How Roman Catholic Neocons Peddle Natural Law into Debates about Life and Death

About Frank L. Cocozzelli

(Smith/iStock) While Roman Catholic neoconservatives interpret the natural law tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas in a way that challenges stem cell research, you could read the same tradition as supporting stem cell research.

While Roman Catholic neoconservatives interpret the natural law tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas in a way that challenges stem cell research, you could read the same tradition as supporting stem cell research.

As the rightist philosopher Richard Weaver famously said, “ideas have consequences.” And I can tell you from personal experience some of the consequences of at least one idea, that of “natural law.”

I have a form of LMG muscular dystrophy. When I was first diagnosed in 1985, I walked with a slight limp. Today I am bound to a wheelchair, a virtual quadriplegic. Nevertheless, I am a practicing attorney. Monday through Friday my wife wakes up at 5 a.m. and gets herself ready for work. An hour later she wakes me up, then dresses me for court. Since my body does not mostly move of it own volition, she must roll me back and forth to get my pants on, lift me onto a slide board to get me into my wheelchair, lift my arms to get my shirt on and then knot my tie. After she gives me breakfast, she attends to getting our kids ready for school. She does all this before working an eight-hour day. I usually leave for court shortly thereafter, driven either by my father or my uncle.

My condition has led me to be politically active in the battle for federal funding and oversight for embryonic stem cell research, which potentially could help me manage my disease. This battle has required me to confront the hierarchy of my own religion, Roman Catholicism, as well as allied neoconservative groups. This battle has also required me to come to better understand the intricacies of “natural law” as an animating idea of their movement. I have also come to understand that natural law arguments can be easily turned around to advance enlightened positions on science and biology and pluralist democracy.

Roman Catholic* neoconservatives such as Richard John Neuhaus have President George W. Bush’s ear, and have succeeded in thwarting vital research using stem cells, research that has shown such promise in developing treatments for many diseases— including my muscular dystrophy.

Neoconservative Catholics and fundamentalist evangelicals vehemently oppose embryonic stem cell research because it destroys blastocysts, or early-stage embryos in the first few days of cellular division. Research opponents regard the harvesting of the undifferentiated, “master” stem cells of the blastocyst, and their use in research, as the destruction of human life (which, after all, begins at conception). They argue that the embryo is being denied its telos, or “end,” in not being allowed to develop into a child. This is the crux of the objection to embryonic stem cell research.

But the Catholic neocons promote another objection to the research: a general antipathy toward any kind of meddling with nature. Beyond any religious considerations, the issue is seen as an injunction against “playing God”; a pragmatic reluctance to engage in futile attempts to change nature.

Many neoconservatives hold a kind of nihilistic respect for nature, and most importantly, the naturally ordered inequalities, such as between the weak and the strong and the rich and the poor. Meddling is ill-advised and doomed to create catastrophes worse than the original problems they sought to address, from their point of view. It isn’t difficult to discern within the arguments of both Catholic neocon Robert P. George and secular neocon Eric Cohen their distaste for what they see as the radical egalitarian effect science and technology have had on society, a state of affairs that must seem intolerably subversive of the “natural order.” Moreover, the Catholic neocons view natural law as the true basis for a national moral order of all Americans.

Encountering such sentiments led me to explore how the Catholic neocons (or as defector Damon Linker calls them, “theocons,”) have introduced Catholic notions of “natural law” into the larger neocon movement—and thus into critical American debates about life and death.

Why Natural Law Matters

Neoconservatives are tiny in number, yet large in influence due to their prolific writing, thinking, and support from wealthy patrons that locate them close to the corridors of power. It is a small movement of intellectuals that emerged in earnest opposing political trends of the 1960s, without a mass base and with only the power of their ideas and connections to win influence. Their vigorous defense of the free market, capitalism, and a militarist foreign policy wins them powerful allies. Yet other currents run through their thought, including a defense of natural law and the championing of religion.

“Natural law,” meaning the rules God set into motion in the world and also instilled in our own natures, has been a central, animating philosophical idea in Christian thought for a thousand years. However it has taken some important turns along the way, and there are now what we might call several branches of thought about the definition of natural law.

