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The Pope on Natural Law: Foundation of Politics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 23, 2011

In his address to the German parliament yesterday, Pope Benedict insisted—albeit in his uniquely gentle and probing way—that the natural law is the foundation of political culture. Beginning with the story of Solomon’s request for a listening heart, to govern his people according to a right knowledge of good and evil, the Pope suggested that this must remain the fundamental desire of every politician: “the capacity to discern between good and evil, and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace.”

For the political community, this capacity comes from close attention to the natural law. In fact, argued the Pope, the culture of Europe was formed in large part from the confluence of the Jewish belief in one creator God, the Greek commitment to reason, and the Roman genius for law:

The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights…. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome—from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe.

What the Pope does not say—surely to escape the charge of special pleading—is that Christianity itself, and Catholicism in particular, embodies precisely these three elements. Of course, it is not that Benedict intends to deny the revealed character of Christianity, or the historically decisive Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it is certainly true that the “fullness of time” in which Our Lord chose to come to us was judged propitious largely because of the previous Providential development of Jewish monotheism, Greek rationality, and Roman Law. From the human point of view, these are the three great raw materials, so to speak, which the Church was able to use to develop and extend Divine Revelation into a powerful culture, a culture uniquely attentive to reality in all its dimensions.

In other words, to say that European culture arose from the confluence of these three achievements is to say that it arose from Christianity, which was the Divine vehicle by which these achievements were harmonized, clarified and extended. The Pope’s point to German lawmakers was that at the natural level—that is, the level of the ends and means of politics—it is precisely by opening ourselves to God, to reason, and to the possibility of conforming human law to the teleology of nature that we can begin to be lifted above the relativism, subjugation and despair that characterizes modern politics. This is what it means to insist on the application of the natural law, including the principle that any human law which contradicts it is void.

Without the insight that there is one God who has created all things, it is at least very difficult to imagine that nature has a fundamental teleology, a basic purpose and end, a meaning which we call “the Good”. Without the insight that man is capable of penetrating this meaning through reason, it is impossible to imagine that human affairs can be brought into harmony with the Good at the natural level. And without the insight that law is to enshrine and extend the Good, it is also extremely difficult to imagine that our common life together, at the natural level, can be organized through a political correspondence to it, which we call the common good. Benedict comments briefly on the role Christianity played in propagating these essential insights:

Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.

To extend the Pope’s comments still further, it should be obvious that such a conception of the Good and of Law are essential to the peace of the international community. Wherever there is an openness to God and to nature as God’s creation, the innate sense of right and wrong in the human person—which itself comes from the person’s interior perception of the natural order—is able to move communities toward the Good. For this reason, the commonality which ought to exist among all peoples can be found only in accordance with the natural law (unless, of course, it were to be founded upon the conversion of the entire world to Christ).

To take for a moment our own case, Western societies which insist on exporting their own deviations from the natural law—promiscuity, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, euthanasia, the exploitation of the environment and of non-Westerners generally for the good of Western elites, the imposition of regimes which do not correspond to a region’s native expression of the common good, unbridled individuality and the suppression of natural intermediary institutions, aid packages designed to promote unnatural behavior, hostility to religious expression, and so on—such “exports” will rightly be viewed as threats to good order by those on whom they are imposed. In exactly the same way, we would be threatened by deviations from the natural law which others might try to impose on ourselves, such as despotic rule, endemic political corruption, restraints on reasonable speech or the free publication of information, and so on.

One could, of course, extend the natural law argument to culture as a whole. Clearly, a culture is far healthier when all persons take adequate account of the natural law. It is true that there is a special value in emphasizing politics in this context, because the law is a great and powerful social tutor. But I restrict the discussion to politics here mainly because politics is not only improved but also limited by the natural law in ways that the rest of culture is not. Politicians may not rule according to principles which can be derived only from non-natural sources; yet outside the political realm, a culture as a whole may gain much by committing itself to a way of life specifically demanded by Revelation. And, of course, authentic Revelation, coming as it does from the mind of the same Creator, does help citizens and politicians alike to discern the natural law aright.

Distortions of the natural law, with its emphasis on the proper ends and operations of all things as discerned through reason, breed distrust, fear and violence. The natural law, then, is the only viable foundation for politics. The Pope tries to break through the crust of European relativism with this insight by pointing to the modern ecological movement in Germany, which at least perceives that nature has something to teach. But he wishes to emphasize that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.” Indeed, from man’s very nature we can and must learn much. I recommend the entire address.

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