The importance of natural law for ethics and for the peaceful co-operation of the world community

Maria Raphaela Hölscher’s book “Natural law as seen by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI”

by Urs Knoblauch, cultural publisher, Fruthwilen TG

Natural law is an ethical foundation that is valid for all people and cultures, irrespective of their worldview, their religion and their culture. During his pontificate Pope emeritus Benedict XVI repeatedly pointed out the decisive importance of natural law for the future of the world community. In the following, some basic ideas of the book by Maria Raphaela Hölscher, “Das Naturrecht bei Joseph Ratzinger/Papst Benedikt XVI. – Die Bedeutung des Naturrechts in Geschichte und Gegenwart” (“Natural law as seen by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. – The relevance of natural law in history and for the present”) shall be introduced. This book was published in 2014.

In 2013, the author completed her doctoral studies at the “Ateneo Pontifico Regina Apostolorum” in Rome with a thesis on natural law as seen by Benedict XVI. After her studies in social work and religious education, she worked in numerous social-charitable organisations in Germany and Albania and is now working as a teacher of religion in Vienna. She is a member of the “Community of the New Way of St. Francis”, and she was recently elected to the presidency of the “Johannes Messner Society” in Vienna.
Maria Raphaela Hölscher is referring to the works of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, to sources and scientific papers on natural law, and in particular to Johannes Messner (1891–1984) and Rudolf Weiler (*1928).
In numerous messages, addresses, and writings, Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, emphasised the importance of natural law for the peaceful co-operation of the world community. (“Die Weltfriedensbotschaften Papst Johannes Paul II. 1933–2000 – Beiträge zur katholischen Soziallehre” – “The World Peace Messages, Pope John Paul II 1933–2000 – Contributions to the Catholic Social Doctrine”, Berlin 2001). Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI explicitly emphasised the dangers of relativism and the dissolution of law, reality and truth, which follows as a consequence of this dissolution. At the latest since his address before the German “Bundestag” on 22 September 2011, the classical natural law, which corresponds to the essence of man and to a universal legal culture, has been integrated more and more into the interpersonal as well as the political debate ( ).
In view of the danger that political power might be separated from justice, the Pope referred to Augustine, who once said: “Without justice, what else is the state but a great band of robbers?” In this way, Pope Benedict XVI broached the subject of the dreadful injustice and contempt for humanity in recent history, and so provided food for thought for those of his numerous critics who are still seeking dialogue.
Justice, as it is understood by natural law, is not created by man, but is “written into the heart of man,” as Wolfgang Waldstein explained in his book, to which the pope referred in his address before the “Bundestag”. (Waldstein, Wolfgang. “Ins Herz geschrieben – Das Naturrecht als Fundament einer menschlichen Gesellschaft” – “Written into the heart – natural law as the foundation of a humane society”, Augsburg 2010) Hölscher writes in her preface that the aforementioned address by the Pope is an event of “historical importance” and that this address and the equally aforementionend book by Waldstein had encouraged her to chose the subject of her book. She is interested in showing how “closely interrelated are” scientific, “philosophic and theological backgrounds” in Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI’s (p. 15) understanding of natural law.

Anthropological, historical and philosophical foundations of natural law

In the preface written by Dr Maximilian Heim OCist, abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz in the Vienna Woods and magnus cancellarius of the Pope Benedict XVI Philosophical-Theological University at Heiligenkreuz, he emphasises that natural law is “decisive not only for the present but also for the future of legal understanding”, for the ethics and moral responsibility of humankind. The abbot points to the universality of natural law and underlines: “It is not a question of a catholic acceptance of natural law, but of the recognition of rational principles which are a priori engraved into human nature. Natural law is connected to anthropology, to the overall nature of human beings, and to the history of philosophy. This tradition goes back to Aristotle and ‘Greek philosophy, especially to the Stoics, who spoke of the voice of reason and the law appertaining to the nature of man.’” (p. 9)
Likewise, Cicero, and later Thomas Aquinas, greatly contributed to a more exact understanding of the nature of man and of natural law, especially in regard to Catholic doctrine. Maria Raphaela Hölscher emphasises that “in a two and a half thousand-year debate” it has once and again been a question of “a touchstone for moral and legal legislation”. (p. 14) Central in this debate was the clarification of the concepts of the “nature of man” of “natural law”, “nature” as well as the image of man. Nature goes back to the Latin word “natura” (nasci, to be born, to emerge), to the Greek word “physis” and to the Romans’ “ius naturale”. Thus, nature “is the term for all organic and inorganic phenomena that exist or come to be, that are created without the action of man.” (p. 16)
With regard to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, “Benedict XVI observed that its arguments proceeded from reason and from natural law, i.e. from what is essentially human and belongs to all”. (p. 38) Human nature is essentially social; man is endowed with reason and is an entity of body, mind, and emotions, with the ability of transcendence.
Hölscher’s book elucidates the historical and current aspects of natural law by means of a thorough study of sources. She writes: “By means of a historical retrospect, Ratzinger refers to its discovery and subsequent development going towards the ‘ius gentium’. Hundreds of years later, at the time of the Reformation, and of theological positions which were partly hostile to one another, a common justice, at least a minimum legal basis, had to be developed.” (p. 35) “The foundations of this should now no longer be anchored in faith, but in nature, in the reason of man.” (p. 35) Hölscher continues to refer to Ratzinger and states that “Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694) developed the idea of natural law as a law of reason, which recognises reason as the organ of common legal formation, across all the limits of faith.” (p. 35)

