I’ve had my absentee ballot printed and neatly awaiting ink on the kitchen table for weeks now. What has numbed my enthusiasm for the two major presidential candidates this year has not been their haranguing campaigns and pussyfooting policy proposals. Instead, it has been their more basic inability to employ natural law to get at the heart of the domestic and international questions that confront our country.
Cicero was likely the first to define natural law; the use of right reason that is congruent with nature. Centuries later, a young Italian man who had thwarted his family’s schemes to become a Dominican priest, recognized natural law as the order each living organism freely obeyed. It was only men, born as creatures of free-will, who had the ability to determine if they would conform their will to that of God’s reflected in the laws of nature, or attempt to establish himself outside of it. Derivable by reason, it is that from which civil law derives its legitimacy because it reflects the basic moral principles of right and wrong, true and untrue.
As a Catholic, female voter from Indiana, my voting “blocks” have been heavily targeted during this election. We’ve been sliced and diced according to age, race, income level, geography, level of educational attainment, and nearly every other identifiable characteristic that distinguishes us. I’m neither the suburban soccer mom nor the white-collar executive the “women’s issues” speechwriters have been desperately trying to reach, but I’m willing to bet that the unleashing of the feminine genius in American society is tied to something other than free access to birth control and mandated equal pay. Imagine if electoral politics addressed that which unites us, and recognized that underlying the differences of a pluralistic society is an order that doesn’t go away when ignored.
While the modern world brings with it complexities and the relativist temptation, we only thwart ourselves when we try to arrange for solutions to problems without taking into account the nature of the human person.
Take, for example, the number one issue this cycle: the restoration of the American economy. Whether it’s Mitt’s Five Point Plan or Barack’s Jobs and Economy Plan, each fails to reconcile the fundamental characteristics of the human person: great potential but also great vulnerability. The Democrats could benefit from a lesson on the principle of subsidiarity. While often in need of assistance, the people closest to a social problem have the most profound interest in solving it. If we implant jobs or temporary relief services into people’s lives without leaving room for the irreplaceable role only that individual, family, or village can play in their own realization, we negate their humanity.
Even granted the enterprising and self-responsible spirit Republicans seem to understand as bubbling up within us, though, there is no denying that individuals tend to use – and abuse – good things in ways that render them harmful for others and the community. The other major principle of natural law is that of solidarity, which says that our common origin and destiny make us all neighbors, and, whether weak or strong, we are called to use what we’ve been given to help others. Markets can only be free when they are founded upon a framework that emphasizes the common good. That means measures need to be taken so as to ensure the workforces and environments used in the making of goods are never exploited, or stripped of dignity.
Of course, even this attempt to apply natural law to the economy is necessarily abstract. It is so by design in our affairs, to be gleaned from in the creation of tax codes, trade regulations, collective bargaining, or energy independence necessary to our economy, while at the same time guiding the welcoming of human life into the world, the criteria that need to be examined before two nations enter into war, even the bees that pollinate the flowers and the lunar cycles that create the ocean waves. It’s obvious that these and other issues of our time will require great leaders and exceptional compromise. But because the future of a republic depends on the virtue practiced by its citizens, as Brad Birzer has written recently in these pages, the act of voting is very quickly put into perspective. There will be no “savior” to elect this year, just as there hasn’t been in years past. Our priority as American citizens, however, should be what it is every election: to vote for the candidate most competent in drawing from what remains constant to address those things that will continue to change.