Neil Gorsuch’s philosophical mentor cites “natural law” to reject same-sex marriage and abortion

Discussion of natural law predates Christianity, but Christian theologians such as Aquinas are key figures in developing the theory (this makes intuitive sense, as natural law appeals to a higher and absolute moral authority on what constitutes justice, and God fits this authority well.) Finnis, a Catholic natural law philosopher, traces much of his thinking to ideas first expressed by Aquinas.

Interpretations of natural law have massive and widely varying influence. The US Declaration of Independence refers to the equality that “the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle” and is clearly founded on a belief in natural law. English Common Law sought to uphold natural law, and those who wrote the US Constitution referred, in the course of various writings, to the notion that God is the ultimate source of legal authority. The concept of human rights is also closely intertwined with natural law.

Though the US constitution is a positive law, the Supreme Court justices have not totally ignored the notion of natural law. Justice Anthony Scalia believed that “the government derives its authority from God,” and Justice Clarence Thomas argued at his Senate confirmation hearing that “we look at natural law beliefs of the Founders as a background to our Constitution.”  (Meanwhile, as Mother Jones notes, then-Senator Joe Biden once criticized Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork for not believing in natural law. “As a child of God, I believe my rights are not derived from the Constitution…They were given to me and each of my fellow citizens by our creator,” said Biden in 1987.)

Natural law philosophers have differing theories on the fundamental rights that must be protected by this law, and these rights are derived from absolute human goods. Georgetown moral and legal theorist Mark Murphy explains that, for Finnis, these basic goods include life, knowledge, aesthetic appreciation, play, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion.

He argues that it is inherently wrong to intentionally harm any basic good. This framework means that, in Finnis’s view as laid out in articles, abortion is inherently wrong as it’s an attempt to harm life. His theory does, however, allow for some exceptions where abortion would be considered permissible. Finnis argues that if an abortion is carried out to save a mother’s life, then it is not the intention to harm the fetus and so is morally permissible. “Finnis is obliged to say the doctor did not intend the baby’s death, because he believes there is an absolute prohibition on intentionally killing innocent people. (The alternative would be to treat the procedure as impermissible, but this is clearly not his view.),” explains legal philosopher Jonathan Crowe.

Finnis’s beliefs about the absolute value of protecting life also means that the philosopher strongly opposes the death penalty and nuclear armament.

Conversely, Finnis argues that marriage is a basic good and, in his view, it’s a heterosexual good that should lead to procreation. “It is the sort of loving union inherently oriented to family life; it is the sort of living bond that by its nature would be fulfilled—extended and enriched—by the bearing and rearing of children,” he writes. Based on his interpretation of the good protected by natural law, Finnis is strongly against giving same-sex couples the same benefits as heterosexual married couples.

Relatedly, Finnis believes that the “good of marriage” should be the foundation of all sexual relations—in other words, sex is only moral if it takes place within a heterosexual marriage. Homosexual sex, masturbation, adultery, and bestiality are all grouped in the same category and marked similarly immoral by Finnis. “The truly morally significant thing about all non-marital sex acts is that, in diverse forms, they involve disrespect for the basic good of marriage,” he writes.

Of course, though Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has worked closely with Finnis, that does not mean the two share the same views. Finnis supervised Gorsuch’s Oxford dissertation on euthanasia in the 1990s, and the Supreme Court nominee developed this work into a book where he argues that euthanasia is impermissible as “human life is intrinsically valuable and that intentional killing is always wrong.”

Gorsuch’s views on abortion and gay rights outside of the same-sex marriage debate remain unclear, as he has not explicitly written or ruled on either subject. Meanwhile, when the Guardian asked Finnis about Gorsuch’s nomination, he replied “I have resolved not to say anything to anyone at all.”

Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin next month. Only once he’s confirmed will we know how much Finnis’s thinking has shaped the Supreme Court nominee.

Christ Since the Beginning: The First Bible (Richard Rohr)

Sacred writings are bound in two volumes—that of creation and that of Holy Scripture. —Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) [1]

Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and deity—however invisible—have been there for the mind to see in the things God has made. —Romans 1:20

I think what Paul means here is that whatever we need to know about God can be found in nature. Nature itself is the primary Bible. The world is the locus of the sacred and provides all the metaphors that the soul needs for its growth.

If you scale chronological history down to the span of one year, with the Big Bang on January 1, then our species, Homo sapiens, doesn’t appear until 11:59 p.m. on December 31. That means the written Bible and Christianity appeared in the last nanosecond of December 31. I can’t believe that God had nothing to say until the last moment of December 31. Rather, as both Paul and Thomas Aquinas say, God has been revealing God’s love, goodness, and beauty since the very beginning through the natural world of creation. “God looked at everything God had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Acknowledging the intrinsic value and beauty of creation, elements, plants, and animals is a major paradigm shift for most Western and cultural Christians. In fact, we have often dismissed it as animism or paganism. We limited God’s love and salvation to our own human species, and, even then, we did not have enough love to go around for all of humanity! God ended up looking quite miserly and inept, to be honest.

Listen instead to the Book of Wisdom (13:1, 5):

How dull are all people who, from the things-that-are, have not been able to discover God-Who-Is, or by studying the good works have failed to recognize the Artist. . . . Through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author.

Sister Ilia Delio writes in true Franciscan style:

The world is created as a means of God’s self-revelation so that, like a mirror or footprint, it might lead us to love and praise the Creator. We are created to read the book of creation so that we may know the Author of Life. This book of creation is an expression of who God is and is meant to lead humans to what it signifies, namely, the eternal Trinity of dynamic, self-diffusive love. [2]

All you have to do today is go outside and gaze at one leaf, long and lovingly, until you know, really know, that this leaf is a participation in the eternal being of God. It’s enough to create ecstasy. The seeming value or dignity of an object doesn’t matter; it is the dignity of your relationship to the thing that matters. For a true contemplative, a gratuitously falling leaf will awaken awe and wonder just as much as a golden tabernacle in a cathedral.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Midrash

Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. [1] This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray before reading a sacred text!

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied

  • exclusionary,
  • punitive, and
  • triumphalist texts

in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.