Natural law outside Catholicism? Regime-agnosticism and agnostic regimes

The question at hand is: what do we make of America’s schizophrenic natural law pedigree, rejecting but needing Catholic ideas? (And John Locke, history’s most ardent assailant of an idea reputed to be his own, doesn’t count.)

(Brandon Mowinkel/

So far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.” — Protestant Canons of Dort, 1619

In socially turbulent times like ours, more and more Catholic commentators are asking in hushed but piquant tones: what does a Catholic political regime look like?

On the opportune basis that there exists no official, magisterially recognized “Catholic politics,” one can easily get carried away with two slippery notions: on the one hand, an all-consuming regime-agnosticism—where one is tempted to say speciously that anything goes—and on the other, the inadvertent incorporation of modernist ideas into what we should rightly consider our natural law politics. This article will respond in the first place to James Kalb and in the second place to Robert R. Reilly, both of whom have recently written excellent articles for CWR (and neither of whom actually make the major mistakes against which I warn—but whose readers I fear might!).

Three branches based upon three regimes

In Kalb’s article, he rightly expresses what was said above: that Catholicism requires no specific governmental form. The danger in this truism is that most folks seem to conclude it means our faith does not strongly urge certain forms of rule which conduce most to what the Catholic tradition calls “the common good.” Yet, contrary to popular opinion, the wisest doctors and popes in Church history point in an undeniable political direction. For example, the Aristotelian “mixed regime” found in the political writings of Thomas Aquinas—and in the ideas of the political encyclicals of more contemporary popes, such as the endorsement of three branches in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum—comprises a blend of the regimes the Philosopher and the Doctor agree are best. Moreover, Thomas Aquinas’s mixed regime is actually a surprisingly specific Catholic prescription for political organization, based squarely upon the demands of human nature, meaning it is unchanging secula seculorum.

Consider also that Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle almost step-by-step on the matter of political regimes, ranking the three best regimes and naming a perverted form which follows upon a devolution of each of the good forms. In Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle names the three best forms in descending order of their quality, as he deems: “monarchy,” “aristocracy,” and “republic” (polity). Thomas reproduces these three, to the detail. When it comes to the three respective, perverted forms—“tyranny,” “oligarchy,” and “democracy”—we know Thomas again follows Aristotle without missing a beat, because he unapologetically says so (On Kingship, Book 1, Chapter 1; Commentary on the Politics, Book 3, Lecture 6 [393-394]).

Now, to those inclined to dismiss the relevance of the politics of Aristotle and Thomas as restricted to their own eras, consider the contemporary implications of what Thomas says about mixed regimes. Although he follows Aristotle by calling a wise kingship the most heavenly form of rule, both thinkers acknowledge that an unwise king quickly becomes the most tyrannical of the three. Going even a bit further than Aristotle, Thomas hedges his bets by putting forward a safer regime bearing all the strengths of the three good regimes, discussing it under the Mosaic example from the Old Testament. Thomas sees, in Exodus 18:21, a sort of mixed rulership between Moses and the Israelites (ST, I-II, 105.1).

If this still weren’t enough to at least batten down the wildly popular regime-agnosticism of today’s Catholics, consider instead the three branches of government received so dogmatically in the modern republic: the executive, modeled after monarchy; the judiciary, structured almost precisely as Aristotle describes aristocracy; and the legislative, which is a gratifying instantiation of republican polity. While the early modern natural law thinker Montesquieu did the most philosophical labor to lay out the timeless need for these three branches of government—even going so far as to show the tripartite nature of past regimes which were not expressly so—the idea hails from a source higher and older than even the natural law tradition. Isaiah 33:22 reads: “For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King.” That is, Scripture itself acknowledges the tripartite set of political distinctions ostensibly etched into nature by God.