One of these, the Classic view, is embraced and promoted by the leading thinkers of Catholic neoconservatives in the United States and their political allies in conservative Protestant evangelicalism. Roman Catholicism as a whole employs natural law principles as a means to rationally explain and interpret the morality of Scripture. However, many in the Vatican have recently pressed to superimpose their particular interpretations on the greater secular society. This is driven by the belief that natural law principles are so universal that even non-Catholics are subject to their tenets.

On the religious Right’s hot button issues of the culture war—feminism, birth control, abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research—natural law-based ethics are routinely employed by the Catholic wing to refute the progressive position. This is important for a very powerful reason: one of its guiding principles is that any law that violates natural law (or at least the way orthodox Catholicism interprets natural law) should be ignored as unjust. What’s more, evangelical social conservatives have been increasingly adopting natural law arguments in support of their shared opposition to issues they view as assaults on traditional values.


The Catholic Neoconservatives

Catholic neoconservatives, like most neocons, are elitists who see social inequality as a natural condition of society. As a result, they often stress the need to control knowledge in order to better instruct the general populace. But unlike neocons such as Irving Kristol who tend to be either atheists or not terribly religious, theocons are traditionalist-minded Catholics, many with ties to ultra-conservative organizations such as Opus Dei. Theocons also share a history with the rest of the neoconservative movement—their leading lights moved from left to right in reaction to what they saw as the threat of the ‘60s cultural revolution and inattention to the true threat of communism.

This group is spearheaded by the triumvirate of Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak and George Weigel. They had a good friend in Pope John Paul II— but now have even better ones in Pope Benedict XVI and President George W. Bush.

Michael Novak started out the 1960s as both a democratic Socialist and vocal proponent of liberalizing Catholicism but has been marching rightward since the mid-1970s as an avatar of laissez-faire capitalism— as well as of Catholic orthodoxy. His 1982 book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is often credited with softening Vatican hostility to free market economics and directing criticism towards democratic socialism.

While some neocons embrace the late founding philosopher of neoconservatism Leo Strauss’s warnings about “the corrosive effects” of liberalism, in dozens of books Novak extols the merits of liberal democracy, pluralism, and individual liberty. But he does so through the lens of John Courtney Murray (and the medieval Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas) who viewed liberty as doing what one ought to do, with orthodox Catholic theology defining the parameters of what “ought” means. (See box on Murray.) As its director of social and political studies, Novak brings a religious flair to the neoconservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute.

George Weigel has been prominent on the Right since the Reagan administration, when he was very involved in supporting the Nicaraguan Contra guerillas against the revolutionary government of the Sandinistas. He is the official biographer of Pope John Paul II1 and from his perch at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. has been the greatest proponent of John Courtney Murray’s idea that when America’s Founders spoke of “self-evident truths” they were evoking Catholic notions of natural law.

But perhaps the most influential of this group is Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose ideological and religious transformation is one of the more remarkable journeys in modern religious and political life. The one-time anti-Vietnam war Lutheran minister left behind radical left politics (as well as his Lutheranism) to become in 1990 a Roman Catholic priest and icon of the neoconservative movement. He promotes the civic power of religion as president of the Institute of Religion and Public Life, a neoconservative institute “whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public policy for the ordering of society.”

Many neoconservatives hold a kind of nihilistic respect for nature, and most importantly, the naturally ordered inequalities, such as between the weak and the strong and the rich and the poor.

Neuhaus has had the ear of President George W. Bush throughout his administration, as well as enjoying a direct line of communication with Pope Benedict XVI. Neuhaus, acting on directives from Rome, in 2004 pushed for the denial of the Sacrament of Communion to then-Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry for his prochoice, pro-embryonic stem cell research positions. But unlike Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who both opposed the 2003 Iraq War, Neuhaus (along with Novak and Weigel) openly argued for preemptive invasion.

The theocons, unlike most mainstream Catholics, are evangelical in nature, using religious conversion as an important tool to augment their influence. For example, they are attempting to seize control of the Catholic Church from within, first by trying to get mainstream Catholics to return to traditionally orthodox practices, (including a return to the Latin Mass) while simultaneously reaching out to traditionalist groups such as the Society of St. Pius X which have rejected the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II.

