There is an interesting debate over at First Things between Joe Carter and David Bentley Hart on the legitimacy of the death penalty. For both Carter and Hart, the sticking point concerns how Scripture should be read and applied on this matter. I am not so much interested in how they both read Scripture, nor am I really concerned here with the debate over capital punishment per se (though I would tend to agree with Hart over Carter), but rather, in Hart’s dismissal of natural law reasoning as helpful in making a moral case. At the beginning of his post, Hart writes,
He [Carter] does make a passing reference to the dictates of natural law—at second hand, by way of Edward Feser—but I think that can be largely ignored. To be perfectly frank, most natural law arguments on the matter are hopelessly ad hoc constructions, consisting in prescriptions unconvincingly and willfully attached to endlessly contestable descriptions (that’s an argument for another time, though, when the Thomists have all already had their coffee). But, even if capital punishment is entirely in keeping with natural justice (and I am more than willing to grant that it is), that has next to no bearing whatsoever on how Christians should understand their moral obligations with regard to it.
Hart goes on to show all the ways in which the New Law radically departs from the demands of ordinary justice, concluding “that in trying to understand the Christian vision of the social good, natural justice can be neither the first nor the final consideration. It is important, but as yet too limited; it still belongs to the ‘former things’ that are passing away.” Hart says that the “law of Christian charity and the workings of divine grace are [not only] not limited to justice; they are often positively subversive of it. There is a kind of apocalyptic indifference to the economy of nature in the New Testament, something altogether unnatural–or, let’s just say, supernatural.”
Hart’s position on natural justice (which is possibly quite ancillary to his main point) seems to radically separate nature and super-nature, rendering the Christian position on matters of justice sectarian and subversive. While it is true that through the eyes of Christian faith, justice takes on a new dimension, a new orientation, a new telos, Aquinas tells us that just as “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity” (I, q. a. 8, ad. 2).
The issue here is at the heart of Catholic moral theology as I see it (and since Mr. Hart is Orthodox, he himself is not necessarily subject to my critique). True, Vatican II exhorted moral theologians to make their work more scriptural. Optatam totius tells us that moral theology’s “scientific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of holy Scripture and should throw light upon the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the light of the world” (16). At the same time, the Church still acknowledges that another source of moral knowledge exists alongside revealed knowledge which is the product of rational reflection on human nature and human experience. The Roman Catholic Catechism, in describing the natural law, even cites the pagan Cicero (Rep. III.22.33): “For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense . . . . To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely” (1956).
Now, the natural law is by no means sufficient to know the good and to do it. Reason alone cannot direct us toward total happiness nor the fullness of the common good. We see the limits of natural law reasoning especially in this question of the death penalty, which produces confused and often contradictory arguments, arguments which Hart is right to be wary of. And while I appreciate Hart’s effort to provide a purely Scriptural and theological response to Carter, I think it also important that moral theologians use the insights of faith to better formulate arguments that appeal to reason and can be accepted by all people of goodwill, not just believers (as recent popes have done in addressing encyclicals pertaining to ethics to “all people of good will.”) Indeed, acknowledging the natural law as a valid and reliable source of moral knowledge is important if Christians are going to work with non-Christians to transform the world in the pursuit of justice. Again, the Catechism affirms this:
The natural law, the Creator’s very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature (1959).
Hart writes, “even if capital punishment is entirely in keeping with natural justice (and I am more than willing to grant that it is), that has next to no bearing whatsoever on how Christians should understand their moral obligations with regard to it.” Natural justice always has some bearing in how Christians and all human beings understand their moral obligations. But for Christians, their moral obligations as known through faith also have bearing on how they understand and articulate what natural justice demands.