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Religion and Society

The Clear Need for a Natural Law. A Comment on the Speech by Benedict XVI to the Bundestag of Berlin

The speech of Benedict XVI to the Reichstag of Berlin is destined to be added, in an imaginary anthology, to the texts that have characterised the intellectual orientation of this pontificate, bringing up crucial issues for the relationship between Christian faith and civil life. The controversial Regensburg lecture in September 2006 had begun the series, in which the order of the day was the connection that Christian tradition established between reason and divinity: the Christians’ God is not an arbitrary power, but an original reason, a logos, which asks to be recognised by human reason and therefore cannot be imposed by force. This is the basic reason why, according to Benedict XVI, nascent Christianity did not place itself in the wake of popular religion with its mythologies, but rather in that of philosophical religion, in which it recognised a ‘natural’ preparation for its needs. In this speech the reflection reaches a crucial point: the consequences of such religious conception on civil life and juridical conception. The salient points of this will now be briefly outlined.



In the present age of the expansion of knowledge and technical possibilities, maintains the Pope, it has become more pressing to identify the criteria of right and wrong in politics. It is clear that the consensus of the majority is not always sufficient: the cases in which a totalitarian system is in force (also with the consensus of most people) demonstrate this, and against which we agree it is right to rebel. While historically speaking the most frequent solution to the problem of the basis of law has been the deferment to divine revealed will, Christianity chose another path, which had already been followed by stoicism and Roman jurisprudence: the law is objectively based on nature, and subjectively on human reason which can interpret it. Such commonly granted basis has come under strain only in recent decades, when the affirmation of an exclusive vision of scientific reason induced the idea that nature is only a set of facts from which no ethical indication can be drawn. The fact that man cannot settle for such vision is demonstrated by phenomena like ecologism, in which nature is assumed not only as a fact, but at the same time as something normative; the radical solution however, concludes the Pope, can only consist in considering the world as God’s creation: reason objectively included in nature however also manifests norms mirroring creative divine reason.



The point drawing one’s attention most of all in an interreligious perspective is where Benedict XVI stresses that ‘Christianity has never imposed a revealed law on the state and society’. This statement, nonetheless, as the context of the speech demonstrates, does not mean at all that the idea of natural law is ‘non religious’: it in fact has its final justification only in the concept of creation. From this point of view, the Pope is by no means afraid of accepting what is many a time used as a criticism against the idea of natural law, which would make it (so they say) unusable in a secular debate. The difference therefore is not between a religious foundation and a ‘solely’ rational one, but rather between the idea that the public ethos is based on God’s decrees unknowable outside an historic revelation, and the one according to which the basis is inscribed by God in a creation that is in itself accessible to all. At the moment in which the distinction with other religious traditions is noticed, a bridge is therefore built in like manner, which should be clarified and valorised.



In fact, Benedict XVI is absolutely right when he maintains that Christianity (at least in its main current) has chosen the pathway of natural law. It is clearly stated in the Corpus iuris canonici, for centuries the basis of the whole Christian juridical thought: ‘The natural law is that which is contained in the Law and the Gospel; but not everything contained in the Law and the Gospel can be shown to coincide with natural law. In the Law there are in fact moral precepts (like ‘Thou shalt not kill’), and some mystical ones (like the precepts on sacrifices and others similar to these). The moral commandments pertain to natural law, and therefore they show no evidence of having undergone any change’ (I,6,3). No really moral precept of the Scripture exists therefore that has no natural basis and knowability. Undoubtedly, the history of Christian theology has gone through great travail (basically still going on) to clarify this statement of principle: but the statement remains.



The debate that the Pope explicitly invites us to (it is to be hoped that it really begins and is not substituted by endless paraphrases of his speech) concerns another point however: the way in which this basis of the law has gradually been sidelined in European public opinion, and the way in which it can be recovered. As regards the first front, the diagnosis is just outlined: the chief cause is the autonomising of ‘positivism’ (it generically appears to imply a functional-scientific reason). Here the debate promises to be complex and productive, since it is difficult to deny that the vision of the world of modern science (which is recognised as being inalienable) is a product of Christian civilisation, and not only by chance. While Christian Europe also appears like a decadent Europe from many points of view, the answers must therefore perhaps be sought in a return to that Christian spirit which at the same time generated natural law and science: a difficult and fascinating task! On the second front, the one of the signs of a return of a normativity of nature, the speech of Benedict XVI is pleasantly disorienting: despite all his caution, the revaluation that he makes of ecologism goes in the opposite direction to the tedious accusations with which the very zealous Catholic culture targeted it, furthermore forgetting that the Christian tradition accurately succeeded in theorizing that the value of the universe in its entirety exceeds that of man, who moreover is the end (impossible to ignore that Thomas states that ‘the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever’, St.Thomas, I, q47 a1 co).



A passage at the beginning of the speech deserves a final comment. With his usual discretion Benedict XVI here suggests that the evidence of the need for a natural law is greater under an inhuman dictatorship than in the peaceful democracy. Here once again the diagnosis is perfect: difficult to forget the Lutheran Bonhoeffer who reflected on the fact that in order to fight Nazism the Catholic stance on natural law was much better equipped than his own (and to mediate between the two he claimed the value of the ‘penultimate realities’, an expression that became almost a slogan after him). Nevertheless, today’s movements of peoples and the inevitable contrasts between religious traditions perhaps raise the problem in a way that has neither the bloody urgency of the first case nor the sleepy academic character risked by the second. Perhaps it is this third context that today might constitute one of the most precious laboratories.