Part of this effort entails the marginalization of moderate and liberal Catholics. They hope to offset these losses by converting socially conservative Protestants and even some Jews. Such notable converts include U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican; former Bush advisor and editor of Crisis magazine Deal Hudson; columnist Robert Novak; and CNBC’s Lawrence Kudlow. The conversions of Brownback, Novak and Kudlow were overseen by the prominent Opus Dei priest, Rev. C. John McCloskey.2

Catholic theocons also frown on any and all dissent. For example, when the lay group Voice of the Faithful demanded accountability from the Church during the recent pedophilia scandal, Weigel dismissed them as part of “a culture of dissent.”

The theocons are easy to identify by their terminology. Pundit Dinesh D’Souza for example, invokes a twelfth century understanding of “just war” doctrine to explain the need for preemptive military action. We can hear it at work when theocons and neocons falsely describe value pluralism as “moral relativism,” and agnosticism or atheism as “nihilism.”

In the stem cell debate, neocon Eric Cohen and Catholic theocon Robert P. George both argue that an individual human being exists from the moment of conception, as if it were based upon a scientific consensus, even though that is clearly is not the case. Underlying their argument are Classical Greek natural law principles as interpreted by the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas. This becomes significant because the theocons view such Catholic orthodoxy as the template for a national morality.3

Defining Natural Law

The notion of natural law comes to us from the Classical Greek philosopher Aristotle, who sought to explain the logical order of the universe based upon empirical analysis. Unlike his teacher Plato who believed that this world was an imperfect vision of another ideal world, one in which God, justice and morality are unchanging, Aristotle believed in one universe, one in which what is before us is all there is, but set in motion by “an unmoved mover.” And unlike Plato who believed in the immutable nature of things, Aristotle taught that change is the one constant. In his treatise, Physics, he famously declared that that which has changed, is changing.

Aristotle’s teachings virtually disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire, while Plato’s worldview found its way into orthodox Christian teaching, notably in the writings of Saint Augustine. Plato’s influence on Augustine leaps out in the latter’s lack of faith in the goodness of man. However, with the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Moors, Church scholars came into contact with the works of Jewish and Islamic scholars who studied and expounded upon Aristotle’s works; thinkers such as Moses Maimonides and al-Farbi. These writings influenced a series of Middle Age theologian philosophers such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. It was Aquinas who succeeded in adapting Aristotle’s teaching to Catholic theology.

Then just how does orthodox Catholicism interpret natural law? The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia offers a somewhat dense definition, but when broken down into basic parts becomes much more understandable. First the basic premise:

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law”… The eternal law is God’s wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action. When God willed to give existence to creatures, He willed to ordain and direct them to an end. In the case of inanimate things, this Divine direction is provided for in the nature which God has given to each; in them determinism reigns.

Humanity is instilled with intelligence with which to make rational choices:

Like all the rest of creation, man is destined by God to an end, and receives from Him a direction towards this end. This ordination is of a character in harmony with his free intelligent nature. In virtue of his intelligence and free will, man is master of his conduct. Unlike the things of the mere material world he can vary his action, act, or abstain from action, as he pleases.

But humanity cannot do as it pleases. Instead, justifiable choice is defined by what one ought to do. Divine determinism is interpreted to mean that humanity is prohibited from interfering in natural occurrences:

Yet he is not a lawless being in an ordered universe. In the very constitution of his nature, he too has a law laid down for him, reflecting that ordination and direction of all things, which is the eternal law. The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

Natural Law—at least as seen by orthodox Catholicism inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas—is so resolute that even God is bound to its principles. It is the order of the universe. Thus if God is bound to its precepts, so too is humanity. Every being has its telos or end to fulfill and it is not for humanity to interfere with this process of fulfillment.

Aquinas provides a rationale for faith, instead of one of mere belief. Still, it is the philosophical step away from a more fundamentalist approach to faith to a comfortable and evolving relationship of faith and reason. Aquinas provides an effective argument against fundamentalism in general, and its theocon variants in particular. Historically, Aquinas is a pivotal figure in the change in rational thought that eventually led to the strengthening of faith by separating it from the state.

