The Hart-Feser Debate over Natural Law, Revisited

In “Reason’s Faith”, David Bentley Hart revisits a series of exchanges in First Things circa 2013, in which he argued (his words):

not that natural-law theory is inherently futile, but rather that its proponents often fail to grasp just how nihilistic the late modern view of reality has become, or how far our culture has gone toward losing any coherent sense of “nature” at all, let alone of any realm of moral meanings to which nature might afford access.

Hart’s original post provoked a storm of controversy, with a number of prominent authors rallying to his defense (Michael Potemra, Rod Dreher, Alan Jacobs) as well as bracing rebuttals from the more philosophically inclined, most notably Edward Feser, as rounded-up and chronicled here.

Edward Feser too, revisits the debate in Reasons of the Hart (03/13/15):

… the focus of Hart’s latest piece is the question of the relationship between faith and reason. Hart objects to the charge that he is a fideist, arguing that both fideism and rationalism of the seventeenth-century sort are errors that would have been rejected by the mainstream of the ancient and medieval traditions with which he sympathizes. With that much I agree. I agree too with his claim that the use of reason rests on the “metaphysical presupposition” that there is a natural fit between the intellect and that which the intellect grasps — an “orientation of truth to the mind and of the mind to truth.” I agree with him when he argues that naturalism cannot account for this fit, that the best it can attribute to our rational faculties is survival value but not capacity to grasp truth, and that this makes it impossible for the naturalist rationally to justify his own position. And I agree with him when he argues that idealism in its various forms also cannot account for this fit — that if naturalism emphasizes mind-independent truth to such an extent that it cannot account for the mind itself, idealism emphasizes mind to such an extent that it cannot account for mind-independent truth.

All well and good, and indeed a set of points whose importance cannot be overemphasized. What puzzles me, though, is the way Hart characterizes the position he would put in place of these errors — a way that at least lends itself to a fideist reading, his rejection of the “fideist” label notwithstanding. [Read the whole thing].


Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square

by Randy Boyagoda.

Image (February 10, 2015). 480 pgs.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was one of the most influential figures in American public life from the Civil Rights era to the War on Terror. His writing, activism, and connections to people of power in religion, politics, and culture secured a place for himself and his ideas at the center of recent American history. William F. Buckley, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith are comparable — willing controversialists and prodigious writers adept at cultivating or castigating the powerful, while advancing lively arguments for the virtues and vices of the ongoing American experiment. But unlike Buckley and Galbraith, who have always been identified with singular political positions on the right and left, respectively, Neuhaus’ life and ideas placed him at the vanguard of events and debates across the political and cultural spectrum. For instance, alongside Abraham Heschel and Daniel Berrigan, Neuhaus co-founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, in 1965. Forty years later, Neuhaus was the subject of a New York Review of Books article by Garry Wills, which cast him as a Rasputin of the far right, exerting dangerous influence in both the Vatican and the Bush White House. This book looks to examine Neuhaus’s multi-faceted life and reveal to the public what made him tick and why.

“Boyagoda dispassionately describes this fascinating and active life, and he manages to blend skills as a folksy storyteller, researcher and unbiased historian, providing a biography that is balanced, interesting and relevant. A useful, provocative spotlight on one of the leading lights of the 20th century.” – Kirkus

“Faith, it is correctly observed, while intensely personal, is never private. In North America, nobody recently has more effectively defended and encouraged bringing religion into the public square than Richard John Neuhaus. And up until now, no one has offered a more credible, careful, and colorful biography of this convert to Catholicism—in the line of Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker and Thomas Merton—than Randy Boyagoda.” – Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York, author of True Freedom

“A Lutheran pastor who became a Catholic priest, labeled sometimes as liberal and other times as conservative, Neuhaus was truly a “sign of contradiction” in our times, a man whose constant affiliation in life was of belonging to God and striving to draw ever nearer to Him. Thorough, vivid, and keenly understanding of the interplay of personality, faith, and cultural context, Boyagoda’s biography of Neuhaus does justice to this man of faith who became a type of “grace to be reckoned with,” becoming a culture-altering tour de force. As Americans continue to explore the challenge of living one’s faith in the public square, this book is an enriching testament to a man who blazed that trail in his own lifetime, fearless of everything but God Himself.” – Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus



  • The Vision of Father Neuhaus, by William Doino Jr. First Things 3/23/15:

    … Because Neuhaus was such a prominent figure, and so involved in the major political debates of his time, he is often criticized for having compromised his faith. But those who say Neuhaus was more politician than priest miss the mark. Fr. Neuhaus always saw himself—first and foremost—as a pastor and parish priest. The source and summit of his life was celebrating the Mass, hearing confessions, and attending to the needs of his flock. He loved to write, yes, but he did so in hopes that people would espouse the good—and by doing so, to turn toward their Savior.

