John Finnis is a celebrated exponent of natural law, a legal philosopher best known for his handy itemisation of the seven basic “goods” of human existence: life, knowledge, skilled performance, play, friendship, practical reasonableness and religion. It is a brilliant idea: if you categorise things by numbers, especially a nice manageable number, you make them far more memorable. Actually it turns out when we meet that the seven goods could easily have been eight: he added marriage in a later edition. “But it’s too late,” he says. “I’m tied to seven for eternity.” Mind you, seven is a mystical and popular number, so it’s probably all for the best.
We meet in a restaurant in Oxford, his first outing for months thanks to the pandemic, where we can sit outside. He had rather a pleasant lockdown, with a nice garden, but he’s aware that the decision to suspend normal life in order to restrict the spread of the virus has been disastrous for jobs and the economy. What benefits the elderly – he is 80, though could easily pass for 70 – may hurt the young. “The precautionary principle … we’ve seen what it can lead to in this pandemic – the side effects are very great,” he says. It’s this awareness that principled people can hold honest views on opposite sides of an issue that makes him so impatient when the bishops, or the Pope, sound off about social questions as if there’s only one Catholic view.
He has recently written “A Radical Critique of Catholic Social Teaching”, a chapter in a new book on CST (published by Cambridge University Press) which aims to undermine the credibility of the whole concept of that teaching. I tell him that it will be explosive, and he laughs: “No, it won’t, because it’s in a book that costs about £150 … it has been largely ignored because of the cost.”
So, for those of us who can’t afford a copy, the gist is that much of what we understand by Catholic Social Teaching is tendentious, and bishops would do better to focus on teaching fundamental Catholic moral principles instead, leaving their application to laypeople who know what they’re talking about. He is especially irritated by bishops’ conferences that issue lengthy guidelines on, for instance, migration or global warming, which are matters of legitimate debate. On climate change, he thinks “the Pope goes beyond his remit – it’s a massively difficult question of fact”.
Most of what the bishops can usefully say on these subjects can, he says, “be put in a few pages”. The expenditure of energy on lengthy policy statements is “worse than a waste of time; it’s a misdirection of energy”. The bishops’ job is in his view to preach the moral norms because “the urgent duty to be informed by and genuinely respectful of these principles [is] scandalously neglected by many Catholics in public life”. He makes clear that negative rules – “thou shalt not kill,” for instance – are categorical, without exceptions, whereas positive ones, such as loving your neighbour as yourself, are far more nuanced.
Finnis is, unfashionably, still passionate about the immorality of nuclear weapons. “It’s a matter of right and wrong,” he says: any use of nuclear weapons means you’re “intending to kill people who’ll be innocent”. In fact the issue isn’t just a matter of history. It’s still US policy to promise nuclear retaliation in response to any nuclear attack, a policy which is reaffirmed every year. Finnis thinks that any member of Congress who votes for the policy is “morally culpable”.
We talk about Tony Abbott, a fellow Australian who has been under fire on being appointed as UK trade commissioner, for allegedly misogynistic and homophobic views. Does this mean, I ask, that it’s now problematic for any Catholic to undertake public office? “The general allegation of homophobia, if you take it seriously,” Finnis says, “does seem to say that any serious Catholic ought to be run out of public life because ‘homophobia’ is defined to mean any kind of disapproval of that kind of sex act, and however you qualify it by saying it’s the act, not the person, any kind of condemnation of the act is, apparently, homophobic.”
So what should Catholics do? Retire into private life? “We’re talking about public life, about social life, about teaching students, and so on,” he says. “All this can be conducted on a perfectly professional basis.” In other words, you can have reservations about someone’s conduct and still work perfectly well with him or her. “It’s what’s been done for hundreds of years,” he says. “When – I think mistakenly – homosexual acts were a crime in this country (in France it was never a crime, just contrary to public morality), people knew perfectly well that there were those in public life who were homosexual, but you kept your conduct private.” Now, nonconformist views on gay rights are effectively a thought crime. “Any kind of suspicion that you have the thought that what they are doing is wrong … that thought must be rooted out and publicly disavowed.”
Finnis encountered this hostility last year, when law students put out a petition demanding he should not teach in Oxford because of his views on sexual morality.
“It was a strange affair because I was long retired from Oxford teaching. It was a bizarre series of disconnections from reality”. Perhaps the most bizarre was that the quotes the authors attributed to him were actually him quoting Plato’s position on homosexuality in a very different context. The petition’s authors hadn’t bothered to check which philosopher had made the remarks. “Lawyers are meant to read the evidence and cite the authority for every proposition they make,” he observes: the Oxford law students didn’t even try. The whole episode was, he recalls, “very unpleasant”.
“I was beyond being damaged,” he adds. “But the younger academics, they would have got the message.” That is, non-conformity on this issue can damage your career. “Nowadays,” he says, “to become a judge or go to the Bar, you have to answer questions that may include this one. The way that people get appointments, scholarships, is now so bureaucratised … you have to make so many affirmations about your virtue and at any point you may be asked to prove that you’re free from these bad thoughts. There will be ways of making it become apparent that you may hold these views and are therefore unsuitable.”
John Finnis converted to Catholicism in 1962. Before that he had been an Anglican, and from the age of 14 he was an unbeliever . What made him a Catholic? “Working out that God exists and that he may intervene in human history, and there may be revelation, and that revelation came to its head in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And part of what you learn about what he considered to be the point of his revelation is the establishment of a community of believers. I was one of a small number of people at Adelaide University who converted at the same time. [For us] the interesting question was the existence of God, the possibility of revelation, the truth of the Gospels.
“I think it would be much more difficult now [to convert]”, he says, “given the chaos in the Catholic church … in those days you could rely on any bishop or priest to hold roughly the same set of propositions about the faith.” Today “it has become much more like the Anglican scene, a chaotic free-for-all; not in itself, but insofar as appearances go.”
Most people think of Finnis as a conservative Catholic, though he doesn’t have a problem with the Second Vatican Council. He himself spent three weeks going through every document of the council in Latin and in English with the scholar Germain Grisez, and has no doubt about their soundness, particularly with respect to Scripture.
Where he does think the Church has gone catastrophically wrong is in going along with modern biblical scholarship which disputes the truth of the Gospels as an account of what actually happened. For instance, many Catholic scholars share the fashionable assumption that the evangelists who recorded Christ predicting the fall of the Temple must have written their gospels after it happened in AD 70, rather than accepting that Christ prophesied what was to take place. For Finnis, the willingness of bishops to sanction such radically sceptical views has undermined the faith of ordinary people and caused “unbelievable devastation in Catholic seminaries”. Indeed, when it comes to the collapse in belief in some fundamental issues – hell, for instance, and the necessity of going to Confession – “behind that lies ceasing to take seriously what the Gospels say about what Our Lord says. If you take them seriously it’s perfectly clear that the stakes are high. This is why I am now spending my time writing on the Gospels.”
What, I ask, is the defining aspect of his philosophy? “That there’s a difference between truth and error.” History, he says, “is a matter of thoughts put into action and you can understand these thoughts if you try hard enough. That’s worth doing.”
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