Natural law theory promises to be a valuable resource in the present culture war, and it should be extended beyond matters of sexual ethics (where it has gained some prominence in the same sex marriage debate) to broader economic and social domains. I would even go so far as to say that the discourse of natural law promises an alternative to the secular order.

Why an alternative to the secular order? Because the notion of human nature we inherit has been indelibly shaped by the incarnation of God. We in the West are the beneficiaries of the Christian concept of what it means to be human. We may not explicitly hold to Christian doctrine, but the traditions within which we think have been deeply shaped by Christianity. Even an atheist can recognize that the notion that just to be human is something worthy of dignity, that we find ourselves in love, that there is in all human beings a precious interiority that must be respected. One need not believe Christian doctrine to recognize that these notions originate in the Judeo-Christian tradition—and that, once this support is removed, the notion of human dignity is imperiled.

One caution. Natural law theory is sometimes presented as secular (by which I mean simply non-religious). As a legal strategy, this makes sense. The critical problem arises when natural law is presented as not depending, in any form, on religious grounds. One problem with this is the fact that our moral concepts—especially our concept of the person—are entangled with the Judeo-Christian tradition. To attain an independent idea of human nature, we would need to do much more merely to subtract the Judeo-Christian accretions, because that tradition has not merely added discrete facts to what we know about the human, it has transformed our concept of human nature. Reversing these transformations is very close to what Nietzsche had in mind when he spoke of overcoming Christianity. This is the “danger” of a natural law that it could be presented as a form of secular (i.e., non-religious) reason.

This, at least, was the argument of my recent essay, “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism: The Danger and Promise of Natural Law.” Edward Feser’s heated response, [i] however, presents the essay as a polemic against natural law theory. He sums up my argument this way: “The natural law theorist qua natural law theorist does not appeal to divine revelation, ‘therefore’ (Cothran reasons) he must be committed to ‘a form of secular reason’—as if these were the only two options.” Feser’s readers may be quite surprised to learn that “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” advocates natural theory, and even touts natural law as an alternative to secularism.

Instead, he accuses me of conflating natural law theory with Nietzscheanism; of characterizing natural law as a secular theory; of being “in bed with modern naturalists;” and, most oddly, of targeting him “in particular.”

The errors in Feser’s reply are legion. He did not follow the line of argument, discern the influences that lay behind it, or state the position he identifies with correctly. When a readers’ interpretation varies so wildly from what was actually written, it is often the fault of the author. And I will admit the essay drew on a fairly broad range of intellectual disciplines—from the philosophy of history to theological anthropology—and presupposed familiarity with a wide array of thinkers—from St. Irenaeus to R. G. Collingwood to Hans urs von Balthasar.

Many of Feser’s misfires result from him misunderstanding the dominant influences behind “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism.” Contrary to his suggestion, I am not motivated by latent naturalism; rather, I am guided by St. Irenaeus’ anthropology and theory of history. St. Irenaeus is, like most Patristic resources save Augustine, neglected by the neo-scholastic tradition with which Feser identifies. This and many other misinterpretations seem to be due to Feser’s insistence on categorizing the views of others into categories that he is already familiar with; and his range of influences in theology is quite narrow.[ii] By transposing the arguments of others into his own conceptual vocabulary—which is limited when it comes to theological matters—Feser sometimes distorts the arguments of others beyond recognition. (I do not mean to suggest, however, that Feser is a bad philosopher. He is, in fact, quite accomplished, and much of his work—especially The Last Superstition—is excellent.)

Irenaeus’ development of the Scriptural idea that human nature is essentially historical (i.e., that one cannot define human nature without reference to the human story), that human reason is contingent on its place in history (i.e., that knowledge is always embedded in concrete historical circumstances), and that Jesus Christ is the center and ground of both history and intelligibility were all at work in my original argument. Irenaeus’ recognition that the Logos, the principle of intelligibility, is made manifest in history (rather than purely ahistorical speculation) has enormous implications for the relation of philosophy, theology, and effective history. Irenaeus’ notion of recapitulation profoundly relates historicity and reason, and a familiarity with the logic of recapitulation would have made the line of reasoning I pursued in “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” easier to follow, though it was not strictly necessary to the argument. Given the fact that the neo-scholastic canon is particularly impoverished when it comes to Patristic thought,[iii] perhaps I should have devoted some space to the notion of recapitulation in particular.