  • Understanding Father Neuhaus, by Alan Jacobs. Snakes and Ladders 03/13/15:

    … here’s (a simplified version of) my reading of Neuhaus’s political transformation: Over time he came to believe that the American left had effectively abandoned its commitment to “the least of these,” had decided that, in Boyagoda’s clear formulation, “private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.” The moral language that he had learned from his Christian upbringing and pastoral training and experience simply had no purchase in a party dominated by a commitment solely to the “private rights” of self-expression, especially sexual self-expression. He turned to those who showed a willingness to hear commitments expressed in that moral language, who appeared to be open to being convinced. In return he gave them his loyalty, his public support, for the rest of his life.

    It may well be that this was a devil’s bargain, one that Neuhaus should never have made. …

    But I think we have strong documentary evidence that Father Neuhaus made his bargain out of a genuine and deeply compassionate love — a love that pulled him all his life — for those whom the world deems worthless. In trying to realize this love in the medium of politics, that cesspool of vainglory and vanity, he sometimes befouled himself. But we all befoul ourselves; few of us do it in such a noble cause.

  • How Father Neuhaus Found GOP, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The American Conservative 03/17/15.
  • Neuhaus in his time, by George W. Rutler. National Review 03/09/15.
  • New biography captures spirit of the of the great Catholic intellectual, by Russel Saltzman. Aleteia. 02/19/15. “Boyagoda found the Neuhaus I knew, complete with all the man’s winsome qualities and not a few of his contradictions. Not surprisingly, he also revealed facets of the man I could never guess. … Boyagoda has given us a meat-and-potatoes biography. I regard that as a good thing to say.”
  • Preaching to the White House, by Phillip Marchand. National Post 02/25/15:

    Boyagoda makes no sweeping pronouncements on this unresolved issue of Neuhaus’s legacy. Certainly things were not as they once were when Neuhaus could claim intimacy with President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. But Boyagoda’s luminously intelligent study of the man makes clear that Richard John Neuhaus — however one regards his politics — deserved his place in a long line of memorable American preacher politicians.

  • The story of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, an extraordinary Christian man, by Gregory J. Sullivan. Catholic World Report 03/13/15. “a reliable and readable biography.”
  • The American Life of Richard John Neuhaus, by Matthew Walther. The Washington Beacon 03/14/15.
  • Richard John Neuhaus and the perils of theologically motivated hyper-partisanship, by Damon Linker. The Week 03/13/15.

Contra Stoker Bruenig. On Pope Francis and His Critics

Francis Agonistes, by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig. The New Republic 03/01/15. “The Pope is engaged in a struggle to bring the Church into the modern age. And American conservatives are fighting him every step of the way.”


But no man is without sin, and although every sin is the denial and betrayal of Chris, yet in his mercy and our true contrition and confession of our sins with meekness and humility and the long suffering desire of amendment brings us forgiveness.

Nowadays the utterances of confessions on paper bears the stigma of hypocrisy, for it is too easy to cry out for our sins without true contrition, and to proclaim them without ourselves believing them to be sins. And those who read them also do not believe these things to be sins.

– Thomas Merton, 09/13/39 [Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation

[The Journal of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941].

Here and There

  • Discussing or Ignoring Thomas Pink’s Interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae Rorate Caeli 01/05/15:

    One of the most difficult of the doctrinal points at issue between the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) and the Holy See is the question of religious liberty. The Second Vatican Council’s teaching on this point in Dignitatis Humanae seems to be in clear opposition to the traditional teaching. In 2011 [Rorate Caeli] posted an intervention on the question by Prof. Thomas Pink, in which Pink proposed a reading of Dignitatis Humanae in accord with tradition. At the time, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society, Joseph Shaw, now a Rorate contributor, hailed Pink’s intervention as “truly important article,” and a blogger well acquainted with the SSPX called it a “a game-changing intervention,” that reframed the debate.

