The Political Dimension of the Defense of Natural Law

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

The avalanche of new laws concerning marriage and the family which have been enacted in France for over half a century, all of which are direct attacks on natural law, have provoked, on the part of a certain portion of the Catholic world, a diffuse or express delegitimization of the political institutions that enacted them, all of this occurring within the individualist tidal wave of the post-68 period as well as the sort of explosion in full flight of a Church in a conciliar state.

Homosexual so-called ‘marriage’ and the constitutionalizing of abortion have brought the climate among these same Catholics to incandescence, which begs the question: what ought to be done? In France, the March for All (Manif pour tous), against homosexual ‘marriage’, and the March for Life, against the laws according a so-called ‘right’ to abortion, mobilized a very substantial Catholic militancy. Unfortunately, there has been no success in repealing or amending the laws in question, even if this mobilization succeeded in terms of giving a public testimony and a certain cohesion to groups resisting these laws within a hostile society. But couldn’t the effect be greater, not quantitatively, but qualitatively?  

Hence a debate launched by the bimonthly L’Homme nouveau, with an article published on 9 March 2024 by Thomas Lassernat, “‘The Survivors’, Fighting the System without Strengthening It?”,[1] which argued that recurrent forms of pro-life activism had only reinforced the institutional structures that gave rise to bad laws. Then with a dossier, “Fifty Years of Resistance to Abortion: Can We Make an Assessment?” (6 April 2024), with two articles by Michel Janva[2] and Jean-Pierre Maugendre,[3] who responded to Lassernat’s position by esteeming, with nuances, that public demonstrations are the only currently possible means of bringing the debate onto the public square, and an article by Philippe Maxence,[4] calling for the need to consider an exit from modern democracy and quoting the sentence from Pius XII’s radio message of June 1941:  “From the form given to society, whether in harmony or not with the divine laws, the good or evil of souls derives.”

In line with those of Philip Maxence, we wish here to express our own reflections on the greatest fruits that this Catholic struggle might bear, namely, at least the beginning of a questioning of its institutional source, but also more immediately of its metastasis in the Church, and thus a consolidation of the whole Catholic world in its determination to make Christ reign in the institutions.

The Progressive Disintegration of Public Morality in the Name of the ‘New Law’ (Immortale Dei, 1885)

The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 consecrated the revolutionary rupture: henceforth, power no longer emanates from God, as Saint Paul affirms in Romans 13:1, but “the principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation” (art. 3), and the law, “expression of the general will” (art. 6), is detached from its reference to the law of God.

However, not all the elements of the traditional social order disappeared all at once, and whole sections of the natural law remained, for example, in the legislation concerning marriage and the family, which, with the exception of divorce, was not profoundly challenged until the sixties of the last century.[5] The fact remains that, in principle, political society had suddenly ceased to respond to the principles of natural and Christian law. And this innovation manifested itself as early as August 1792.

The day of the consecration of the Revolution, the 10 August, was followed shortly afterwards by the law of 30 August 1792, which established that “marriage is soluble by divorce,” and then by that of 20 September 1792, which instituted the secularization of civil status and marriage, civil marriage being the only one recognized by law. To this was added, under the consulate, the obligation to precede a religious marriage, if it took place, by a civil marriage (the law of 10 Germinal Year X – 8 April 1802), which was enshrined in the Civil Code and the Penal Code. This tyrannical provision with regard to the freedom of the Church was never to be repealed, not even during the separation of Church and State in 1905: the celebration in France of a religious marriage remains subject to the prior celebration of a civil marriage.

The Restoration reaffirmed the indissolubility of marriage and abolished divorce by the law of 8 May 1816, obtained by Louis de Bonald who, contrary to the principles of the Enlightenment, considered marriage as “the bedrock of society” and divorce as “a revolutionary poison”. The latter was re-established by the Third Republic, with the Naquet law of 27 July 1884, and then underwent various adjustments, including the allowance of divorce contractually, by mutual consent of the spouses (law of 11 July 1975).

