Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Thomas and Natural Law

There's a lot of talk about Thomas Krannawitter's article defending Justice Thomas because of his belief in natural law. Here's a quote from that article:
Thomas is one of the few jurists today, conservative or otherwise, who understands and defends the principle that our rights come not from government but from a "creator" and "the laws of nature and of nature's God," as our Declaration of Independence says, and that the purpose and power of government should therefore be limited to protecting our natural, God-given rights.
In response, Brian Weatherson characterizes this belief as a "good Christian view." I'm not sure what this means: There are plenty of good Christians who have never even heard of natural law or natural rights. And conversely, there is nothing necessarily Christian about natural law and natural rights. These ideas can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman origins (as Heinrich Rommen did in his book Natural Law, which -- amazingly -- is available online in its entirety here). Thomas Paine, who wasn't exactly a "good Christian," wrote of the "illuminating and divine principle of the equal rights of man." Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration (with its line about "the laws of nature and nature's God) was a deist, not a Christian, and he famously produced a heavily-edited edition of the Bible (having cut out the passages with which he disagreed). David Novak has explained how Judaism can be reconciled with natural law and natural rights. Indeed, some modern natural law theories (i.e., the works of Germain Grisez and John Finnis) are criticized precisely for not being Christian:
At least part of the reason for the current lack of interest in the natural law among theologians lies in the fact that until recently, Roman Catholic thinkers in particular emphasized the purely rational and non-theological status of the natural law. (In fact, this conception of the natural law is still prevalent among some Catholic scholars, as evidenced by the work of Grisez and Finnis.) For this very reason, many contemporary theologians, Catholic as well as Protestant, have concluded that a natural law morality is insufficiently grounded in a distinctively Christian world view.
Stuart Buck


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