In a previous piece, I interviewed Princeton professor Robert P. George on the state of Catholicism in America. (Elsewhere, I have interviewed him about what being a prominent social conservative in academia is like.) What follows is the remainder of the interview that we conducted while attending the Love and Fidelity Network's (LFN) annual conference in Princeton in November; our conversation covered subjects such as natural law theory, the liberal arts, and the rise of Anscombe Societies across college campuses in America and Mexico.
Ryan Shinkel: You are a theorist of natural law. Please explain what natural law is to those who would like to know what it is but are not familiar with the term.
Robert George: Natural law is the body of practical principles, including moral norms, providing intelligible reasons for action and restraint. These motivating and action-guiding principles, beginning with “first principles” directing human choice and action towards what is intelligibly choice worthy because humanly fulfilling and therefore valuable, can be grasped by the inquiring intellect quite apart from any special revelation. They are available to unaided (or “natural”) human reason. It is the natural law that St. Paul has in mind when he refers in his Letter to the Romans of a “law written on the hearts of even the gentiles, who do not have the law of Moses”—a law sufficient for moral accountability and even, according to Paul, God’s judgment. I have a chapter (entitled “Natural Law, God, and Human Dignity”) offering a fuller explanation in my book Conscience and Its Enemies (ISI Books, 2013). The modern masterwork on the subject is John Finnis’s magisterial Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2011).
What the view of the liberal arts would you espouse? Does your view of the liberal arts have any relation to your natural law beliefs?
My view is the classical one: Liberal arts scholarship and education is a truth-seeking, wisdom-pursuing enterprise. That is why we engage, and invite our students to engage, the great works of literature, philosophy, history, and the like, from Sophocles and Virgil, to Plato and Aristotle, to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, to Gibbon, Johnson, and Burke, to Locke, Hume, Kant, Newman, Mill, and Nietzsche—to name only a few. If there is a connection to my views about natural law, it is the belief that the illumination, understanding and wisdom one gains in the serious engagement of great works is intrinsically humanly valuable. Intellectual knowledge— especially knowledge of important, existential matters—is a basic component of the integral flourishing of human beings as rational creatures.
What are the religious backgrounds that you find recurrent in members of Anscombe Societies?
The majority are Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. There are also Eastern Orthodox Christians, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews. Recently, Muslim students have been joining—which I think is great.
What in your experience with the beginnings of the Anscombe Society at Princeton has taught you about what motivates the students who join it?
Students join organizations such as the Anscombe Society because they see the carnage of the sexual revolution all around them. Indeed, one must be willfully blind to it to miss it. Far from ushering in the Age of Aquarius, as promised, it has produced innumerable personal tragedies. The cost is counted in lives marred by venereal diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and abortions; in wounded relationships and broken hearts; in a loss of the ability to trust and give oneself unreservedly in love. Anscombe students know that we as individuals and as a society needn’t settle for this—that we can aspire to, and achieve, something much better. They want to build or rebuild a culture in which sexuality has dignity and beauty, one in which marriage is honored and respected. And they are willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” to achieve those goals.
What do these students risk when they take up the cause of sexual integrity, marriage, and the family on college campuses?
They risk opprobrium and ostracism. They risk being called nasty names. They may place in jeopardy career opportunities, social standing, even cherished friendships and family relationships. So why do they do it? Why are they willing to bear these risks? The answer is actually simple and straightforward. They do it out of love—love considered not merely as a feeling or emotion, but as an active willing of the good of the other for the sake of the other. They do it because they believe that human beings—themselves and others—are creatures bearing a profound, inherent, and equal dignity. They know that the flourishing of such creatures is of immeasurable importance. They know that the way in which such creatures conduct themselves and their relationships can be profoundly ennobling or deeply degrading. And they fully understand that culture and public morality crucially shape human conduct. And so they are willing to engage in the cultural struggle—no matter the odds, no matter the sacrifices required—for the sake of what is morally right and humanly good.
You mentioned in your lecture that adherents to liberal secularism control the major institutions, which would include the major universities. It seems then these Love and Fidelity Network (LFN) students would be the new counterculture to the academic establishment. Do you see LFN students as a new counterculture? And if so, what makes them distinct from previous student countercultures?
Yes, given the hegemony of liberal secularism and the dogmas of expressive individualism in academic culture (and elite culture more generally) LFN students are countercultural. What makes them different from the student counterculture of the 60s and early 70s—the me-generation—is that they uphold, live by, and seek to advance a different message: “If it is good, fight for it.” Marriage—which is all about love and fidelity, self-giving and self-restraint, welcoming children and linking them to those who came before and will come after—is very good. It is worth fighting for—it is worth taking risks and making sacrifices for.
What main goals do these LFN conferences achieve each November?
The goals are to (1) educate students, thus empowering them to engage successfully in public debates about marriage and sexual morality; (2) bring likeminded students from different colleges and universities and different traditions of faith together so that they can form valuable bonds and alliances; and (3) give such students an opportunity to unite in bearing public witness to marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife and to the virtues and norms of morality that protect the profound and irreplaceable human good of marriage.
How should LFN students respond to the labels that they can be given, e.g. bigoted?
Ignore them. Refuse to be intimidated or bullied into silence. State your reasons and arguments and challenge those on the other side to do the same.
How do you see the role that the LFN groups play in the overall marriage movement and what seems its long-haul approach?
Their role is critical for the simple reason that they are the future. LFN students and their organizations will have the main part in reaching members of their own generation with the truth about marriage and sexual integrity. It is they who are in a position to show their peers who have been sucked into the vortex of the hookup culture, and who have bought into the sexual revolutionary ideology that justifies and sustains it, that there is “a more excellent way.”