Natural Law – the foundation of justice and peace

Urs Knoblauch, cultural journalist, Fruthwilen TG

On behalf of the John Messner society the anthology “Das Naturrecht – Quellen und Bedeutung für die Gegenwart” [Natural Law – sources and relevance for the present] by Herbert Pribyl and Christian Machek (Be & Be-Verlag Heiligenkreuz 2015) was published at the Institute for philosophical and theological studies Heiligenkreuz in Austria This is highly praiseworthy, as the subject matter is extremely important given the growing relativization and violation of law in the various social and governmental areas. The contributions illustrate that Natural Law is a crucial basis for a generally accepted legal culture and for a peaceful and friendly coexistence of all the human family. It forms the basis of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and for international law as a whole.

The clear position of the writers is a great advantage as they expound the basic principles of the Christian humanistic cultural tradition without without trying to keep abreast of the Zeitgeist with its postmodern arbitrariness, its love of deconstruction and economism. Natural Law has a central position in Catholic social science, ethics and teaching and deserves greater attention again.
Cardinal Schönborn writes in the short welcoming text: “Natural Law belongs to Europe’s cultural heritage of many centuries. […] In his address to the German Bundestag of 22 September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI. Championed the Catholic tradition of Natural Law against the now widespread legal positivism.” (p. 11) In their introduction the editors also suggest that Natural Law is inherent in human nature. Saint Paul says (ROM: 2, 14-16): Natural Law “is inscribed in all our hearts.” (p. 13)
The contributions of the anthology here presented were to a large extent presented at the 2013 Johannes Messner Symposium in the Scottish Abbey of Vienna. The great Catholic priest, teacher of Natural Law, social scientist and ethicist Johannes Messner (1891–1984) said: “What is ‘naturally right’ can be identified with the idea of Justice”. “Because: ‘Natural Law is enquiry into and explication of the essence and the criterion of law and justice’ […].” Catholic thinkers claim that principles of Natural Law can be recognized by human reason.” (p. 13)
For better understanding, the Johannes Messner Society and the work of Johannes Messner and Rudolf Weiler will initially be briefly acknowledged here.

The work of Johannes Messner and Rudolf Weiler for Natural Law and the Catholic Social Teaching

In 1935 university lecturer DDr Johannes Messner was appointed to the Chair for Social Ethics and for Catholic Social Doctrine at the University of Vienna faculty of Catholic Theology. In 1934 his voluminous early work “Die soziale Frage” [“The social question”] was published. After Hitler’s invasion In 1938 Johannes Messner was immediately dismissed; he fled to England via Switzerland in order to escape imminent arrest. In England he was able to continue his work and research until 1949. Later, he returned to Vienna to write his work of 1,300 pages “Das Naturrecht” [“Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Modern World”] which appeared first in English in 1949 and then in German in 1950. In 1954 his comprehensive work “Kulturethik” [“Cultural Ethics”] was published. In 1949 Messner was able to resume his work at the University of Vienna, which he continued until 1966.
In addition to his lectures, presentations and to his pastoral work, he edited numerous writings in several editions. These were widely spread and translated into several languages. A memorial mass was celebrated on 16 February 2016 in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna on Johannes Messner’s 125th anniversary of birth.
Rudolf Weiler became Johannes Messner’s successor at the Vienna faculty of Catholic Theology in 1966. In addition to his doctorate in theology in 1954 he had also studied political science and was awarded the doctorate for this in 1961. In 1964 he had a teaching assignment at the Chair of Ethics and Social Sciences he received a lecturing qualification from Johannes Messner with his work “Economic cooperation in a pluralistic society”. In the same year Rudolf Weiler founded the “Institute for Ethics and Social Sciences” in continuation of the Vienna School of Christian social doctrine. In addition to his successful teaching and pastoral care, he published numerous writings on Catholic social doctrine, social-ethical topics and Natural Law.
In the early 70’s, he affiliated the association “University Centre for Peace Research”, where the “Wiener Blätter zur Friedensforschung” (Vienna papers for peace research) were published, to the Institute. Rudolf Weiler learned the Russian language in order to enter into the important constructive dialogue with the East. His extensive work “Herausforderung Naturrecht – Beiträge zur Erneuerung und Anwendung des Naturrechts in der Ethik” “The challenge of Natural Law – Contributions to the Renewal and Application of Natural Law in Ethics” (1996) contains valuable contributions about Natural Law, about Catholic social teaching, about individual and social ethics, international and business ethics. In 1991, Weiler founded the Johannes Messner Society, together with other Messner students. Rudolf Weiler retired in 1996, the year of the Pontifical World Day of Peace.
The renaming and reorientation of the Vienna School for the ethics of Natural Law and consequently the termination of its beneficial work, was a shameful development exemplary of our time. The explanation offered for this was that today we live “in a positivist epoch that views all universal concepts of ethics with fundamental scepticism”, and that a “paradigm shift from the traditional classic Natural Law to a progressive development of ethics according to the modern way of thinking was needed in order to be understood.” (Rudolf Weiler, Wege zum Weinberg des Herrn, (“Paths leading to the Lord’s Vineyard”), Graz, 2013, pp. 28.)
It is becoming more and more apparent where this “progressive”, opportunistic attitude, the deconstruction of valid ethic positions of human science and the “tyranny of relativism” (Pope Benedict XVI) is leading.
It is a blessing that Rudolf Weiler is even at his high age still able to hold guest professorships at St-Pölten and at the Institute for Philosophical and Theological Studies at the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, which is encouragingly thriving with more than 200 seminarians and religious. This magnificent Cistercian abbey, which is nearly 900 years old, is situated in the Wienerwald and was called a “spiritual haven and a place of energy” by Pope Benedict XVI in his book in 2007.

