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Why the Bewilderment? Benedict XVI on Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 27, 2007

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On October 5, in the Hall of the Popes in the Vatican, Benedict XVI addressed a brief lecture to the members of the International Theological Commission. He began by remarking on the recent document of that commission relating to the question of the salvation of un-baptized infants, of which by any calculation, including the aborted ones, there are many. I will not go into that question here though the pope did give the principles on which any solution must be based: 1) "The universal saving will of God, 2) the universality of the one mediation of Christ, 3) the primacy of divine grace, and 4) the sacramental nature of the Church" (L'Osservatore Romano, October 17, 2007). This solution recalls the document Dominus Jesus that Pope Ratzinger authored while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Modern theology is full of those who would save everyone but without the mediation of Christ, grace, or sacraments. Such theories, however well intentioned, are not Christian in origin.

Concern for the un-baptized is related to attention paid to "the lowliest and the poorest," something that Christ taught us. One might add that, in this case, what we are primarily concerned about is the eternal status or salvation of an un-baptized infant, now dead for whatever reason. This approach is the reason the poor and the lowly are given special consideration. Christianity teaches that none of these people is, because of his existential condition, to be excluded from the highest destiny offered to man in his original creation. Indeed, his condition may in fact give him an inside track to it.


The pope then proceeded to the question of natural law, a topic that he has touched on a number of times of late. It is also one that is found in his vast writings in various places. He has, as a matter of fact, proposed that academic institutions formally look into this topic of natural law. There is, I think, more than meets the eye here. One thing is clear, namely, that we have a pope who specifically requests certain universities to take up a topic or sponsor investigation into a particular topic, almost as if they are reluctant to face the issue it presents without some prodding. We have here, to the academic mind, the almost terrifying realization that a pope might just know more about its own fields than it does. But, of course, this pope, as the previous one, is quite at home at any university worthy of its name, including Catholic ones. Universitas means precisely that revelation as it addresses itself to reason has, on that ground, a legitimate place within its ambience.
The pope here says that he wants the Theological Commission to consider "the theme of natural moral law."

Though this address is short, it does contain several very interesting comments. As the Congregation on Doctrine and Faith chartered the study groups that the pope wanted organized in universities, they are to find "constructive pointers and convergences for an effective deepening of the doctrine of natural moral law." The pope intends to meet any objections to it head on, on strictly intellectual grounds. We will see why he wants this study to be done.

But we 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.


Positivism today, the theory that only the positive or man-made law defines our actions, dominates our view of law in the minds of philosophers and politicians. It is often the basis of a law itself. This relativism takes us directly to political philosophy. We find a theory of "democracy" claiming that freedom is only guaranteed by relativism. "But if this were so, the majority of a moment would become the ultimate source of law." And that is precisely what is claimed by many modern democratic theories. Nothing can go against the will of the majority, which is itself whatever it decides. It can change from day to day. Its "truth" is that there is no truth.

"History very clearly shows that most people can err," the pope observes. "True rationality is not guaranteed by the consensus of a large number but solely by the transparency of human reason to creative Reason and by listening together to the Source of our rationality." This "transparency" again means that our intellects are themselves designed to recognize that a source of reason, something we possess, has an origin in something like itself, something more reasonable, something grounded in what is.

"When the fundamental requirement of human dignity, of human life, of the family institution, of a fair social order, in other words, of basic human rights, are at stake, no law devised by human beings can subvert the law that the Creator has engraved on the human heart without the indispensable foundation of society itself being dramatically affected." This is a version of Augustine's dictum that an unjust law is no law. But the pope here is more concerned with the disorders that do visibly exist in human society when we relativize any law or order of good.

"Natural law becomes the true guarantee offered to each one in order that he may live in freedom, have his dignity respected and be protected from all ideological manipulation and every kind of arbitrary use or abuse by the stronger." Here Benedict brings the issue down to our personal stake in the natural law. We must have something that can guarantee our ability to evaluate and judge what laws and customs are in place. If they are merely what the law says, we are locked into them. The natural law, as such, frees us from arbitrary rule, even of ourselves over ourselves.


By referring indirectly to a famous question of Aquinas, the pope states: "No one can ignore this appeal. If, by tragically blotting out the collective conscience, skepticism and ethical relativism were to succeed in deleting the fundamental principles of the natural moral law, the foundations of the democratic order itself would be radically damaged." Aquinas asked if we could blot out from our hearts the basic principles and decencies of the natural law. Not, he thought, of the basic principle of "do good and avoid evil," but we could obscure almost everything else. Thus, it is possible to have laws and customs that impede our ability to see what is good and what is evil For many, such a thing as abortion is nothing less than a deliberate blotting out of what is at issue, the choice to kill a real, already growing, human person.

This relativism, devised to justify the deviations of the natural law, is a "crisis of civilization" even before it is a Christian crisis. This is a careful distinction. The crisis of civilization exists primarily because the natural, not revelational, law, is rejected. All people, Christians and those of good will, need to create the "necessary conditions for the inalienable value of the natural moral law in culture and in civil and political society to be fully understood." That is, it is possible in natural law theory itself, following Aristotle, to propose that disordered habits and false ideas that justify them can be reversed. We are not determined to a disordered culture, though we are habituated to it and it is difficult to change directions.

Thus, individuals and societies depend on this moral law. This progress away from disordered habits can only be measured against "right reason, which is a participation in the eternal Reason of God." Again, the eternal reason of God is not presented as a peculiarly Christian thing. It has philosophical roots to which what is new in Christian revelation addresses itself. But in itself, it must be understood as a project of human reason. The "bewilderment" of our culture about its own order is itself an issue of reason. But we should be aware that, through this reason began primarily in Greek philosophy, as the pope held in the Regensburg Lecture, however much we are grateful for it, it is not as such "Greek." It is reason and addresses itself to all cultures.

There is an agenda here in Benedict's return to natural law. It is nothing less than the relation of reason to any and all cultures, beginning with our own.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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