Masters of Natural Law
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat May 31, 2008 at 01:42:13 PM EST
The Catholic Right, Part Fifty-eight
One of the things I have stressed in my series on the Catholic Right is that we have got to understand natural law in order to understand the Catholic Right and   increasingly allied conservative Evangelicals.  That being the case, I think any reasonable understanding of the wider Religious Right is incomplete without it.
The Summer 2008 issue of The Public Eye magazine has just published what I hope provides a useful primer: "How Roman Catholic Neocons Peddle Natural Law into Debates about Life and Death".

Here is an excerpt:

Neoconservatives are tiny in number, yet large in influence due to their prolific writing, thinking, and support from wealthy patrons that locate them close to the corridors of power. It is a small movement of intellectuals that emerged in earnest opposing political trends of the 1960s, without a mass base and with only the power of their ideas and connections to win influence. Their vigorous defense of the free market, capitalism, and a militarist foreign policy wins them powerful allies. Yet other currents run through their thought, including a defense of natural law and the championing of religion.

"Natural law," meaning the rules God set into motion in the world and also instilled in our own natures, has been a central, animating philosophical idea in Christian thought for a thousand years. However it has taken some important turns along the way, and there are now what we might call several branches of thought about the definition of natural law.

One of these, the Classic view, is embraced and promoted by the leading thinkers of Catholic neoconservatives in the United States and their political allies in conservative Protestant evangelicalism. Roman Catholicism as a whole employs natural law principles as a means to rationally explain and interpret the morality of Scripture. However, many in the Vatican have recently pressed to superimpose their particular interpretations on the greater secular society. This is driven by the belief that natural law principles are so universal that even non-Catholics are subject to their tenets.

And as I discuss throughout the piece, reactionary Catholics such as George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus and Robert P. George also frame many of their ethical arguments within a revisionist frame of America's Founders being proto-orthodox Catholics -- although that was clearly was not the case.
As I say in the article:

Nevertheless, Catholic neoconservatives such as Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak have seized on this erroneous view of natural law like a cudgel to further a revisionist narrative of American history that supports Religious Right notions of Christian nationalism. To this end, Thomas Jefferson and other of the founders are often portrayed as fervent evangelicals who cited thirteenth century interpretations of Aristotle's teachings; an inaccurate accounting that belies Jefferson's (among others) Arian Unitarianism (a belief in God as a single person as opposed to being three persons in one, a Trinity). "When they [the Founders] are not being denounced as infidels," historian Garry Wills bemusedly wrote, "men like Michael Novak dress them up as crypto-Evangelicals, crypto- Jews, or crypto-Catholics."

I will grant that this isn't exactly light reading.  But, as Fred Clarkson has repeatedly said, the more you know about your opponents the more effectively you can engage them. Hopefully, the article will be worth the wading and help us all better refute the arguments often made by Catholic Right neocons and their allies.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven   Part Thirty-eight   Part Thirty-nine   Part Forty   Part Forty-one   Part Forty-two   Part Forty-three   Part Forty-four   Part Forty-five   Part Forty-six   Part Forty-seven   Part Forty-eight   Part Forty-nine   Part Fifty   Part Fifty-one   Part Fifty-two   Part Fifty-three   Part Fifty-four   Part Fifty-five   Part Fifty-six   Part Fifty-seven

One lesson I hope readers take away from the article is the need to read the Classical authors.

If we understand what Plato, Aristotle and Cicero were really saying then it becomes more difficult for demagogues such as Robert P. George, Eric Cohen and George Weigel to twist their words into right-wing balderdash.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat May 31, 2008 at 01:50:22 PM EST

Eeek!  Jefferson was a Socinian, not an Arian Unitarian!  Socinians were even more liberal that Arians.  Socinians believed Jesus was human, not divine at all (but perhaps on a divine mission).  Arians believed Jesus was a divine being created by but subordinate to the Father like a super-angel, who would be second in power in the universe under God the Father.

by Jonathan Rowe on Sat May 31, 2008 at 07:26:32 PM EST
...but I don't believe that being a Socinian as opposed to being an Arian makes one "more liberal." Instead, it is merely a different religious point of view.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat May 31, 2008 at 07:48:52 PM EST

My exposure to Plato was in a class on political economy in college. We also read Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, and Marx to get some understanding of their respective political philosophies. It seems to me the current Catholic neo-orthodox folks borrow a lot from Plato (as do the Straussians,) from Aristotle, and ultimately from St. Thomas Aquinas.

They also share one characteristic with the people who gravitate away from the religious beliefs they were raised in, and that is a discontent with the world as it exists.

It's not a surprise to me the current holders of economic and political power would gravitate toward political and economic philosophies that would enable them to maintain their hold on power. The developments of the Baptist Presbyterian, and Methodist churches in the south on relying on a personal relation with Jesus and their use of Scripture to justify slaveholding were examples of this

by khughes1963 on Sat May 31, 2008 at 10:28:43 PM EST

it is useful to understand the general outlines of the religious and political beliefs of past societies. I differ from the traditionalists in believing that all students should have this education, not merely the elite, and that one must also study those who are not included or opt out of the dominant belief system of the day.

(I have had what amounts to a Great Books education / self-education, aeons ago.)

by NancyP on Sun Jun 01, 2008 at 07:42:24 PM EST

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