But it was the latter part of the twentieth century that witnessed an accumulation of laws against marriage and the family (we will not mention here those against freedom of education, which is a more complex subject in itself):

  • The Neuwirth Law of 9 December 1967 authorizing the sale and use of contraceptive methods in France.
  • And also the law of 3 January 1972, which laid down the principle of equality between legitimate and illegitimate children in matters of inheritance, even if the attack this law inflicted on the protection of the family was denounced at the time by very few, such as the jurist Henri Mazeaud; (a law of 3 December 2001 granted perfect equality to all offspring, whether legitimate or illegitimate, including those children born of adulterous unions).  
  • The Law allowing for the “Voluntary Termination of Pregnancy”, adopted on an experimental basis on 20 December 1974, and confirmed in 1979, and subsequently extended on several occasions.
  • The law of 15 November 1999 establishing the civil solidarity pact (PACS) allowing what sociologists call a “new form of conjugality,” both for couples composed of a man and a woman and for same-sex couples.
  • The Taubira law of 17 May 2013 extending marriage to same-sex couples and allowing the adoption of children for same-sex couples.
  • The law of 2 August 2021, notably providing access to medically-assisted procreation (PMA) for female couples and unmarried women.
  • The law of 20 February 2022 opening up adoption to unmarried couples.
  • The Constitutional Law of 8 March 2024 on the freedom to have recourse to voluntary termination of pregnancy.
  • And the soon-to-be law authorizing euthanasia.

Defining the right to kill the innocent child as one of the fundamental rights symbolically represents a kind of climax in the overriding assertion of the precedence of the “general will” over the divine will. But neither the protest against this democratic sanctuarization, nor even the protest against abortion, should permit us to forget the previous unnatural attacks on the family, namely, those of the Taubira law, the PACS law, the Neuwirth law, the Naquet law. Regarding the progress made, Yves-Marie Adeline wrote, in an article in the Courrier des Stratèges of 4 March 2024[6]: “Here we are at last: in reality, this constitutionalization marks the plenitude of democracy, that is to say, of a regime where the citizen recognizes no bond superior to himself, no law of Antigone, but only Liberty.”

The temptation to denounce the consequences without seeking out the causes

These so-called laws, “for unjust laws are acts of violence rather than laws,”[7] were voted by the national representation by virtue of the very principle of its sovereignty. It is conceivable to put pressure on it, in the name of testimony and concrete action, to try to make it reverse these decisions, in the same way as trade union demonstrations do. But we must be aware that we are in the realm of reformism, which can in some cases obtain results, which, though merely provisional, are nonetheless good for the taking. Results can be obtained especially if the pressure becomes particularly significant: the two largest rallies of the March for All (Manif pour tous) in January and March 2013 were very impressive and reminiscent of those of the Movement for Private Catholic Schools (Mouvement pour l’école libre) in 1984, which managed to make the government yield to its demands, but with the significant difference that the Movement for Schools was ultimately a movement embedded within the democratic world.  It was a tug-of-war between its right-wing, with its Catholic electorate, and its left-wing.

The fact remains that the cause of these laws is their principle, that is, the fact that the possibility of violating natural law (solubility of marriage, sterilization of women to perform sexual acts, abortion) is within the purview of the “general will”. To want to confine oneself to putting pressure on the political authorities to change bad laws is insufficient, and would be so even if – which is not the case – it produced some temporary effects in the short term.

The inadequacy was basically the same in the various episodes of rallying with the republic which the ecclesiastical authorities urged upon Catholics in order to fight against the anticlerical laws. It was basically a  large-scale reformist  action: integrating secular institutions to prevent them from making bad laws. This didn’t produce the hoped for success. Let us be clear: we do not mean to say that the organization of pressure by demonstrations or otherwise on the democratic powers to repeal a law is an act of rallying with these powers, but only that the inadequacy of the two approaches is identical if it is not accompanied in some way by the condemnation of the unjust principles that allow the adoption of unjust laws.

