Gorsuch Understands Natural Law. Why That’s Good News for Christians
Natural law is “the law that is written in the human heart.” Gorsuch gets it.
It was a stunning moment in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a staunch supporter of so-called “abortion rights,” took umbrage. The problem was something Gorsuch had written. Feinstein complained: “He believes there are no exceptions to the principle that ‘the intentional taking of a human life by private persons is always wrong.’” (In this view, when we use violence in self-defense our intent isn’t killing per se but protecting ourselves. Soldiers and police aren’t “private persons,” but agents of the state – editors.)
Well, yes, that’s right. That’s what Gorsuch believes. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Not to Senator Feinstein, sadly. For her the alpha and omega is what her colleagues Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton consider a “sacred right:” a woman’s “right to choose.” Roe v. Wade is sacrosanct in their eyes. That’s the complete opposite of what Neil Gorsuch considers sacrosanct.
The Gorsuch statement in question comes from a 2006 book that he wrote on euthanasia and assisted suicide, published by Princeton University Press. In that book, Gorsuch wrote that “all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”
I will choose that worldview over Feinstein’s any day.
We Don’t Make the Natural Law, We Just Enforce It
Gorsuch’s views stem from a very deep, very rich, and very old tradition known as natural law.
Natural law affirms that we do what we ought to do according to nature, to our very nature. “What we ought to do is based on what we are,” writes Peter Kreeft. The natural law, notes Kreeft, is naturally known. How? By natural human reason and experience. You need not be a religious believer. (However, the natural law, as many of us believe, was written into nature by a Creator.)
Natural law is “the law that is written in the human heart.”
Really, it’s easier to give examples of natural law than a definition. Human sexuality demonstrates natural law so well because it’s so self-evident. Another violation of natural law is murder: one human life taking another. That’s a violation held by cultures and societies and governments of all times.
The Basis for Any Real Moral Code
Natural law infuses the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish and Christian faiths, Aquinas and Augustine, John Calvin and John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jacques Maritain. It transcends the variations of history. It’s a universal rule that binds us all. As Augustine put it, natural law is “the law that is written in the human heart.” As Aquinas explained it, the natural law allows us to “know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.”
Of course, Augustine and Aquinas were Christians. You need not be a Christian to understand what Thomas Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Pre-Christian figures like Aristotle and Cicero spoke of this eternal law. “True law is right reason in agreement with nature,” stated Cicero. “It is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting.”
Attempts to Redefine Human Nature
Many in today’s culture aggressively seek to redefine human nature, especially on issues like marriage, family, sexuality, and gender. The natural law is their chief foe. Indeed, if you’re an aggressive secular progressive, redefining human nature as it suits you, what do you do with natural law?
One of my former students got an answer in law school. Her progressive professor boldly proclaimed that “natural law doesn’t exist.” But I caution this professor: If you really believe this, then you must also reject the natural-law-based conclusions of tribunals such as Nuremberg after World War II. The judges told Nazi officials: Regardless of what Hitler’s laws stated, you should have known that what you were doing was wrong. To gas human beings and recycle their corpses into soap and lamp shades is an obvious violation of basic laws of humanity. There is no excuse.
Relativism says everything is redefinable, from one’s gender to whether a human life is even a human life.
The Bedrock for Civil and Human Rights
Or, consider slavery and various civil-rights laws. One current libertarian writer states that “the greatest spokesman for natural law in the twentieth century was probably Martin Luther King, who denounced segregation not because of its technical complexities, but because it betrayed the natural law principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
All this is true. So most progressives will do with natural law what they do with Biblical Law and other moral laws: they will pick the applications they like and ignore or reject those they don’t. Or, even more brazenly, they will try to remake the natural law in their own image.
No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Nature tells you what to do. You don’t tell nature what to do. Just as your biology and your 74 trillion chromosomes tell you your gender. You don’t tell yourself your gender.
But tell that to modern disciples of the dictatorship of relativism. For them, everything is deemed redefinable, from one’s gender to whether a human life is even considered a human life.
Gorsuch is Rooted in Reason
And that brings us back to Neil Gorsuch.
Gorsuch is incredibly well-educated. It’s difficult to find a more credentialed academic pedigree. He studied natural law while earning a Ph.D. at Oxford (he has a J.D. from Harvard) under one of the world’s preeminent authorities on natural law, John Finnis. Professor Finnis was Gorsuch’s dissertation adviser. He’s now on faculty at Notre Dame Law School and a professor emeritus at Oxford. Finnis’ best-known work is his Natural Law and Natural Rights.
Gorsuch was quoting that book by Finnis when he wrote that no human being should be able to take the life of another human being — the statement that Senator Feinstein found so reprehensible.
We can likely expect Neil Gorsuch’s thinking to be in concert with faithful Christians.
Keeping the Church Free
Gorsuch is also a defender of religious liberty, which Feinstein likewise finds objectionable.
Take Gorsuch’s statement in support of the Little Sisters of the Poor, when the Obama administration tried to force the nuns to pay for abortion drugs. He wrote: “When a law demands that a person do something the person considers sinful, and the penalty for the refusal is a large financial penalty, then the law imposes a substantial burden on that person’s free exercise of religion.”
It’s good to have Supreme Court justices of this mind, not of the thinking of the likes of Senator Feinstein.
In all, this means that Neil Gorsuch’s thinking on issues like human life and religious liberty should be in concert with faithful Christians. It should be sympathetic to the rights of Christians against a government that tries to coerce them.
A version of this article previously appeared in The National Catholic Register.