Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, June 15, 2009

International Theological Commission on the Natural Law



Contributors and friends of the Mirror of Justice may recall that last December I posted a brief synopsis of the International Theological Commission’s (ITC) anticipated document on “The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at Natural Law.” [HERE ] The ITC recently issued the promised text; however, it is currently available only in Italian [HERE ] and French [HERE ].


I was speaking with a former member of the ITC the other day, and he was not sure that an English version would be in the works, but he hastened to add that a Spanish version is now in translation. That might suggest that the an English version will follow.


In the meantime, I hope that this simple overview might help those who consult this website be aware of the ITC’s important work that I believe has a bearing on the development of Catholic legal theory. The first point is the ITC’s recognition that natural law and its objective values provide an essential basis for universal ethics. The nexus between a universal understanding about ethical norms and the natural law cannot be stressed too much. Moreover, the ITC’s document mentions several times the dangers of the purely positive approach to law making and adjudication that emphasizes the subjective rather than the objective requirement for law which can lead to statism or worse. The essence and nature of the human person are crucial to the development the objective norms about which the text speaks.


While not mentioning the “mystery of life” passage of Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the ITC is nevertheless critical of the subjective approach that the leads to an exaggerated autonomy that dictates values which deem objective norms immaterial or irrelevant. The Casey approach that seems to magnify the importance of human dignity, in fact, undermines it because that which is due the person is subjectively rather than objectively determined. In short, the ITC acknowledges that while individuals are often different, there must be objective and universal norms knowable by the natural law that guarantee the existence and protection of one and all in their enjoyment of fundamental rights, or the suum quique—to each his or her due.


Another point emphasized by the ITC is that the law made by human society must rely on the “light of reason” to develop juridical principles that prefer the moral act over the immoral one. The reason here is not the “rationalistic” one but that based on the notion familiar with the Catholic intellectual tradition of “right reason.” For it is right reason that enables people from across the globe to understand better what is common to each human being regardless of culture, religion, ethnicity, etc. Importantly, the ITC concludes this text by noting that the Christian understanding of natural law must, sooner or later, take account of the teachings of Jesus Christ.


RJA sj



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