September 26, 2011
Further thoughts on the Pope’s Bundestag address
Thanks to Rick and Richard for their previous thoughts on the Pope’s address to the German Bundestag. Other commentators, such as our friend (and Rick’s colleague) Cathy Kaveny [HERE] CUA’s (emeritus) Fr. Joseph Komonchak [HERE] have also offered their thoughts at dotCommonweal.
Professor Kaveny relies on the work of Paul Ramsey in her commentary on the Pope’s address. She expresses sympathy with the Ramsey view that the “Catholic” understanding of natural law—perhaps attributable to the Pope—has been narrowed by the Catholic tradition. Interestingly, Ramsey argues that “if there are inflexibilities and claims of absolute certainty and finality in a theory of natural law... [they flow from] another point in Roman Catholic moral theology, namely, the claim that the natural law has been ‘republished’ in revelation, or given determinate and specific shape in Scripture as guarded and interpreted by the positive teachings of the Church.” Cathy also notes that the common law tradition is a better model to avoid “shut[ing] down controversial questions prematurely, or attempt[ing] to have the last word in the public discussion” than the “manuals of moral theology.” She concludes by asking “how Ratzinger would respond to Ramsey.”
I think from what the Pope said at the Bundestag, he would argue that Ramsey misunderstands natural law theory as it has been developed by the Church; moreover, I think the Pope would disagree with the characterization that the Catholic perspective is narrowly defined by revelation and Scripture.
In his piece, Fr. Komonchak focuses a good deal on Benedict’s addressing of the ecology issues—the ecology of nature, and that of man. I am certain that Komonchak is on to something, but he concludes his observations by stating, in referring to human ecology discussed by the Holy Father at the Bundestag, “That we cannot reasonably and responsibly ignore crucial elements of the beings we are is, I think, the Pope’s point, and I think it needs stressing, [Araujo here: I share this view] but all the work lies in trying to determine which of the laws of nature yield precepts of the natural law. I think the Pope passes over this question.” I think Fr. Komonchak, if I understand his point correctly, is wrong in this last assertion. Pope Benedict is not talking about the law of nature yielding “precepts of natural law.” He is talking about something quite different.
The fundamental point the Pope argued deals with reason—that is, right reason, objective reason. And the Holy Father knows that it is in the nature of the human person to exercise his or her intellect in this fashion. Moreover, the importance and relevance of nature to the Pope’s address is that the human person, with the intelligence just described, can perceive and understand the intelligible world—ecology, if you will—that surrounds the person. In turn, the combination of human intelligence perceiving the intelligible reality that forms the surrounding ecology becomes the “true sources of law” as he states and elaborates.
He relies on St. Augustine’s observation that those who make and enforce law without justice (that is justice based on the methodology I have just described) are nothing more than bands of robbers. The Pope was not reticent to state that his fellow countrymen who ran Germany in the 1930s and throughout the Second World War were such bands. These “leaders” did not use their intelligence wisely; they did not perceive with intelligence the intelligible world, and hence, the laws they made and enforced were terribly flawed. This is why the Pope said,
If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture. Allow me to dwell a little longer on this point. The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled. Let us come back to the fundamental concepts of nature and reason, from which we set out.
Pope Benedict’s view is neither narrow nor restricted to revelation or Scripture. It is based on reason, right and objective and moral, which is a gift to be used wisely for one’s self and for others. He shares his fellow German, Heinrich Rommen’s view that the natural law is neither explicitly nor implicitly based on “Catholic Weltanschanung.” The view of man’s nature essential to the Pope’s address is that the human person cannot restrict one’s self to Hobbesian individualism where the human person is simply self-centered and self-concerned. What is the fundamental truth of human nature is that the person who uses his or her intelligence wisely and perceives well the intelligible reality will come to realize that the common good—the good of the self that is inextricably tied to the good of all—is essential to the making and enforcing of law that seeks that which is good and avoids that which is evil. And vital to this last enterprise is caritas—something which is not alien to Benedict’s public writing and addresses but is usually absent in the making of laws in the present age.
This is why Benedict relied on the illustration of the young King Solomon. He was offered anything by God, but he chose not success (power), wealth, long life, or annihilation of his enemies; rather he asked for a “listening heart” so that he might wisely govern God’s people with a loving care that pursues the good and avoids the evil that too often tempts those in power.
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