A Natural Law for Queer and Racial Justice

Craig A. Ford, Jr.

Image by Robert Jones from Pixabay

This article is part of our “Natural Law, Human Rights, and ‘Unalienable Rights” series.
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In this brief essay, I propose that the natural law and social justice traditions can together form a powerful partnership that champions anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic causes. This is especially the case for those of us for whom Christian theological convictions shape our ethical worldview. At the same time, the natural law tradition’s reputation for drawing heteronormative conclusions in questions of sexual ethics and for supporting colonialism and oppressive racial and gender hierarchies has prompted some thinkers to move away from seeing natural law as a viable ally in projects for justice.1 See, for example, Kathryn Lofton’s essay, “Everything Queer?” in Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2014). Given that context, arguing that natural law can serve progressive ends may seem something of a fool’s errand. 

However, the abandonment of the natural law tradition by progressive Christians and progressive thinkers more broadly is mistaken for at least two reasons. First, the natural law tradition offers the kind of moral realism often presupposed, if not always owned, by social progressives. Second, the natural law tradition does not speak univocally, but rather is as polysemous as any other intellectual tradition, featuring both socially progressive and socially conservative strands. The progressive strands of natural law can be deployed for queer and antiracist projects. 

An honest assessment of our intellectual climate forces us to admit that moral realism—or the view that there are moral facts—is not a popular notion. More widely held is the view that morality is ultimately a relative phenomenon, and that the truth or falsity of moral statements is ultimately grounded in some facet of human existence that varies from person to person by identity, ideology, or culture. This variation in ethical norms, according to this view, undermines the notion that something like a common morality can actually transcend different identities, cultures, and ideologies. The consequence of this for social progressives is that, if there is no non-relative basis for judging ethical truth, then the grounds for challenging misogyny, homophobia, and racism can seem obscure or absent. Truth claims would merely reduce to power claims, as scholars like Michel Foucault famously articulated.

The natural law tradition filtered through a lens of moral realism can provide an ethical scaffolding for challenging the oppressions that come from unjust structures and relationships.  It can do so by framing these forms of discrimination as wrong because they deny a normative dimension of our human nature that calls out for gender, sexual, and racial equality. Such a conviction is valuable precisely because it grounds progressive social activism in something pre-political, in something that we all share in virtue of our very existence, rather than merely in something that we establish as true because some people have the social and political power to protect and defend that view.

The natural law and social justice traditions can together form a powerful partnership that champions anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic causes.

So, natural law is valuable for its moral realism, but one can certainly be a moral realist without advocating for something like the natural law. So why do so? It is at this point where, I believe, objections raised by queer thinkers and by critical race thinkers are the strongest. After all, the most ardent defenders of this natural law concept of human nature have often been conservatives. My own Roman Catholic tradition provides nearly endless evidence for this latter observation. It has prohibited sexual and marital relationships between persons of the same gender. It has prohibited women from priesthood. It has defended the view that gender identity is binary and that transgender persons should not seek to bring their bodies into alignment with their chosen identities. 

In response, some queer thinkers and theologians have taken these heteronormative and sexist judgments concerning human nature as decisive evidence for the view that “nature,” as an analytical category, is one of the most perfidious concepts we possess. This is how it functions: by masking certain socially constructed notions concerning identity and relationships as ostensibly either prior to or outside of political contestation, only those identities and relationships that conform to these paradigms accede to the category of the “normal.” The result is  that nonconforming identities and relationships are seen as “abnormal” and, perhaps, as the objects of social and scientific intervention. In queer thought, this entire process whereby social relations are represented as beyond contestation due to their putative status as “normal” on scientific or philosophical grounds is regarded as “naturalization.” This naturalization of gender and sexual hierarchies is, in turn, reinforced through social structures that mandate compliance at the risk of social ostracization of and possible violence towards queer people and women. 

