New Prospects for the Application of the Natural Moral Law

ZenitLecture of Wojciech Giertych, theologian for the Pontifical Household
International congress “The Moral Natural Law: Problems and Prospects,” organized by the Pontifical Lateran University, 12-14 february 2007

1. Difficulty with question
I have been asked to speak today about new prospects for the application of the natural moral law. I have some difficulty with this question as it was proposed to me.

What is it that the organizers of today’s conference are hoping for? Does the question maybe suggest a hidden deception caused by the widespread rejection of the concept of the natural moral law in the ethical culture of the Western world? Is the invitation to speak on this topic a desperate call to hope that the theory of the natural moral law will once more be universally recognized as valid and useful? Are we really seeing signs of a new renaissance in which the theory of the natural law is being excavated not as a mere archaeological artifact of a past metaphysical period of history, but as a useful tool enabling us to explain and justify the needed foundations of morality, and is it really my task to announce this rediscovery with joy?

The term “new prospects” may suggest that there are new fields of human activity that have not hitherto been viewed sufficiently, or at all, in the light of the natural moral law, and that now there is an occasion to do so. This of course is always true. As social life develops and becomes more complex, new moral questions appear, and they need to be analyzed in the light of moral principles.

The impressive development of the medical technologies raises ethical questions that have never been raised before, and this forces bioethicists to study these issues and elucidate them. Also, changes in social structures and economic processes raises ethical questions, although these are not necessarily studied with such precision and fervor as bioethical questions.

With the universal failure of Marxist ideologies that had tried to instill a temporal hope in the realm of politics and economics through extensive government action, now belief in the presence of the “hidden hand” of the laws of economics leading, supposedly naturally and automatically, to welfare and peace seems to prevail. Are there not serious moral questions to be raised however, concerning the globalized economy and its politics, with factories no longer being like pyramids offering stability, employment and hope for economic betterment, but being like tents in the desert, which one day are here and another day are moved to another continent, causing unemployment, migration and separation of families?

Decisions made in banks and governments of one country sometimes cause intense hardship and social and political crises in another country or continent. New issues of international politics, such as ecological problems, and old issues, such as peace in conflict areas, require the working out of procedures and agreements on international governance.

The increasing mobility of populations, having diverse social and moral traditions, raises questions of their social interaction. The working out of public policies particularly in such fields as social welfare, education and health care requires a common understanding of the nature of the person, of the family, of parental rights and responsibilities, as also an understanding of differing cultural habits.

This common intellectual basis, certainly in the Western world, is more and more difficult to attain as vociferous nihilist and skeptic pressure groups refuse to accept any binding statements about moral truth, supposedly in the name of tolerance. The contemporary increasingly extensive social interaction is raising many new moral problems, and these certainly can be seen as a new prospect for the application of the natural moral law, or rather, as a new task for moralists, who can apply the eternal principles of the natural law to the new issues.

Are these new moral dilemmas in all possible fields of human activity, private, social and public, to be studied in the light of natural law with the same precision as casuist cases raised in the field of bioethics are studied? Or should more room be left for political prudence and the personal judgment of those directly responsible in these questions?

Certainly these are fields for ethical reflection, although the optimism of the authors of the old casuist manuals of moral theology, who imagined that all possible future moral situations could be analyzed, and final judgment could be passed on all of them, is now seen to be have been tainted with a certain intellectual pride. The complexity of new moral issues, and the velocity in which they appear, may mean that many of them will cease to become dilemmas, and they will never be subjected to serious moral analysis.

The “new prospects” of the title of my conference may suggest that there is now a renewed interest in the natural moral law, and that in the face of moral dilemmas there is a fresh search for natural law thinking.

In his day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer(1) regretted that natural law reflection disappeared from Protestant ethics which limited itself to a static apology of divine grace, juxtaposed against a totally fallen nature. Since no meaningful distinctions could be made between the natural and unnatural, because both were equally condemned, the natural life, with its concrete decisions and relationships, ceased to be an area of responsibility before God.

This meant that Protestantism was unable to give a clear answer to burning moral questions of the natural life, and Bonhoeffer lamented this. Are there contemporary signs of a renewed interest for the natural law, offering “new prospects” for our societies?