    Prof. Pink has since developed his argument further in a number of papers (most of which are available here). But what effect has Pink’s thesis actually had on the debate?

  • Thomas Aquinas in China, by William Carroll. Public Discourse 12/11/14. “Thomas Aquinas’s commitment to the importance of reason and its universal role in defining what it means to be human makes him an attractive thinker for contemporary Chinese scholars.”
  • The Philosopher Who Defied Hitler: Q&A with Alice von Hildebrand, by Sean Salai, S.J. (and in America magazine, of all places!):

    Before her husband [Dietrich von Hildrebrand] died in 1977, she persuaded him to write an autobiographical account of his life. This memoir includes the story of his persecution under the Nazis, who had blacklisted him in 1921 and eventually forced him to flee Europe for the United States during World War II. A portion of the manuscript, newly compiled and translated into English by John Henry Crosby under the title “My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich,” was published Oct. 21 by Image Books.

    On Oct. 21, I conducted the following email interview with Lady Alice on her career and on the newly translated autobiography of her husband …

  • ‘First Things’ vs. ‘Communio’, “Murrayites” and “MacIntyrians”; The Paradox of the “Catholic Libertarian” and Another Kind of Illiberal Catholicism — A roundup of relevant reading in 2014 – Taking a look back at last year’s skirmishes. The Catholic Church and the Liberal Tradition 12/20/14.
  • Dr. Ed Peters on antinomianism, moved by the observation that Francis has appointed five more papal electors than Church law authorizes:

    Let me be clear: it does not make a fig’s worth of difference whether 120 or 125 cardinals vote in the next papal conclave, but it does make a fig’s worth of difference, I suggest, if yet another ecclesiastical rule, set out in a major legislative document using terminology indistinguishable from that which conveys many other considerably more important rules, is ignored because this leader or that doesn’t feel like abiding by it. We have processes to reform law in the Church; looking the other way isn’t one of them—at the very least, it’s a very dangerous way to change laws.

    Antinomianism has been a long time spreading, and we are going to be a long, long time repairing the damage it has done to the Church (and the State). Where to start, then, except with the first step: recognizing that antinomianism is the default setting today.

    (HT: Pertinacious Papist, see comments for further discussion).

  • Torture: Historical and Ethical Perspectives Unam Catholicam Sanctitam brings refreshing analysis to the torture debate, renewed once more within the Catholic blogging world by the release of . Drawing upon prior historical research from Fr. Harrison, the authors to the following conclusion:

    Understanding these distinctions [between punitive torture, torture for purpose of extraction and extrajudicial torture] means that one could also simultaneously affirm the permissibility of certain kinds of torture (punitive) while uniformly condemning the practices of the CIA, which are extrajudicial.

    The long and short of it is that attempts to make blanket statements about torture qua torture are misguided and prone to end up in contradiction for the simple reason that Tradition does not address torture qua torture, just like we cannot make blanket statements about violence qua violence but only violence under a variety of categories (war, assault, corporal punishment, self-defense, etc.) In the eyes of tradition, putting a man on the rack to extract information, branding a convicted thief with a hot iron, flogging a prisoner, and executing a man in an extremely painful manner (e.g., burning) were all totally different things. To moderns, these are all simply “torture” without disinction, but the Tradition did not view it this way; their distinctions were real distinctions, not mere semantics, and if we hope to understand what the Tradition says to us, we have to accept its distinctions.

    Incidentally, the attempt to ground opposition to all forms of torture in “the dignity of the human person” was not an argument known to tradition and leads to various difficulties. As we have mentioned above in our discussion of Ad Extirpanda and Ad Consulta Vestra, it was only because objections to torture were not grounded in the dignity of the human person that any development of thought here was possible. The argument that all forms of torture are intrinsically evil because they are offenses against the human person is not tenable, at least if we take the Church’s tradition seriously.

  • Peter J. Leithart and Robert P. George spar over the proper understanding of religion as a “basic human good” worthy of being (freely) pursued – “Basic Goods” (First Things 8/27/14; Reply to Leithart (8/28/14), to which Dr. Mark Latkovick remarks:

    I simply want to add the point – moral rather than anthropological – that contrary to what Leithart implies, the “basic human goods” are not moral directives for choice. This is why, according to the “new natural law” theory (of Grisez, Finnis, Boyle, W.E. May, George, and others), moral principles and moral norms are necessary to guide our free choices so that we choose the various basic goods wisely. The latter are practical in nature, the former are moral in nature.

