As a Catholic theologian and ethicist, my mind is frequently occupied with imagining how the resources of the Catholic tradition can be put towards the transformative, liberative ends that allow for an escape beyond the confines of a world suffocated by white supremacy and heteronormativity. Controversially, I also believe that such an escape can be charted without abandoning the natural law ethical tradition as inflected by St. Thomas Aquinas and as held out in some circles to be the normative tradition within the Roman Catholic ethical imagination.
There are, expectedly, a large number of questions to be answered here, but I do think that one of the most pressing questions is epistemological: how does one come to know that in which the natural law consists within a liberative project, especially given that it has been deployed for oppressive ends both in the past and in the present? Why attempt to resurrect this framework at all? In the spirit of this series of posts that each attempt to re-vision the Catholic theology’s political imagination, I propose that we use the insights that descend from celebrated queer thinkers of color—and in this specific case, the notions of disidentification and brownness that come from the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz—to begin to draw out the epistemic contours of such a natural law account. What will make this account a queer one comes, I hope, from a recognizable fidelity to the concepts that Muñoz himself articulates throughout his bibliography. And what will make it a Black one comes from Muñoz’s use of the cultural archives of the Black persons living in the United States, an archive tapped by Munoz as well as many other Black scholars and theologians.
Some words first, though, about the natural law in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, the natural law is not fundamentally a series of normative propositions. Instead, at its root, the natural law is our understanding and discernment of God’s plan for our flourishing. Indeed, far from any list of rules, Thomas’s description analogizes the essence of the natural law to light itself:
Many say, Who showeth us good things? In answer to which question [The Psalmist] says, The Light of Thy Countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us: thus implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light.ST I-II, 91.2, resp.
It is upon this foundation that Thomas builds up his own epistemology of the natural law—an epistemology which, at its base, asks how one can align oneself more deeply with this light that is imprinted upon our very being. It is a question that makes knowledge of the natural law a function of one’s moral journey towards the light. And as the author of the Gospel of John reminds, this is a journey towards Christ. For Jesus says, “‘I am in the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (Jn. 8:12). The beauty of this natural law epistemology is that, following Augustine’s dictum that God is interior intimo meo, this search towards the light is also a search inward towards one’s deepest desires. This leads Thomas to write, in one of the most famous passages on the natural law, that the order of precepts in the natural law proceeds according to the order of the inclinations (ST I-II 94.2., resp.; cf., 91.2, ad. 2). In other words, what will lead us into deeper knowledge of God’s imprint—what will lead to our flourishing—is contained within the natural desires that we have as the particular creatures that we are. From here, Thomas maintains that (1) we have a desire to stay alive and avoid death; that (2) we have a desire for sex and for education of the young; and that (3) we want to know the truth and to live in society with one another (ST I-II 94.2, resp.).
Crucially, human beings have to deal with the problem of sin, a problem which, through the tradition that comes down to contemporary Christianity through St. Augustine, is also a problem of disordered desire. We either desire the wrong things or desire the right things in the wrong way. It’s at this point where so many of the fights start about the natural law, especially with respect to sexual morality. After all, the root of the official Roman Catholic opposition to homosexuality, reflecting this theology of sin as disordered desire, is that the desire associated with homosexuality, same-sex attraction, is thought to be disordered.
What would it mean to make sense of our natural inclinations as epistemically significant for living in right relation with one another?
This is where José Muñoz steps onto the scene. Certainly not because he was any theorist of the natural law or of the natural inclinations, but rather because he spent his life trying both to render visible and to explain why envisioning new, more inclusive worlds was, in a sense, “natural” to queer people of color. For Muñoz, queerness, what it means to be queer, is inherently connected to a normatively significant desire for a world beyond our current one marked by its various structural evils. He calls this place ‘utopia.’ And as he describes it in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia, “[Utopia] renders potential blueprints of a world not quite here, a horizon of possibility…It is productive to think about utopia as flux, a temporal disorganization, as a moment when the here and now is transcended by a then and a there that could be and indeed should be” (97).