Even with this proviso, Feser’s reply systematically misses and misrepresents a number of points that were plainly set forth. Feser obfuscates a distinction that was made quite clearly in the original essay: namely, the distinction between presenting natural law theories without explicit appeal to religious tradition, and declaring natural law completely independent from any religious traditions. “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” puts the distinction this way: “it is one thing to resort to the natural law tradition for arguments devoid of explicitly Christian premises, and another entirely to present the natural law tradition as a form of secular reason.”

Feser incorrectly assumes that secularism is necessarily atheistic. In his reply, he argues “to say that natural law theory does not appeal to any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition, is not to say that it makes use of no theological notions at all. On the contrary, a complete natural law theory includes considerations from natural theology (as distinct from revealed theology).” The opposite of the secular, however, is not the theistic, but the religious. Secularism is not necessarily atheistic, but it is necessarily not religious. Consider the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the secular as “[b]elonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion; civil, lay, temporal. Chiefly used as a negative term, with the meaning non-ecclesiastical, non-religious, or non-sacred.” Many (if not most) of the sources of secular thought believed that God’s existence was demonstrable from nature (e.g., John Locke, Thomas Paine). Feser’s assumption that natural theology and secularism are mutually exclusive contradicts the nature and history of secular thought.

For the sake of clarity, I will distinguish the two types of claims as follows:

Weak claim: Natural law theory need not explicitly appeal to Christian tradition.

Strong claim: Natural law theory is a body of thought independent from the Christian tradition; i.e., the principles of natural law theory hold without any dependence on Christian revelation.

“Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” criticized the strong claim, but accepts the weak claim. Feser not only ignores the distinction, he engages in a bait and switch.

The original quotation from Feser I criticized runs as follows: “objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious traditions.” [iv] This is a form of the strong claim. Feser did not merely say that natural law need not appeal to revelation (i.e., the weak claim), but that it is entirely independent from revelation (i.e, the strong claim).

But when Feser restates his claim, he switches without warning from the strong claim to the weak claim. Consider: “[f]or to say that natural law theory does not appeal to any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition . . . ,” “[a]gain, natural law theory does not as such appeal to revelation, scripture, etc. . . . ,” or “[t]he natural law theorist qua natural law theorist does not appeal to divine revelation. . . .” [v] Every single time Feser restates the position I criticize, he alters it so that what was a strong claim is restated as a weak claim—without alerting his readers to the switch. As a result, he presents “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” as criticizing something it actually supports, misleading his readers.

The confusion does not stop there. While Feser claims to be representing the neo-scholastic position on the question of the natural desire for the supernatural, he remains unaware of what that position actually is. Feser says that neo-scholastics “do not regard natura pura as a state ‘devoid of an ontological drive for God.'” This is quite striking: an ontological orientation of human nature to God is precisely what neo-scholastics dispute.

This is not a controversial claim. The dispute concerning Aquinas’ notion of the natural desire for God generally falls between two camps: the neo-scholastic, which views this desire as epistemic, and the traditional, which views the desire as ontological. Lawrence Feingold puts the debate this way: “The central point in this debate concerns the precise way natural desire [for God] be understood here. What kind of natural desire are we dealing with? There have been two principle schools of interpretation in this regard. One [the epistemic] sees this desire naturally aroused or ‘elicited’ by some knowledge of God’s existence, while the other [the ontological] holds that it is an innate and unconditional appetite, independent of knowledge and expressing the intrinsic finality of the spiritual creature.”[vi]

Despite the fact that Feser is almost entirely dependent on Feingold’s The Natural Desire to See God for his understanding of de Lubac, Feser apparently did not read Feingold with enough care to grasp the outlines of the debate. The neo-scholastic tradition generally construes Aquinas’ notion of the natural desire to see God as epistemic, not ontological.[vii] Cajetan, for instance, says “[i]t does not seem true that the created intellect desires by nature to behold God. . . .”[viii] What neo-scholastics deny, Lawrence Feingold points out, is that “our faculties of will and intellect are ordered by their very nature to the vision of God.”[ix]

Human beings naturally desire to see God because they are curious about first causes, but here the neo-scholastic draws the line.[x] The natural desire to see God is not of the heart. Put another way, the vision of God does not naturally animate the whole human being. Lawrence Feingold defines the neo-scholastic position precisely by its belief that the desire for God “is not an innate appetite.”[xi] It may well be that Feser unwittingly holds to a Lubacean interpretation of Aquinas over that proffered by the likes of Feingold, preferring the neo-scholastic label to its substance.

