The work of John Courtney Murray, S.J., once an associate editor of this review, continues to dominate political theology in the United States. Most students of Father Murray turn first to We Hold These Truths, Murray’s most accomplished and well-known articulation of his principal thesis: that Catholicism and American democracy are essentially compatible “because the contents of [the American public] consensus—the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law—approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience.”
Father Murray viewed “the fact that the American political community was organized in an era when the tradition of natural law and natural rights was still vigorous” as nothing less than providential. This is because the natural law tradition, according to Murray, is a neutral theo-philosophical language, one in which we are all fluent by virtue of our human nature. Thus the language of natural law should be the lingua franca of political philosophy in a pluralist society.
Yet there have been challenges to Murray’s appropriation of natural law. Jean Porter, for example, has critiqued Murray’s predominantly neo-scholastic reading of natural law. But none other than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, both as pope and as a working theologian, has also commented on the relationship of the natural law tradition to political theology. According to Benedict, we may not need natural law to articulate a doctrine of human rights because “it is, of course, possible for the contemporary consciousness to be content with the inherent obviousness of these values.” Benedict would not deny that there are objective philosophical and moral principles at work in such claims; he just wonders, as a practical matter, whether such principles must be explicit.
But Benedict has also expressed mild skepticism about the general explanatory power of the natural law tradition: “Unfortunately, this instrument has become blunt,” he has said. Benedict believes that when considering the natural law tradition in a political context, one must account for the fact that, among modern thinkers, it is an open question whether “there might exist a rationality of nature and, hence, a rational law for man and for his existence in the world.”
I would add that part of the reason why natural law theory is effectively a “blunt instrument” is that it has been detached from its theological presuppositions in the misguided and vain hope of rendering it more “credible” in the officially agnostic public square. True, Father Murray believed that the natural law is theoretically inseparable from its theological presuppositions. But what Father Murray and his followers failed to appreciate fully is the extent to which natural law theory and its theological presuppositions are truly inseparable in practice. For the natural law to be genuinely intelligible, credible and liveable, then, it must be appropriated in the context of love, in the context of a living relationship with the lawgiver who is loving creator. Without love, the law is reduced to its bare ethical content, which cannot sustain an authentically human calculus.
It is naïve to think that we can devise a common moral framework simply by giving theoretical lip service to the divine. Attempts to apply reason without faith, says Benedict, are also unhistorical, for the state is not self-justifying but receives “its basic [philosophical] support from outside: not from a mere reason that is inadequate in the moral realm, but from a reason that has come to maturity in the historical form of faith.” Accordingly, “the real problem that confronts us today,” writes Benedict, “is reason’s blindness to the entire nonmaterial dimension of reality.”
In other words, it may be time to start looking for a new lingua franca.