The Erosion of Natural Law

As the U.S. Supreme Court continues to expand the definition of natural law, which would be unrecognizable to our Founding Fathers, Russell Hittinger’s latest book, First Grace: Rediscovering the Law in a Post-Christian World, comes at an appropriate time in history.

Well-written and thoroughly researched, Hittinger gives a scathing critique of the modern relativistic notion that natural law is the tabula rasa man uses to invent himself and the world around him.

Hittinger, a widely respected Catholic scholar, is chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Tulsa and a research professor of law. Combining his philosophical background and legal acumen, Hittinger brings a new perspective to the ever-changing dynamic between natural law and man.

Having written extensively on the many different aspects of natural law, First Grace is a compilation of Hittinger’s previously published articles on the subject. His main argument is that natural law cannot be rooted in a sovereign subject. Man is not absolute. Rather, natural law, correctly understood, reflects man’s submission to a higher authority.

According to Hittinger, natural law from a theological perspective is God’s working in man prior to the Fall. This is what the early church called the “first grace.” However, he believes that natural law no longer holds the same place as it once did in moral theology and that it is important to recover St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of it.

According to Aquinas, natural law is man’s participation in the eternal law ordered by God. Through his reason and will man participates in the eternal law by using his reason in conformity with the natural law to discern what is good and evil.

Hittinger then proceeds to chronicle the secular usage and meaning of natural law. He believes that Thomas Hobbes embraced what Hittinger coins, an “authority-free zone.” That is, man’s state prior to government-a state of nature of complete chaos.

For John Locke, on the other hand, natural law was just the opposite. It was ordered and led man to form civil government. It is this Lockean meaning of natural law that informed many of the Founding Fathers.

Many Americans to this day continue to espouse Jefferson’s powerful defense of individual rights, especially the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For many, this is the common understanding of natural law.

But Hittinger believes that contemporary liberalism has sought to radically alter the doctrine of natural rights by stripping it of any connection to a higher, transcendental order. The modern liberal understanding of human rights continues to expand in the direction of limitless freedom and power of the individual, subject to no other authority but his own will and fancy.

The author spends a significant part of the book discussing how the meaning of natural law has evolved in Supreme Court decisions throughout this past century. To his dismay, Hittinger is appalled at what he perceives to be a “crisis in legitimacy” in both the moral and legal realm. The individual is granted limitless freedom, which is protected by law-even if this means the destruction of innocent human life, as with the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.

Hittinger believes this radical understanding of natural law has corrupted man and his understanding of life. According to Hittinger, man does not have “the alleged right to invent the meaning of the universe,” even though the decision in the Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case ruled otherwise.

Hence, modern liberalism for the past several decades has succeeded in eviscerating many of America’s traditional institutions by promoting its twin-evil precepts of moral relativism and social anarchy. Ironically, the law, which is supposed to protect the individual and society, has become the legal instrument to legitimize behavior previously deemed immoral such as homosexuality, abortion, pornography and sodomy.

Hittinger’s comprehensive and insightful probe of natural law dares the reader to reflect on the serious repercussions of a life subject to no will but its own. It also shows the dangers of judicial activism run amok. Natural law must be understood as subordinate to a transcendental order. Or else, as Russian writer Fyodor Dostoeyevksy put it: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”