Why limit the natural desire for God to intellectual speculation? Why deny that the heart naturally stretches out for God? The reasons have to do with the sixteenth-century controversy surrounding Baius’ pseudo-Augustinian theology, which held that God owed grace to human beings. In reaction to this view, certain theologians posited two extrinsically related orders: the natural and the supernatural. The relation has been articulated in a number of varying ways in the neo-scholastic tradition, but, for the purposes of my argument and Feser’s critique, the important thing is that these orders are externally related.

One clarification before I proceed further. In the context of this debate, the terms “natural” and “supernatural” have a technical sense. “Nature” refers specifically to human nature, and the supernatural to our eternal destiny. This usage goes back to the origins of the controversy, having originated in Pope Pius IV’s 1567 Bull, “Ex omnibus afflictionibus,” condemning Baius’ theology. Feser makes a very important mistake when he states that “‘supernatural,’ of course, means ‘above or beyond the natural.'” In general, yes, but in the context of the debate about the relation between (human) nature and the supernatural, this so misses the theological usage that the entire debate becomes incomprehensible.

On the neo-scholastic account, the natural and supernatural ends of man are extrinsically (rather than integrally) related. That is to say, the natural and supernatural are distinct orders, and the former is not by nature teleologically ordered toward the latter.

Aquinas’ own position on the subject was fairly clear. (Feser’s reply completely ignores the textual evidence as to what Aquinas actually says.) The supernatural end of man is beyond man’s power to attain, but the nature of a rational creature is nevertheless ordered to the beatific vision. Aquinas says that the “beatific vision and knowledge are to some extent above the nature of the rational soul, inasmuch as it cannot reach them of its own strength; but in another way they are in accordance with its nature, inasmuch as it is capable of them by nature, having been made to the likeness of God.”[xii] Rather than speak of two absolutely distinct orders, Aquinas spoke of the two-fold beatitude (“duplex hominis beatitudo”), composed of both man’s natural end and ultimate end: the beatific vision of God. As Aquinas puts it, “even though by his nature man is inclined to his ultimate end, he cannot reach it by nature but only by grace, and this owing to the loftiness of that end.”[xiii]

As interesting as the debate surrounding Aquinas’ notion of a natural desire to “see God by his essence,” [xiv] may be, we can take a shortcut around it. Even if we posited an actually existing state of pure nature at the time of Adam, it is sufficient for my argument that this nature has been subsequently elevated by grace, such that at present a pure nature is not an immediate given. So, for the sake of argument, we can accept a hypothetical pure nature—or even that Adam was in a state of pure nature—so long as we grant that nature has been subsequently elevated by nature, and that this elevation touches the core of human existence.

The claim made in “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” is, then, a modest one: the manifold concept of human nature we inherit today has been transformed by the Christian legacy in at least the following ways: 1) being human is being a person, and 2) dignity belongs to all human beings simply by virtue of their being human.

The notion of the person was, of course, shaped by the Trinitarian and Christological debates before filtering into an account of human nature.[xv] The notion of an ineradicable human dignity derives in large part from the doctrine of imago dei, the doctrine that man is made in the image of God.[xvi] My claim is not that natural law theorists need to explicitly appeal to Trinitarian dogma or the imago dei; I claim simply that we should not declare their complete autonomy. We should not try to produce a notion of human nature that is entirely independent of revelation. This would entail reversing the Christian transformations in the concept of human nature to counteract, to use the present examples, the notion of the person and of human dignity. (And here, of course, is the relevance of Nietzsche’s project.)[xvii]

A concrete example will help make this point clear. Natural law theorists can (and should) appeal to the notion of human dignity in defending (for example) a living wage or the right of workers to organize. They need not appeal to the doctrine of the imago dei, nor the Church’s teaching on just wages[xviii] or unions.[xix] The notion of human dignity, though a product of revelation, is a common inheritance to believer and unbeliever alike.[xx] The argument for just wages does not need to explicitly appeal to any Christian tradition, even though it ultimately appeals to a product of revelation, (unbeknownst to the secularist). The notion of human dignity is common ground in the sense that it can be accepted by the believer and the secularist alike, even if it ultimately loses its cogency within a secular worldview.

