Damon Linker's Bigotry: Act II

I am no fan of traditional natural law theory, even though I recognize that it is the framework for most Catholic moral theology and it has its utility. I find that it tends to result in an act-centered view of sinfulness that quickly reduces the Christian faith to a moralism that misses the point. With Hans Urs von Balthasar, I hold that "either the character of Christian revelation is seen and grasped in its entirety as the glorification of absolute love by itself, or it is not perceived at all."

But, to call natural law theory "a fraud" as Damon Linker does is ridiculous. I do not subscribe to Aristotle’s theory of epistemology either, but I recognize that it is not fraudulent but is, in fact, a great and worthy contribution to philosophy. Its contemporary followers may be misguided, they may be wrong, but fraudulent?


Linker cites a horrific situation in Brazil to make his case. A young girl was raped by her father and became pregnant with twins. Doctors said the delivery would kill the girl, so she had an abortion. According to Linker, Church officials excommunicated the doctors who performed the surgery and the mother who approved it. That is factually inaccurate: the procurement of an abortion is an act by which one excommunicates oneself. The Church merely pronounces what has been already done. Still, it is not hard to see Linker’s point.

A mutual friend tells me Mr. Linker is a very smart man, so I assume he knows the maxim: Hard cases make bad law. He chooses to frame the Church’s teachings about such circumstances in the most unfavorable way. He might have started by saying, the Catholic Church’s natural law theory believes that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong. Framed so, the natural law theory seems reasonable. The application of the teaching in a horrific situation is problematic at best, but concern for the taking of innocent human life is not a sign of moral stupidity. It is not "outrageous" as Linker claims.

I recall a lecture when a Monsignor was asked what the Catholic position was on the following scenario: Authorities arrest a man who knows how to locate and stop an atomic bomb that is set to go off in midtown Manhattan. Can we torture him to save millions of lives? The monsignor replied that the catholic position was to torture the man but then go to confession. Again, hard cases make bad law.

Linker writes like a man more interested in settling a score than in settling an argument. He has decided to try and settle scores with the Catholic Church. Lord knows, he is not the first and he won’t be the last. But, surely a notable magazine like The New Republic can find a less bigoted, better informed critic than this? One last point Mssr. Linker: There is no "I" in ultramontane. Even spell check, which always stops me at the word "soteriological," catches ultramontane. Maybe Linker did not notice, the way he did not notice that his venom for the Catholic Church is leading him into very illiberal turf.



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10 years ago
Dear Mr. Winters, A Catholic should not reject natural law lightly. Natural law simply means that morals are rooted in human reason. Linker (apparently) disagrees that morality is rooted in reason. The important thing is not that you disagree with other of Linker's views, but that you see to agree with him that morality is not rooted in reason. Is morality rooted in reason? Or is is rooted in desire, will, utility, etc? To reject natural law is by necessity to root morality in another preference or faculty. For a Catholic intellectual to make this move is unnerving. It virtually requires him or her to reject the entire Catholic moral tradition. Perhaps you do not mean to say you reject ''natural law'' per se, but only a certain school of natural law. In that case, you would better served by using more careful language. I have otherwise enjoyed your comments Mr. Winter.
10 years ago
I am at a loss to understand how this abortion could prompt automatic excommunication given that competent medical authorities judged the girl's physical life to be in danger if she brought the fetuses to term. Given that the cause of the pregnancy was incestuous rape perpetrated on a 9 year old, that only adds to my confusion. The reaffirmation of the excommunication in this instance suggests an extremist position that denies any consideration of a balance between the life of the mother and that of the fetus in moral judgement. The reaffirmation of exommunication in this occasion goes a long way toward discrediting the Church's otherwise important moral teaching on abortion. We seem to be in a season of moral rigidity and restoration that does not reflect the balance of compassion and responsibility that is of the Gospel.
10 years ago
Assuming the details in the article are as complete as can be ascertained, it appears to me to present a clear instance when abortion is justified as a legitimate act of self-defense. The fact that the attackers are innocent is not an argument against the abortion, just as the incestuous rape is no argument for it. The girl has a right to defend her life even with lethal force against any attacker, whether in her womb or outside it. Suppose a man known to be completely insane and non-compos-mentis, who absolutely does not know what he is doing, comes to her door with a gun ready and fully able to shoot her to death. Does she allow him to kill her because he is morally innocent? If it were a little child with the gun but still able to kill, should she lett mim kill her? The age of the attacker is no more relevant than the innocence. The certitude of the danger to her life is. Catholic moral theology acknowledges the right to self-defense. Some pregnant women surely have this right, whether few or many, I don't know. But some. If we pro-lifers would only admit this, we would show that our position is balanced and, perhaps, help heal many psychological wounds. .
10 years ago
The Church really set itself up as a Linker target when it automated excommunication. Since the excommunication was essentially out of the bishop's hands, he missed a great opportunity to emphasize that the Church is the purveyor of God's love and forgiveness (instead assuming that the mother and doctor weren't heartsick over the matter). Since the Church is apparently not up to doing the "opening its arms to the sinner and offering forgiveness" task manually anymore, maybe it should consider automating that as well.
10 years ago
Great article.The only problem I have with it is that you omit the biblical aspects of Natural Law or more precisely the Theological ones.It seems that the Church adopted Natural Law after getting a good word from an old Greek rather than it corresponding to a divine gift without which morality or words like conscience would lose their meaning.But you certainly know more than me and I would welcome corrections of my words by anybody here .


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