The Natural Law in the Postmodern Milieu
Kudos to the NOR for publishing the exchange between Donald DeMarco and Melinda Selmys (Sept.). Both authors raise insightful points and present persuasive arguments about a very important question: the efficacy of the natural law in a postmodern society.
I admire DeMarco and Selmys and, like many readers, I have enjoyed their essays over the years. But I wonder whether in the present exchange they have in some measure talked past each other.
DeMarco addresses the issue of whether the natural law is a necessary concept for a rightly ordered philosophy and society. He answers in the affirmative, and I can’t help but agree. C.S. Lewis argued long ago that to abandon the idea that humanity has a defined and knowable nature is to abandon not simply Christianity but the entire accumulated wisdom of all cultures and all religions. As DeMarco asserts, this course cannot be taken without disastrous consequences.
Selmys grapples with the issue of whether natural-law arguments — once a staple of Catholic apologetics, as they provided an initial premise shared by Catholics and agnostics alike — are persuasive in a postmodern culture. She answers in the negative and, again, I can’t help but agree. And again, though I’m not a huge fan of his, one need look no further afield for evidence than C.S. Lewis. Already by the 1940s Lewis treated the existence of an objective, stable human nature as a controversial point he must establish, rather than an operating premise he can assume. Both contemporary culture and the postmodern thinkers Selmys cites — especially Foucault — consider the assertion that humanity possesses a stable and knowable nature to be so obviously fallacious that refutation is almost superfluous.
Taken together, DeMarco’s and Selmys’s articles pinpoint a quandary that Catholic thinkers face today: the natural law is (logically) necessary but (rhetorically) unpersuasive. Precisely because I do not myself have an answer to this dilemma that I find entirely satisfactory, I would love to see (perhaps in a follow-up exchange) DeMarco and Selmys explicitly address this. How would DeMarco rhetorically persuade a postmodern audience — one he considers to have engaged in the “abandonment of reason” — of the validity of the natural law? How would Selmys employ her postmodern methods of persuasion — like intersubjective exchange — to convey ideas that, like the natural law, challenge postmodern epistemology by claiming to possess a universal validity apart from individual subjectivity or collective cultural consent?
Chene Richard Heady
Associate Professor of English, Longwood University
The articles by Donald DeMarco and Melinda Selmys exemplify one of my favorite quotes, “Reason without love, kills. Love without reason, lies.” They also evoke parts of Fides et Ratio, where Pope John Paul II clearly illustrates that faith and reason are like the two wings of a plane or the two blades of a scissors: They only work properly when used together. In this sense, I believe both articles are correct and incorrect at the same time.
Humility is seen as folly only to those who do not have love, and being anti-abortion is seen as mean only to those without reason. If modernism represents pure reason and post-modernism represents purely subjective “love,” then we must reject both as deficient.
Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution
Melinda Selmys warns us not to have a “prejudice against postmodern thought.” She argues that “postmodern deconstruction” is a useful weapon against enlightenment rationalism and is virtually harmless to Christianity. Not so. In reality, postmodernism is more dangerous to Christianity than its predecessor. Postmodernism is at war not just with rationalism, but with reason itself.
Take the case of the feminists in British and North American universities who embrace the postmodernism of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. Inspired by these gurus, they indoctrinate their students in the belief that there is no universal human nature and that our differences go “all the way down.” At the same time, they insist that there is no biological difference between men and women, and that “patriarchy” is to blame for constructing “childbearing” as the task of women, a task in no way “natural” to them. We may reply that these claims are illogical, but postmodern feminists will retort that logic is “patriarchal.” And they will insist on this, even while admitting that the word patriarchy, like the word woman, refers to nothing in objective reality. Their newspeak wreaks havoc on our culture. Just as they refuse to admit the biological reality of the preborn child at any stage, so they assert that a character inside a text and a person outside a text are both only functions of language. Presto! Adult human beings, too, disappear into their linguistic gulag.
