-believers, skeptics, and agnostics united in defense of human rights that could be known as such through the natural moral law. Jefferson and the other American Founders would have found the Post’s identification of “natural law” with “bigotry” simply bizarre. So would Dr. King. And so would Vaclav Havel and other leaders of the Revolution of 1989, if they happened to be surfing the Internet on Oct. 30 and stumbled across the Post’s lamebrained attack on those who think that rationally known moral norms ought to have some bearing on how we should live together.

To be sure, the Post was not quite as over-the-top as Frank Rich of the New York Times, who labeled as “Stalinists” those Republicans in upstate New York who thought abortion-on-demand and gay “marriage” bad ideas. But that’s Frank Rich: the former “Butcher of Broadway” is always over-the-top. The Post editorial branding natural law reasoning as bigotry was worse, because the moral lexicon of the natural law is the common vocabulary by which Americans of every political, ideological, and religious flavor have argued in defense of life, in defense of marriage rightly understood, and in defense of religious freedom. To call such arguments retrofitted “bigotry” is a crude attempt to drive classical moral understandings out of the public square, by smearing their advocates as morally coarse anti-social misfits.

Memo to Post editors: we’re not impressed and we’re not going away.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Dear anonymous

    You can’t fool mother nature – not even with words. My laws are immutable.

    Mother Nature

  • vera

    Having what one considers “a convincing argument” to a stance does not free one of the ramifications of their views. 150 years ago the country was divided about 50/50 on weather or not a person could own another human beings. Those for slavery had their reasons. These reason were flawed and the results of these beliefs led to our country’s most shameful practice being legal for nearly a century.

    In the debate against civil unions and acceptance of homosexuality, natural law is often the weapon of choice. It’s easier to get lost in the rhetoric of that than to look within at uncomfortable biases towards what is different.

    Catholics especially wield natural law without really know how this line of reasoning arrived in their religion. Very few will know that is is the result of a null and void Aristotelian world view.

    The genius of Aquinas was often less his own insight, and more his ability to take outside world views seen as a challenge to the church and incorporate these views in to doctrinal morality.

    Natural law came to The Church as follows: Aristotle believed in a world where cause and effect had purpose. “Why does it rain? So that grass can grow?” “Why are trees tall? So that they can reach the light?”

    Under this view anything used other than its designated end or purpose was a deprivation.

    Aquinas took Aristotle’s line of reasoning and applied it to morality. “Why do we have sex? To procreate.” Sex then used for any other purpose was a deprivation, was immoral. This was then used as a blanket of morality covering masturbation and homosexuality among other acts as a deprivation, as immoral.

    Fast forward some centuries and you have the Aristotelian physics and world view overturned by Newtonian physics. No sane person still believes in the Aristotelian world views. However, plenty of Catholics still follow the morality that was derived from it (yes, I am aware that it is not fashionable in this forum to refer to the development of Church doctrine in historical terms.

    In moral terms, it would be the medical the equivalent if doctors today were still treating on the basis that all illness is the result of evil spirits. Of course, some very misinformed shaman in underdeveloped nations do use that model for treatment. They are mistaken and their patients often die of treatable illnesses.

  • goral

    Someone here is vera pompous. In roughly six poorly constructed paragraphs, this self-styled critic of Greek Philosophy and Church Theology has debunked both of them in their longer than three millennia of development.

    Do you have any idea what it took to be declared Doctor of the Church?
    There were synods and councils and letters and endless arguments from every angle imaginable. Sheep and goats died providing parchment so that the reason and logic and belief of these thoughts might be painstakingly recorded. Then many other learned and capable minds and souls pondered it into the next generation and beyond. Finally when the fermentation stopped, it was declared that it’s valid, it’s truth, it is Natural Law.

    “Catholics especially wield natural law without really know how this line of reasoning arrived in their religion.”

    Here’s someone who know!? Do you realize that your half-baked statements are nothing new, have already been refuted just on the way back from the lavatory to the discussion table.

    How juvenile, pretentious and arrogant.

  • Mary Kochan

    vera, I know that you may be blind to the bigotry that it takes to assume that Catholics are simply ignorant of the development of thought within their own tradition.