Moreover, many people do not know that the three branches have in the recent past been endorsed by the Magisterium. In Rerum Novarum, as Foundations of Catholic Social Teaching: Living as a Disciple of Christ (Ave Maria Press, 2015) points out, Pope Leo XIII expressly “recognized the benefits of organizing government around the three powers of legislative, executive, and judicial branches.” So it is safe to say that while the Catholic Church does not require a modern, three-branch republic based upon Aristotle’s three good regimes, it strongly endorses it. The sine qua non for such a regime is, of course, the natural law, a distinction which presents its own difficulties.

Locke as a natural law sham

This leads us squarely to Robert Reilly’s discussion of Protestantism, Locke, and freedom in republics. Reilly all but avers my own thesis that there is no modern natural law ideology outside of Catholicism, while refraining from saying it. The popular narrative, as we all know, is that John Locke (and fellow Protestant-Enlightenment English partisans, the Whigs) more or less grounded the modern republic. This teaching turns out to be as or more ironic as Reilly’s compelling demonstration about all those self-defeating Wall Street Journal platitudes which feature Luther as champion of freedom and self-government.

The problem is that Locke rejected the natural law outright! For starters, here’s a troublesome connection between our Catholic acceptance of Locke as any sort of natural law advocate and our abiding regime-agnosticism: we have incorporated Locke’s supposition that politics is a synthetic sphere of life, a step away from and out of accord with human nature, and thus merely instrumental to man’s self-protection. (Thus, the story goes, any old governmental form can be elected by citizens who enter into the given social arrangement, according to this “contract theory” view.) In a very real sense, this is the main test for a thinker’s natural law bona fides: is political society, for that thinker, natural or synthetic to human nature?

Thomas’s view of politics as praiseworthy and fitting for man expresses, alongside Aristotle, that mankind can become his fullest self only in political society. This is the natural law view, which contrasts sharply with Locke’s instrumentalist, unnatural view of politics (i.e. politics as extrinsic to man’s nature). In fact, many Lockeans mistake veritable natural law political views like Aquinas’s with those of “big government,” simply on account of the Aristotelian-Thomist acknowledgement that “man is a political animal” (Aristotle’s Politics I, 1253a) by his nature. This couldn’t be any more incorrect.

It is because of—rather than in spite of—man’s moral and political nature that Thomas restricts the sphere of government to such an extent as to gratify today’s conservatives and libertarians. The only difference is that Thomas—unlike today’s Lockean conservatives and libertarians—can actually justify the limited scope of government he advocates: “human laws leave certain things unpunished, on account of the condition of those who are imperfect, and who would be deprived of many advantages, if all sins were strictly forbidden and punishments appointed for them” (ST, II-II, 78.1 ad 3). By the same token, it is because of the antisocial, anti-moral assumptions lodged in Protestant-Enlightenment, modernist views (like Locke’s and the Whigs’) on human nature that big government must sooner or later eventuate of its own force, even where Lockeans do not want it. In other words, Locke-as-liberty-champ fails just as Luther-as-liberty-champ does.

As a related second matter, this nature/culture distinction also covers the troublesome explanatory gap left by Locke’s spurious view of self-ownership as the basis for limited government: for him, the political regime must be a contractual and structural guarantee by each of his own. Lockean government is the very essence of a makeshift “workaround,” out of sync with human nature, whereby man enters into political community mostly (or wholly, depending on which Locke scholar you ask) against his nature. On the other hand, Thomas’s basis for government is sound as a natural measure because it centers around the exigencies of his moral, social nature—instead of mythic Enlightenment notions like the radical autonomy or the self-ownership of man.

Hence, the simultaneous Thomistic fittingness of political society and the unfittingness of legislating against all vice and in favor of all virtue. The emergent, late-second millennium Church teaching of subsidiarity adds gloss to Thomas’s strong advocacy of limited government, which may have falsely sounded to many (such as Locke) as theocracy.

