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.