    (Not to mention that you have wrong what Thomas did with Aristotle in assuming that Thomas’ teleology was adapted wholesale from Aristotle:

    Your entire argument boils down to: You Catholics are stupid and have made no progress in thought beyond Aristotle, therefore you don’t know what you are talking about regarding morality (sexual morality that is — I’ll bet you are just fine with that whole “love your neighbor” thing).

    I challenge you to assert to the Literary Theory professors that Aristotle’s Poetics can no longer be read with profit because his Physics was shown to be in error. Leave from there and wend your way to the Political Philosophy professors so that you can make the same claim regarding his Politics. To complete proving yourself a philistine, drop in on the Philosophy department and tell them that the Nicomachean Ethics should be tossed in the trash because Aristotle got some of his biology wrong.

    Your account is wholly incorrect on its face. In moral terms what we would have from your worldview (and we know because we DO have it) is Peter Singer asserting that if a squirrel of an endangered species was caged in the same room with your infant child in a crib and a fire broke out and you could only carry one of them out, it would be more moral to save the squirrel.

  • vera

    No one is suggesting that we toss Aristotle aside. Nor that we ever toss anything aside. Aquinas himself said, “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.” To understand the oak you must understand the acorn.

    All misunderstanding of Peter Singer and name calling aside, the Catholic Church has been around for a very long time. An intricate world view and moral stand point has been built up over centuries. An entire mathematical system could also be built up around the premise that 2 + 2 = 5. There will be many equations that would balance and in and of themselves seem correct in this system. That is why it is essential to go back to the root reason for everything in an intellectually honest way.

    In the current positions of The Church there certainly were, “There were synods and councils and letters and endless arguments from every angle imaginable,” before the current status quo was adopted. But the opposite positions been adopted one still could say that there were synods and councils and letters and endless arguments” to back them.

    And that’s what it comes down to: endless arguments. It does not matter the size of the circle, one can still go around eternally. I pointed out where divine law in the church came from. It came from Aristotle. Love your neighbor as yourself is good, but not unique to the church and existed in other religious traditions centuries before The Church.

    The argument, “We have been around for along time so how could one individual like you ever refute us?” is interesting and telling. It is a great way to squash free thought. It follows that our own abilities for reasoning are so limited we must simply trust the church. Yet we must use these inadequate skills to affirm the truth of it.

  • goral

    It would be far better, vera, if you did toss Aristotle and Aquinas aside, at least then it would be clear that you are following other synods and councils of your choosing. You’re as free to do that in you conscience as was King Henry.
    Instead, what you are doing is taking the work and statements of the giants of history and tailoring it to your own conclusion. That you are not free to do and it’s not because I say so but because it’s scientific and intellectual fraud.

    Never will 2+2 equal 5 and there will never be that mathematical model. That only works in politics. Speaking of which, your following statement is just that.

    “In the debate against civil unions and acceptance of homosexuality, natural law is often the weapon of choice.”

    Natural Law is not a weapon. “Thou shalt not kill” is not a weapon nor is it a choice. Civil unions are allowed, it is not a Marriage, it is not a Family. It’s a biological impossibility. Homosexuality is a practice that is in society, it was there during the times of the Greek philosophers, the Church rejected it. There were episodes of it even in the Church, the Church still rejects it. She is free and right to do that. Good luck arguing with Her.

    Your thoughts or debates are not being squelched. You have been given FREE access to this forum by our charitable Editor. People holding your and other views are living undisturbed lives.
    On the contrary it’s always been this scenario: King Henry holds that as a matter of his own conscience he is thinking and doing the right thing. Sir Thomas Moore holds that conscience does not mean what you yourself think but rather con-science is something that you understand collectively with a body of knowledge – such as in communion with the church.

    The way this played out is history. Sir Thomas Moore puts his head on the block and King Henry gets to rule a church. Moore’s arguments still hold today. Henry’s church is looking around and thinking – what do we do now?

    We Catholics do know our history and philosophy and theology and we hold it in Communion with the Church. You’re as free to your interpretations as you are to your anonymity but you’re outside the walls.
    Have fun!

