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Spotting the natural law

Often when I was an undergraduate at Michigan State, and occasionally nowadays here at Notre Dame, friends of mine and I have gathered around a table, and someone has suggested that we play a round of the card game known as Chairman Mao. I won’t spoil the game for those who have never played (half the “fun” is in introducing new players to the game), but essentially Chairman Mao is a game for those who love rules. More accurately, Chairman Mao is a game for those who love to make up rules… and not tell anyone what they are… and penalize those who break them. Indeed, the aim of Chairman Mao is to learn what gets you penalized to avoid penalties and obtain victory. To say any more than that would earn me a penalty in my next game of Chairman Mao.

Last month, I took a significant shift in my choral direction from years past and joined the Notre Dame Chorale. It has been a true privilege to sing with another one of Notre Dame’s top-notch choral ensembles, and I’ve enjoyed making another set of new friends and singing solid sacred music and school songs with my choral colleagues. But dear reader, Chorale is not just an organization dedicated to performing sacred music and school songs. Nay, for the social fabric of Chorale is a tapestry woven with many a tradition dating back to time immemorial, and one of those traditions is a little game that members of Chorale tend to refer to as “spotting.”

The general rules (for the rules of this game are only ever articulated in general terms) are as follows: members of Chorale should acknowledge each other when their paths cross in unforeseen contexts. Failure to acknowledge is grounds for a chorister to snap a candid photo and take recourse in the group chat by posting the photo and tagging the subject, publicly calling out whichever Chorale member lacked a keen sense of observation in that given instance. I for one will admit to having been spotted five times last month, a number slightly tempered by the fact that as a newbie to the choir, I’m still learning for whom I need to watch out. I won’t take full responsibility, as sometimes my colleagues spot me in very creative places. How are you supposed to be on guard from being spotted at a dance, for instance? It doesn’t matter — them’s the unwritten, understood rules.

Sometimes, however, spotting gets a little out of hand. Is it legal, for instance, to spot someone if they’re on their way to rehearsal? Before, during, or after Mass? What about places you expect to see someone? The answers to all of these questions are not written down, and I dare not write them down here, lest I contradict the point this article seeks to make. But where these and other edge cases arise, I observed a phenomenon in my fellow members of Chorale: a tendency toward self-regulation and the declaration of what the rule has always been and will always be.

Now, I don’t know why this particular mode of dispute resolution surprises me so much. After all, I’ve written other columns for the Observer where I’ve waxed poetic about the so-called “declaratory theory” of law, by which judges find law rather than make it, and when judges find law, they are able to do so because the law has always been what it is being declared to be. But surprise me it did, and I think to figure out why we have to turn to that ridiculous card game with which I have opened this column. What’s the difference between my Chorale friends declaring the spotting rules and players getting penalties in Chairman Mao?

I think we can find the answer in natural law theory, of all places. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “[t]he natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man” (¶ 1954, quoting Leo XIII’s papal encyclical Libertas praestantissimum). Although there are variations in how natural law is applied in different societies (¶ 1957), and “[t]he precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately” (¶ 1960), it is this foundational idea that law is bigger than what we write down that underpins both the Church’s canon law and (to a lesser extent) the very fabric of our social order.

So what does natural law have to do with Chorale spotting, or Chairman Mao for that matter? I offer the following juxtaposition: the rules of Chorale spotting are common sense, while the rules of Chairman Mao are deliberately convoluted. In Chairman Mao, one only learns the rules by breaking them. The rules are not discernible any other way. On the other hand, if you don’t overthink it, you could go through a year of Chorale spotting without running into an issue, snapping photos of your non-acknowledging compatriots, calling them out in the group chat and having a jolly old time putting names to faces as Chorale newbies must.

At the end of the day, I have always been at least a little bit skeptical of the pull of broad, sweeping theories of natural law. Even given the Catechism’s caveats as to how widely natural law can be applied, I have struggled to understand how we humans are capable of doing such weirdly different things. As St. Paul says in Romans, “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” — concupiscence is definitely a thing that pulls us away from the natural law. But my skepticism is of more than simply our capacity for doing wrong when we should do good. How are we capable of having such different notions of what “good” even is? I think the answer is that we are all too busy trying to play a game of Chairman Mao. I’ve been overthinking it the whole time! Instead, we should be aiming to “spot” the natural law, in prayer, in conversations with friends and in simply living our day-to-day lives. May God give us this grace.

Devin Humphreys is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. When he isn’t serving as the sacristan at the Law School Chapel or competing at a quiz bowl tournament, he’s sharing his thoughts on the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. For advice on law school, hot takes on Mass music and free scholarly publication ideas, reach out to Devin at dhumphr2@nd.edu.