On the importance of a personalistic conception of man based on Natural Law for a peaceable coexistence

Natural Law starts from the premise of man’s innate nature. Man is by his very nature a creature endowed with reason and spirit and the bearer of human dignity from birth on. The individual and social nature of man includes the principle of mutual aid, the ability to connect socially and to feel empathy for others and their world. Man is an emotional being and has the mental capacity for transcendence. Likewise, Natural Law includes the universal principle of good faith that is crucial for living together.
These fundamental anthropological constants are independent of time, place and culture. They are valid regardless of whether a person is religious or not. Natural Law (lex naturalis) is superordinate law and therefore independent of any governmental legislation as well as of all human legislation in the course of time.
In contrast, positive law has other sources besides its basic elements taken from Natural Law, such as Roman Law. It is always made by man and therefore dependent on time, habits, history and political balance of power. The concept of Natural Law can be traced back as to ancient philosophy. For example, in Aristotle and Cicero we find it as a moral attitude of man in society, which is incorporated into the laws of nature. In many examples taken from literature and the history of civilization we can find wonderful examples for ethics and orientation in life based on Natural Law. In ancient Greece, in the fifth century BC, Antigone relies on her conscience and on “the unwritten eternal law of the gods”. She wants to bury her slain brother Polynices with dignity despite the ban issued by the ruling King Creon. Therewith she obeys her conscience, internal ethical commitment and the unwritten eternal rule of Natural Law.
In the Scholasticism of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas considered Natural Law as a divine and eternal law that is part of human nature. It enables man to organize a natural order of life. Various philosophical schools, such as the “School of Salamanca”, connected the Christian heritage with modern Natural Law (Spanish Natural Law school, Grotius, Spinoza, Pufendorf, Thomasius and others). Natural Law became the basis of modern human rights and international law. It was also crucial to the development of democracy. In his research Swiss historian Dr René Roca has repeatedly referred to the importance of Natural Law and of Catholicism for the development of direct democracy in Switzerland.
The renewed focus on classical Natural Law was essential for the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. This is especially evident in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Modern personal human sciences and especially psychology have confirmed these basic anthropological facts of what is right and of the bonum commune.
In Alfred Adler’s (1870–1937) Individual Psychology, the social orientation forms the core of a theory of personality and personal development. Consequently, social and political institutions and especially schools should strengthen and further the humane nature and the dignity of man.
We all are responsible for this. Pope Benedict XVI made it very clear in his address to the German Parliament of 22 September 2011: “Where positivist reasoning reigns exclusively - and this is widely the case in our public consciousness - classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are suspended. This is a dramatic situation and it affects everyone. Public debate is necessary. It is an essential purpose of this address to invite urgently to this debate.”    •

Natural Law is a right of humanity

“Natural Law is one of the most important issues in modern philosophy and theology. Especially the universal human rights are founded on the basis of Natural Law. In as much as human rights are rights of all people, they can only be justified with respect to the common nature and the resulting equality of all people and on the basis of Natural Law to which every positive right is subordinated.“
“Natural Law can be defined as ‘human knowledge of law and justice as a demand of true humanity, at the same time as the knowledge of human dignity as a fundamental obligation of an absolute kind.’  Therefore Natural Law is that which is evident to all human beings. This law is engraved in the heart of mankind […]. To express this in other words and to follow up on it: Natural Law results from the claim of every person to a dignified life. In this way, the definition of what human dignity (humanity) is, is withdrawn from any individual or collective arbitrariness. A way of life that is dignified and worthy of human beings always has reference to basic values and highest moral standards and rights.“
“Man recognizes Natural Law by his experience together with his conscience of right. The family, where the child experiences its first legal relationships and legal obligationsas well as its own rights, is of great importance in conveying this. His own nature with its knowledge concerning these rights and its instincts or hereditary factors according to which he will realize his life, informs the human being about these rights and obliges him to live in agreement with them. This Natural Law as right of mankind or human rights can be understood by everyone even without any explicit knowledge of God. Natural Law is that law of human behaviour, that is, regardless of the positive Christian revelation, recognised by means of reason.”