Christians, I’d like to submit, call this place the ‘Reign of God’, an idea that is not only the central object of Jesus’s preaching but is also the central object of our own longing in the ‘Our Father’ prayer that Catholics frequently pray. In both cases, Utopia/the Reign of God exist in the eschatologically charged present that is both already and not yet, but that can nevertheless be sensed, felt, and, on the basis of such an experience, acted upon.
The fact that such an experience of Utopia/the Reign of God can be felt and therefore acted upon carries extraordinary significance for Muñoz, who, as a professor of performance studies, finds affect to be the most productive intellectual space to map this experience for queer people of color. Indeed, in his final posthumous work, The Sense of Brown (2020), the notion of ‘sense’ becomes the vector by which this experience of Utopia/the Reign of God is made present to queer people of color. For Muñoz, the condition for the possibility of this sensing, feeling, and being affected by Utopia is brownness, which he describes as “a sense of being-in-common…across people, place and spaces” (Sense of Brown, 3). When describing this, Muñoz immediately adverts to skin color, but for him it goes much deeper than that. “Brown,” Muñoz writes,
indexes a certain vulnerability to the violence of property, finance, and to capital’s overarching mechanisms of domination. Things are brown by law insofar as even those who can claim legal belonging are still increasingly vulnerable to profiling and other state practices of subordination. People are brown in the vulnerability to the contempt and scorn of xenophobes, racists, and a class of people who are accustomed to savagely imposing their will on othersSense of Brown, 3
Significantly, brownness as sense comes into existence as a response to the oppression undergone by queer people of color under racism and heteronormativity, which Muñoz similarly analyzes as “affective constructs,” cultural logics which have as their collective aim inculcating feelings of inferiority that in turn “tell a story about our relationality to ourselves and also to groups [such that] we feel a sense of belonging to groups that inspire a sense of unbelonging” (Sense of Brown, 51). It is therefore precisely through the experiences of queer persons of color as oppressed that we cultivate an affective register that becomes sensitive to a normative utopian horizon. Such a horizon provides epistemic insight into a world impregnated with, to adopt the phrase of Ashon Crawley in his Blackpentecostal Breath, ‘otherwise possibility’.
In words that echo the works of so many liberation theologians, queer persons of color, precisely because of the political and economic disenfranchisement we have endured under white supremacy’s many incarnations, possess privileged access to the Reign of God as referenced in the simple yet profound words of Jesus, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:21).
Now, as we’ve discussed above, the natural law, when understood as Thomas conceived of it, provides a path towards our flourishing that is accessed through our natural inclinations. But Thomas does not stop there. Ascribing even greater ontological significance to the natural law, Thomas understands the natural law fundamentally as a participation in God’s own will for the flourishing of all creation called the ‘eternal law.’ To the extent that the natural law can be understood as participating/sharing in God’s will for the flourishing of all creation, to that same extent can the natural law also be said to track the Reign of God, which is nothing more (but crucially nothing less) than a spatial metaphor for the reality of universal flourishing. Moreover, to the extent that queer persons of color, constituted and linked to each other by their poverty and brownness, are especially sensitized via their experiences of multidimensional oppression to the Reign of God, it is to that extent that one can maintain that queer persons of color have privileged access to that which the natural law demands: a reality in which, both in this world and in the next, we are truly free.
There is one more step that remains. For if it is true that, via brownness, queer persons of color have a privileged access to the natural law, it still nevertheless needs to be shown how brownness, this sense, is related to natural inclinations, that is, those normatively significant guides for knowing the truth and living in society as the third precept of the natural law commands. Here once again I believe Muñoz’s work provides a helpful path precisely by showing how brownness especially inclines queer persons of color to acts of disidentification.
