Lessons of Natural Law in Gaza

Note: Be sure to tune in to EWTN tonight (Thursday, October 12th) at 8 PM for the latest episode of ‘The World Over,’ featuring the Papal Posse (host Raymond Arroyo, TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal, and Fr. Gerald E. Murray). They will be discussing the Synod on Synodality and its impact on the future of the Church – and other topics of interest to faithful Catholics. Check your local listings for the channel in your area. Shows are usually available shortly after first airing on the EWTN YouTube channel.

I think about Shani Louk and pray for her, the 22-year-old German-Israeli tattoo artist and globe-trotting pacifist, who was kidnapped by Hamas from the Tribe of Nova rave festival in the Negev Desert. The video has gone viral (I have not watched it) of terrorists – big men with rifles – sitting on her limp body in the back of a pickup truck, spitting on it, and parading it around as they shout, “Allah is great!”

The latest news suggests she is still alive although suffering from a serious head injury. For me, she stands for the several hundred other innocent men, women, and children who were either gunned down in cold blood by Hamas or kidnapped as hostages.

Above all about these atrocities I am praying and aiming to do “acts of atonement.”  The writing of this column, or your reading it, pale in comparison: “First, prayer; then, atonement; in the third place, very much ‘in the third place’, action.” (St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, 82).

But let us reflect also and learn something if we can, and make resolutions.  Consider first how the condemnation of the killing of the innocent was immediate and spontaneous by nearly everyone.  It’s obvious – but this is what I want to point out – that the murders were condemned not in relation to any human, positive law.

No one has checked, and no one cares, whether the Hamas terrorists violated the law of Israel, or of the Gaza enclave, or international law.  But they were lawless.  Therefore, they violated a law.  But it was no human law that we take them to have violated.

Unless the terrorists violated a law, they are not guilty, and are not deserving of commensurate punishment.  But they are deserving – our justified anger tells us this – and therefore a natural law exists.  Everyone recognizes this natural law and at least implicitly affirms it.

Let us resolve, then, always to honor these murdered innocents by firmly supporting the natural law, learning more about it, and defending it.  (Supporting the work of the James Wilson Institute, for instance, might be a good place to start.)

Consider, second, how our anger at the violation of this law, and our placing these murders “under the sight of God,” are one and the same thing. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families” – tweeted India’s Prime Minister, Narenda Modi.  I choose him merely because he stands for everyone and intended in his tweet to say something that stands for everyone.

But scroll through comments on stories about victims and you will find endless expressions of the same, along with wishes such as, “May you find peace in a better place.”


Yes, people “canonize” the victims immediately, as they do everyone else now.  The victims are assumed to be blessed, enjoying untrammeled happiness.  But it is a good instinct by which people do this.  It is a Christian instinct, that an innocent who is murdered, by that fact itself, is identified with Christ and therefore shares the lot of Christ.

People do not take the additional step and wonder about the fate of one of those terrorists who happened to be killed in the midst of his rampage.  Are our thoughts and prayers also with him?  Maybe so, but to a different effect.  Does he rest in peace?  It is problematic, and, therefore (as we see), if there is a natural law, then universalism must be false – at least, taken as providing any assurance, it is most definitely false.

But the broader second point is this: that, as “there cannot be a law without a lawgiver,” as Newton was fond of saying, so, we cannot consistently regard the murder of an innocent as a wrong that “cries out” for justice, unless it is under “the sight of God” – since if we are by nature at war with one another, or we are no more than animated pieces of meat, then all that is to be expected, or at least not contrary to any deep order.

There is nothing eternally wrong about one animal destroying another, and we might just as well forget about it immediately, and return to our breakfast, except insofar as our own self-interest implies otherwise.

This is to say, the Second Tablet of the natural law really does depend upon and imply the First.

Consider, third, how this fundamental precept of the natural law, “Do not murder,” admits of no exceptions from considerations of original intent, or what is called “equity” (epieikeia).  Murder by starving men on a lifeboat might have mitigated guilt, but is still murder and forbidden in all circumstances.  No considerations of the common good relax the precept.

Call murder per se malum (“evil as such”) if you wish, “In nearly 50 years of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” former Harvard president Larry Summers said about the Harvard student groups who gave a defense by appeal to ‘equity’ of the atrocities.

Summers cannot be praised for moral quickness, however. Pro-life students have been disillusioned and alienated for more than 50 years for Harvard’s defense of abortion on considerations of “equity.”  Or so I say as a founding member of what we called Harvard-Radcliffe Students for Life:

Precepts admit of dispensation, when there occurs a particular case in which, if the letter of the law be observed, the intention of the lawgiver is frustrated. . . .If therefore there by any precepts which contain the very preservation of the common good, or the very order of justice and virtue, such precepts contain the intention of the lawgiver, and therefore are indispensable. . . .Consequently the precepts of the decalogue admit of no dispensation whatever.” (S.T. I-II, q. 100, a. 8, corpus).

But tell that, too, to Belgian bishops who say that euthanasia is not “evil as such,” or Vatican clerics who seem to fudge the difference between mitigation of guilt for adultery and the guilt of adultery.


*Image: The Wailing Wall by Salvador Dalí, 1975 [Israel Museum, Jerusalem]

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.