The missed opportunity of the March for All: liberating religious marriage from republican marriage

If pressure is to be exerted, inter alia by demonstrations, the ultimate aim, however remote, should be included as explicitly as possible from a pedagogical point of view, namely, the re-establishment of an institutionally Christian society. For if the Catholic wishes to live a life consistent with his beliefs, earning a living, raising his children, practicing his faith, in the midst of a society intrinsically alien to the natural and Christian order, he must direct all his actions (or possibly his abstentions), like the lines of a drawing in perspective, towards this goal, however remote it may be and however utopian it may appear, of discarding what has taken the place of the Christian City.

Let’s take the example of the missed opportunity of the March for All. Opposition to the Taubira law by Catholics sought to prevent the entry of so-called same-sex marriage into civil legislation concerning marriage. In short, these Catholics were fighting in favor of a “good” republican marriage, in accordance with natural law, at least on this point, since republican marriage allows, among other things, for the possibility of divorce.

Now, this civil legislation of marriage, as we have stated above, constitutes one of the aspects of the tyranny imposed on the Catholic Church by the secularity of the State. It obliges Catholic spouses (under penalty of penal sanctions for the minister officiating at a religious wedding ceremony) to submit, before giving each other the sacrament which is for them the sole marriage,[8] to a civil ceremony in which they recognize no value, but in the absence of which the civil rights attached to the institution of marriage would not be recognized to them (rights which are now being reduced,  it is true, to making donations between spouses and to exercising reciprocal rights with regard to their inheritance).

It would therefore have been necessary to clearly explain the framework within which Catholics, as members of the City, ought to have spoken out against homosexual “marriage”:

  • On the one hand, their opposition was in no way an exercise of democratic freedom of opinion, but a moral duty to testify against an act of violence, which was in no way a law.
  • Moreover, this drifting of the republican marriage further from the natural law offered them a historic opportunity to negotiate the legal recognition of the sacramental marriage ceremony as the only one necessary for Catholics, which is the law of the land in Italy and Spain, and even in England under certain conditions, where religious marriage is automatically considered a civil marriage. To demand this liberation of the religious marriage from the civil marriage, which has become void of meaning, would have entailed moving, in a very concrete way, from the criticism of the law to that of the source of the law. The mere fact of laying this fundamental demand on the table, even without success, would have taken the criticism of this ad hoc law to much greater lengths.

It is obvious that only the bishops of France were ultimately authorized to negotiate this liberation of religious marriage with the powers that be. They could still do so now that temperatures have cooled down, but doing so would be much more difficult.

This leads us to remark that, generally speaking, the pressure of militant Catholics should be aimed, at least as much as at those who hold political power and who enact oppressive or criminal laws, at the pastors of the Church, who are far too docile towards these rulers. Like the Vendeans demanding that their lords take their lead, the primary objective of Catholic activists for the kingship of Christ should be to get their pastors to take the lead in their demands against a secular society, in the name of the freedom of the Church. Especially since the pressure of these Catholics against the murder of the innocent is not about to reach the level of pressure of the Mexican Cristeros against the laws of religious persecution…

It is also obvious that the passivity of these bishops or, with noteworthy exceptions, the weakness of their interventions, is one of the causes, and not the least, of Catholic impotence. For the pastors of the Church have generally abandoned any attempt to reconstitute an institutionally Christian society. Whatever interpretation which may be given to the text of Vatican II on religious freedom, the fact is there, beyond the shadow of a doubt: the doctrine of Christ the King has purely and simply been shelved by ecclesiastical leaders.

Calling on the bishops to once again become defenders of the City

However, the role bishops played as “defenders of the city”, when the Roman Empire collapsed under the blows of barbarian invasions, is often evoked. The pastors of the Church are in fact called to assume a role of support for whatever might be set aright in the City at a time when its natural foundations are vanishing from sight. One fact is certain: today the Church, and the Church alone, is able to make the truth shine in the eyes of men and women of good will, like “a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn” (2 Pet 1:19).