Thirdly, and perhaps most devastatingly, just as Mr. Reilly points out in his article, natural law theory begins with a sweeping affirmation of natural philosophy, with the Aristotelian aphorism “being is intelligible” as its watchword; it merely ends up as a proposition of political philosophy. You cannot cherry pick the convenient bottom line when it comes to politics—when you come to see that natural law is indispensable to modern, three-branch republicanism. Protestantism suffers one robust count against the current aspirations (mentioned by Reilly) to retrofit that worldview with natural law: the bald anti-realism of the so-called Reformation, which denied the knowability of existence. For Protestants—whether Luther, Calvin, or one of the Whigs—man’s intellect is incapable of knowing the good, just as his will is incapable of doing the good.

Protestant John Locke, by a distinction of degree and not kind, had all the selfsame northerly Protestant impedimentia as Luther to Catholic natural law and Tradition, and more. In addition to the theological preclusion of Protestantism, Locke also had his fundamental, Enlightenment, proto-scientism discomfiture with “natural philosophy.” Like his fellow Enlightenment thinkers Bacon and Descartes, John Locke rejected the intelligibility and teleology (i.e. formal and final causation—the two causes categorically dismissed by the Enlightenment) of the natural world. These two items, intelligibility and teleology, inform the very basis of a knowable moral law in nature. Self-government requires that citizens can discern meaning and purpose about, well, all things—including the structure of civil society.

Let’s take Locke at his own word, for a moment: “natural philosophy is not capable of being made into a science” (E IV.xii.10, p. 645), by which he means that the natural law tradition was wrong about the knowability of reality. Being is not intelligible, after all. Contrary to the Aristotelian Catholic tradition, one simply cannot know what needs to be known about reality in order to do much of anything, let alone self-govern. Locke states: “the meanest and most obvious things that come in our way, have dark sides, that the quickest sight cannot penetrate into” (E IV.iii.22, p. 553). Sound much like Luther yet? There’s plenty of this to go around.

Last but not least, by way of rejecting the above ontological realism of Aristotle and Thomas, Locke embraced a popular pseudo-science of the 17th century known as “mechanism” or “corpuscularianism,” which attempted (impossibly) to explain how empirical science was still valid in an unknowable world. The point of view is quite ridiculous, and worth a laugh, although the ideological-political establishment which has enshrined Locke and the Whigs as “natural law thinkers” readily distinguishes between forms and species of this bizarre17th-century pseudo-science.

But for the record, I’m not interested in what kind of corpuscularian Locke was as much as the fact of his corpuscularianism; I’m not interested in the particular species of his rejection of natural philosophy so much as the rejection itself. Bottom line: within much American conservative thought, insistence on any denier of “being as intelligible” as a natural law theorist simply proves the bizarre and enduring drive to fit the square peg into the round hole.

There are real and non-schizophrenic natural law theorists out there. Although most of the best ones were ancient or medieval thinkers, rest assured that they would all regard John Locke as their firm opponent. More broadly speaking, the drive over the last century or so to create a “Protestant natural law”—and an equally antinomial “Enlightenment natural law”—smacks of this same ulterior motive to create circular squares.

Why not just call a thing what it is?

If Locke exposited the natural law, then the National Socialists were Zionists, the Soviet Union was an enthusiastic advocate of Big Bang Theory, and John C. Calhoun was a suffragist. Following Dr. Peter Laslett, who bizarrely but candidly chastened us that Locke the philosopher and Locke the political writer should never be allowed to meet, Mr. Reilly says that “when one sets aside Locke’s epistemology and focuses on ‘public right,’ the problem goes away.” This doesn’t shake out, of course. And why bother, anyway? If Luther must be said to have rejected natural law on the basis of his Protestant view of sin, will, and intellect—as Mr. Reilly so compellingly shows—then Locke must have rejected on the same religious basis, plus an additional philosophical one!

Yet, as Mr. Reilly makes plain in his essay, we Americans talk of Locke and the late Whigs as if, with respect to the natural law, they suffered one preclusion less—not more—than the reformers. We must stop.

