Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Avoiding Secularist Minimalism: Jacques Maritain, Part 1

GOD IS THE AUTHOR AND THE PRESERVER of nature. "He rules the world with truth and grace," we sing at Christmas, a world of his creation, under the umbrella of law of his divine providence. God is not God of the world of grace only. God is God of the world of nature also. "Let heaven and nature sing."

For those who are advocates of the classical natural law doctrine, including but not limited to Catholic Christians, nature is thus "a mode of the divine governance." Long, 143. Indeed, the laws of nature and the natural moral law are, in a very essential and real manner, a participation in the eternal law itself. Yet how do we deal with agnostics and atheists who by definition do not accept such a theonomic view of nature? How, moreover, moving beyond philosophy, does one deal with the non-Christian or the agnostic or atheist in the realm of the political, the social life of man in the polis? What role does the natural law play? Does the entirety of the natural law govern public discourse or just a part of it? And if just a part of it, what part?

These questions indeed poses a serious challenge to the advocate of a classical notion of natural law, one that includes the theonomic element that God rules through nature, a rule which is exhibited and intelligible irrespective of confessional doctrines or personal predilections. It is especially problematic for one who believes, like Maritain himself, that that "in practical moral matters, natural truth needs to be subalternated to revelation," and must consider man as he is concretely. Specifically, the natural law must accommodate at least two facts that are known through revelation alone: (i) man's original sin and its effects, and (ii) the obediential potentiality of nature to the whole order of grace, which means an openness to the end of supernatural beatitude. Long, 144. How does someone in in this philosophical, political, and jurisprudential stream converse with, find common cause and socially cooperate with someone who is without such stream? Some from the natural law stream, including Jacques Maritain, have advocated some sort "minimal practical consensus,"* one based largely on the language of the world, namely that of "human rights."** The problem, however, seems to be that in trying to accommodate to the language of "rights," we are leaving out part of the natural law. And by leaving out part of the natural law from public discourse we are setting ourselves up for practical failure.***

Jacques Maritain

Using "human rights" as a region of minimal practical consensus is not the panacea that Maritain optimistically and perhaps even naively considered it to be. One immediately foreseeable problem, of course, is defining what this "minimal practical consensus" is. If it is defined by the Thomist, it may be one thing. If it defined by the secularist, it may be another. If it is defined by and Islamist, it is another thing entirely. In some ways, Maritain's optimism was a matter of historical accident. The consensus which existed in the 1950s and 1960s with respect to "human rights," was largely an accidental holdover of Christendom mixed it with Western liberalism at the height of its global influence. This consensus which gave Maritain such false hope has virtually evaporated as "human rights" have become progressively further removed from any natural law base. How do we achieve consensus when "human rights" are defined to incorporate a right to artificial contraception, to homosexual marriage, to abortion and to other moral enormities? "Human rights" have not provided a stable base from which to begin public discourse.

There are other problems or dangers associated with relying upon a "minimal practical consensus" as a means to encapsulate the prudential and consensus required to have a working social and political life. It tends to privatize the role of revelation and Christian faith, or even theism and natural religion generally, ostracizing them from the public square because it is not part of the "minimal practical consensus."*** The effect on the Christian, moreover, is problematic because it suggests the the believer that his Faith is something that ought to be closeted, privatized. Yet isn't the Christian under compulsory duty to resist such bracketing of beliefs? Predicate super tecta! The Christian is under a duty to proclaim the truths of the Gospel from the housetops right into the public square. (Matt. 10:27). This is not the language of "minimal practical consensus."

In his book Natura Pura, Steven A. Long points to other fundamental problems associated with relying on "rights" as a minimum practical consensus. First, it by definition excludes the theoretical or speculative (metaphysical) from the area of consensus. This by definition excludes the natural law from the consensus because the core of natural law rests upon certain theoretical or speculative metaphysical truths. Second, relying on "rights" is not conducive to any real political discourse, but to incessant political brawling without referee. Rights alone cannot answer the problem, since solutions require not only the acceptance of rights, but also acceptance of an order of ends to properly hierarchize and define those rights. When rights compete, who is to determine which right takes precedence, and on what basis? Most rights are not absolute, and who is to determine what the reasonable scope of a right is, and on what basis?† Indeed:
[T]o be indirectly opposed to the natural ordering that must contextualize the understanding of rights is to be actively disposed to deny human dignity and to act against genuine or authentic human rights (i.e., against just claims that are true in light of the essential hierarchy of human ends, and in relation to the circumstances pertinent to the species or type of the claim.)
Long, 147.

