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Pope Benedict XVI and ‘the moral structure of human rights’11 Jun

Father Ronald Ketteler

Father Ronald Ketteler

Chapter six in John L. Allen, Jr.’s The Rise of Benedict XVI is entitled “Battling a ‘Dictatorship of Relativism’.” That phrase – “dictatorship of relativism” – was voiced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his homily on April 18, 2005, the opening day of the Conclave following the death of Blessed John Paul II. Allen comments that the remark of the now Pope Benedict XVI

was a summary statement of one of the core concerns of his life, and given that he did not expect or desire to be elected pope, it was also a carefully chosen expression of his own theological legacy.

In recent decades, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had become a prophetic defender of religious and ethical values as the foundation of democracy. In “What is Truth? The Significance of Religious and Ethical Values in a Pluralistic Society,” an article published in 1992, the Holy Father discussed the relationship of freedom to the “law and the good.” He observed that there is an in-built tension in modern society

between freedom as the existential form of democracy and the contents of democracy (i.e., law and the good), and contemporary struggles to discover the right form of democracy, and indeed of political life as a whole, are struggles to find the right balance in this tension.

Pope Benedict XVI noted that the concept of “truth” de facto “has moved into the zone of anti-democratic intolerance.” The implications are profound, for the “public good” is reduced to a private matter and the identification of the good of some groups is “not the truth of society as a whole.”Even though the modern democratic society is wedded to a relativism that guarantees freedom (especially religious freedom), a significant question must yet be posed: “Must there not be a nonrelativistic kernel in democracy too?” After all, democracy has the responsibility to uphold the inviolable human rights of its citizens, rights that constitute “the very substance of tolerance and freedom.” In a word, ethical truth must be integral to democratic life.

In his concluding summary, Pope Benedict XVI argued that the purpose of government is not to establish “a freedom without contents.” Rather, if a state is to enjoy viability and good order, there must exist “a minimum of truth, of knowledge of the good, that cannot be manipulated.” In this regard, a political community without a foundation of substantive truth at its core would be defined on purely functional terms, “not on the basis of that justice which is good for everyone.”

On April 15, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the U.N. General Assembly in the year that marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His address, “Human Rights … Must Be Respected as an Expression of Justice,” posits human dignity as the bedrock moral foundation of the Universal Declaration. The Holy Father noted that

[t]his document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society … .

In continuity with his predecessors, Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI anchored the universality, the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights on the foundation of “the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilization.”

In particular, the Holy Father championed the case for the ethical foundations of law in his apostolic journeys to the United Kingdom in 2010 and to Germany in Great Britain in 2011.

In “The Listening Heart – Reflections on the Foundations of Law,” his address before the German Parliament, Pope Benedict XVI contended that majority support cannot be an adequate grounding for law. Rather, Christianity has considered “nature and reason as true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.”

In short, the “law of truth” is rooted in metaphysics, in the nature of things.

Key facets of Pope Benedict XVI’s thought on law were set forth in his address to the participants in the International Congress on Natural Moral Law on February 12, 2007.

At the 2007 International Congress on Natural Moral Law, the pope criticized a threat latent in scientific empiricism, an ideology that misreads technology’s “dominion of man over nature.” According to the Holy Father, that methodology deciphers “the rules and structures of matter” but at the same time can dispose men and women to be “less capable of perceiving the source of this rationality, creative Reason.”

A metaphysical conception of nature is being supplanted by a reductionist empirical understanding. Thus, scientism or scientific materialism, which limits truth to the scientific method, blinds the human capacity “of seeing the ethical message contained in being, a message that tradition calls lex naturalis, natural moral law.”

At the close of the year 2008, when the ITC’s project was approaching the threshold of completion, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated again “the necessity and the urgency, in the present context, to create in culture and in civil and political society the indispensable conditions of the natural moral law.”

“The Human Person, The Heart of Peace” was the theme of the Message for the 2007 World Day of Peace. The Holy Father quoted from Blessed John Paul II’s 1995 Address before the U. N. Assembly when he stated:

… ‘there is a moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples.’ The transcendent ‘grammar’, that is to say the body of rules for individual action and the reciprocal relationships of persons in accord with justice and solidarity, is inscribed on human consciences, in which the wise plan of God is reflected.

In “The Human Family, A Community of Peace,” his 2008 Message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI again advocated the need for a common law, “one which would foster true freedom rather than blind caprice, and protect the weak from the oppression of the strong.” (n. 11)

In that 2008 Message, the Holy Father recalled the Church’s tradition on the foundation of human law in the moral law, a criterion of “the moral norm grounded in nature itself.” (n. 12)

The 2008 Message reemphasized that “[k]nowledge of the natural moral norm is not inaccessible to those who, in reflecting on themselves and their destiny, strive to understand the inner logic of the deepest inclinations present in their being.” Hesitation and doubt notwithstanding, men and women are

capable of discovering, at least in its essential lines, this common moral law which, over and above cultural differences, enables human beings to come to common understanding regarding the most important aspects of good and evil, justice and injustice. (n. 13)

Pope Benedict XVI concluded that the juridic culture will thrive insofar as it depends on “a constant commitment to strengthen the profound human content of international norms, lest they be reduced to mere procedures, easily subject to manipulation for selfish or ideological reasons.” (n. 13)

A rehabilitation of the metaphysical concept of the natural law stands as an antidote against the reductionism of legal positivism. A universal ethic can illumine the deepest reality of the meaning of the moral law, namely, that “being itself bears in itself a moral message and an indication for the paths of law.”

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church incorporates a systematic treatise of Church teaching on human rights and correlative duties in Chapter III, “The Human Person and Human Rights.” (CSDC nn. 152-159)

In its enumeration of human rights spelled out in Church teaching, the Compendium notes “the right to life, from conception to natural end, which is the condition for the exercise of all other rights and, in particular, implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and of euthanasia.” Moreover, the Church tradition recognizes the “paramount value of the right to religious freedom.” (CSDC n. 155)

The Compendium also treats “the mutual complementarities between rights and duties,” a constant teaching of the Magisterium. (CSDC n. 156)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the core of Catholic teaching on human rights:

Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. (CCC n. 1930)

Fr. Ron Ketteler, March 9, 2012

Photo: Pat Delahanty

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