Strident Dogma Versus Open Empiricism

Theocon thinkers such as Notre Dame’s George V. Bradley, Robert P. George of Princeton, and George Weigel, have mostly frozen their definition of “reason” with Aquinas rather than allowing for any broad applications of humanity’s “free intelligent nature.” And in good Platonic fashion, they embrace a peculiar definition of reason—one encumbered by dogmatic obedience to ecclesiastical authority—and which differs significantly from the commonly held definition, especially where dissent is concerned.

This prioritizing of obedience over individual conscience was on full display when Neuhaus wrote:

Given a decision between what I think the Church should teach and was the Church in fact does teach, I decide for the Church. I decide freely and rationally—Because God has promised the apostolic leadership of the Church guidance and charisms that He has not promised me; because I think the Magisterium [the teaching authority of the Church] just may understand some things that I don’t; because I know for sure that, in the larger picture of history, the witness of the Catholic Church is immeasurably more important than anything I might think or say. In short, I obey.4

Where Aristotle followed a path garnering new evidence with which to test accepted truths, Plato emphasized censorship and the usefulness of “noble lies” to ensure a top-down social order. This censorious nature was on full display when Weigel recently demanded to know what the Jesuit Order’s newly elected leader, Father Adolfo Nicholas, would “do about Jesuits who are manifestly not obedient to the Pope or to the teaching authority of the Church?”5 It is also on display when Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke at Rome’s Sapienza University about the church prosecution of Galileo in the 1633 Inquisition. While acknowledging that Galileo’s theory of the universe was correct, he nevertheless called his trial “reasonable and just.”

Indeed, as late as the seventeenth century, the Vatican adhered to the earthcentered view of the solar system described in Scripture. The Church had begun to accept Aristotelian thinking in terms of theology, but it still held fast to the Bible’s earth-centrism and Platonic censorship on matters of science.

Inherent in this approach is a distrust of the common person seen among other neoconservatives inspired by the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss. Seen through the neo-Platonist eyes of traditionalist Catholics and neocons alike, people are neither good nor rational. Therefore, to trust the common person with the ability to reason is tantamount to societal suicide. Instead, knowledge should be left to the control of an intellectual elite who —in their eyes—can handle it. The masses need, not reason, but belief. The question then becomes how to transform society to effect this goal?

Their answer is simple: remove reason from religion. Such a belief echoes the twelfth century Platonic theologian Bernard of Clairvaux’s view that “faith is to be believed, not disputed.” It is this line of reasoning that winds its way through neoconservative think tanks such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the Ethics Public Policy Center. Anything but traditionalist-based orthodoxy is viewed by these groups as disputing faith, even reasoning that seeks to reconcile science with faith. And in the antithesis of Aristotelian logic, empirical scientific knowledge is attacked. Evolution—long accepted by the Vatican and even reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II—has been increasingly derided under Pope Benedict, a red flag revealing a desire to return to a more fundamentalist form of Catholicism; stem cell research is attacked; and literal interpretations of Scripture are emphasized.

However, unlike the Catholic neo-Platonists who see this life as a less perfect version of God’s Kingdom, many neoconservatives have adopted Leo Strauss’s marriage of Plato to Nietzsche’s nihilism. Strauss and many of his students believe that there is no afterlife, but argue that teaching this view to the general population would lead to widespread atheism resulting in societal collapse.

Movement founder Irving Kristol is up front about this, going so far as to argue the Church should return to mindset of the Middle Ages, specifically citing the Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pius IX that included attacks on reason, Protestantism, and the separation of church and state.6 Pius IX was a well-known authoritarian who led a virtual one-man war on modern science and democracy.

Such brook-no-dissent authoritarianism has not gone unnoticed by socially conservative Catholics. As former Neuhaus aide Damon Linker noted in his authoritative book, The Theocons:

Catholics were, first of all, the single largest religious group in the country, making it exceedingly difficult if not impossible to launch a successful program for political and religious reform in the country without significant support from within the ranks of the Catholic faithful. Then there was the church’s long history of theological and political reflection, which made Catholics far more competent than evangelicals and other Protestants to take the lead in pressing religiously based moral arguments in the nation’s political life.7

Two passages later, Linker hits the nail on the head:

But most promising of all was the Vatican’s robust defense of ecclesiastical authority. Unlike the Protestant mainline, whose leadership had come to preach unorthodox, anti-traditionalist views, the heads of the Catholic Church in Rome [Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger] refused to compromise with or capitulate to blatant theological deviancy.

