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Natural Law in the Teachings of Benedict XVI — Part II by Mario Alexis Portella

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Natural Law in the Teachings of Benedict XVI — Part II

Cain and Abel, painting by Jacopo Negretti, gen. Palma il Giovane

Photo: wikipedia

This is an excerpt from the keynote speech Father Mario gave at the conference “Christians in Pluralistic Society: Joseph Ratzinger 95” on Friday, 27 May at the National University of Public Service.

Benedict’s purpose in promoting natural law in the body politic reflects what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the US Declaration of Independence. It is to make evident to rulers that if ‘the Laws of Nature and of Natures God entitle them’ with authority to rule, they have to therefore recognise ‘…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In his political teachings, as András Jancsó wrote in his article Theologians on Modern Politics: Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict ‘adopts an approach to the history of ideas that can be understood as a general critique of the modern period and progressive modernity.’ They are based on the what is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ (Mt 22, 21) 

Ratzinger makes a point by saying that freedom of worship is the basis of all human rights and the ultimate obstacle to totalitarianism. This was, according to him, the unique contribution of the early martyrs to the progress of civilisation:

As a religion of the persecuted, and as a universal religion that was wider than any one state or people, [Christianity] denied the government the right to consider religion as part of the order of the state, thus stating the principle of the liberty of faith.’ 

While the State may not impose religion, it must nevertheless guarantee to its citizens and residents the freedom to worship, which, along with freedom of speech, is the basis of our liberty.

Ratzinger highlights how fundamental the distinction is between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. This does not mean, however, that Caesar renders nothing to God—he must! Hence, as Jancsó stated, ‘Ratzinger’s political thinking is also based…in the necessity of finding a connection between [faith and politics].’

The new Hungarian Constitution not only declares itself to be Christian, but consequently seeks to safeguard the institution of the family

This, I hold, can be seen the Preamble of the new Hungarian Constitution, which not only declares itself to be Christian, but consequently seeks to safeguard the institution of the family that is based on the marriage exclusively between man and woman with the end of the procreation and formation of children. This is indeed a primordial duty of the State! If the family is not protected by the State, society collapses, because as has always been recognised by the human race, the family provides both structure and civilisation to mankind.

Part of the link between faith and politics, as Benedict says in Deus Caritas Est, is the Church’s socio-political teaching. 

He argues that ‘on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognises that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life…. [Although] the Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible [and] cannot and must not replace the State, at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’

The task of the Church in the political sphere is to educate in order to ‘break open the prison of positivism and awaken man’s receptivity to the truth, to God, and thus to the power of conscience.’ Otherwise, the moral relativism Ratzinger spoke about becomes political moralism.

Political moralism, which pretentiously preaches universal peace, does not open the way to a regeneration of true harmony, it impedes it. ‘The same is true,’ Ratzinger said, ‘consequently, also for a Christianity and a theology that reduces the heart of Jesus’ message, “the kingdom of God”, to  “the values of the kingdom”, identifying these values with the great key words of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, as a synthesis of the religions.’

In the wake of this form of political rationale, European society has forged a culture that, in a manner previously unknown to humanity, excludes God, the divine logos from the public conscience. He is denied altogether, or judged to be irrelevant to public life since His existence cannot be materially demonstrated.

If man is capable through reason to know the truth, and like Cain after he killed his brother Abel, knows that he knows, any faltering leads him to cede to the whims of empiricism and eventually sentimentalism as the basis to claim to know or not know the truth.

Materialism and affective altruism logically become the goal of the individual, if not a precondition, for man’s human harmony with his fellow man. This is why political moralism is presented under the banner of justice, peace, and conservation of the created world, and not an appeal to moral values which we are in real need. ‘But this moralism,’ Ratzinger says, ‘[is] vague and thus slides, almost inevitably, into the political-party sphere. It is above all a dictum addressed to others, and too little a personal duty of our daily life. In fact, what does justice mean? Who defines it? What serves towards peace?’

In his Regensburg Address of 2006, which became famous because the Pope-Emeritus cited the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus’ criticism of the prophet Muhammad, Benedict made an appeal to restore faith and reason in all fields of sciences.

The Pontiff acknowledged Regensburg University’s traditional openness to approaching God through the use of reason. He went on to contrast this approach with the Islamic tenet that God transcends man so completely that ‘his will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.’

Man can never seek to understand God, who is free to act in whatever way he chooses, for good or for evil, and is never bound to reveal the truth to man

According to this perspective, man can never seek to understand God, who is free to act in whatever way he chooses, for good or for evil, and is never bound to reveal the truth to man. The transcendence of Allah is rationalised via our state of imperfection. Since man is naturally humble, a trait the Islamic god cannot possess, man cannot claim transcendence, superiority, or exaltedness or dispute with the Creator over the exclusive characteristics of his divinity and lordship. In essence, Allah created man not because he loves his creation or wants to be a part of it, as Christians teach, but only because man must acknowledge that Allah exists and that he must be worshiped: ‘I did not create jinn and mankind, save to worship me.’ (Sura 51, 56)

Benedict explained how in this context, the Western synthesis between faith and reason is all the more important: 

‘The truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself, [as in the Prologue of the Gospel of John], as logos…and has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf…. Consequently, Christian worship is…worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.” It is this convergence of faith and reason which “created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.’

Ratzinger’s intention at Regensburg was not necessarily to consider the disparities between Christianity and Islam, let alone judge the individual Muslim. Instead, it was to re-awaken the sense of reason within the heart of the “Western man” himself. His teachings reflect a profound consciousness that Christianity took shape in the world because of the encounter between the faith of the prophets and apostles with all that was best and purest in the Socratic tradition—the desire to follow the argument wherever it leads in the light of reason. In this regard we are reminded of what Pope St. John XXIII said in his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia (1962): 

‘The wisdom of the ancient world, enshrined in Greek and Roman literature, and the truly memorable teaching of ancient peoples, served, surely, to herald the dawn of the Gospel which God’s Son, ‘the judge and teacher of grace and truth, the light and guide of the human race,’ proclaimed on earth.’

In Ratzinger’s mindset, nature is not a morally obligatory norm for knowing God the Creator, but rather it is the natural judgment of reason where the good is formulated, as well as its practical use of reason in relation to the good in itself that becomes morally obligatory.

Benedict is convinced that there exist “true” and “just” moral norms for law and not simply the mere opinion or question of the majority that would accommodate an external convenience. And this is also where “faith” and “reason” must meet with “politics.”

Faith without reason gives rise to fundamentalism. Reason without faith produces a secularism that cannot address the most fundamental of human questions about origin, destiny and meaning. And this is where we Christians find ourselves in today’s pluralistic democracy. ‘Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God,’ said Manuel II. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason Ratzinger invites all of us here today, to engage in a serious dialogue.

Mario Alexis Portella, Archdiocesan Chancellor of Florence. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds an M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University.