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The First Grace, by Russell Hittinger

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 Contents - Apr 2003AD2000 April 2003 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Good news on the liturgy - Peter Westmore
Dr Claudio Betti's inspiring visit to Australia - Peter Westmore
News: The Church Around the World
Documents: Church must be outspoken on moral issues: Australian Senator - Senator John Hogg
Documents: Archbishop Hickey on Catholics in politics - Archbishop Barry Hickey
Archbishop Hickey's pastoral letter on marriage - Archbishop Barry Hickey
Ecumenism: Christian unity: major obstacles still remain - David Schutz
Film Review: Why 'Gangs of New York' misses the boat as history - William J. Stern
Education: Chavagnes International Catholic college update - Br John Moylan
Our Lady of Peace: one American parish's successful formula - Arthur J. Brew
Letters: Authentic teaching (letter) - Aaron Wright
Letters: Vatican II (letter) - Denis O'Leary
Letters: Shooting the messenger - Alan Gill
Letters: Experiential catechesis (letter) - Fr. G.H. Duggan SM
Priestly Fraternity of St Peter - Holy Week 2003
Letters: Infallible? (letter) - Fr John Crothers PP
Letters: Life Walk (letter) - Brian Harris
Letters: Priorities (letter) - Jeanette Joseph
Letters: Stem cell research (letter) - W. Kline
Letters: Catholic hospitals? (letter) - Tom King
Letters: TV report (letter) - Kevin J. Kerr
Letters: Novena (letter) - Robert Anderson
Books: Newman, by Avery Dulles SJ - Peter Westmore (reviewer)
Books: The First Grace, by Russell Hittinger - Peter Westmore (reviewer)
Books: Marian Apparitions, The Bible, And The Modern World - Michael Gilchrist (reviewer)
Books: A Seat At The Supper, by Frank Colyer - Mark Posa (reviewer)
Books: A Long Way From Rome, edited by Chris McGillion - John Barich (reviewer)
Books: Our books are the cheapest!
Reflection: The road to Emmaus: coming to terms with the hard reality of loss - Fr Dennis Byrnes PP

by Russell Hittinger

(ISI Books, 2003, 334pp, $49.95. Available from AD Books)

"The first grace", the title of this book, refers to the unwritten law written in every human heart, which is the primary guide to good and evil.

Since the great philosophers of ancient Greece, there has been a universal acceptance that fundamental moral truths exist, independent of mankind and religion, which can be discerned and described.

These moral truths are variously described as "the moral law", "natural law", "the law of nature" and a "higher law", and precede both religion and positive law, although, undoubtedly, it has been left to Christians to defend the concept in the secular and individualistic Western societies of the late 20th century.

The respected English jurist of the 1960s, H.L.A. Hart, observed that "Natural law has ... not always been associated with belief in a Divine Governor or Lawgiver of the universe, and even when it has been, its characteristic tenets have not been logically dependent on that belief." He added that "the continued reassertion of some form of natural law doctrine is due in part to the fact that its appeal is independent of both divine and human authority, and to the fact that ... it contains certain elementary truths of importance for the understanding of both morality and law."

Russell Hittinger does not accept this secular view, which leaves open the possibility that positive law can, in some circumstances, override natural law; but rather adopts Thomas Aquinas' view that natural law precedes and overrides all positive law.

He argues that the founders of the American republic, in drafting its Constitution and founding laws, were convinced that there was a "higher law", a set of moral absolutes which lie above every law and custom, and are universally true.

He shows how this idea was undermined in the 19th century, particularly in the case of Dred Scott v Sandford, which effectively interpreted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to mean that a slave was not a "citizen", but "property, to be used in subserviency to the interests, the convenience, or the will, of his owner", and "without social, civil, or political rights."

Contemporary issues

In the 20th century, judgments have reduced the "higher law" to little more than a rhetorical point to justify the personal preferences of Supreme Court justices.

He applies this to a range of contemporary issues in American law, including the US Supreme Court's decision in Planned Parenthood v Casey, dealing with whether states can make abortion a criminal offence, and Washington v Glucksberg (1997) which dealt with physician-assisted suicide.

This, he points out, has created a "soft despotism of the law", unrestrained by any ultimate principle: a crisis of legitimacy in the law.

Hittinger's solution is based on the application of Thomas Aquinas' exposition of natural law. A weakness here is that it has never been accepted by Protestants, let alone by non-Christians, and has been widely (and unfairly) criticised by many Catholic theologians since the 1960s, principally because it underpinned the Church's teaching on contraception, from which they dissented.

Nevertheless, Hittinger argues that "contrary to simplistic views of either conservatives or progressives in our legal culture, our exposition of Aquinas' position showed that one can at once hold a robust theory of natural law, constrain the adjudicative office to the written law, and recognise that judges will from time to time need to search out the moral intent of laws in order to assist their completion in individual cases."

This book is worthy of careful study. Its attractive layout is marred by the fact that the Index has not been compiled from the author's final draft, and is therefore out by up to five pages.

Peter Westmore is National President of the NCC and publisher of 'AD2000'.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 3 (April 2003), p. 16

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