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Monday, May 16, 2011

The fatal wound in natural law

          Last summer I attended a two-day workshop against racism sponsored by a group called “Crossroads.” The Office of Social Concerns of the Springfield, Illinois diocese paid my way.

          I mention the sponsorship because it represents an effort by Catholic Church leadership to deal with the still-powerful effects of centuries of racist thinking in the world and in the Church.

          The workshop began with a historical overview of how racist ideas and attitudes developed in our world. The narrators picked up the story in the 1500s, when European kingdoms began to explore Africa and the Americas.

          I say they “picked up” the story, because there surely must have been earlier examples of racism in history. Maybe those stories are too far buried in history for us to recover them with any degree of confidence.

          The history of racist thinking, even if we start the story only in the 1500s, is enough to call into question how well we can read moral principles from “the nature of reality.” Is it any more obvious from nature that homosexual behavior is morally evil than it was obvious for hundreds of years that certain kinds of human beings are less human than we are?

          It was certainly obvious for hundreds of years to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that certain human beings were less than others. Those were the years when the bishop of Rome not only claimed the authority to lead the Church, but claimed to lead the entire world. Pope Alexander VI, for example, decreed that all lands in the Americas east of a specified “line of demarcation” were to belong to Portugal, and all the lands west of that line were to belong to Spain. What Portugal and Spain were doing in those lands was using their military force to take resources from those places. If the people there had problems with such taking, it was obvious to the Europeans, including the bishop of Rome, that the people in those lands were somehow less important than Europeans, and possibly not as human. They were not as human as Europeans even if they became Christian. For example, natives could not be candidates for priesthood and religious life in the Church.

          Most of the present-day societies in Latin America still struggle with a three-tiered social structure: on the top are the “white” Spanish-origin people, in between are the mixed race people, the mestizos, the majority of the population, and on the bottom are the “indigenous” peoples, the people who have lived there for thousands of years.

          The fact that few peoples in the world have lived anywhere “for thousands of years” introduces complications in the story. Spain, for example, grew out of the mixture of several other groups, as its indigenous groups mixed with Jews and with “Moors,” people from African and middle-eastern regions. I suppose that it was a relief for Spaniards whose own genetic background was somewhat spoiled to find other people whose genetic background was undeniably more spoiled than theirs. Poor whites in this country have been comforted by the argument that they are at least not as bad as blacks.

          The history of this kind of thinking calls into question any use of the term “natural law” in the determination of what is right and what is wrong. If natural law is supposed to be able to be read from the nature of things, why has it been considered natural for so long to treat some people as less human than other people?

          This is no small problem. Some of the most intractable and peace-threatening situations in our world owe their origins to this kind of thinking. Just to limit examples to the last twenty years, think of the Bosnian conflict, or of the Rwandan genocide, of the Jewish-Palestinian situation, of the relations between India and Pakistan, or even of the Shi’ite-Sunni struggle within Islam.

          Sociology and other social sciences long ago rejected any argument based on “nature” It is too easy to paste the label “natural” on anything that you think is correct, regardless of the evidence for its correctness. “Nature” is a cop-out. In sociology, if I want to argue that a human practice or rule is good or bad, I have to provide empirical evidence for its goodness or badness.

          I write this in defense of John Joseph Lakers’s argument that natural law thinking cannot be the basis of moral judgments. His argument is tortured--see his book Christian Ethics: An Ethics of Intimacy and his website (www.qufriary.org/Lakers ). His argument is that is that several centuries of philosophical critique of natural law thinking have demolished the effectiveness of that kind of thinking. Lakers uses linguistic analysis and a literary approach to Scripture to arrive at the conclusion that moral judgments can only be based on what he calls “a metaphor of intimacy.” He defines intimacy as “passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement” of one human being with another or with God.

          A morality grounded in a metaphor of intimacy is, he says, “without foundations.” It is floating in a world of human relationships. But it is not floating so freely that “anything goes.” Using intimacy as a criterion for moral behavior can be far more demanding than natural law. For example, using intimacy as the basis for moral judgments would make it impossible for me to treat another human being as less human than myself.

          Citing Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lakers argues that every moral statement depends on terms whose meanings are based on a “form of life.” My translation of this is: “a term gets its meaning from its use in a story.” There are two kinds of stories that ground Christian moral thinking. One kind is based on the metaphor of power and judgment—God is an angry God who will punish you if you do not follow the law. The other is based on the metaphor of intimacy—God is passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully involved with each human being in history. The metaphor of power and judgment is found in those parts of Scripture that created “the Law”—the stories of Moses and the Israelites receiving the Law from God on Mount Sinai. The other metaphor is grounded in prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea, and even more in the New Testament stories of Jesus and the theology of Paul.

          Natural law was too easy. It got in bed with the worst of human tendencies and legitimated them for centuries. In the meantime the rest of the world gradually changed its moral judgments. The Church was slow to learn that some human beings are not less human than others. We were slow to learn that slavery is evil. We are only now learning that violence causes more problems than it solves. We are learning that sexual desires are not evil.

          I could be wrong, but I think we are learning that people born homosexual are better off in committed relationships with other homosexual people than in living without such commitment. I have yet to see how calling such a relationship a “marriage” threatens heterosexual marriages. I would think that more people striving to live a commitment would strengthen all people trying to live a commitment.

          I think we are learning that denying women participation in some human activities simply because they are women can no longer be defended. It is no longer obvious from nature that women are so different from men that women should not be allowed to strive to play certain roles.   If I am to relate respectfully and vulnerably to a woman seeking ordination, on what grounds can I tell her “you cannot do this”?

          The fact that public opinion seems to be increasingly in favor of the legitimacy of gay marriage and of the ordination of women in the Church is not a sign of the decadence of our culture but of the weakness of our natural law reasoning. We should not be ashamed to learn. We have done it often enough before.