Postmodern feminists in academe are knocking down the literary and moral values that shore up our tottering culture. For instance, they dismiss as “patriarchal” the great works in the literary canon and replace them with transgressive works. As one postmodern feminist declares approvingly, the “routinizing of transgression” has become the “daily grist for the academic mill.” Today an innocent student in a women’s studies class may be asked to read a graphic, sadomasochistic lesbian novel in order for her to contemplate the “calm purity of utter degradation.” Think of that for a moment and weep!
Selmys declares that the postmodernist approach is “by no means contrary to Christianity.” What? Can a Christian go along with postmodernist Julia Kristeva when she ranks the 18th-century pornographer the Marquis de Sade on a par with Shakespeare? I think not. (The names of the postmodern feminists I cite here, and the titles of their works, can be found in my article “Feminist Literary Criticism: From Anti-Patriarchy to Decadence,” Modern Age, Fall 2007.)
Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Registrar & Asst. Academic Dean, St. Mary Seminary & Graduate School of Theology
Brewster, New York
I was truly disappointed with Melinda Selmys’s postmodernist reply concerning the natural law. She defends postmodernism as a corrective measure against modernism, which was denounced by the First Vatican Council. Hers is a cure worse than the disease. Postmodernism is a quagmire and a dead end. If everything can be deconstructed, then even postmodernists’ own narrative (one of their favorite terms) can be deconstructed.
Selmys cites Derrida, claiming that every text has a weak point where it “turns back on itself and undermines its own bases.” But, of course, the meaning of almost anything can be distorted because our normal way of using the language is not as precise as the way a mathematician would use it for an exact mathematical definition. That does not mean that everything is up for grabs. Nobody in his right mind would go to the extreme of trying to rule out all possible misinterpretations and deliberate distortions of his statements.
Selmys says that mathematicians and logicians use inductive reasoning while observational sciences use deductive reasoning. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. What’s more, the traditional Catholic view of the natural law clearly implies that it is “written on the hearts of men.” From this she arrives at the false conclusion that, without a belief in divine authority, no secure foundation for understanding good and evil can be found. But again that is precisely the opposite of the very concept of the natural law that must be recognizable by every human being, whether or not he believes in God. That is what St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas said. But can we expect anything else from the deconstruction of a concept than the opposite of what it really means? Due to our fallen nature, understanding the natural law is obviously not the same as following it. Selmys seems to confuse the two.
By the end of her article, her reasoning dissolves into the usual deconstructionist mantra. She says, “Truth is no longer to be accessed from the outside looking in. Instead it is to be discovered as a collective process through the sharing of personal narratives, and through forms of insight that seek to understand the other and to relate to him as an equal.” So, until now it was O.K. to do it in the wrong way, but from now on we should do it differently. Looking from the outside in is no longer acceptable. From now on we must look from the inside out. Oh, and this wonderful collective approach to truth — isn’t it amazing? If none of us knows the truth about something, then all we have to do is to share our narratives and seek to understand each other and we will find out. Am I distorting her views? Welcome to the wonderful world of postmodernism.
Charlotte, North Carolina
The natural law is that part of the eternal law which resides in human nature. It has three parts:
1. Do good and avoid evil.
2. Three precepts: (a) To preserve one’s own being; (b) to accept and exercise biological functions; and (c) to live according to ascending reason: truth, oneness, goodness, and beauty.
3. Human laws for the common good bridge the gap between 1 and 2.
Melinda Selmys unwittingly restates all this, especially the three precepts in part 2, in her final paragraph. God’s “methodology” indeed! Why not call it “the natural law”?
Samuel Nigro, M.D.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Thank you for renewing my scholarship subscription to the NOR. I look forward to your publication every month, and admire your ability to maintain orthodox Catholic values and teachings, which are under fire now, more than ever, from both within and without.
