Monday, 28 July 2008

What the Pope Said in Sydney Part III - The Natural Law

So far I've talked mainly about what the Pope said on the nature and necessity of the Church. I want to turn now to what he had to say about our natural and social environments, which I know were not always well received by conservatives! Perhaps therefore I should start with some of the things we can all agree on, before moving to more controversial ground....

Man as the apex of creation

A key starting point for his exposition - and for our thinking - is the concept rejected by many greenies that man is made in God's image and the 'apex of creation':

"It is as though one catches glimpses of the Genesis creation story - light and darkness, the sun and the moon, the waters, the earth, and living creatures; all of which are “good” in God’s eyes (cf. Gen 1:1 - 2:4).Immersed in such beauty, who could not echo the words of the Psalmist in praise of the Creator: “how majestic is your name in all the earth?” (Ps 8:1).

And there is more – something hardly perceivable from the sky – men and women, made in nothing less than God’s own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). At the heart of the marvel of creation are you and I, the human family “crowned with glory and honour” (Ps 8:5)..."(Welcoming Ceremony)

It is an important reminder of the Christian view which puts the needs of humans above those of assorted modern causes such as whales or gorillas (and in Switzerland even plants now have rights...):

"Faith teaches us that we are God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, endowed with an inviolable dignity, and called to eternal life. Wherever man is diminished, the world around us is also diminished; it loses its ultimate meaning and strays from its goal. What emerges is a culture, not of life, but of death. How could this be considered “progress”? It is a backward step, a form of regression which ultimately dries up the very sources of life for individuals and all of society.."(St Mary's Mass). It is not an unrestrained right to exploit the world's resources however. Man's task is 'to exercize responsible stewardship of the goods of the earth.' (Welcome)

The natural law

How does man exercize such responsible stewardship? In essence by following the natural inclinations programmed into us by God, with our understanding purified through our baptism and instruction in Revelation, and with the help of grace!

When we here the word 'natural' we perhaps today immediately think of the physical environment which we have so much impact on. But Pope Benedict XVI several times reminded his audience that our social environment is equally subject to underlying laws.

The existence of the natural law - the inclinations to the good, to self-preservation, sexual union and the rearing of children, the knowledge of truth, and to live in society - are not specifically Christian concepts, but what they mean is most clearly articulated in the Ten Commandments.

It is significant that the Pope made quite a lot of comments on the natural law at the inter-religious meeting, as he has previously argued as a theologian that the natural law provides a common ground on which we can meet and work together to defend at least some truths.

The other point to note is the specifically Augustinian twist on natural law theory that the Pope presents: he talked about a capacity for love as lying behind the inclinations as they are normally understood:

"Loving is what we are programmed to do, what we were designed for by our Creator. Naturally, I am not talking about fleeting, shallow relationships, I am talking about real love, the very heart of Jesus’ moral teaching: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You must love your neighbour as yourself” (cf. Mk 12:30-31).

This, if you like, is the programme that is hard-wired into every human person, if only we had the wisdom and generosity to live by it, if only we were ready to sacrifice our own preferences so as to be of service to others, to give our lives for the good of others, and above all for Jesus, who loved us and gave his life for us. That is what human beings are called to do, that is what it means to be truly alive.

At their core, human relations cannot be defined in terms of power, domination and self-interest. Rather, they reflect and perfect man’s natural inclination to live in communion and accord with others. The religious sense planted within the human heart opens men and women to God and leads them to discover that personal fulfilment does not consist in the selfish gratification of ephemeral desires. Rather, it leads us to meet the needs of others and to search for concrete ways to contribute to the common good."

The scars of Original Sin

So why don't we live up this ideal! Pope Benedict XVI points to the effects of Original Sin on both our social and physical environment:

"What do we discover? Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption. Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought.

God’s wondrous creation is sometimes experienced as almost hostile to its stewards, even something dangerous.

