Natural and Unnatural

12 July 2019

On Monday, July 8, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of an advisory commission: the “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” He hopes it “will provide the intellectual grist of what I hope will be one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”

The Commission on Unalienable Rights will be headed by Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See. When he was a law student at Harvard, Pompeo was Glendon’s research assistant. Glendon, when thanking Pompeo for the appointment, stressed that this is a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.” One can agree with her, perhaps, but then one needs to make some important distinctions.

Mary Ann Glendon’s statement, underlines my current concerns about the basis for human rights today and what has been called the “natural law.” Indeed, when setting up the commission at the State Department, the Secretary of State said its purpose would be to redefine human rights based on “natural law and natural rights.”

What is natural is a perennial question. Viewed over several centuries, “natural law” has often had a wax nose, which has bern twisted to accommodate the morality of those in power, in church and state. Arguments based on natural law have been used to justify slavery, condone torture, denigrate women, condemn gays, and of course (in the Catholic Church) to condemn contraception.

Nevertheless, my observations today are not about politics, Pompeo, or Glendon. The more important issue is clarifying, first of all, what we mean by “natural law” and, secondly, how one can promote an international ethic, still struggling to be born under the rubric of human rights.

When we survey the history of Western philosophy and theology, we see of course many thinkers who have referred to natural law. By no means have they always understood the same thing. They often came to different conclusions about what the natural law called for in human conduct. For centuries now there have been disputes between the Thomistic and Suarezian interpretations of natural law. These divergent views show that even older Catholic authors never agreed on a univocal understanding of natural law. In fact, natural law as a coherent theory with an agreed upon body of ethical content throughout history has never existed, even in the Catholic tradition. The approach of Thomas Aquinas to natural law, for instance, differs from that of many Scholastics; and outside the Catholic tradition there does not exist a concept of natural law as a monolithic theory, with an agreed-upon body of ethical content.

People who argue, for example, that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a clear statement of the “natural law” principle that “all men are created equal” forget that this eighteenth century understanding of “natural law” did not apply to imported African slaves, to Native Americans, and certainly did not support any natural equality of men and women.

It takes time but institutional perspectives do change, thanks to, as I wrote last week, coalitions of transformation. The Catholic perspective on the world and “natural law” certainly changed dramatically in the mid 1960s.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), Catholic moral theology — what is more often called today “theological ethics” —moved from classicism to historical consciousness; and historical consciousness greatly affects the understanding of natural law.

Classicism and historical consciousness are two different ways of looking at the world. Classicism sees reality in terms of the static, the unchanging, and the eternal. (Actually, before his great awakening, Jack was a very pious young man solidly anchored in classicism.) Historical consciousness, on the other hand, sees reality in terms of historical change and places more emphasis on the particular and the individual, while classicism stresses the abstract and the universal.

Classicism (strongly upheld by many fundamentalists and by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor) understands objective truth as unchanged in the course of history.

Historical consciousness says ultimately there is objective truth, but it recognizes the historicity of truth and the need for people to grasp and understand it. Historical consciousness gives greater importance to the subject seeking truth and to the historical reality itself. We are still on the road to discovery.

As an historical theologian and a proponent of historical consciousness I would be quick to point out, contrary to the objections of people like the former-pope Cardinal Ratzinger, that historical consciousness is not the same thing as historical relativism. It is a matter of perspective. Our human history involves both continuity and discontinuity. Historical consciousness is a middle position between the extremes of classicism and relativism. We are anchored in human life and tradition; and we move toward a greater understanding of life and tradition.

We learn. We grow. We are always moving toward ultimate truth. And we maintain our stability with the words of Jesus of Nazareth: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” THAT is our fundamental moral principle. That covers a lot of human territory and reenforces human dignity.

I don’t recall that Jesus ever distinguished between gay and straight, male and female, Latinos and Gringos, black and white, etc. Jesus, truly human and truly divine, had a marvelous respect for the other.

We say we live in his spirit. That is not just our challenge. It is our duty.. No relativism here.


The Fourth of July : An Historic Coalition of Transformation

To all my USA family and friends happy Fourth of July!

We can indeed celebrate. The Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. It initiated a revolutionary political change, which had global implications. Representatives from the 13 American colonies, a coalition of transformation, rejected the authoritarianism of King George III and British control over the colonies.

George was a model authoritarian ruler. (The only thing he lacked was a Twitter account.) When he assumed his nation’s highest office, he had no previous governmental experience. He was born wealthy. Never worked for anyone. Although he became his nation’s commander in chief, he had never served in the military.

For his every move, he relied on a secretive, eccentric advisor bent on reshaping the nation’s political order. Demanding absolute loyalty, the new authoritarian ruler did not trust anyone more popular than he was, and he detested all opposition. He took advantage of severe insomnia to grab his pen quill —day and night — and write often bizarre, negative notes about people with whom he had big and small complaints: cabinet ministers, generals, and citizens. Nothing was too great or too trivial for his authoritarian critical pen.

George gathered around himself a group of loyal authoritarian followers: a coalition of restoration to make his monarchy great again.

The challenging question in 1776 was transformation or restoration. The thirteen American colonies decided to become a coalition of transformation: creating a new, democratic government independent from England. They chose not to build a coalition of authoritarian followers, that would enable King George III to manage and manipulate them according to his own self-centered authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is something leaders and their followers generate when they create a coalition of restoration — longing for the imagined good old days — to maintain control. It often occurs in times of socio-cultural change, when too many people close their eyes, stop thinking, and allow fear to replace faith.

We live in a time of tremendous socio-cultural change. A heyday for authoritarians, with their closed systems of power and authority.

The collapse of a critical social consciousness begins when authoritarian followers unquestioningly submit to their leaders. Loyalty is demanded and rewarded. Cheap slogans become truth statements. Fiction becomes reality. Gradually authoritarian “leaders” are allowed to do whatever they want, which is often undemocratic, amoral, tyrannical, and inhumanely brutal.

In today’s world, we have ample examples of people surrendering to mind-distorting authoritarianism, which spreads like a cancerous growth. We see it politics, but it is out there in church as well.

Humanity, human rights, human dignity, compassion, and collaboration. These are the values that healthy leaders promote. Whether civil or religious, leaders and institutions must be challenged to promote people not denigrate them. When they begin to deny the human dignity of every man, woman, and child, institutional structures and leaders must be changed. We need to build coalitions of transformation.

This week, for example I am delighted to read that half a million Catholic women in Germany demand access to ordained ministry (priesthood). Germany’s largest Catholic women’s organization has for the first time called for the ordination of women to the priesthood, passing a unanimous resolution to this effect in a Federal Assembly in Mainz. Now that is what we mean by a coalition of transformation. Change can happen.

People thinking and collaborating to construct new frameworks, with new language, new images, and new inspirations.

Happy Fourth of July!

Another Voice is back……..