“In search of a universal ethic”

International Theological Commission, Rome, 2006–2008

by Urs Knoblauch, cultural publicist, and Dr phil Elisabeth Nussbaumer

Recognising the need to ensure the survival of huManity in the face of a multitude of life-threatening wars and crises in the world, an international theological commission devoted itself in the years 2006–2008 to the question of whether there are “objective moral values which can unite human beings and bring them peace and happiness”. (para. 1) With this its document, the Pontifical Commission joins the historical stream of huManity, which has always tried to establish rules for moral life serving the just welfare of all.

The document describes the moral standards contained in Christianity as values which can be recognised directly by the practical reason of the individual, as being, so to speak, engraved in the heart of every human being by nature. Since human nature is universal, it is a matter of appreciating the inclination towards ethical conduct inherent in Man‘s nature, in order to work out the values and norms which may be recognised by all human beings in all cultures. The Commission therefore encourages the representatives of other cultures and wisdom traditions to enter into a common dialogue in order to formulate principles of a universal ethic which are lucid and acceptable to all people of the most different cultures and wisdom traditions, and which are thus appropriate for forming the basis of a universal ethic. The Commission invites “the experts and proponents of the great religious, sapiential and philosophical traditions of humanity to undertake an analogous work, beginning from their own sources, in order to reach a common recognition of universal moral norms based on a rational approach to reality” (para. 116) Recognition and promotion of these ethical values should contribute to building a more human world.

Endowed with reason and conscience

The writers of the document start out from their assuredness that man is endowed with reason and conscience, and therefore capable of recognizing the basic values of moral life and of shaping his life in harmony with his natural moral inclinations. He will achieve this, unless false theories and attitudes to life, false motives and goals mislead his mind and close his heart.
Thus endowed with reason and capable of recognising the truth, man tends to enter into dialogue with his fellow human beings and to establish friendly relations. His tendency to live in society stems from the fact that man naturally seeks contact with his kind, so as to overcome his own intrinsic individual limits and so to realise his social nature. In this social cooperation, Man becomes truly human; the individual perfects himself and reaches maturity in different spheres of life. (See para. 50)

Dangers of ruling relativism

The authors of the document are taking into account all “cultural, political, economic, moral, and religious dimensions of our social existence” (para.. 2). They point to the dangers of the prevailing relativism and hence to the alarming government and legislation failure in many of these areas. However, with their explanations, they do not want to present a code of inviolable prescriptions, no completed ethical doctrine; they seek instead for the principles of a universally valid ethics, which can become a reliable, stable and normative inspiration principle for a moral life of men on earth. Christianity has no monopoly on the natural law of morality, for “founded on reason, common to all human beings, the natural law is the basis of collaboration among all persons of good will, whatever their religious convictions” (para.. 9)
In the natural moral law, therefore, it is about a basic orientation for moral action, and not about concrete behaviour rules to which the individual is to submit automatically. The more moral reflections relate to concrete action, “the more its conclusions are affected by a note of variability and uncertainty.” (para. 53) The concrete applications of the natural moral law can change in different eras or cultures. Examples include slavery, interest rate, duel or death penalty. Therefore, reflection and dialogue about the concretisations of ethics are important. In addition, the moral subject must possess a certain number of inner dispositions (developed conscience) allowing him to form a judgment of conscience, being open to his basic moral orientation and, at the same time, well informed about the circumstances of the concrete situation. (para.. 55)
In this context, the authors point to the importance of education, which should enable people to adapt the universal rules of the natural moral law “to the concrete conditions of existence in diverse cultural contexts”. (para. 56) “Indeed, it takes account of the fact that moral science cannot furnish an acting subject with a norm to be applied adequately and almost automatically to concrete situations; only the conscience of the subject, the judgment of his practical reason, can formulate the immediate norm of action.[…] Natural law could not, therefore, be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision.”(para.59)


The personal-social nature of man


At the center of all considerations is the personal-social nature of man, according to which man, endowed with reason, spirit, and conscience, has an inherent dignity. Consequently, “The person is at the centre of the political and social order because he is an end and not a means. The person is a social being by nature, not by choice or in virtue of a pure contractual convention.” (para. 84) Therefore, “The person is therefore prior to society, and society is humanising only if it responds to the expectations inscribed in the person insofar as he is a social being.” (para. 86) The “inner inclinations” of the innate nature of the human being are addressed in this way, which motivate the human being as a person together with others to seek “moral goodness”. Man begins to “listen to” what the “basic inclinations” of his nature are, connecting him to all men. (cf. para. 45) Thereby, every person, following his conscience or guided by “emotional intelligence” (para. 57), is always faced with the situation, to make morally good decisions.