Still, traditionalist Catholics alone do not have the numbers to bring about the societal change they seek. Protestant Evangelicals, with their literal Biblical interpretations and their view that “faith is to be believed, not disputed,” are natural allies.

And yet there are significant tensions within this alliance particularly on matters of theology. One such tension is the Protestant doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” (“by scripture alone”) that clashes with Catholic notions of Magisterium (meaning the Church as interpreter of Scripture). This has required a great deal of diplomatic bridge building mostly via the most conservative and traditionalist evangelical Protestants, and neoconservative precincts of Catholicism. And while some Catholics have yielded to fundamentalists’ opposition to the theory of evolution, socially conservative Protestants seem to be increasingly amenable to Vatican notions of natural law principles that underlie their opposition to abortion, end of life issues, and stem cell research.


Writing in the November 1996 issue of Neuhaus’s periodical First Things, Charles Colson draws on Aquinas in his discussion of a federal court system that “sanctions abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual marriage” and in arguing against the need for social conservatives to resist what he deems to be illegitimate rulings:

Augustine’s dictum remains the most famous formulation of the broader view of a Christian’s relation to the state: “An unjust law is no law at all.” Aquinas argued that God’s delegation of authority to civil authorities was linked to the fostering of virtue. When a ruler meets that test, when his laws and actions are in accord with the lex divina, and when human law promotes the tranquillitas ordinis, then human law is just; but if it “runs counter in any way to the law in us by nature, it is no longer law but a breakdown of law.”

Colson, the former Watergate felon who founded the evangelical Prison Fellowship, has also written, “It goes back to the Greeks and Plato’s saying that if there were no transcendent ideals, there could be no concord, justice, and harmony in a society.”8 The language in either quote could have easily have been authored by Catholic theocons such as a Robert P. George or George Weigel.

A key bridge between the conservative evangelicals and orthodox Catholicism has been neoconservatism. This is on prominent display in the world of Washington think thanks where, for example, Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel advise or serve as directors of a number of key neoconservative agencies such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the Ethics Public Policy Center. It is through such organizations that traditionalist Catholic natural law principles are married to conservative talking points and percolate into the national discourse. This brings me around to how evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have both argued natural law principles in the battle over embryonic stem cell research.

Refuting The Right’s Natural Law Arguments

Theocons argue that the embryo is being denied its telos, or “end,” in not being allowed to develop into a child, and that humankind meddling with nature in this way will end in disaster. Yet such beliefs ignore an alternative natural law argument that I and other pro-research advocates constantly put forth: that the use of spare embryos for medical research may indeed be the telos or end of these blastocysts.

Today there are approximately 400,000 frozen blastocysts lying in a state of frozen limbo at in-vitro fertilization clinics. For thousands of these embryos, the decision has already been made that they will never be transferred to a woman’s body and that means they will never grow beyond a tiny clump of undifferentiated cells briefly existing in a petri dish.

Most orthodox Catholics and fundamentalist evangelicals believe that those clumps of cells constitute a human being, but most of us don’t think that microscopic cellular life is equal to, or the same thing as, a human life. As William Neaves of the Stowers Institute (and fellow Catholic) observed:

Other religious traditions acknowledge the product of fertilization to be a life but do not accord it the status of a human being. For example, both Judaism and Islam hold that full human status is acquired progressively during embryonic development, not at fertilization Until 40 days after conception, Judaism considers the developing embryo to be “mere fluid.” The early embryo is respected as a potential human being, but it is not yet a person. Accordingly, both Judaism and Islam permit the use of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic and research purposes.9

To merely assume that those who consider themselves religious and who take ethical issues seriously are inevitably on the anti-research side of the equation would be way off the mark. Different organized religions take different or no position at all on the research. In fact, many religious organizations, including the Presbyterian Church USA, the Church of England (as well as its American counterpart, the Episcopal Church USA), the American Jewish Congress, United Church of Christ, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and a clear majority of America Roman Catholics support this potentially life saving research.10

If the primary frame of an issue such as stem cell research is based on neoconservative/ neo-orthodox Catholic arguments, then, as linguist George Lakoff would have it, we have to address the frame. One classic—and classically effective—way to do so is by employing Aristotle’s timetested methodology.