We cannot allow our culture to catechize us; we must continue to stand firm and defend the “deposit of faith” that has been our light and guide throughout the Christian centuries. In short, we must catechize the culture.
I am impressed by the many scholarly writers who contribute each month and are not afraid to address the issues of today with boldness, clarity, and faithfulness to Holy Mother Church. At the same time, you welcome those with dissenting opinions. This is far more effective and serves our Church well to allow this forum, so as to be able to further apologetic dialogue.
Best wishes to your staff and writers in your effort to rectify the watered-down values and teachings that have confused the faithful and led them astray. A healthy, scholarly, and straightforward dialogue will always result in the truth, which is something many Catholic publications have forgotten that we have been entrusted by our Savior Jesus Christ to proclaim, protect, and never dilute.
Fort Dix, New Jersey
There is some serious imprecision that, one hopes, is not a sign of anti-Franciscan bias in the otherwise excellent New Oxford Note “Sister Act” (Jul.-Aug.), which reviews the situation between U.S. nuns and the Vatican in light of the latter’s call for a deep reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It is stated that “seven Franciscan provinces in the U.S. publicly backed the wayward nuns.” But what Franciscans are we talking about? There are several very different Franciscan orders — OFM, OFM Conventual, Capuchins, etc. Moreover, in response to the degeneration within certain Franciscan orders — similar to that seen among women religious, the same sort of degeneration of faith and morals seen in the Church at large in the latter half of the 20th century — there are also several new, vibrant, and rapidly growing reformed Franciscan orders that are piously faithful. Among them are the Franciscans of the Immaculate, Franciscans of the Renewal, and Franciscans of the Primitive Observance. These orders are profoundly and, I would say, heroically involved in the new evangelization.
I believe that Franciscans such as these, and in fact faithful Franciscans of any type, would find it quite scandalous to be painted with such a broad brush, just as faithful U.S. Catholics would be scandalized if someone from another country implied that all Catholics in the U.S. are wayward liberals. I would be interested to know precisely which “Franciscan provinces” have backed the dissenting nuns.
Anthony S. Pasquale
THE ASSOCIATE EDITOR REPLIES:
The suggestion that the NOR has some kind of “anti-Franciscan” bias is silly. The unqualified term “Franciscan” refers to the Order of Franciscans Minor — the OFMs. The “piously faithful” orders Mr. Pasquale mentions are always referred to by their qualifiers — e.g., the Capuchins. One doesn’t refer to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal or the Franciscan Friars of the Primitive Observance as simply “Franciscans,” nor do they organize themselves into provinces as do the OFMs.
The “seven Franciscan provinces in the U.S. [that] publicly backed the wayward nuns” are listed in a National Catholic Reporter (June 7) article titled “Franciscan Brothers, Priests Declare Support for LCWR.” NCR reports on “what appears to be the first public message of support sent from orders of men religious to U.S. sisters in the face of a sharp Vatican rebuke.” These Franciscan brothers and priests, referring to themselves as “the Leadership of the Friars Minor of the United States” (OFMs) wrote an “Open Letter to the United States Catholic Sisters,” dated May 31, 2012, expressing their “deep concern that the recent Vatican Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) may inadvertently fuel the current climate of division and confusion.” They worry that “the tone and direction set forth in the Doctrinal Assessment of LCWR are excessive, given the evidence raised.” And they dismiss the bishops’ conclusion that the sisters frequently work against broad areas of Church teaching, particularly in the areas of abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage: “Further, questioning your adherence to Church teaching by your ‘remaining silent’ on certain ethical issues seems to us a charge that could be leveled against many groups in the Church, and fails to appreciate both the larger cultural context and the particular parameters of expertise within which we all operate.” The letter is signed, “Leadership of Franciscan (O.F.M.) Provinces of the United States, Assumption BVM Province (Franklin, WI); Holy Name Province (New York, NY); Immaculate Conception Province (New York, NY); Our Lady of Guadalupe Province (Albuquerque, NM); Sacred Heart Province (St. Louis, MO); Saint Barbara Province (Oakland, CA); Saint John the Baptist Province (Cincinnati, OH).”