With this term, we arrive at Muñoz’s first monograph, Disidentifications (1999), and in doing so, we arrive at Muñoz’s desire to articulate those acts that name resistance towards the various dehumanizing forces in our world:
Let me be clear about one thing: disidentification is about cultural, material, and psychic survival. It is a response to state and global power apparatuses that employ systems of racial, sexual, and national subjugation…Disidentification is about managing and negotiating historical trauma and systemic violence.Disidentifications, 161
As the argument unfolds throughout the book, Muñoz maintains that the ability to disidentify with these systems of oppression depends on sensing “utopian possibility.” Following Theodor Adorno, Muñoz maintains, “Utopia is essentially the determined negation of that which merely is, and by concretizing itself as something false, it always points, at the same time, to what should be” (Disidentifications, 25). Disidentificatory acts draw from the power sources of “a drive toward justice” and “emancipation” (Disidentifications, 21), at times resistant and at others conformist (Disidentifications, 4-5), but always animated, ultimately, by hope. In Muñoz’s own words, “I dwell on hope because I wish to think about futurity; and hope, I argue, is the emotional modality that permits us access futurity, par excellence” (Cruising Utopia, 97-98).
As these disidentificatory acts accumulate, we witness brownness in another modality that Muñoz is keen to highlight in the various essays that constitute Sense of Brown, namely that the struggle for justice, while often costing people their lives, is not joyless. Indeed, brownness for Muñoz also exists as the condition for the possibility “to flourish under duress and pressure” (Sense of Brown 2), or in the words of the book’s editors, “Brownness as a grounded experience…is often borne out of what, following John Dewey, we could call a shared sense of harm. But it is not just harm, it is also the shared flourishing that transpires and unfolds despite and in the face of systemic harm” (Sense of Brown, xvi). Here we sense that the relationship between oppression and hope is not merely a queer one, but it is also a Black one as well. For as Muñoz attempts to illustrate the various concepts he introduces, he often draws upon Black thinkers and performers who testify to their own disidentification with an oppressive world, and in doing so, publicize to others glimpses of utopian possibility. This happens, for example, in Muñoz’s analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois and of the sorrow songs of enslaved Africans who testify through our music to “a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways” (Sense of Brown, 43). It also happens in his analysis of the work of Black drag queen Vaginal Creme Davis, whose various performances draw attention to “a radical impulse towards cultural critique” (Disidentifications, 100).
Brownness and what Black liberation thinkers have characterized as Blackness therefore collide in a collective experience where disenfranchisement refuses despair and gives life, instead, to hope. This draws us back to the natural law, specifically to the Black natural law that Vincent Lloyd has begun to articulate in the 2016 book with the same title. “[B]lack natural law is suspicious of the wisdom of the world, ideology,” he writes:
The wisdom of the world is a mystification used by the powerful and the wealthy to secure their own interests. Black natural law calls us to recognize what is self-evident: that the labels of slave, or Negro, or prisoner do not capture the humanity of those so labeled. Furthermore, black natural law calls us to honor the higher law that acknowledges our humanity by actively challenging the wisdom of the world. It calls us to participate in social movements that oppose, for example, slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration.Black Natural Law, x.
These movements, simultaneously Black and queer, are constituted by disidentificatory actions—those that are studied by Muñoz in queer performance as well as those studied by Lloyd in Black social movements. These are actions to which queer Black people and other queer people of color are inclined because our experience of the world is expressed in and through our brownness—a brownness which, while marked by oppression and devastation, nevertheless provides the affective and epistemic link to the utopia that is disclosed by the natural law, the Reign of God. These disidentifactory acts, therefore, provide epistemic insight into the natural law precisely because they testify to the existence of a world that can come only if we refuse devastation and embrace hope as a “critical affect” (Cruising Utopia, 3). Or, to use Thomas’s words—only if we can refuse devastation and embrace hope as “a future good, difficult but possible to obtain,” made possible by God’s own help (ST II-II 17.1, resp.). This Black and queer natural law does its part by being one of the means by which God helps us, since in Thomas’s mind law is ultimately inseparable from grace, with both being principles by which God moves us to Godself (ST I-II 90, prol.) We can therefore be thankful to God that we have queer Black and brown people whose lives help illuminate more deeply the requirements of divine imprint that God already and generously sheds upon all of us.