Empirical studies long ago revealed that a newly created embryo can either split into multiple embryos or unite with another embryo to form a single embryo. Until that happens, individuality is far from guaranteed. What’s more, before an embryo can successfully develop into a fetus there is yet another intervening event that must first occur: attachment to the uterine wall of which only 30 to 40 percent of zygotes ever survive to do. It follows that an embryo situated in a petri dish is no more an individual human being than an unplanted acorn is an oak tree.

In addition to applying Aristotle’s empirical methodology we add Charles Curran’s historicism to the stem cell debate, and we wind up at a different place on the issue than either George Weigel or Robert P. George would have us be.

In fact, there is nothing in the Gospels to indicate that Jesus would oppose stem cell research. His constant healing of the sick and disabled was not only one of his primary activities, it was in accordance with the Jewish notion of Pikuach nefesh, the moral imperative to save lives. The healing and the amelioration of the sick and disabled is far more deeply rooted in the world’s spiritual traditions than the modern concept that life begins at fertilization.

By applying strident dogmas and historical revisionism, what the theocons are essentially doing is not using natural law as a means of interpreting Scripture, but instead using it to override Scripture by creating a false historical context.

Aristotle believed in empirical evidence in determining the natural end of any thing or being. Galileo employed this method when he presented the Vatican with evidence that the earth was not at the center of the solar system. Galileo’s Italy, unlike America in the twenty-first century, was not a literate, pluralistic, post-Enlightenment society. And thankfully, unlike the case of the great scientist, the Inquisition can no longer stifle challenges to its Biblical geocentrism and natural law views with the threat of death at the stake. Both the diversity of religious beliefs, rooted in the constitutional rights related to individual conscience; and a more literate populace give us the capacity and the opportunity to openly challenge orthodox Catholic notions of natural law when they collide with Constitutionally derived liberties.

Alternative Future

While the theocons remain ascendant in the hierarchy. there is an intellectually formidable movement within Catholicism that challenges traditionalist notions of natural law. This got theologian Fr. Charles Curran fired from teaching at Catholic University in 1986 for opposing the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control. Curran took the hit, but he was on the right track. The way to pull the rug out from theoconish natural law arguments both within the Church and without is to challenge their premises with a broader understanding of both natural law and when necessary, the Eternal as stated in Scripture.

Curran offers a much simpler definition of natural law that shows a healthy respect for the role of reason in human affairs:

The natural law maintains that human reason reflecting on human nature is able to arrive at moral wisdom and knowledge. There are two aspects to the question of natural law. From the theological point of view, natural law responds to the question of where the Christian and moral theologian find wisdom and knowledge. Here I accept wholeheartedly the Catholic position that human reason can and should arrive at the moral truth. The philosophical aspect of natural law concerns the meaning of human reason and of human nature.

Curran’s definition better reflects Aristotle’s view of natural law, where reason is unobstructed by dogma; it is allowed to reach its own logical ends based upon new information. Curran, like others before him, employs an evolving historical context of time and place, in which new knowledge does not obviate our understanding of ethical behavior rooted in natural law (as many neoconservative, Catholics and otherwise believe), but actually clarifies it. It is one of the most effective mechanisms in refuting many of the Religious Right’s charges of moral relativism.

Historical consciousness is often contrasted with classicism, which understands reality in terms of the eternal, the immutable, and the unchanging. Historical consciousness gives more importance to the particular, the contingent, the historical, and the individual…. The Catholic theological tradition has recognized historicity in its rejection of the axiom, Scripture alone. Scripture must always be understood, appropriated, communicated, and lived in the light of the historical and cultural realities of the present time. The church cannot simply repeat the words of Scripture. Catholicism has undergone much more development than most people think. Creative fidelity is necessary for any tradition, and such fidelity is consistent with the philosophical world view of historical consciousness.11

Curran does not challenge the Religious Right by claiming that God is not immutable—far from it. Instead, following the centuries-old lead of Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, he explains that humanity’s understanding of God and morality is ever changing (see box). More importantly, that change results from advancements in knowledge being used to challenge and to reform existing doctrines.