  • vera

    No one is asking that gay marriages be allowed within the Catholic church. Only that your subjective beliefs be separated from the state. Before you say the definition of marriage is “between a man and a woman,” remember that not to long ago it was defined as between “a white man and a white woman,” as interracial marriages were not allowed. We progress and we change and the definitions of things follow suit.

    Christianity is 2,000 years old. In that time there has been plenty of debated and rhetoric produced from it. 40k+ sects of it exist. Catholics like to say they were here first. Eastern Orthodox think they were here first and the Catholics split away from them. Lives are spent sorting out petty differences. It seems sometimes rather un-Christ like.

    You are a Catholic and believe that your arguments are backed by truth. Every one who is not a Catholic does not believe that, that’s why they are not Catholic. Islam has just as compelling reasons and miracles to back up their belief. Same with Mormonism. Read the miracles in the 2,400 tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. For that matter, most big foot sightings are made by people who go into the woods already convinced that there is a North American primate.

    The point is not to try to tell you what to or what not to believe. That’s your choice. But when that choice has consequences that affect others not believing as you believe, Gay Marriage (in a civil not religious sense) then your wanting yoru personal subjective beliefs to overlap into the lives of others. That’s not what our country was founded upon. This line of thinking was what caused Catholics to once be widely persecuted. Then in turn this same thinking caused many Catholics to persecutee non-Catholics. It’s simply not a good way of viewing the world.

    I’m sure you ‘know’ that your right. Just like everyone else. I’m sure your arguments are more convincing. Just like everyone else.

    Instead try looking humbly at your own beliefs and looking with love on those of others, knowing we are all in this together, differences don’t have to divide if we remember that faith presumes doubt.

  • Mary Kochan

    Why don’t we separate YOUR subjective beliefs from the state instead? Why are YOUR subjective beliefs privileged over ours? Everyone in a democracy has subjective beliefs about how they think the society should be ordered. You have the arrogant nerve to think that YOU have the right to decide which citizens should be allowed to participate in shaping the society and that Catholics should be excluded. And then you lecture us about being humble?! Just exactly who DO you think you are?

    It is nonsense to equate white/black marriage and “gay marriage” — blacks and whites (and reds and yellows) have been marrying and producing offspring for millenia in various societies and in both hemispheres. So you unhistorically pull out a single brief instance in the great span of human history where a particular society made that union illegal and try to use that to say that for all of human history and across hundreds of generations spread out over the entire globe, people have been wrong about what marriage is?

    That’s why this is NOT about what Catholics believe marriage to be. (Did you actually read the article, because that was kind of the main point?) This is about what humanity has always thought marriage was. That is why it is called “natural law” — it is a common moral language in which we Catholics communicate with the non-Catholics with whom we share this society. It happens to be the same language the founders of this country used to communicate about why this country was founded. I would suggest that it is a language you ought to become familiar with, otherwise you cannot even comprehend the meaning of the founding documents of this county.

  • goral

    Vera, you are just all over the field on this topic. I can’t refute all your faulty premises nor do I want to. Your last sentence is the only one that makes sense and I’m happy that you ended that way but that’s not how you started.

    If the difference is in substance than it has to divide, how can it pretend to do otherwise?

    With malice toward none and charity toward all is what Lincoln said and waged the Civil War.

    My responses were not at all intended to convince but to counter someone who came into the forum with flawed and combative language against the concept of Natural Law and against Saint Thomas Aquinas. Talk about consequences, that’s the Titanic hitting the iceberg. No wonder you’re sinking.

    I would need to know a lot more to effectively debate this topic. I’m a lightweight in these matters but I read that you are too. I sense a confusion which is coming from a faith that is not grounded.

    My faith does not presume doubt otherwise it’s just a hypothesis.

  • jpckcmo

    You go, Vera. You seem less confused to me than those who go rotely through life, not questioning the Church. And She does, occasionally, change her opinion. What does that mean? Some could say that homosexuality exists even in dumb animals, therefore it is the Natural Law. Some could say that God created homosexuals, therefore it is the Natural Law. I’m with you; I don’t want the Church imposing its beliefs on the lives of others as long as these others are acting in a loving way to make the world a more peaceful place. I am simply willing to grant responsible, loving people the right to be with and responsible for each other. I think that’s what most gay people want, given the chance.