In Defense of "On This Day"
I very much resent that the wonderful hymn “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother” was called an “old chestnut” by Lucy E. Carroll (article, June; reply to letters, Sept.). I remember singing this hymn when I was a little girl in Catholic school, before Vatican II. It made me happy and increased my devotion to our Blessed Mother.
All the old hymns were lovely, brought us joy, and increased our devotion, which is more than can be said for the hymns that have been foisted on us since the Council.
Robert John McEvilly Jr.
San Diego, California
I was angered by the snide letter (Sept.) from Fr. Philip M. Stark, who ridicules our dear old hymn “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother.” That lovely hymn was played over 50 years ago at my wedding while my wife placed a bouquet at our Lady’s altar, and again almost 10 years ago when our younger daughter did the same at her wedding. The words are wholly appropriate and the music is beautiful — so put that in your pipe and smoke it!
There is another version of that hymn, with the same music, that I learned even longer ago, which my second-grade class sang at our First Communion Mass on Mother’s Day in 1940. The first verse begins:
On this day, O most loving Savior
On this day we give Thee our love;
Near Thee, O Jesus, fondly we hover,
Trusting Thy gentle care to prove.
Criticize that at your own peril!
I do, however, agree with Fr. Stark about “Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star,” which has been one of my favorite hymns since the 1930s.
Rancho Santa Margarita, California
It is doubtful whether Catholic parishes before Vatican II had more than a dozen hymns in use — as distinct from the hundreds in use today — and so the congregation knew the hymns by heart and could sing them with gusto, especially “Faith of Our Fathers” in Irish parishes. Although written to reflect the tribulations of the early Church, it had a special appeal because of the past struggles of the Irish in defense of their religion.
Maybe by limiting the number of hymns we could restrict ourselves to those with a dominant spiritual quality.
Howard A. Larson
Idaho Falls, Idaho
Since I was — and still am — disgusted by the music in most Catholic churches, a few years ago I undertook a statistical analysis of the hymns in the Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) issue of 2004. Of the 864 pieces of music, I found the following:
· the date of the earliest hymn: 1915
· the distribution’s average date: 1989
· 75.3 percent were written after Vatican II
· the distribution was highly skewed after 1970
This indicates that almost all the music published by OCP was written by those who grew up during the hippie days — and it sounds like it!
This is a classic case of chronological prejudice. We seem to have discarded music written by the finest talent filtered through several hundred years and settled for stuff written over the past 50 years or so by unimaginative composers, played on inappropriate instruments by untalented musicians, and performed for the entertainment of an inert group.
Richard P. Waido
Sir Isaac the Heretic
In his article “Can Nice Guys Finish First?” (Sept.), Frederick W. Marks correctly describes Sir Isaac Newton as “remarkably religious.” That he certainly was. But he was also a heretic.
In his heterodox writings, Newton embraced Arianism. Ironically, this great scholar of Trinity College at Cambridge University rejected the Christian doctrine of the holy and undivided Trinity.
Gale E. Christianson, in her book In The Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times, goes into great detail about the man, his accomplishments, and his beliefs.
A Shrewd Trade-Off
One of the more interesting observations in Mary Eberstadt’s recent book, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, has to do with how the Catholic Church helped re-stigmatize the perversion of pedophilia. No, this was not achieved with forceful preaching from the pulpit. Far from it. Rather ironically, it came about as an unintended consequence of the institutional Church’s own failing.
Recall that in the culture at large, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, as a continuation of the sexual revolution, there was a growing and concerted effort to legitimize pedophilia as simply another lifestyle choice, as was done with homosexuality. But then, around 2001, the wheels came off this pedophilia-legitimization effort. Eberstadt suggests that this was due in great part to the clerical sex scandals in the Catholic Church. She reasons that the crimes of the clergy and hierarchy were irresistible to the secular enemies of the Church, most of whom hate her teachings on sexual morality and abortion.