Three great sets of man’s natural dynamisms

The document mentions three great sets of man’s natural dynamisms: “The first, which is in common with all substances, comprises essentially the inclination to preserve and to develop one’s own existence.” (para. 46) “The second, which is in common with all living things, comprises the inclination to reproduce, in order to perpetuate the species”. (para. 46) The authors emphasise: “The dynamism towards procreation is intrinsically linked to the natural inclination that leads man to woman and woman to man, a universal datum recognised in all societies. It is the same for the inclination to care for one’s children and to educate them.” ( 49) For that reason, the permanence of the union of man and woman, and even their mutual fidelity, are predispositioned – a continuance, in which the value of faithfulness is founded. (For the third set, see the section “Inclination to live in Community”)

Decisive importance of education and upbringing

In this context, the crucial importance of education and upbringing for the becoming of a person is emphasised. The natural inclinations towards moral behaviour begin to unfold in the early emotional dialogue between mother and child. Thus begins the development of the emotional-psychic basis for the solution of existential life-tasks: “The human person only progressively comes to moral experience and becomes capable of expressing to himself the precepts that should guide his action. The person attains this to degree to which he is inserted in a network of human relationships from birth, beginning with the family, relationships which allow him, little by little, to become aware of himself and of reality around him. This is done in particular by the learning of a language – one’s mother tongue – which teaches the person to name things and allows him to become a subject aware of himself.”
Guided by the first caregivers and the culture in which the child is immersed, it recognises “certain ways of behaving and of thinking as values to pursue, laws to observe, examples to imitate, visions of the world to accept. The social and cultural context thus exercises a decisive role in the education in moral values”. (para. 38)

Inclination to live in community

The third complex is the inclination of man to live in community. The community is “is specific to the human being as a spiritual being, endowed with reason, capable of knowing the truth, of entering into dialogue with others and of forming relations of friendship”. (para. 50) This aspect, the authors emphasise, must therefore assign a very special meaning. – “The inclination to live in communities derives first of all from the fact that the human being has need of others to overcome his own intrinsic individual limits and to achieve maturity in the various spheres of his existence. But for his spiritual nature to fully flourish, a person has the need to form relations of generous friendship with his fellow human beings and to develop intense cooperation in the search for the truth. His integral good is so intimately linked to life in community that he enters into political society by virtue of a natural inclination and not by mere convention” (para. 50)
Importance of natural law
This addresses the core of Christian as well as secular natural law. Historically, the decisive breakthrough of natural law with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was reached in 1948. According to the authors, the human rights convention “remains one of the highest expressions of human conscience in our times and it offers a solid basis for promoting a more just world,” since the Convention derives from the “cognition of the inherent dignity…of all members of the human family” (para. 5). This excludes the relativism of law as well as the arbitrary rule of the positive law set by man. Positive law set by man must ultimately measure itself against natural law and natural moral law. Only in this way can it prove to be a just law.

Freedom, truth, justice and solidarity


The moral law in the sense of universal ethics can be described, “according to the social doctrine of the Church, by four values that follow from the natural inclinations of the human being and which delineate the contours of the common good that society must pursue, namely: freedom, truth, justice, and solidarity 81. These four values correspond to the requirements of an ethical order in conformity with the natural law.” (para. 87) If one of the values is lacking, the community is in danger of falling into lawlessness or under the rule of the strongest. Without freedom, which lies in the nature of the human being as a person, no social, human and political order is possible. “Without the search and respect for truth, there is not a society but a dictatorship of the strongest” (para. 87) Similarly, without justice there is no society, but the reign of violence. Justice is the highest good that the city can procure” (para. 87)
Here it shows that the welfare of the individual goes together with the common good and that right, ethics, morality and peace build on the nature, the dignity of man.

Ethical foundations of law and politics


Law and justice in the sense of a universal ethic are central to natural law. The scientists of the Pontifical Commission are therefore dealing in more detail with the present dangers of relativism, pluralism and legal/juridical positivism. They emphasize that for several decades “the question of the ethical foundations of law and politics has been set aside in certain sectors of contemporary culture […]” (para. 7). This “under the pretext that any claim to an objective universal truth is the source of intolerance and violence, and that only relativism can preserve the pluralism of values and democracy.” (para. 7) According to the authors, the ruling relativism ultimately “only serves the interests of the most powerful”. (para. 5) “Above all, a tendency comes to the fore to reinterpret human rights, separating them from the ethical and rational dimension that constitutes their foundation and their end, in favor of pure utilitarian legalism”  (para. 5), The ethical and rational dimension is fundamental to our coexistence. The authors refer to Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2007, at an international congress on the natural law of morality, pointed out that attempts were being made to “to transform into law private interests or desires that are opposed to the duties flowing from social responsibility”. (para. 7) This would open “the way to the arbitrary use of power, to the dictatorship of the numerical majority and to ideological manipulation, which harm the common good.” (para. 7)