In a certain manner of speaking, this brings us back to a very real “Catholic politics.” It is that regime wherein the natural law and the common good can be most adequately instantiated. In my forthcoming book Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish Without Rome, I make the case that the Whig plagiarism of Catholicism is history’s most ironic—and happiest—instance of undocumented citation.

The question at hand is: what do we make of America’s schizophrenic natural law pedigree, rejecting but needing Catholic ideas? Locke, history’s most ardent assailant of an idea reputed to be his own, doesn’t count. And this revision should be stated loudly. But happily—and this is why ultimately Mr. Reilly is correct that America has enough of a Catholic wiring to make due—the British Whigs and American neo-Whigs happened to have absorbed true natural law through the more honest bibliographies of Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf (both still Protestants, but ones honest about their dependence on Scholasticism). Enough to make due, anyway.

Contrary to the way almost everyone handles the matter, John Locke need not have been the extremist Thomas Hobbes to have been an anti-natural law theorist; nor do the strictures of reason require natural law advocacy of all non-Hobbesians. In closing, I implore: why can’t we just let Locke be Locke—the self-contradicting corpuscularian, anti-realist, sola scriptura empiricist that he was?

In short, he was the perfect Whig: one-half Protestant, one-half Enlightenment pedigree equals one perfect repudiator of all things Catholic. Except of course for that one pesky Catholic thing, the natural law, so indispensable to all republics and to their anthropogenic revolutions, whether Glorious or American.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Timothy J. Gordon 4 Articles
Timothy J. Gordon studied philosophy in Pontifical graduate universities in Europe, taught it at Southern Californian community colleges, and then went on to law school. He holds degrees in literature, history, philosophy, and law. Currently, he resides in central California with his wife and five children, where he writes and teaches philosophy and theology. He is the author of Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish without Rome (Sophia Institute Press, 2019).


  1. No natural law regime outside Rome? Sheer nonsense. Sharia law IS natural law, precisely and explicitly. Rome has always fought violently against natural law.

    Want to see a proper Catholic regime? Skip theory, just watch Poland as it rapidly develops a modern Catholic regime.

    • I’m afraid you don’t understand what natural law is. Sharia is not derived from a philosophical contemplation of the nature of man, nor even from religiously-informed contemplation of the nature of man, but rather from religious contemplation of the Koran and the Hadith.

  2. Thanks for the commentary. I suppose I’d say that the Church’s preference for mixed regimes is a preference for moderation and good sense, and a recognition of the complexity of political life. As such, it’s an implicit rejection of the kind of political idealism I had in mind. It tells us politics and theoretical purity don’t mix well.

    Where though are the extreme regime agnostics? That’s a real and not rhetorical question. I’m sure the general tendency to turn everything into politics has produced some such people as a reaction, but I’ve only run into a few combox commentators who fit the description.

    • Thanks for your remarks, Dr. Kalb. The trouble lies in the overapplication of what many consider dangerous “theoretical purity,” such as to diminish (i fear) practically any speculative political philosophy like Aristotle’s or Thomas’s which gayly (and rightly, i believe) announces categories of good and bad regimes. The Church embraces the forms of government which conduce to the common good, which must be regimes mutually constitutive of/with the natural law; the number of such regimes is not great, and does not wax or wane, since human nature is fixed.

      Who contradicts this doctrine—who are the strict regime-agnostics—you ask? Perhaps no one strictly and/or specifically. But the presupposition seems to be in its heyday. And i *will* confess how rampant i found regime agnosticism in a place like Claremont, where of the various types of Straussian, the “West Coast Straussians” seemed to say it often. But i think this had more to do with their Locke-Aristotle alchemy than anything. Scholasticism already represents the Christian mind opened to the pagan (Aristotle): the West Coast Straussians like others before them seem disappointed by the fact that, like Chesterton says, Scholasticism opened its mind only to shut it again (to Kant, Locke, Strauss, etc.).

