The Catholic Thing
Beckwith’s Law Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 20 December 2013

Editor’s Note:
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The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things (the journal, not the book), coined the following maxim, which he appropriately called Neuhaus’ Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

According to Fr. Neuhaus, in theology, orthodoxy entails that there are right and wrong beliefs, that some beliefs fall outside or inside what is permissible within a theological tradition. So within Catholicism, on the matter of divine providence and human freedom, one can embrace Molinism or Thomism, but not Open Theism.  Catholic theology allows a variety of options on many theological issues, but those options must remain within the confines of Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

If the requirement to embrace orthodoxy becomes optional, however, it follows that it is wrong for a church to require that its members believe that there are right and wrong beliefs. Consequently, “when orthodoxy is optional,” as Fr. Neuhaus put it, “it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false.”

For this reason, a new “orthodoxy” will arise, one that entails that it is in fact wrong for a church to act as if there are right and wrong theological beliefs. Thus, the cleric who suggests an ecclesiastical trial to prosecute an alleged heretic will be marginalized and punished by his superiors for his suggestion. 

Inspired by Fr. Neuhaus’ Law, I’d like to offer my own maxim, one that applies to law, politics, and culture in the same way that Fr. Neuhaus’s applies to theology:  “Whenever a practitioner of a traditional vice appeals to the right of privacy as the justification for the state to leave him alone to engage in that vice, he will inevitably demand that the state require that those who morally disapprove of his practice cooperate with it, either materially or formally.”

Take, for example, contraception. Almost universally considered a vice in the Christian West until the 1930s when the Church of England changed its views, it was only in 1965 that the U.S. Supreme ruled, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that statutory prohibitions of the sale and use of contraception are unconstitutional.  

To justify this jurisprudential innovation, the Court’s plurality opinion appealed to something called the “right of privacy,” which the Court confessed is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but rather, implied by several provisions in the Bill of Rights. This newly minted right, according to the Court, is tightly tethered to the Fourth Amendment, which “explicitly affirms the `right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’”

It is clear from the Court’s opinion that on certain questions – especially those that touch on the philosophies with which a citizen is legally permitted to associate – the government cannot constitutionally employ its powers to inhibit or proscribe those associations. They are within a protectable “zone of privacy.” Thus, a right to purchase and use contraception is like the right to purchase and read a book. In order for it to be a true liberty right, it means that one may exercise it by either refraining or acting. 

Thus, it was not surprising that in 1992, Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, a group that defends contraceptive rights, testified before Congress in support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Action, expressing in her prepared remarks the principles that the ACLU had defended in Griswold: “At risk were such familiar practices as. . .permitting religiously sponsored hospitals to decline to provide abortion or contraception services.”

It was clear to the ACLU in 1992 that the right to purchase and/or use contraception or abortion services extended to corporate entities, including those that are in the business of offering medical care within the confines of their theological tradition.

The ACLU has since reversed itself and now argues that the government may in fact coerce corporate legal persons to purchase contraception and abortion-causing drugs, and distribute them to others contrary to the conscientious objection of these legal persons.

You can see a similar trajectory on a variety of other questions that were first framed as matters of privacy and personal liberty: abortion, same-sex relations, casino gambling, proliferation of obscenity, and non-marital cohabitation. The initial argument in each of these cases was an appeal to moral pluralism in which the champions of liberation maintained that, although it is perfectly reasonable for traditionalists to say these practices are vices, it is wrong for them to force that reasonable belief on others who may not find it to be reasonable.

And yet, in each of these cases, traditional moralists were eventually required either to cooperate materially or formally with some of these practices (e.g., the HHS mandate and Hobby Lobby, the photographer in New Mexico, the landlord in Alaska) or to try, often unsuccessfully, to navigate around other practices that have become ubiquitous in the cultural infrastructure of their communities (e.g., casino gambling, the proliferation of obscenity).

As I have noted in other places, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. For this reason, a society with official practices and institutions that presuppose that the law can never, in principle, provide any right or wrong answers to the deep moral questions that divide us will eventually come to embrace what Pope Emeritus Benedict calls a “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.” 

In such a culture, persons of conscience, such as the Green Family, who own Hobby Lobby, are inexplicable, for such persons are not ruled by their own egos or desires. That is why they must be marginalized and punished.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, where he is also Co-Director of the Program in Philosophical Studies of Religion and Associate Director of the Graduate Program in the Department of Philosophy.
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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Rich in MN, December 20, 2013
Excellent article! Thank you.

One of my pet peeves is how readily people confuse (1) accepting each person as they are: a child of God, and (2) accepting every choice that person makes as somehow being a reflection of God's desire for that person's life. Then, when someone tries to point out that distinction, they are often attacked with the further obfuscation of (3) "How can you say that person is going to Hell!!" (when, in fact, no such judgment is being made).

I know I have harped on this before, but GK Chesterton's "Father Brown" story entitled "The Chief Mourner of Marne" is absolutely brilliant in exposing so much of the modern hypocrisy regarding our discussions of moral issues. Definitely worth a read, or a re-read if you've read it already.
written by Louise, December 20, 2013
This is such an important subject! I wonder how or if we will solve it. The supporters of vice are more politically astute and engaged than the supporters of virtue. You are so right, as sure as night follows day, when something is decriminalized it is a short hop to its being subsidized.
written by Riki, December 20, 2013

If you follow the Master
the world will reject you
as it rejects the Pastor
with a lot of ballyhoo

The disciple is NOT above the Master
nor the servant above his Lord
the world is heading for a disaster
the Creator is ready to have it restored

The Queen of Heaven comes to warn
us poor children of naughty Eve
if we don’t listen, we’ll surely mourn
in an “eternity” full of grief

Each one of us is free to decide
whether to follow God or a worldly path
whether to be humble or full of pride
whether to be full of Love or full of wrath

The Righteous Judge keeps patiently
inviting His children to choose wisely
but most of us refuse blatantly
to follow His Commandments very precisely
written by Riki, December 20, 2013

Penance Penance Penance
to avoid His Divine vengeance
for not showing any remorse
and trying our will to enforce

The reign of the Impostor has arrived
the Church, of TRUTH is being deprived
the whole world hangs on his lips
while being readied for a total eclipse

The true followers of Christ
trying to pull off the heist
are persecuted for non-compliance
and being countered with defiance

When it will seem that all is lost
everything sacred has been tossed
God will deliver us from our agony
and reign forever in all His Majesty


Rita Biesemans, December 19 2013
written by Seanachie, December 20, 2013
Timely article, Francis, in light of the current Duck Dynasty controversy. Not sure that the result of a society that cannot draw clear lines between right and wrong is a "dictatorship of relativism". Seems to me the result simply is "dictatorship" way of the highway! I have never seen Duck Dynasty but I respect the actor who expressed his opinions (apparently consistent with Catholic thought), and refuses to yield to the gay advocacy "dictatorship" at A&E (and likely other entertainment, media, academic, and government entities).

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