Schwartz: How Catholic Natural Law Was Converted to American Illiberal Dogma

“. . . a full Catholic roster of waggish music nerds in finely tailored suits, bella figuras all.”

Peter Hammond Schwartz

This week The New Republic published a brilliant piece of religious/political critique by a writer from Washington State named Peter Hammond Schwartz. PHS has composed a groundbreaking and well-researched essay (called “apopleptic” (sic) by one writer) that explains in historical and philosophical depth (including a look at the “bella figuras” of conservative Catholic punditry) just how conservative Catholicism has come to influence America’s judicial and political culture.

Here’s Schwartz’s astute thesis:

“Conversations on religious influences in American public life typically have focused on white evangelical Protestant support for Donald Trump and the Christian nationalist wing of the Republican Party. However, the rise of American conservatism is actually a 50-year saga of Catholic intellectual and theological penetration of the halls of power…The underlying organizational and intellectual impetus for this influence derives from Thomist Catholic perspectives—on natural law, in particular—that have achieved resurgence in the last 50 years and have infused conservative foundations and think tanks alongside vast amounts of donor money.”

Schwartz identifies the conservative Catholic culprit as something called “new natural law,” a recent perversion of the original natural law as put forth by St. Thomas Aquinas:

“However, Catholic theorizing about natural law swung hard right in the 1960s, assuming a new and more sinister synthesis in the “new” natural law, or NNL, that emerged from the religious and political turmoil of the 1960s. The NNL—which received its most precise articulation from Anglo-American theologians and philosophers such as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Hadley Arkes, and Robert P. George—hardly resembled the less systematic and more discursive applications of Thomist natural law from prior centuries.”

What was/is this “new” natural law focused on? Schwartz tells us it’s the Church notion of sex as procreation only: all sexual practices not directed at producing children (contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, premarital sex, and, I suppose, following the logic out to the bitter end, oral sex within marriage) are conventionally forms of sinful “concupiscence” and, therefore, unnatural in the eyes of God and the Church. Catholic opposition to abortion, in this new natural law light, might be more accurately described as anti-sex than as “pro-life.” And which organizations have helped most to disseminate this Puritanical theology/ideology? According to Schwartz, it’s the Federalist Society and Fox News:

“The newsroom at Fox characterized its typical viewer as “an Irish-Catholic family man,” the archetypal police officer or firefighter living on Staten Island or Long Island. Through this lens, what we see on Fox is a purified form of culture-war Catholicism that is fully and explicitly an identity.”

Part of what made Trump so alluring to “trad Catholics” was his belligerent, if largely self-serving and fake, religious conversion to conservative, evangelical populism.

Anyway, go to The New Republic and read all of Schwartz for yourself. We liberal Catholics (and liberals of all sorts) have been given a broad and thorough outline of what “conservatism” and “traditional” Catholicism have been up to recently in the American legal and political realm. I say, as a liberal Catholic-at-large, it’s time to reclaim and reassert the original work of St. Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic/Christian social justice ideas.

2 responses to “Schwartz: How Catholic Natural Law Was Converted to American Illiberal Dogma”

  1. John Frederick .. as a liberal Catholic-at-large you should know better, that Peter Hammond Schwartz flagrantly mischaracterized the Catholic theology of the Person [ToP], of which Theology of the Body is a subset, mislabeling it ‘NNL’ and declaring it to be all about procreation rather than the higher call of human dignity in love. ToP is a full enlightenment by the principles of faith and revelation of what had been personalist philosophy stemming from phenomenology. If there are aspects that can trace scattered roots back through Thomism and on back to Augustine and even to both Plato and Aristotle, that is no perverse inventiveness, but rational continuity. Ironically, I doubt that Peter Hammond, or I suspect you, would really appreciate the application of a medieval conception of NL that you’d call unadulterated .. in fact attempts to apply it as a rule of life without the benefit of much later ToP led to all manner of aberrant problems, including late Cathar as well Jansenist ideas. All Peter Hammond has done is shamelessly display his hatred and bigotry towards the Catholic religion. Surely you don’t wish to join his ranks?


    • Thanks, Gary. Appreciate your comment. Have you read The Atlantic piece? I don’t think that PHSchwartz is displaying, as you say, “hatred and bigotry towards the Catholic religion.” Rather he is trying to get at the true, more liberal heart of Catholic theology.


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