How can what is “good” appear so threatening?

And there is more. What of man, the apex of God’s creation? Every day we encounter the genius of human achievement. From advances in medical sciences and the wise application of technology, to the creativity reflected in the arts, the quality and enjoyment of people’s lives in many ways are steadily rising.... All of us, young and old, have those moments when the innate goodness of the human person - perhaps glimpsed in the gesture of a little child or an adult’s readiness to forgive - fills us with profound joy and gratitude.

Yet such moments do not last. So again, we ponder. And we discover that not only the natural but also the social environment – the habitat we fashion for ourselves – has its scars; wounds indicating that something is amiss.

Here too, in our personal lives and in our communities, we can encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created..." (Welcoming Ceremony)

A New Creation

So what then is the solution? It is our witness to the new creation that starts in Baptism:

"...I wish therefore to recall briefly something of our understanding of Baptism before tomorrow considering the Holy Spirit. On the day of your Baptism, God drew you into his holiness (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). You were adopted as a son or daughter of the Father. You were incorporated into Christ. You were made a dwelling place of his Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:19).

Indeed, towards the conclusion of your Baptism, the priest turned to your parents and those gathered and, calling you by your name, said: “you have become a new creation” (Rite of Baptism, 99).

Dear friends, in your homes, schools and universities, in your places of work and recreation, remember that you are a new creation! As Christians you stand in this world knowing that God has a human face - Jesus Christ - the “way” who satisfies all human yearning, and the “life” to which we are called to bear witness, walking always in his light (cf. ibid., 100)." (Welcoming ceremony)."

The Pope made several references to the main theme of his American trip, namely the need for Catholics to be active in the 'public square':

"The task of witness is not easy. There are many today who claim that God should be left on the sidelines, and that religion and faith, while fine for individuals, should either be excluded from the public forum altogether or included only in the pursuit of limited pragmatic goals. This secularist vision seeks to explain human life and shape society with little or no reference to the Creator. It presents itself as neutral, impartial and inclusive of everyone.But in reality, like every ideology, secularism imposes a world-view. If God is irrelevant to public life, then society will be shaped in a godless image. When God is eclipsed, our ability to recognize the natural order, purpose, and the “good” begins to wane. What was ostensibly promoted as human ingenuity soon manifests itself as folly, greed and selfish exploitation. And so we have become more and more aware of our need for humility before the delicate complexity of God’s world." (Welcoming ceremony)

What this means

The logical consequences of this argument dismayed some Conservatives. Pope Benedict XVI commended the Rudd Government on 'making a serious commitment to address its responsibility to care for the natural environment' (ie global warming).

He also commended Prime Minister Rudd for his apology to the Aboriginal people. In my view he was right to do so. Australian policy towards aboriginals violated one of the most fundamental tents of Catholicism, namely respect for the family. And though the motives of many (though certainly not all) involved may have been good, that doesn't make something objectively wrong, right. Acknowledging that something was wrong is always the first step of repentance. Reparation is equally necessary, and something the Australian Government is now committed to.

The Pope also pointed to some other causes that will dismay conservatives - as well as some that they will be pleased to see mentioned:

"And so we are led to reflect on what place the poor and the elderly, immigrants and the voiceless, have in our societies. How can it be that domestic violence torments so many mothers and children? How can it be that the most wondrous and sacred human space – the womb – has become a place of unutterable violence?

My dear friends, God’s creation is one and it is good. The concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity."
These causes are not however things to be viewed in isolation, as many secular advocates do, but rather understood in the context of "... a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable'.

The difference we are called to make

So what should we be doing, what difference should we be making?:

"Empowered by the Spirit, and drawing upon faith’s rich vision, a new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished – not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed.

A new age in which love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty. A new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships...."

This the difference the Gospel makes, Pope Benedict XVI argues: a power of truth and life to renew the face of the earth; not the piecemeal solutions and false promises of secularism.

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