For those of us who come from Christian traditions, we need to learn to be confident that the history and doctrines in both Catholicism and Protestantism show that challenging conventional wisdom does not necessarily make one an enemy of the faith. If anything, mindless dogmatic resistance to new empirical evidence is an ongoing invitation to greater skepticism as we have certainly seen as American Catholics ignore and are openly contemptuous of the Vatican encyclical prohibiting artificial birth control. Indeed, we stand in a grand tradition of loyal dissent that stretches from Galileo to Father Charles Curran (and many more). It is the path that many of us who support embryonic stem cell research now take. For all of us, the debunking of theoconic notions of natural law is still a powerful argument; especially when combined with dismantling the bizarre Catholic forms of Christian nationalism; and fully embracing the broad Constitutional doctrines that guide and govern our society away from sectarian doctrines toward inclusive, secular ideas of the common good.

John Courtney Murray and America’s Founders

The appropriation of Classical natural law arguments to advance the modern agenda of Catholic neoconservatism and the broader Religious Right originated with the Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray (1904-1967).

Murray was a key advocate in developing the Vatican’s modern approach to pluralism in liberal democracies such as in the United States. He argued that Catholic doctrine is compatible with the thought of America’s founders, citing their various allusions to natural law-derived, self-evident, truths. Murray argued that as a result, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism would increasingly influence national morality in the second half of the twentieth century. The only problem with this is that Catholic notions of natural law had little to nothing to do with the thinking of the framers of the Constitution. For one thing, there is more than one interpretation of natural law and where it leads us.

Nevertheless, Catholic neoconservatives such as Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak have seized on this erroneous view of natural law like a cudgel to further a revisionist narrative of American history that supports Religious Right notions of Christian nationalism. To this end, Thomas Jefferson and other of the founders are often portrayed as fervent evangelicals who cited thirteenth century interpretations of Aristotle’s teachings; an inaccurate accounting that belies Jefferson’s (among others) Arian Unitarianism (a belief in God as a single person as opposed to being three persons in one, a Trinity). “When they [the Founders] are not being denounced as infidels,” historian Garry Wills bemusedly wrote, “men like Michael Novak dress them up as crypto-Evangelicals, crypto- Jews, or crypto-Catholics.”11

The natural law beliefs of the American founders were—theoconic thinkers like Murray, Novak and Weigel notwithstanding—different than those of the Vatican. For one thing, the founders followed a form of natural law much evolved from Aquinas’s version. The first significant revision was by Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) whose belief that God cares more about individual souls than church hierarchies was a direct rebuke to the Vatican. But perhaps more importantly, Hooker took Aquinas one step further by saying of Scripture, “Words must be taken according to the matter whereof they are uttered.” This means that people must use their reason in reading the Bible, with a key component of that understanding historical context.

Hooker’s views on tolerance in particular directly influenced the Enlightenment thinker John Locke, whose views in turn guided the framers of the Constitution. (Locke directly cites Hooker in his Second Treatise on Civil Government.) It is through Locke that Aristotelian thought is reintroduced into the ethics of governance after it was elided by a steady stream of philosophers beginning in the late Middle Ages, and ending with Thomas Hobbes at the dawn of the Age of Reason. Hobbes’ sole concern was for the preservation of secular sovereign rulers and he had no use for a morality based upon rational thought. The social contract was the price paid for social order—even if the price paid for that peace was abusive authority.

Locke applied an inverse form of Hobbes’ social contract theory, one in which if a ruler violates natural law principles by failing to protect “life, liberty, and property,” the governed are justified in overthrowing the regime. Locke, in turn, heavily influenced the thinking of the framers of the Constitution. His legacy is found in Article VI proscribing “religious tests” for public office as well as in Jefferson’s pivotal 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he uses the metaphor of a wall of separation between church and state to explain the meaning of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The clear influence of John Locke demolishes the theocon argument that Catholic natural law principles are at the root of the Founders’ beliefs. Locke, in his Letter on Toleration advocated separating church and state – an idea thoroughly rejected by the theocons who want to insert Catholic theology as the cornerstone of American morality.