And this is how natural law can combat secularism: by showing that many of the most precious aspects of human nature lose their vitality when severed from their Christian roots. By pointing out that a secular account of man cannot do justice to the dignity of the person, the natural law theorist can undermine secularism at its foundations—the inadequacy of its humanism.

This, really, is all “Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism” says. There is not one compartment of the human, the natural, illuminated solely by the light of reason; and another compartment, the supernatural, illuminated solely by the light of faith. Instead, the supernatural end of man has been revealed, and this light illuminates human nature beyond the range of pure reason. Some embers still glow, however faintly, in this our “post-Christian” era.



[i] “Nietzchean Natural Law?,” Edward Feser, (November 28, 2013).

[ii] One thinks here of his mistaking Maximus the Confessor’s distinction between natural and gnomic wills with Hume’s very different distinction between a factual and normative statements. See David Bentley Hart, “Nature Loves to Hide,” in First Things (May 2013).

[iii] In discussing the classroom life under the neo-scholastic regime, Fergus Kerr notes that “[n]o one studied the primary sources.” Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007), 9.

[iv] Emphasis added. Feser claims this does not amount to a claim that natural law is a form of secular reason, because the natural law tradition accepts the existence of God on the basis of nature. As noted above, this claim incorrectly assumes the secular is necessarily atheistic.

[v] Emphasis added.

[vi] Feingold, Lawrence. The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters. Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2010, p. xxiii.

[vii] For some helpful background on the controversy surrounding the natural desire for God in Aquinas, see Alexander S. Rosenthal “The Problem of the Desiderium Naturale in the Thomistic Tradition,” Verbum IV/2, 335–344 (2004).

[viii] In Primam, q. 12, art 1; cf Henri de Lubac. The Mystery of the Supernatural. New York: Crossroad Pub., 1998, 8.

[ix] Lawrence Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2010), xxv.

[x] I am admittedly using “neo-scholastic” a bit broadly here. It could be argued that figures like Banez, for instance, do not share the mistakes typical of Cajetan and Suarez. See Alexander S. Rosenthal “The Problem of the Desiderium Naturale in the Thomistic Tradition,” Verbum IV/2, pp. 335-344 (2004).

[xi] Ibid., xxvi – xxvii.

[xii] Summa Theologiae III, q. 9, a. 2 ad 3.

[xiii] In Boethius de Trinitate, q. 6, a. 4 ad 5.

[ xiv] IV Sent., d. 49, q. 2, a. 7.

[xv] For a good overview of this argument, see Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Concerning the notion of person in theology” Communio 17, no. 3 (Fall 1990): 439–54.

[xvi] One thinks here especially of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s invocation of man’s likeness to God in his condemnation of slavery. See D. Bentley Hart, “The ‘Whole Humanity’: Gregory of Nyssa’s Critique of Slavery in Light of His Eschatology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 54, no. 01 (2001): 51–69, doi:10.1017/S0036930600051188.

[xvii] I do not mean (and never suggested) that neo-scholasticism engages in the Nietzschean project of overcoming Christianity, if for no other reason than they lacked Nietzsche’s insight into the depth of the Christian transformation of history.

[xviii] Consider John Paul II’s comments on Rerum Novarum in Centesimus Annus in affirming “the right to a ‘just wage’, which cannot be left to the ‘free consent of the parties, so that the employer, having paid what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond’. It was said at the time that the State does not have the power to intervene in the terms of these contracts, except to ensure the fulfilment of what had been explicitly agreed upon. This concept of relations between employers and employees, purely pragmatic and inspired by a thorough-going individualism, is severely censured in [Rerum Novarum] as contrary to the twofold nature of work as a personal and necessary reality.” § 8. Lest the reader have any doubt that state intervention is being called for rather than just private solutions, Leo XIII states that “[t]he richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.” Rerum Novarum § 37.

[xix] Chief among the solutions Leo XIII mentions in Rerum Novarum: “[t]he most important of all are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest.” § 49. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II reiterates the “Church’s defence and approval of the establishment of what are commonly called trade unions: certainly not because of ideological prejudices or in order to surrender to a class mentality, but because the right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society.’” § 7.

[xx] This is not to suggest that the believer and the unbeliever understand the notion of human dignity with the same depth.