Since the sex scandals first broke in the media in 2001, the secular elites have used clerical pedophilia as a club to beat the Church over the head. In doing so, they have sacrificed one of the perverted aspects of the sexual revolution in order to diminish the moral teaching authority of bishops and priests.
This will prove to be a shrewd trade-off by the secularists unless the Catholic Church can conjure up new leadership that is not afraid to forcefully and consistently challenge the modern world. For as sure as God made little green apples, the secular elite will eventually revive its push for pedophilia when the time is ripe.
The question is whether the Church can generate manly leaders who will challenge the current cultural trajectory or if she will continue to field spokesmen who seem only to mumble platitudes and bend over backwards to avoid confrontation. The future of the Church, the country, and countless souls depend on the answer.
Sr. Mary Brendon Zajac
The Anchor of Hope
The writing of the sixth-century philosopher and Christian martyr Boethius is an example of the consolation, enlightenment, and wisdom that, even in prison, can lead to hope. While in prison, Boethius wrote, “So combat vices, dedicate yourselves to a virtuous life oriented by hope, which draws the heart upwards until it reaches Heaven with prayers nourished by humility. Should you refuse to lie, the imposition you have suffered can change into the enormous advantage of always having before your eyes the supreme Judge, who sees and knows how things truly are” (The Consolation of Philosophy).
John Ballentine has found meaning and hope in his own personal tragedy (“Too Late Have I Loved You,” guest column, Sept.). In the adversity of prison, the providence of God revealed its power in transforming his life. For him, imprisonment has become the greatest freedom, and by facing the truth about himself and his role in two abortions, he can write this poignant account out of repentance and hope. Ballentine’s words as well as his personal journey to faith are a testimony that deserves to be widely heard by the “prisoners” of the abortion culture: that forgiveness is possible, that hope can anchor lives untethered from truth, and that the Judge who “sees and knows how things truly are” is merciful.
Joseph A. Strada
During my time as acting president of First Century Christian Ministries (FCCM), I corresponded with John Ballentine for some ten years, shortly after his profound conversion to Catholicism. He has been an inspiration to me and many others. I was privileged to work with generous Catholic donors to help fund his master’s work in theology from Catholic Distance University. Ballentine has been a faithful and successful witness for the faith in prison and through his articles, which have appeared in several Catholic publications — an amazing accomplishment from a prison cell.
Sadly, Ballentine — like many other Catholic prisoners who have undergone genuine conversions — is trapped by what has become the big business of incarceration. State governments, parole boards, prison guard unions, prison suppliers, and prison industries — to name just a few — that “employ” prisoners rely on “income” from large prison populations. Parole boards, for example, are more likely to release those prisoners who will return than those who are truly bent on reforming their lives. The parole rate in Virginia, where Ballentine is incarcerated, is a mere three percent. The U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million men and women in state and federal prisons — a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. At least 500,000 of these inmates are Catholics who are largely ignored by the Church — uncatechized, with infrequent access to the sacraments, and at the mercy of aggressive Protestant groups like Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship.
FCCM does what it can, sending packages of orthodox materials to incarcerated Catholics, organizing and training visiting catechists, and providing anonymous Catholic pen pals to those struggling to practice their faith in the most hostile of conditions. Our founder and current president, Russell Ford, himself a convert, was released from an Alabama prison in June of this year after serving 25 years for a crime he did not commit. In fact, the Supreme Court declared him innocent and vacated his sentence just one week before his release. Mr. Ford, author of The Missionary’s Catechism, counts over 80 godsons during his 25 years of evangelizing prisoners and training catechists behind bars. He has big plans for FCCM, which might be material for a future NOR article.
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