Garry Wills observes, the argument of “John Courtney Murray that America was really founded on Catholic principles [is] an idea that would have made Adams and Jefferson snort with derision.”

The State of the Debate

Finding a plentiful source of stem cells is only the first step towards understanding and treating complicated human diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, and treatments may still be years away.12 Since President Bush banned funding for most embryonic stem cell research in 2001, eleven states have authorized funding for stem cell research to fill the vacuum left by the federal funding restrictions. Seven states explicitly permit research on embryonic stem cells.13

In an attempt to sidestep the contentious debate, scientists have devised new laboratory techniques that would not use embryos. Yet the new techniques—which gather stem cells from the amniotic fluid around a developing embryo or transform adult skin cells into stem cells—are untested and might not be effective for research and treatments in all the same ways embryonic stem cells are.14

Furthermore, these alternatives will take time, maybe years, to develop to the point where embryonic stem cell research is now. And because these alternatives are at an early stage of development, there is a chance that they might not be effective, supporting a continued push for using federal funding for the promising and more developed embryonic stem cell research.15

Finally, the argument against embryonic stem cell research was contradictory to begin with because much of the research could be done on embryos that were made, but never used from fertility clinics (which routinely develop extra embryos to increase the chances of inception and routinely dispose of extra embryos). If the Bush administration were so concerned with protecting embryos, how could it praise the fertility clinics which routinely dispose of embryos they do not need while prohibiting researchers from using these same embryos and then claim it was defending the embryos on moral grounds?16

– Aaron Rothbaum

End Notes

1 George Weigel, Witness to Hope, Harper-Collins 2005

2 Chris Suellentrop, “The Rev. John McCloskey: The Catholic Church’s K Street Lobbyist,” August 9, 2002. John McCloskey is described as “…an Ivy Leaguer who graduated from Columbia and a former Wall Streeter who worked at Citibank and Merrill Lynch….” He further noted,” As a result, he travels comfortably in elite circles, and his ministry is focused on them: on young priests and seminarians (the intellectual elite in many Catholic communities), on college students at elite universities and “strong countercultural” Catholic institutions, and on “opinion-makers and people of influence.” The self-described supply-sider has a top-down strategy to transform the culture, too. He wants to turn Blue America into Red. McCloskey describes his ideal believer: “A good Catholic isn’t worried about going deep into these theological levels… You say, ‘I believe.’”

3 Robert P. George often plays fast and loose when citing sources for his position that the embryo is an individual from the moment of conception. For example, as William Saletan observed of George’s recent book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, “While quoting from embryology textbooks, the authors omit passages that confound their bootstrap theory. One such passage reports that “the early embryo and the female reproductive tract influence one another” as the embryo is “being transported” to the uterus. Another observes that “implantation requires a high degree of preparation and coordination by both the embryo and the endometrium” — preparation that begins, on the womb’s part, well before conception. Maternal factors don’t just facilitate the embryo’s program; they direct it. Maternal RNA guides the embryo’s early organization. Later, factors in the womb apparently influence traits like sexual orientation.” “Little Children,” New York Times, February 10, 2008.

4 Damon Linker, The Theocons, (New York: Doubleday, 2006), pages 193-194, citing Richard John Neuhaus, “The Persistence of the Catholic Moment,” First Things, February 2003, 29.

5 George Weigel, Questions for Father General, Denver Catholic Register, Week of February 20, 2008.

6 Irving Kristol, NeoConservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, (New York:The Free Press, 1995), 434.

7 Linker, Damon, The Theocons, (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 69.

8 Charles Colson, “The Problem of Ethics,” Christian Ethics Today, December 2000, Issue 31, Volume 5, Number 6

9 William B. Neaves, When Does Life Begin? Stowers Institute for Medical Research, 2005.

10 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, August 13, 2005.

11 Charles Curran, “Catholic Social and Sexual Teaching: a Methodological Comparison,” Theology Today, v. 44., no. 4, page 427.

Frank L. Cocozzelli is a regular contributor to, and president of the Institute for Progressive Christianity.