The need of
 a universal ethic

That is why the authors emphasize the need of a universal ethic in the sense of the natural moral law for a political order of peace, of individual and public interest: “The organisation of society in view of the common good of its members responds to the requirements of the social nature of the person. The natural law then appears as the normative horizon in which the political order is called to move. It defines the ensemble of values that appear as humanising for a society.”  (para. 86) For example, it is the task of the citizens in a democracy to come to a wise agreement by honestly weighing the concrete living conditions against the background of the natural moral law. “The city must thus procure for the people who compose it what is necessary for the full realization of their human life, which includes certain spiritual and religious values, as well as freedom for the citizens to make up their mind with respect to the Absolute and the highest goods” (para. 96) “As soon as we are in the social and political sphere, values can no longer be of a private, ideological or confessional nature: they concern all citizens.” (para. 86)
   Thus the mutual help and solidarity among the people is the decisive factor for supporting the legitimate concerns of the other and the community, as is expressed in the form of life of direct democracy and in the cooperatives. “This is what is called the “common good”. If the person is an end in himself, the end of society is to promote, consolidate and develop its common good.”(para. 85)
Four fields of a universal ethic
There are four important fields related to the natural moral law in the sense of a universal ethic that the authors of the document mention:
1)    “In view of the rise of a culture that limits rationality to the hard sciences and abandons moral life to relativism, it exists in the natural ability of human beings to grasp – the ethical message, contained in being – and to recognise the basic norms of a fair action in accordance with their nature and their dignity in their grand lines. The natural moral law thus responds to the needs of justifying human rights reasonably and it makes an intercultural and interreligious dialogue possible that can favour the universal peace and avoid the ‘struggle of cultures’” (para. 35)
2)    “In view of the relativistic individualism, which considers every individual as a source of his own “values” and the society as the result of a mere contract between individuals who decide to establish all norms by themselves, […] the social and political life cannot be ensured. “In particular, the democratic form of government is internally tied to stable ethical values, that do not have their sources” not in an individualism or relativism, but “that have their sources in the requirements of the natural moral law and which therefore do not depend on the fluctuations in the consensus of a numerical majority.” (para. 35)
3)    “In view of an aggressive laicism that would preclude the believers from the public debate, the Church emphasizes that the contributions of the Christians in public life to subjects related to the natural moral law (defense of the rights of the oppressed, justice in international relations, defense of life and family, freedom of religion and freedom of education), do not have a relation to the profession of faith, but arise from the concern which every citizen should have for the common good of society.” (para. 35)
As a fourth field, the document emphasises the freedom of conscience as well as the duty to disobey when the natural moral law is violated in the sense of the individual and public welfare:
4)    In view of the threats to the misuse of power respectively the totalitarianism that the legal positivism has in itself and which certain ideologies convey, the Church reminds that the civil laws do not oblige themselves in conscience when they are contrary to the natural moral law, and proclaims the recognition of the right of resistance in conscience as well as the duty of disobedience in the name of an obedience to a higher law. The relation to the natural moral law does not bring about conformism, but guarantees personal freedom and occurs to those who are neglected and suppressed by social structures without consideration for the public welfare.” (para. 35)

Basic values must be used

The basic values in the sense of the natural law of morality must be taught to the individual person from childhood, and taught in the schools as well as in the universities. Psychological findings show that the moral feeling in the individual is emotionally experienced in a successful educational process on the parental model, arrives and is strengthened and developed in the network of interpersonal relations. The childlike nature is entirely oriented towards social cooperation with the educators. The family has its core task here, which is to be supported by school, religion and society in order to contribute to a genuine and living democracy and to peace.

Life tasks in family, work and the greater community

Here it becomes clear that life always comprises tasks on the basis of the natural law of morals and natural law. It is only possible to fulfil the tasks of life in family, work, and in the larger community, the nation, to the general good (see para. 84) only in equivalent relations with other people. Man can fully develop his personality only in cooperation with the human community. Only in this way can he fulfil his life tasks and make his contribution to culture. This, in fact, dictates his nature to him. Thus, natural law is not actually created by man, although he has formulated it more and more precisely through centuries of cultural life. It is given to man and is not in his power of disposal.
This is why the current cultural war, organised education cuts and the systematic dismantling of human basic values and national states must be stopped. With the contribution presented here, the quoted professors and theologians do not “pursue […] no other aim than that of helping to reflect on this source of personal and collective morality.” (para. 115)

Invitation to dialogue for a peaceful co-operation

The writers of the document invite to a dialogue for peaceful co-operation with the following words. “In offering our own contribution to the search for a universal ethic and in proposing a rationally justifiable basis for it, we want to invite the experts and proponents of the great religious, sapiential and philosophical traditions of humanity to undertake an analogous work, beginning from their own sources, in order to reach a common recognition of universal moral norms based on a rational approach to reality. This work is necessary and urgent. Beyond the differences of our religious convictions and the diversity of our cultural presuppositions, we must be capable of expressing the fundamental values of our common humanity, in order to work together for understanding, mutual recognition and peaceful cooperation among all the members of the human family.” (para.116)
Finally, the whole document is recommended for reading. Its richness and depth, the strictly and concisely derived statements are a relief for every peace-loving person.     •

Source: www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20090520_leggennaturale_ge.html