Catholics Must Stop Trump’s Misuse of Natural Law Theory Against LGBTQ Equality

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

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

5 replies
  1. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    Hi, Robert. Very important cause. Jean Porter of the Notre Dame philosophy department has done great work on natural law, as has Todd Salzman of Creighton and Craig Ford at Fordham. I wonder how to get them involved to add a different perspective from Robert George.

  2. Albertus
    Albertus says:

    Natural law is of itself a wise, true and good basis for society and States to draw upon. By observing the nature of people, animals and things, one can build logical, objective principles to operate by. That the Church, Society and the Sciences have sometimes misunderstood and misapplied natural law, does not make natural law itself bad. Also, one must also recognise that in nearly all things there are legitimate exceptions. It used to be claimed, that homosexuality could not be right or healthy because it was unknown in the animal world. Now we know that homosexual behaviour can be found amongst hundreds of animal species. Even Saint Thomas Aquinas knew that homosexual behaviour was to be found amongst some animals, but his prejudices did not allow him to draw the conclusion that what is natural for some individual animals might also be natural for some individual human beings. Unfortunately he accepted the myth tha jackals are all homosexual, which is not true. In a word, it does not seem sound to me to condemn natural law on account of its missaplication in the past. Ethics does need a sound objective basis: it is dangerous to hand society over to the mercy of mere man-made laws based solely upon subjectivity. The dominican Gareth Moore who wrote ”A Question of Turth, Homosexuality and Christianity” applied Natural law in a positive way to the question of homosexuality.

  3. Robert murphy
    Robert murphy says:

    Sorry to contradict natural law proponents, but humans are the ones who observe nature and specify the meaning of the observations. Natural laws are but a creation of the human mind and do not exist outside of our intellect. Humans create laws and try to apply to nature.

    • Loretta
      Loretta says:

      An interesting point but it seems to me that if all humanity ceased to exist the natural order of nature would continue. To the point of the article, however, what drives people to distort anything in order to deny respect to human beings? Who hurt them? I think they are filled with self-loathing.

  4. Dr. Aaron Milavec
    Dr. Aaron Milavec says:

    Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of Sydney, Australia, spoke at the Ways of Love conference on pastoral care with LGBTQ people using Natural Law, as follows:

    It was God who created a world in which there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals. This was not a mistake on God’s part that human beings are meant to repair; it is simply an undeniable part of God’s creation.
    The only sexual acts that are natural to homosexuals are homosexual acts. This is not a free choice they have made between two things that are equally attractive to them, but something that is deeply embedded in their nature, something they cannot simply cast aside. Homosexual acts come naturally to them, heterosexual acts do not.

    What Bishop Robinson is affirming is that Cardinal Ratzinger’s judgment that “homosexual acts go against the natural moral law” only applies to heterosexuals. God has uniquely designed homosexuals such that “homosexual acts” are natural to them and, consequently, their lovemaking is, for them, a potential means of grace. Bishop Robinson would therefore say that Cardinal Ratzinger’s analysis is intrinsically disordered because he makes the categorical error in taking the natural law that applies to heterosexuals and applying it indiscriminatingly to homosexuals.


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