Natural law as the basis for human rights, for international law and for peace

Also valuable are the topical references to the current state of political culture. According to Ratzinger, “natural law has, especially in the Catholic Church, remained the argument with which she made use of, in her conversations with secular society and with other faith communities, to appeal to common reason. It provides the basis for a common understanding of ethical principles of law in a secular pluralistic society.”(p. 35)
Natural law is currently being forced back by tendencies of the spirit of the time, such as anti-humanism, relativism, deconstruction, nihilism, as well as the radical pursuit of profit and power; it is violated by wars, which break international law; and it is hardly ever taught anywhere. “Only human rights are left as the last element of natural law,” (p. 36) says Hölscher. However, according to Ratzinger in the debate with Jürgen Habermas, “these are not comprehensible without a presupposition that human beings per se, simply by belonging to the species of man, are carriers of rights, that their being itself brings values and norms with it that are to be found and not to be invented”. (p. 36)

Against ethical relativism, deconstruction, anti-humanism and war

In 2005, the then cardinal prefect Joseph Ratzinger, shortly before his election as pope, lamented the current “dictatorship of relativism”, which would “acknowledge nothing as final” and as the truth. There is, however, no subjectivism, no relativism, no arbitrariness and adaptation to any spirit of the time, which can be counted as valid, precisely in regard to human basic values such as honesty, right, loyalty, peaceableness, or solicitude. There must be no “obfuscation and destabilisation of the evidence of values such as the equality of men, equal dignity of the sexes and inviolability of human life”. (p. 190) Thus even a “clear faith according to the credo of the Church” is relativised and labeled as “fundamentalism”. (“Diktatur des Relativismus” – “Despotism of Relativism”, Heiligenkreuz 2014, p. 6) Also a so-called “new anthropology”, radical technologisation, “gender-mainstreaming”, a “new philosophy of gender” and interventions in human substance (eg embryonic selection), violate elementary foundations of natural law and human dignity. (p. 169) Thus, in connection with the promoted political-ideological “gender mainstreaming”, the original marriage and the “link between man and woman” are also relativised and redefined by the law as the “connection between persons” (p. 198).
The traditional and natural basis of “marriage is destroyed and society is transformed into something essentially different.” (p. 198). These developments include a fatal “cultural revolution”, the overthrow of the community of values in human coexistence. (p. 178) It was an alarming expression of this cultural revolution that on 30 June 2017, after a brief debate and with a clear majority, the far-reaching decision in favour of the upper house’s bill for the introduction of a “marriage for all” was reached in the lower house of the German parliament. In future, the Civil Code of the Federal Republic of Germany will state: “Marriage is concluded for life by two persons of different or equal sex.” ( 513682)
Numerous examples in history make clear that legal positivism without connection to natural law and ethics, as well as relativism or inhuman manipulation methods and propaganda, can lead to dangerous developments. So Ratzinger emphasised in his treatise “Wendezeit für Europa?” (“The Turning Point for Europe?” (1992)): “After the immense misuse of legal positivism in the legislation of the Third Reich, in which injustice became law and the state was degraded to a band of robbers, people should have been aware of the fact that any and every legal position must be founded on values which would elude any intended manipulation.” (p. 211)
In his aforementioned address to the German “Bundestag” Benedict XVI referred to “the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all human beings before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of the human dignity in every individual human being and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions” in connection with the Creator God (p. 10) This perception obtained by reason “forms our cultural memory”. To ignore it or to regard it as a mere thing of the past would be an amputation of our culture as a whole and would deprive this of its totality.” (p. 10). It was of utmost importance to the Pope to place “power under the measure of law, so that what is in force is not a law of the strongest but the strength of the law.” (35)
Thus, he emphasised again and again that the “natural morality”, which is connected with natural law and human nature, and “the foundations of universal ethics” belong to the great heritage of human wisdom for all human beings, cultures, and wisdom traditions”. (p. 41) In this connection, the Pope repeatedly pointed to the danger that if “positivist reason sees itself alone as a sufficient culture, it will diminish man; indeed, it will threaten humanity.” (p. 51). It is precisely in view of legislation made by man and laws providing for rights and obligations which are imposed by democratic majority voting, and which may be unjust, that “there must be a legal justice arising from human nature and being itself. This justice must be found and then form the corrective to positive law.” (p. 35)