And in any case, the bishops are the preachers par excellence of morality. Now, moral preaching is inherently political, since it aims at the amendment of man, a being by nature social. Moreover, moral preaching has now become an anti-modern political preaching.

It must be added that there is too easy a tendency to reduce natural law to its regency of familial morality, in particular to say that, after all, it is on natural morality understood in this way that all men of good will can meet one another, and it is this natural morality that democracy should respect. This was the guiding thread of the Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of 24 November 2002, which, on the one hand, presented the secularism and non-confessionality of the State as self-evident: “promoting the common good of society, according to one’s conscience, has nothing to do with ‘confessionalism’ or religious intolerance” (n° 6),  but which, on the other hand, asserted “the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church – but not from that of morality.” The Note referred to the “non-negotiable principles” that must be defended by Christians involved in politics (the defense of the family based on marriage between a man and a woman; freedom of education; protection of minors; liberation from modern forms of slavery; right to religious freedom; economy at the service of the person and the common good; peace).

But this discourse had two weaknesses:

  • It postulated that modern democracy must submit to natural law, which is irrelevant to it, since it is founded on the principle of the transcendence of the general will. If it submits to it, it is only accidentally, depending on the state of opinion at a given time.
  • And it did not mention that the obligation of human society to worship God is part of this natural law. Thus, Leo XIII, in Immortale Dei (1 November 1885): “Whatever the form of government, all heads of state must absolutely have their gaze fixed on God, the sovereign moderator of the world, and, in the fulfillment of their mandate, take him as their model and rule. […] Political society being founded on these principles, it is evident that it must unfailingly perform by public worship the many and important duties which unite it to God. If nature and reason impose on each one the obligation to honor God with a holy and sacred worship, because we depend on his power, and because, having issued forth from him, we must return to him, they likewise bind civil society to the same law. […] Since, therefore, civil society has been established for the benefit of all, it must, in promoting the public welfare, provide for the good of the citizens in such a way as not only to place no obstacle, but to secure every possible facility for the pursuit and acquisition of that supreme and immutable good to which they themselves aspire. [… And this in the only true religion [which] is that which Jesus Christ himself instituted and which he commissioned his Church to keep and propagate.” And Pius XI in Quas primas (11 December 1925): “Rulers and magistrates have the obligation, as well as private individuals, to render public worship to Christ and to obey his laws.”

* * *

As utopian as such a claim may appear today, it is nevertheless a kind of backbone of all claims in favor of the application of natural morality (the respect for innocent life, the indissolubility of marriage, etc.) in the law of men. In fact, if we want to speak of “non-negotiable principles”, THE “non-negotiable principle” par excellence,  the one which must command, inhabit, specify, every action of Catholics in the City, even if its concrete realization will doubtless be remote, is this: the City of men must be subject to God and honor Him publicly, and when this City has received a Christian “baptism”, it has a vocation to do so in a Christian manner.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] « Les Survivants » : lutter sans renforcer le système ? – L’Homme Nouveau.

[2] 50 ans de résistance à l’avortement (1/3) : Faut-il encore manifester pour la vie ? – L’Homme Nouveau

[3 ]50 ans de résistance à l’avortement (2/3) : La Marche pour la vie a-t-elle encore un sens ? – L’Homme Nouveau

[4] 50 ans de résistance à l’avortement (3/3) : Combat contre l’avortement et transition postdémocratique – L’Homme Nouveau

[5] Marc Guelfucci, Éléments pour une définition du mariage, Thèse Université Panthéon-Assas, 2008.

[6] « Le droit constitutionnel à l’avortement: la démocratie réalisée? » : Le droit constitutionnel à l’avortement: la démocratie réalisée? par Yves-Marie Adeline – Le Courrier des Stratèges (lecourrierdesstrateges.fr).

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia IIæ, q. 95, a. 2, and q. 96, a. 4.

[8] “A valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament.” (Code of Canon Law, can. 1055).