Herbert Pribyl: Das Naturrecht als Quelle der katholischen Soziallehre heute; in: Pribyl, Herbert und Machek, Christian. Das Naturrecht. Quellen und Bedeutung für die Gegenwart, Heiligenkreuz 2015, pp. 18, 20. and 23

(Translation Current Concerns)

Aspiring to a life giving economic system

“Because it is the human, who engage, in economic activity, the anthropological question of what man is in his essence needs to be asked especially before one starts drawing economic conclusions. All Natural Law consideration about the extent and objective of any economic activity thus presuppose the existence of a human nature, which is removed from people’s disposability. […] By virtue of his free will man […] is the only being that can act in relation to its nature.
However, human freedom is always bound to the truth. Therefore we have to speak of a content-specific understanding of freedom. [… In a narrow economic point of view, it is immediately apparent that the constant increase of the supply of goods cannot be the ultimate goal of human existence […].”
“There is a kind of economic activity which aims at the achievement of this goal and altogether accepts the natural destiny of man to fully develop his natural talents towards virtuousness. This is indispensable for the development of life in accordance with nature. Then the institutional stabilisation and support of those framework conditions, which are equally the expression of a society striving for virtue as also a support for this endeavor, should be described as a life giving economic system. Among other things this is reflected by the fact that such an economic structure is oriented towards and not away from catering to the needs of families who are responsible for passing on the gift of life in its strict sense.
 An economic system, however, which either intentionally accepts the physical, cultural or spiritual death of a person or condones it, so that justice no longer rules, whether outwardly or in the souls of men, kills, as it subordinates the superiour good of physical integrity and the eternal salvation of the soul to efficiency enhancement and increase in prosperity.
In other words, any economic theory, any economic practice and any economic system that either fails to recognize the holistic nature of man, see and treat it ideologically one-eyed or even deny the existence of an immutable nature of man in general, bring material or spiritual death to us sooner or later.”

Hochreiter, Gregor. Zur naturrechtlichen Stellung der Wirtschaft: Dienerin einer ganzheitlichen Entfaltung des Menschen (About the Natural Law position of the economy: serving a holistic development of man), in: ibid, pp 194 and 202.

(Translation Current Concerns)

Appeal instance against unjust and biased laws created by human authorities

“Man can only really strive for a goal if he has first somehow experienced it as being good and worthwhile, i.e., he has to feel joy and a sense of fulfilment in realising it. He has been equipped with both joy and inner fulfilment as a spontaneous sense as well as a criterion to recognise what is of value; simultaneously, they serve as a motivation to strive for its realization. Moreover, joyful appreciation is so substantially linked to any type of value that without this sense of appreciation a value simply cannot be striven for, because it is not even understood and recognised as such.”
“The theory of Natural Law is of fundamental importance most notably in two respects: first, Natural Law provides the foundation for a moral order which is characterised by its universality as it is based upon a reality that is shared by all people – their humanity and their existential state of mind. Second, it is the only adequate protection against the arbitrary use of political and legislative power. In fact, it constitutes the last appeal instance against unjust and biased laws created by human authorities.”

Peschke, Karl Heinz, Das letzte Ziel als orientierende Norm für das Naturrecht, in: ibid., p. 81 and 72

(Translation Current Concerns)

Justice is the basis for the coexistence of people within a state

“The struggle over moral convictions is not an issue to be dealt with by politicians alone, but one that concerns every citizen. Courage based on justice is required in order to advocate moral values in politics. Justice, a just social order, is the basis for the coexistence of people within any state. An order of this kind cannot be achieved without taking into account the compliance with moral values. According to Ratzinger, two basic points of view can be distinguished today, generally speaking. On the one hand, there is a radically relativistic approach, seeking to eliminate the concept of good – and even more so that of truth – from politics entirely. Here the term “Natural Law” is rejected for suspicion of being metaphysical, and also in order for the argument to be consistently relativistic.[...] Law can only be interpreted purely politically, i.e. law consists of what authorised institutions declare it to be.” […]
This school of thought is opposed by the theory that truth is not a pro­duct of politics or of the will of a majority but precedes and enlightens it. Politics is just and helps to foster freedom if it upholds a framework of values and rights which have been shown to man by his reason. […] This insight called Natural Law constitutes the basis of a liberal state governed by the rule of law. Normative issues cannot be solved by majority decisions; they require a foundation for their answers, they are based on Natural Law.”

Hölscher, Maria Raphaela. Das Natur­recht bei Joseph Ratzinger / Benedikt XVI (Natural Law as seen by Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedikt XVI), in: ibid., pp. 113.

(Translation Current Concerns)

Recognition of Natural Law is an existential question of humankind

“After all this, it has become obvious that the true recognition of Natural Law and thus of human rights is a matter of life and death for a human society. And we don’t even have to first search for Natural Law. Its existence and perceptibility has been attested for more than two thousand years.”

Waldstein, Wolfgang. Zur Frage des Naturrechts (On the question of Natural Law), in: ibid., p. 138

(Translation Current Concerns)