The decisive objective of formation and education: “A more humane world for all”

The contents of and thoughts on Maria Raphaela Hölscher’s book presented here also include the educational task and the responsibility in education, culture and politics. The miraculous human faculties rooted in the interpersonality of the very nature of man need to be carefully laid, promoted, and strengthened from early childhood, by the model and guidance of elders, also in respect of the emotional life and conscience of man. This is for instance shown by psychology. The focus should be not on digitalisation, but on ethics and humanisation. Such personalities will then be capable of non-violent conflict resolution and an honest, constructive dialogue.
In this context, Hölscher also refers to the historical discussion evening of Kardinal Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas at the Catholic Academy in Munich on 19 January 2004, on the topics “What keeps the world together” and the foundations of “a free state” (Ratzinger, Joseph, “Dialektik der Säkularisierung – Über Vernunft und Religion” – “Dialectics of Secularisation – On Reason and Religion”, 2005). Here Ratzinger describes “natural law as a reality which may be recognised by man’s basic intuition of the moral character of Being. There is a connection between the human being and nature, which is common to all great cultures.” (p. 29) In this conversation, “Ratzinger asked how justice was to be created and what were to be its qualities, in order to be fair and not a privilege of those who had the power to create rights. Furthermore, Ratzinger argued that justice was a basic prerequisite for legislation, the unicuique suum, to give ‘to each what is his own’. That there were rights rooted in the nature of human beings and that the idea of human rights as the magna charter of the modern liberation movement had been the result of this way of thinking.” (p. 82)
The Pope always pointed out “the deep rootedness of every national and international legal order in natural law, the rootedness ‘in the ethical message inscribed in the being of man himself’ (pp. 82). Hölscher notes that “natural law in the classical sense is recognisable, universal in its demands, and unchangeable, and outlives historical changes, because natural law results from the human nature, which is the same for all, it obliges everyone.” (p. 91)
With the valuable encyclopedias “Fides et ratio” (faith and reason) of Pope John Paul II. of 1998 and the 2009 “Caritas in veritate” (love in truth) by Benedict XVI., reason, spirit and human abilities are brought together in metaphysical and rational reflection, so as to recognise the truth. So, among others, the decisive question is raised “whether there is a responsibility connected with being, thus whether there is an ethical and legal claim inherent in the core of Being.” (p. 33) Joseph Ratzinger affirms this question; and the reason for this, according to Ratzinger, lies “in the understanding of nature as the carrier of spirit; nature carries ethos and dignity within itself. The ethical message contained in Being can be recognised. There is a metaphysical foundation to classical natural law. But on the basis of a concept of nature that is today no longer seen metaphysically, but solely empirically, it is almost no longer possible for man to recognise this ethical message.” (p. 81)
Thus, the basic statement of classical natural law, “Do good and avoid evil” (p. 231) can be a humane guideline in formation, education, science, and politics, even in today’s everyday world. In this sense, universal moral law and natural law are “a sound basis for all cultural, religious, and political dialogue. It allows the diverse pluralism of the different cultures not to be separated from the common search for truth and good.” (p. 220) In this way, “the search for the common good” and “the building of peace” may be achieved. “To be genuine,” says Benedict XVI, “dialogue must be clear, avoiding relativism and syncretism, but inspired by an honest respect for the others and by a spirit of reconciliation and brotherhood.” (p. 220)
This is why more care must be taken anew of the achievements of the United Nations, their enforcement must be improved internationally, as the Pope emphasised in his speech before the UN. (Benedict XVI, A more humane world for all, 2008) Natural law is central here, since it is not bound to a religious conception, but is accessible to every human being through the natural moral law; and because it makes for the urgently necessary peaceful co-operation of the world community.     •