As scholars like Achille Mbembe and Ibram Kendi have shown, Europe’s colonialist modernity also traded on assertions of “natural” differences between whites and blacks. And in the United States, white Catholics and white Christians more broadly were willing to go along with this division, as the “natural” equality that white and black persons had before God was nevertheless compatible with slavery, racial segregation, and Jim Crow.  In fact, the first condemnation of racial segregation by the United States Catholic bishops did not happen until 1958, to be repeated more comprehensively in 1979, and to be repeated and expanded yet again in 2019. To critical race scholars, a timeline such as this betrays the long history of white supremacy as well as the contradictions within the category of “nature” itself, one that is simultaneously powerful enough to generate a racial hierarchy while also seemingly powerless to defeat it. 

Queer scholars and critical race scholars come together, then, to render a powerful conclusion: Just as gender and sexual hierarchies funding hetero/sexist ideologies are naturalized and subsequently reinforced through social control, so are racial hierarchies funding white supremacist ideologies naturalized and subsequently reinforced through social control. “Nature,” far from emerging as a pre-political concept then, unveils itself to be as ideological as the oppression it supports. Truth, once again, reduces to power claims.

Queer and critical race interventions serve this integrative project by giving us a more accurate rendering of both past and the present so that we can make a less violent future for sex and gender minorities and for non-white persons.

If this conclusion is correct, then we are perilously close to asserting a moral antirealism. While it is not possible in this space to respond to this argument fully, I’d like to advance two claims in closing. The first is that there is no necessary relationship between natural law thought and hetero/sexist and racist oppression. While it is true, for example, that the Roman Catholic Church has been especially vocal in its conclusions with respect to sexuality and gender, the conclusions advanced by the bishops are not the only natural law conclusions on offer. In fact, since the middle of the twentieth century, revisionist natural law theologians have been challenging natural law conclusions reached by church leaders both in feminist projects and in projects to reclaim the natural law for queer theory and queer theology. Similarly, along the anti-racist front, the natural law found a place in the writing of none other than Martin Luther King, Jr., in his appropriately famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In our day, the natural law continues to be the object of critical retrieval by scholars like Vincent Lloyd in his book Black Natural Law.

My second and final point is that the category of “nature” need not be seen as merely a political concept because it can function politically. As a feature of a morally realist project, nature can “get behind” even hetero/sexist and racist ideology in order to ground our notions of equality and human dignity. When used in a progressive, heuristic way, the concept of “nature” serves this purpose remarkably well, precisely because assertions concerning human nature themselves reflect normative judgments concerning how we should live as the complex biological, social, psychological, and spiritual creatures that we are. To ask questions about that in which human nature consists, then, is simply to ask questions about what it means to live a good human life when that phenomenon is investigated from as many angles as possible. To append this concept of nature to the natural law—as is done frequently in the Catholic tradition—then is to talk about the normative texture of human life when human life is considered in all of its complex manifestations, most notably in relation to God’s will for how human beings should live. 

Indeed, the possibility of this progressive use of natural law thinking is confirmed by the very thinker who is often hailed as its touchstone, the philosopher-theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. In his masterwork, the Summa Theologiae, Thomas identifies the natural law as nothing more, but crucially nothing less, than the capacity whereby “we discern what is good and what is evil”—a capacity that is “an imprint on us of the Divine light.”2 (Summa Theologiae, I-II 91.1) Certainly, a capacity for making judgments about good and evil is not the same as arguing for and evaluating conclusions about what is good and evil with respect to human morality. 

The point of all of this is that the category of “nature” and, by extension, the natural law, does not unambiguously point in an oppressive ideological direction. When natural law thinking is done at its best, it’s done in a manner that seeks to integrate all the insights into human being-in-the-world. Queer and critical race interventions serve this integrative project by giving us a more accurate rendering of both past and the present so that we can make a less violent future for sex and gender minorities and for non-white persons. This information is vital to a robust and progressive natural law framework, and it gives to the natural law a vibrant future.

Craig A. Ford, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. A moral theologian and scholar-activist, he writes at the intersection of the Catholic moral tradition, queer theory and critical race theory, on issues of sexuality, racial justice, and natural law. To learn more about the author visit @cfordjr and Facebook.

Recommended Citation

Ford, Jr., Craig A. “A Natural Law for Queer and Racial Justice.” Canopy Forum, January 21, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/01/21/a-natural-law-for-queer-and-racial-justice-by-craig-ford/