State of Grace; Redefining Natural Law in a Secular Age

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 29, 2003 | Go to article overview
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State of Grace; Redefining Natural Law in a Secular Age


Byline: Philip Gold, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There is a conservative form, usually religious in orientation, of political correctness. It has no commonly accepted name. In "The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World," Russell Hittinger occasionally alludes to it as "right thinking" and "rightly formed opinion."

And it is graceless.

Mr. Hittinger is an academic hybrid: theology, philosophy, law. He does not seem intolerant, certainly not when he introduces himself as a Catholic who teaches mostly Baptist students at a Presbyterian university (Tulsa). But the gracelessness, when it surfaces, is real.

"The First Grace" is a collection of previously published articles dealing with various aspects of natural law - an item that Mr. Hittinger never clearly defines, if only because it's undefinable. Though the book is not excessively technical, neither is it a primer. Readers unacquainted with the subject might wish to hit the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Internet first.

So what is this thing called natural law? It's actually several things, united by their incompatibility. Theologically, the term can refer to God's human governance prior to the Fall: the "First Grace," as the early church defined it. Natural law may also mean the kind of innate law that Paul described when he wrote of Gentiles who, not having the Mosaic Law, nonetheless obeyed the law within their hearts and minds. Natural law can also refer to the "visible things" of the universe that hint at the invisible aspects of God.

But alas, according to Mr. Hittinger, natural law no longer occupies its proper place in Catholic (let alone Protestant) moral theology. The first part of the book deals with various aspects of its demise.

But natural law also has its secular branch. In one usage, it refers to humanity's condition prior to government. To Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature was mere chaos, what Mr. Hittinger calls an "authority-free zone." But to John Locke et al. it meant certain aspects of human existence that led to the foundation of civil government. To most Americans, it has to do with independence, especially all that felicitous rhetoric about unalienable rights and "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

Mr. Hittinger doesn't spend much time on Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, he congratulates the Founders on not forming a "natural rights" government. Although they found the verbiage too useful to do without, they opted to concentrate on the machinery of a limited state, not a state of general jurisdiction whose job is to protect yet another kind of "authority-free zone" - an ever-expanding realm of individual rights.

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