  • How to be a conservative: a conversation with Roger Scruton, John Derbyshire. Prospect Magazine. 09/12/14.
  • Raising the Tone: An Interview With Renowned Composer James MacMillan Regina (09/05/14). Mr. MacMillan was Composer/Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 2000-2009 and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie until 2013. He is also an outspoken critic of much contemporary Catholic church music, and recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Regina Magazine to discuss his point of view.
  • “Ruined by books: My Top 10 Philosophy List”, by Artur Rosman (Cosmos In The Lost).

  • Lastly, OnePeterFive’s “Drunk Catholic History” series covers my spirit of choice: bourbon.

Thomas Merton, on Heresy

I’ve posted this excerpt before — some ten years ago (have I been blogging that long? — but even now as we draw near to Merton’s 100th birthday on January 31st, 2015, it seems most appropos:

In the climate of the Second Vatican Council, of ecumenism, of openness, the word “heretic” has become not only unpopular but unspeakable — except, of course, among integralists, who often deconstruct their own identity on accusations of heresy directed at others.

But has the concept of heresy become completely irrelevant? Has our awareness of the duty of tolerance and charity toward the sincere conscience of others absolved us from the danger of the error ourselves? Or is error something we no longer consider dangerous?

I think a Catholic is bound to remember that his faith is directed to the grasp of truths revealed by God, which are not mere opinions or “manners of speaking,” mere viewpoints which can be adopted and rejected at will — for otherwise the commitment of faith would lack not only totality but even seriousness. The Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have meaning.

A heretic is first of all a believer. Today the ideas of “heretic” and “unbeliever” are generally confused. In point of fact the mass of “post-Christian” men in Western society can no longer be considered heretics and heresy is, for them, no problem. It is, however, a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with their unbelief in order to “win them for Christ.”

Where the real danger of heresy exists for the Catholic today is precisely in that “believing” zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of the faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man. Heresy is precisely a “choice” which, for human motives . . . selects and prefers an opinion contrary to revealed truth as held and understood by the Church.

I think, then, that in our eagerness to go out to modern man and meet him on his own ground, accepting him as he is, we must also be truly what we are. If we come to him as Christians we can certainly understand and have compassion for his unbelief — his apparent incapacity to believe. But it would seem a bit absurd for us, precisely as Christians, to pat him on the arm and say “As a matter of fact I don’t find the Incarnation credible myself. Let’s just consider that Christ was a nice man who devoted himself to helping others!”

This would, of course, be heresy in a Catholic whose faith is a radical and total commitment to the truth of the Incarnation and Redemption as revealed by God and taught by the Church. . . . What is the use of coming to modern man with the claim that you have a Christian mission — that you are sent in the name of Christ — if in the same breath you deny Him by whom you claim to be sent?

Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Related Links

Some notes occasioned by some “contemporary Christian rocker” named George Perdikis announcing he’s left the faith and embraced atheism (“I Co-Founded One of the Most Popular Christian Rock Bands Ever… and I’m Now An Atheist” Friendly Atheist 01/21/15):

I always felt uncomfortable with the strict rules imposed by Christianity. All I wanted to do was create and play rock and roll… and yet most of the attention I received was focused on how well I maintained the impossible standards of religion. I wanted my life to be measured by my music, not by my ability to resist temptation. …

As I carved out a life for myself away from the church, I began my own voyage of inquiry into what I believed. My perceptions started to transform when I became interested in cosmology in 1992. I soon found myself fascinated by the works of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Brian Cox, and Richard Dawkins. I learned so much and was blown away by all the amazing scientific discoveries and facts. When my marriage dissolved in 2003, I turned my attention to human psychology.

By 2007, I renounced Christianity once and for all and declared myself an atheist.

I find it interesting how Perdikis, like most “contemporary Christian” rock stars, have backgrounds in American evangelical Christianity or something they would describe as stereotypically “fundamentalist”, which is to say heavy on rules, heavy on the dogma, notoriously lacking in intellectual foundation (“The scandal of the evangelical mind … is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” – Mark Knoll, 1995).