If there are, they are not yet visible. In fact, in the Western world, at least in the public sphere, there is bleeding atrophy of understanding what is natural and what is not, leading to changes in ethical mores that are amounting to a profound revolution of the foundations of civilization. These changes are not taking place in the name of some forceful ideology, capable of mustering the support of crowds — as was the case with nationalism and communism, both of which had an altruist element within them — but in the name of pure hedonism and anti-rationalist skepticism, hidden under the mask of tolerance.

There is a rapid decline of appreciation of basic moral truths and of the capacity of seeing what is obvious, in the name of that which is fleeting, ephemeral, and therefore not intrinsically binding. Will the social and political approval of gay marriages, of the adoption of children by gays and lesbians, of divorce, of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, the manipulation of embryos and laissez-faire theories of education finally arrive at the point of total absurdity, causing as a backlash a desperate return to rationality in ethics? We may certainly hope so in our wishful thinking, but for a few generations, the return to moral sanity may turn out to be too late.

The present close interaction of differing civilizations, (which) hopefully (…) will not end in violent clashes, may generate a new interest in the ethical foundations of civilizations. Today, contrary to what the Krakow-based Polish historian and theorist of civilizations, Feliks Koneczny, wrote in the early part of the 20th century, there is a belief and hope that full integration of people belonging to differing civilizations is possible and even welcome.

Koneczny claimed that it is not possible to be civilized in two differing ways at the same time, because it is common ethical convictions that generate social cohesiveness and condition civilizations. Ethical standards are more decisive for a civilization than dogmatic subtleties.

In the past, when people belonging to different civilizations lived geographically close to each other, they had to live in separate social groups according to the mores of the entity to which they belonged, without mixing, because mixtures of differing civilizations cannot function in the long run. The transfer from one civilization to another would entail the embracing of a completely new set of ethical values that would require social uprooting.

“Will a monogamist sell his daughter to a polygamist?” Koneczny asked. If he would, for whatever reason, he would have crossed the threshold of a new civilization, leaving the one to which he had belonged. When civilizations mix, Koneczny claimed, it is normally the less morally demanding civilization that wins, because the maintaining of a demanding ethos requires effort and perseverance.

Among the civilizations that he had studied, Koneczny specified the Latin civilization as the most demanding, because it requires that all dimensions of life, including the social and political, be bound by ethical norms.(2) Today, however, Western Europe is rapidly losing, or totally transforming, its age-old Christian ethical convictions, and in this it is drifting away from the moral foundations in which for centuries it was anchored.

At the same time, it is facing more and more directly a foreign Islamic civilization. Will this encounter finally force Western Europe to seriously wonder about what is the real source of its specificity, and to an urgent defense of its own traditional moral fiber? Will it lead to a re-appreciation of the inherited anthropological and ethical foundations that made democracy work, or will the washing away of these foundations cause the crash of Western civilization, just as the crash of communism was caused by its anthropological catastrophe?

Pope John Paul II, as he elevated St. Edith Stein to the rank of co-patroness of Europe, warned: “A Europe, that would change the value of tolerance and universal respect into ethical indifferentism and skepticism about values that cannot be forsaken, would open itself to most risky ventures and sooner or later it would see appearing in new forms the most dreadful phantoms of its own history.”(3) Will the urgency of these questions lead to a new rediscovery of the importance of the natural law? We may hope so.

Finally, the invitation to search for “new prospects” for the application of the natural moral law maybe suggests a renewed interest for the natural law within moral theology, in particular after the papal encyclicals “Veritatis Splendor” and “Fides et Ratio.”

Certainly, a purely kerygmatic and biblical approach to moral formation is not sufficient if it is not coupled with a sound anthropology and metaphysically grounded thinking. The invitation to do what Jesus would have done had he been in our position cannot function as a basic intuitive moral rule if rational thinking will be discarded.

A Christian moral formation needs to refer to the permanent structure of human nature and to its finality that can be perceived also rationally, although with difficulty, because reason has been wounded, but not destroyed, by original sin. Is the role of the natural law within the synthesis of moral theology the “new prospect” that I have been asked to reflect upon? Or are there maybe some other “new prospects” that I have failed to notice?