The natural law, specifically the virtue of natural justice, imposes a duty to acknowledge God naturally known--as First Cause, Final End, and Provident--and to give Him thanks both in private and public life. Corollary to this is conception of man as ordered to God, a theoretical or speculative metaphysical truth which imposes itself upon the public square with full rigor. Reason demonstrates that no created or finite good can compel man's will, a "natural datum on which the obediential capacity of the will to be further ordered to God is predicated." Long, 146. Failure to abide by this natural duty, both public and private, is an injustice of the first order. Yet where in the "human rights" consensus do we find anything remotely like this recognized? Indeed, by very definition "human rights" excludes this fundamental obligation of justice. Long asks the rhetorical question:

Does not the state need at least to acknowledge the truth regarding the moral order, as a condition for prudential judgment even of the facts with respect to legislation to be considered, or with respect to cases that come before the bench?

Long, 146. What the natural law obliges, modern "human rights" ignores. That is why, "without invoking the claims of invincible ignorance, principled opposition to theism is always or for the most part going to imply opposition to the natural law." Long, 147.

But the problem goes even further. There are two revealed truths that cannot be ignored by natural law theorists since these revealed truths are fundamental to a sound understanding of the natural law. The first is the Fall of man. The second is the Redemption of man. Without these, we fail to have a sufficient account of the moral situation of man. The "natural law as such . . . requires for its fullest concrete application some reference to the revealed truth," at least this far. Long, 147.
[T]he entire natural order is further ordered by and in grace, and so the effects of the Fall and of grace are pertinent to practical judgment. It is also true that whatever is directly contrary to man's ultimate end is indirectly contrary to the ordering of natural ends that is presupposed to grace. (It is, after all, a precept of the natural law to do whatever He tells you, to use the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Wedding Feast of Cana.)
Long, 147.

*This sort of accommodation is also advocated by those who are entirely disdainful of a natural law philosophy, e.g., the liberal philosopher John Rawls and his notion of "public reason" which seeks to keep out of the public square "comprehensive doctrines" and thereby reach a practical consensus and form of political life in a liberal state and a pluralistic society. Rawls's particular formulation is rather disingenuous, as it is designed to ostracize natural law philosophy and promote the a "comprehensive doctrine" of secular liberalism. Rawls's particular theory has been addressed and criticized by Lex Christianorum (relying on the work of Robert P. George) in three postings: How Liberalism Cuts Out the Natural Law: John Rawls's Sleight of Hand, Part 1, How Liberalism Cuts Out the Natural Law: John Rawls's Sleight of Hand, Part 2, and How Liberalism Cuts Out the Natural Law: John Rawls's Sleight of Hand, Part 3.
**We have treated Maritain's notion of natural law and natural rights extensively in this blog. The entirety of postings may be reviewed by accessing those posts with the label Jacques Maritain and Natural Law and Jacques Maritain and Human Rights.
***Not to mention that we are probably being faithless to the divine injunction: Euntes ergo docete omnes gentes! Go therefore teach ye all nations! (Matt. 28:19)

****This, of course, is not at all what Maritain would have intended. "Maritain would have abhorred . . . the principled closure of the public realm to any Christian or even theistic reference whatsoever." Long, 144.
†Long observes that the reason why rights need something beyond them to determine what he calls the "trumping order" between rights and to determine their prudential application under various circumstances is because "rights" are not primary concepts, but are derived concepts. From whence are they derived? From the natural law, of course. And so it is back to that natural law that one must turn to hierarchize the rights, to understand their scope and purpose, and to determine their prudential application under the ever-changing circumstances man finds himself.

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