Also a kind of religious environment where one’s faith is expected to be perpetually worn on one’s sleeve – where doubt in and questioning of religious convictions is never admitted, and when experienced is understood as a sign of intolerable weakness, “backsliding”. Also, where curiosity and intellectual investigation into the broader tradition of Christianity (never mind other religious traditions outside of Christianity) is generally frowned upon, especially where they might challenge or conflict.

* * *

Because of said standard of moral perfection, of unbreakable faith, etc. the perception of deviation from such in a parent or authority figure can be an impetus for questioning and a loss of faith.

This can range from the familial — parents who ‘say one thing, but do another’; a discovery of infidelity, divorce … to the more egregious and perverse (ex. a pastor who admits to marital infidelities before his congregation; sexual abuse amongst teachers and/or priests). If you grow up regarding somebody as an exemplar of moral perfection and purveyor of spiritual truth, such displays of human frailty and outright sin can be disillusioning, even life-shattering.

* * *

Or, if you happen to be in a particular type of industry in which you are materially invested in being “a good Christian” and your livelihood essentially depends on such — say, “contemporary Christian music” — maintaining that outward standard of perfection becomes all the more imperative, especially with thousands of adoring fans looking up to YOU as an exemplar of Christian discipleship.

In such a context, to experience questioning or signs of doubt (either in yourself, or witnessing fellow bandmates straying from the path) — and with the outward admission to such doubts potentially fatal to your brand — the disjuncture between ideal and reality can be too much to bear. It only becomes a matter of time before something gives: the ability to maintain the illusion of faith on stage OR “coming clean” to one’s doubts, at which point the erstwhile fans might well accuse you of never being a Christian in the first place.

In this manner, George Perdikis of the Newsboys is simply one of a long line of “contemporary Christian” performers who have left the faith, joining the ranks of Tim Lambesis (“As I Lay Dying”); David Bazan (Pedro the Lion); Dan Haseltine (Jars of Clay); Clay Scott (Circle of Dust; Celldweller); Roger Martinez (Vengeance Rising, the first ever “Christian thrash” band). I’m not necessarily familiar with all of these musicians (really the latter two) but I’m interested by the similarities in their confessions of how they’ve left the faith.

Tangential note — the repudiation of CCM by former participants in CCM is rather common, with new bands, whose members perhaps “personally subscribing to” Christian beliefs, vehemently disavowing any relationship to CCM. The exact phrase “we are not a christian band” has 15,100 results in Google at this time.

* * *

It’s one thing to simply proclaim one’s agnosticism or ambivalence toward the greater metaphysical questions, quite another to pronounce judgement on them.

Certain types of lapsed believers, at one time “evangelistic” about Christianity, readily embrace and can even get quite “evangelical” about atheism — which if you think about it, carries its own set of concrete metaphysical-philosophical convictions (scientific materialism), and whose advocates get downright “fundamentalist” themselves — Ed Feser chronicles this in The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism with respect to the religion of Hawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.

Such converts from Christian fundamentalism rarely just lapse into quiet agnosticism, but often move to the other extreme in rebellion: they become “outspoken atheists”, trading in one belief-system for another.

* * *

To be sure, Latin or Orthodox Christianity has its own scandals, and isn’t necessarily a reliable antidote to the curious phenomenon of “militant evangelicals leaving the faith to embrace a (sometimes even more militant and evangelical) atheism”.

But still, you have to wonder if things might have been different.

For example, those growing up with a fideistic mindset (believing that faith and reason are independent of and hostile to each other), assuming that religious belief can only be maintained by the suppression of rational inquiry might have concluded differently were they exposed to the riches of Christian scholastic philosophy?

Or those assuming that science is inimical to Christianity — would they be surprised at the number of Catholic scientists in history who would find such a view ludicrous?

Or those who by their background were led to assume the admission and experience of religious doubt as inherently detrimental to faith and indicative of a renunciation of faith … would they have considered otherwise, if they were exposed to a tradition where even those who are proclaimed saints by the Church and held up for emulation experienced what is called the “the dark knight of the soul” (St. Therese of Lisieux or even, more recently and in our own time: Mother Theresa):

Where existential doubt and belief in a Christian’s life go hand in hand (see: “Joseph Ratzinger on Uncertainty and Doubt”, an excerpt and one of my favorite passages from his Introduction to Christianity).

Where even the current Pope himself can confess to having “doubts along the way” without his flock being overtly scandalized?

* * *
Musings from one who experienced his own loss of faith while young (and finding his way back).