The Trump administration announced earlier this spring that it was launching an advisory board on human rights to be grounded in natural law. The natural law tradition has been used theologically by Catholics for centuries, often to the detriment of marginalized groups, especially women and LGBTQ people.
How should Catholics respond to this move that could potentially imperil LGBTQ equality worldwide?
The new advisory board, called the Commission on Unalienable Rights, will reportedly assist U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on international human rights. The State Department’s announcement of the Commission explained of its work, reorted by Politico:
“‘The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”
Natural law theory is an approach to philosophy and theology which claims universal truths can be discerned through reason by observing the world, and from this observation, certain human rights can be identified. This approach has been employed by Catholics for centuries, and remains the mindset of most of the hierarchy. Claims allegedly based on the natural law have been used by the Vatican and other church officials to condemn LGBTQ people and their relationships, as well as enforce gender complementarity. For more on natural law, click here and here.
This history of using natural law against LGBTQ people is why the Commission’s commitment to natural law has raised concern. Columnist Carol Giacomo wrote in The New York Times that while “fresh thinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” the establishment of this commission is worrisome:
“One concern is the reference to ‘natural law,’ which is held to be more powerful than the laws people write, and can suggest a narrower, religious sensibility. When the term natural law has been thrown about, it’s often been by people concerned with what they think is unnatural — homosexuality, transgender rights, reproductive choice and sexual equality.
“‘It has nothing to do with gay marriage or abortion,’ a senior State Department official said of the initiative, a personal project of Mr. Pompeo that the department plans to describe in more detail next month. ‘It’s not about policy, it’s about principles,’ although there could be policy implications in the future, the official said. . .
“A shift to ‘natural law’ would conflict with the view that ‘modern human rights are based on the dignity inherent in all human beings, not on God-given rights,’ Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale law professor who was assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration, told The Times.”
Giacomo highlighted the fact that it is right-wing Catholics who often criticize the idea of human rights because they increasingly include the rights of LGBTQ people and women. It is reported that Robert George, a vocal Catholic opponent of marriage equality, was directly involved with the Commission’s formation. Giacomo concluded with possible outcomes that this Commsion can have:
“If the commission is another step toward narrowing or calling into question America’s commitment on human rights, it will further erode the country’s leadership and give the world’s repressive rulers more reasons to ignore complaints about their own abuses and atrocities.”
The Trump administration’s record on human rights, including LGBTQ equality, is already deplorable. This new Commission on Unalienable Rights could cause even greater damage. It may be too hopeful to think the U.S. bishops will responsibly critique any misuses of natural law given their gender and sexuality agenda so closely aligns with Trump’s aims. But LGBTQ-affirming theologians in the academy have been challenging misuses of natural law and proposing uses that defend the rights of LGBTQ people and women for awhile (see here and here). Now, given the risks of a Trump administration effort to abuse natural law theory, the Catholic faithful have a responsibility to learn from these theologians and enact such LGBTQ-affirming political theology in their lives.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 5, 2019