Days after Hamas’s October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel—killing over 1200 men, women and children, beheading babies, murdering the elderly, killing more Jews in any day since the Holocaust—hundreds of students at our nation’s most prestigious universities protested … Israel.

A thousand students at Harvard condemned their university for complicity in genocide, holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for the violence” and stating that the attack was “both morally just and politically necessary” and “the natural and justified response to decades of oppression and dehumanization.” Protests also took place at Yale, Columbia, and many other universities. Assault, vandalism, harassment, and hostile rallies—including 500 such incidents on college campuses—skyrocketed against … Jews.

Controversy ensued. Thousands condemned the protests, billionaires pulled donations from universities, and three university presidents stumbled when questioned about their tepid responses to the protests at a hearing of the U.S. Congress, leading to the imminent resignation of the President of the University of Pennsylvania and the later resignation of the President of Harvard University after she additionally faced plagiarism allegations. Hindering these presidents from appealing credibly to free speech, hoisting them by their own petards, to borrow Shakespeare’s poignant phrase from Hamlet, was their own universities’ dismal track records of preserving free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression placed Harvard dead last in 248th place, Penn a “below average” 189th, and MIT an “average” 136th place.

But for me, the question arose: What are we teaching our students? Prominent writers asked the same question: David Brooks, the New York Times columnist; Robert George, a professor at Princeton; Peter Berkowitz, a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution; and Ezekiel Emmanuel, Vice Provost and professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Strengthen the teaching of ethics, revive classical learning and the traditional disciplines, fortify freedom for the pursuit of truth, and carry out civil debate in a setting of intellectual diversity, they counseled sagely. What remains jarring to me, though, is that the student protesters appeared oblivious to the simple, indispensable, pervasive set of laws that make up the moral order of the universe—what has long been called the natural law.

Hamas’s attacks flouted the oldest of moral norms, do not murder, killing civilians directly, intentionally, and brutally. They also trampled upon the norm of aggression, attacking people who were not attacking them. “The wrong the aggressor commits is to force men and women to risk their lives for the sake of their rights. It is to confront them with the choice: your rights or (some of) your lives!,” wrote philosopher Michael Walzer in his classic, Just and Unjust Wars.

The prohibitions of murder and aggression are norms of the natural law. They define wrongs that are malum in se: admitting of no exceptions, wrong in all circumstances, moral absolutes. No matter how just one’s cause or how oppressed one may be, one may never perform certain deeds. These norms and their absolute character are the backbone of international law. The prohibition of aggression is the central norm of the United Nations Charter, and the prohibition of killing civilians is foundational in international humanitarian law, the Genocide Convention, the International Criminal Court, and human rights conventions.

Apprehended through the exercise of conscience, natural law norms are ones that a person “cannot not know,” as philosopher J. Budziszewski put it. Other norms of natural law include prohibitions of lying, adultery, and stealing, the command of beneficence, and the many correlates of these norms. They are what philosopher Alan Donagan has called “common morality” and are widely shared among world religions, as C.S. Lewis demonstrated in his book, The Abolition of Man. It is the natural law that Hamas flagrantly flouted and its allied student protesters disdained.

Natural law cuts in many directions, making demands on the powerful and the rich, the dispossessed and the poor, knowing not right or left. It supplies the standards by which we can and must assess whether Israel also has heeded moral restraints in its military response. Has it fought discriminately? Proportionately? Treated its prisoners justly? Dehumanized Gazans in its language? Natural law offers the standards, too, by which we may judge Israel’s settler policies and its long-term treatment of Palestinians, including their claims to self-governance—as well as Israel’s own claims to the protection of its nation and people. Natural law norms ground the natural rights found in the Declaration of Independence and the core rights set forth in the Constitution of the United States and grounded Abraham Lincoln’s arguments to end slavery and Martin Luther King’s campaign for civil rights. Natural law also calls the U.S. to account for the carpet bombing of cities in Germany and Japan during World War II, its nuclear deterrence policy, overtly racist laws and policies that persisted well into the mid-twentieth century, and laws permitting taking the lives of unborn persons. Apart from the norms of natural law, judgments about these matters are elusive.

Natural law is hard to come by in today’s western universities. The recent protests at our nation’s leading universities bear the marks of a newly resurgent postmodernism and its close cousin, postcolonialism, among their professors. Following the thought of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Michael Foucault, they regard standards of morality and justice to be contextually dependent, lacking in universal validity, and conforming to configurations of power. Absent universal standards, they accept no restraints on the means through which the oppressed may resist the oppressor. Thus, Hamas’s attacks could be a “natural and justified response” to oppression.

Postmodernists and postcolonialism, though, lack a basis for claiming that any action at all is “natural or justified,” including that any of Israel’s actions are unjustified, or colonialist, or oppressive. In positing pervasive power, they, too, hoist themselves by their petard and display one of the great paradoxes in academia: The people who campaign most vociferously for social justice are the ones who most lack grounds for it.

It is mainly Catholic universities that teach and reason about the natural law, though far from unanimously. They are poised to do so. Although the natural law is knowable through “unaided reason,” meaning the exercise of rational capacities apart from sanctifying grace, the Church yet stabilizes it, anchors it, fortifies it, and preserves it to be taught. God’s revelation of natural law to Moses on Mount Sinai makes clear the law and its divine source. The Catholic magisterium, inspired by the Holy Spirit, further confirms the natural law and the contents of its correlates. Some Christian moral norms extend beyond what the natural law alone can know and are based on the teachings of Jesus—mercy, forgiveness, and gift—yet are consistent with and complementary to the natural law. Because knowledge of the natural law becomes clouded by sin, the finiteness of the mind, and the corrupting influence of cultures that distort and negate it, the Church offers sacraments as remedies that heal the mind and the will so that people can know and live the natural law. A Catholic university, then, is fortified by the Church in its mission of conveying the natural law.

Catholic universities render a service to their students, the Church, and the political common good by teaching the natural law and reasoning about its meaning for policies and institutions. They have a long history of doing so. In 16th century Spain, Catholic “scholastic” philosophers, following the thought of Thomas Aquinas, drew on natural law to defend the natural rights of Native Americans who were being conquered and enslaved. Spanish scholastics, the Dominican Francisco de Victoria most prominent among them, also laid the foundations for modern international law when a system of nation-states was taking shape on the European continent. Centuries later, after World War II, Catholic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, SJ, Yves Simon and Heinrich Rommen, all of whom had dedicated their scholarship to furthering the revival of Thomas Aquinas that Pope Leo XIII had commended in 1879, turned to natural law to provide a foundation for universal human rights and for the rights and democratic governance on which the American Republic was founded. These foundations, Murray argued, were being eroded by the relativism and scientific positivism prevalent in the western university.  

Catholic universities may be “forces of good,” as President John Jenkins has called the University of Notre Dame to be, if they remain confident in the Church’s truth and teach the natural law. When Catholic universities become wobbly in this truth, they lose their potential to shape society and are only shaped by it.

Daniel Philpott is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and an Irish Rover faculty advisor.

Photo Credit: Matthew Rice

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