Monday, November 05, 2007

Natural Law

...continuing our Jesuit theme today, here's an excerpt from Fr. James Schall's recent column on Ignatius Insight, Why the Bewilderment: Benedict XVI on Natural Law.
[W]e can say from his Regensburg Lecture that the very basis of the pope's orientation to all religions and cultures, including to our own in its liberal and relativist phase, is through the natural law and hence through reason. This approach by no means implies that the pope is thereby neglecting revelation. Rather it means that he searches for a basis on which revelation can properly be presented in an intellectually intelligible manner. This pope knows what he is about. It is not simply Islam, nor is it simply the adherents to radical relativism in the West.

There is, Benedict says, a "foundation of a universal ethic that is part of the great patrimony of human knowledge." Josef Pieper's discussion of tradition is about this same issue. Already this very awareness, the pope says, following Aquinas, "constitutes the rational creature's participation in the eternal law of God." The rational creature can only "participate" in the eternal law of God if that law is itself founded in Logos, in Word. If it is grounded merely in will, even if it is God's will, as various theologies and philosophies are tempted to maintain, there can be no real "participation" in the eternal law by the human being.

Why? Essentially, because there is nothing to participate in if what is grounded in and known only by will can, at any time, be the opposite of what it is at first thought to be. Our intellects are, in fact, intellects, not divine ones, not angelic ones, but still intellects. It is not any surprise whatsoever, as we saw in Fides et Ratio, that the Church makes no bones about defending reason, philosophy as such. But it also fosters and encourages reason. It recognizes it for what it is. Reason is not the only thing, but if we get reason wrong, and you can be pretty sure that you will get most other things wrong.


Next the pope makes a very blunt, yet delicate point. The natural law does not belong to Catholics. It is not our private property. It is not an "exclusive or mainly denominational thing." That being said, the Catholic tradition has been interested in and developing this tradition both from the impulses of revelation directed to reason and from the fostering of reason itself. Catholicism makes absolutely no apologies for being intellectual and interested in intellect. It is unabashedly an intellectual religion. It only apologizes when it is wrong and this wrongness can be established in reason itself. Reason and revelation are not considered to be enemies to one another. Both ultimately have the same source, when spelled out.

Next the pope recalls that the Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up "the central doctrine of the natural law." This position does not mean that the Catechism concocts the natural law, but that it knows what it is. The Catechism holds that, in natural law, "the other is one's equal." The main precepts of the natural law are in the Decalogue. Now everyone knows that the Decalogue is revelation, not reason. Yet the Decalogue is also a statement of what the natural law contains. It is both revelation and reason but under different formalities. What each teaches is the same on the basic questions.

The pope next reminds us that the "natural law" does not refer to the "nature of irrational beings." There is a "natural law" of rabbits as well as lions, but they do not, as human beings do, proceed to their end as if they intellectually grasped its point. The "ethical content of the Christian faith," the pope continues in words reflecting of his Deus Caritas Est, is not an imposition from outside of man. Norms of right living are "inherent in human nature itself." This law is called "natural" not because it relates to irrational creation but because "reason which decrees it properly belongs to human nature."

The pope then turns to the public order, but he uses the same approach. Suddenly it becomes clear what the pope is, as it were, "up to." "With this doctrine (of the natural law," we can enter into a "dialogue...with all people of good will and more generally with the civil and social order." This is a key citation. This pope is not going to allow any culture, including our own, to rest and not face up to its own reasonableness or lack of it.

Yet, it is precisely here where the pope uses the phrase that entitles this essay. "Precisely because of the influence of cultural and ideological factors, today's civil and secular society is found to be in a state of bewilderment and confusion." Why? Because it has "lost the original evidence of the roots of the human being and his ethical behavior." That is to say, this evidence was originally available to all men of whatever culture. The "natural moral law conflicts with other concepts that are in direct denial of it. All this has far-reaching, serious consequences on the civil and social order." That is to say, a mistake in understanding the natural is not just another quaint cultural difference. Recta ratio is serious business no matter what culture we happen to be in. Cultural relativism must itself face the question of a natural law directed to its suppositions.
Read the whole thing.

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