  3. A (hopefully minor) objection to what Mr. Gordon lays out regarding political agnosticism. He writes this,

    “Moreover, many people do not know that the three branches have in the recent past been endorsed by the Magisterium. In Rerum Novarum, as Foundations of Catholic Social Teaching: Living as a Disciple of Christ (Ave Maria Press, 2015) points out, Pope Leo XIII expressly “recognized the benefits of organizing government around the three powers of legislative, executive, and judicial branches.” So it is safe to say that while the Catholic Church does not require a modern, three-branch republic based upon Aristotle’s three good regimes, it strongly endorses it.”

    I find this reading of Rerum Novarum to be a stretch. The structure of government is not dealt with so much as is the State’s relations to man, the family, and most notably to Labor and Capital. In “Immortale Dei”, Leo XIII’s encyclical on the Christian Constitution of States, in which one would expect him to treat on the subject more directly, he explicitly refrains from doing so. Instead, he writes,

    “36. This, then, is the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning the constitution and government of the State. By the words and decrees just cited, if judged dispassionately, no one of the several forms of government is in itself condemned, inasmuch as none of them contains anything contrary to Catholic doctrine, and all of them are capable, if wisely and justly managed, to insure the welfare of the State.”


    “48. But in matters merely political, as, for instance, the best form of government, and this or that system of administration, a difference of opinion is lawful. Those, therefore, whose piety is in other respects known, and whose minds are ready to accept in all obedience the decrees of the apostolic see, cannot in justice be accounted as bad men because they disagree as to subjects We have mentioned; and still graver wrong will be done them, if – as We have more than once perceived with regret – they are accused of violating, or of wavering in, the Catholic faith.”

    Now, even if we were to accept on good faith that there is an implicit endorsement somewhere by the Church of a tripartite system of government, it would still be a bridge too far to say that this constitutes an endorsement of a tripartite *republican* system. Government naturally consists of three roles (executive, legislative, and judicial), and acknowledging these roles is not an ideological commitment; it is simply an endorsement of the empiric nature of political organization. Who executes these roles and how they are selected remains an open question, one with which the Church does not seem especially concerned, so long as these three roles of government are carried out with justice, in the pursuit of the common good, and in correct relation to the Catholic Church and its prerogatives and rights.

  4. Expression of Natural Law in politics is inevitable because it inhers in human nature. It also reflects Eternal Law. Timothy Gordon’s thesis is correct on Am pol structure emulating however grudgingly Catholic moral principles explicit in Catholic doctrine. The challenge as Aquinas perceived it is balancing civil or human law with Eternal Law. The imbalance toward Eternal Law is theocracy, which prevailed in New England until the British wisely enacted the Royal Charter and necessity to abide by The Common Law of England. That common law incorporates Catholic moral doctrine, philosophy, precedent, tradition, reasoning, and the recognition of practical statutes within a civil setting. It was adopted by most US states since the Revolution. And is reflective of the three form Govt favored by Aquinas and enacted by the First Congress. Charles Krauthammer believes “politics is everying” (Things that Matter). That premise insofar as the daily life of Man notwithstanding the importance of ideologies and religion is correct. The best form of Govt so well analyzed by the author appears ours. Similarly just law is just only insofar as it is implemented by just men. And that is the role of Catholicism in politics.

  5. Good historical review of government, natural law and how it is carried out. One note: Whigs in the US were supplanted by the Republicans mainly because they were viewed as insufficiently active despite their stated political positions. In Britain they were not so much marginalized by others as their self abdication on a number of matters. Whigery played its part in both countries but somewhat brief and never really able to come to terms with social change.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Natural law outside Catholicism? Regime-agnosticism and agnostic regimes -
  3. Martin Luther’s flawed understanding of natural law: A response to Dr. Korey D. Maas – Catholic World Report
  4. Natural No Maas: The disintegration of the concept of all law in Luther – Catholic World Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.