True “Common Ground” Lies in Renewed Appreciation of Natural Law: Vatican Think Tank to Global Leade

Fri Jun 12, 2009 - 12:15 pm EST

By Kathleen Gilbert

VATICAN CITY, June 12, 2009 ( - In response to growing calls for a unified global ethic and a search to find “common ground,” a new document issued by the International Theological Commission is calling upon globalization leaders to consider the objective existence of natural law, and its central importance in peacefully uniting people of all backgrounds into a common mission.

The document, titled "The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at Natural Law," is available on the Vatican website in Italian and in French.

"Are there objective moral values that can unite men and bring them peace and happiness?" begins the document. "What are they? How do we recognize them? How do we implement them in personal and community life? These perennial questions about good and evil are more urgent today than ever, to the extent that men have a greater consciousness of forming a single worldwide community."

Addressing the varied projects of modern society, it continues: "These efforts can only succeed if good intentions are based on a sound basic agreement about the goods and values that are the deepest aspirations of human beings, as individuals and as a community. Only the recognition and promotion of these values can help build a more humane world."

The commission notes the frequent convergence of separate ethical traditions among the cultures of the world, which point to a natural law as their common foundation - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is presented as a leading example of success in delineating such universal ethical values.

However, the theologians also point out the folly of freely expanding the definition of "human rights." 

"A certain tendency to increase human rights, according to several of the disordered desires of the consumer sector or sectoral demands that do not pertain to objective needs to the common good of humanity, has contributed greatly to their devaluation," they said.

Rejecting a universal moral standard in favor of one based on "particular interests," they warned, "ultimately serves only the interests of the strongest."

"Above all, there is a tendency to reinterpret the rights of man, separated from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their purpose, for the benefit of a pure utilitarian legalism."

The introduction notes recent efforts by globalization leaders to develop a "global ethics" in dialogue among international cultures. While the project is "worthy of interest" and "an expression of a need now to have a universal and comprehensive ethic," the theologians question: "Can a purely inductive research of the current minimum consensus, in the parliamentary model, satisfy the requirements of the base right on the absolute?

"Moreover, does this ethic not lead, at least, to relativizing the strong ethical requirements of each particular religion or wisdom?"

Therefore, the new document avowedly intends "to invite all those who are questioning the ultimate foundations of ethics, as well as that of the juridical and political order, to consider ... a renewed presentation of the doctrine of natural law," which would ensure "human dignity in the face of fluctuating ideologies."

Father Serge-Thomas Bonino, a member of the commission, explained in a L'Osservatore Romano article today the central need for a recognition of the natural law.

"These values can guarantee for human rights, for example, a more solid base than fragile juridical positivism," said Father Bonino. "They should be founded on what defines human beings as humans and in how human nature is concretized is each person, regardless of race, culture or religion."

The commission also touched upon the Christian community's contribution to the universal ethical tradition.

"Throughout its history, the Christian community, in elaborating its own ethical tradition - led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ and in critical dialogue with the traditions of wisdom that it met - was also purified and developed this teaching on natural law as a norm fundamental ethics," they wrote. 

But, the theologians add, Christianity "has no monopoly on natural law."

"In fact, it [the natural law] is based on reason, common to all human beings, and is the basis for collaboration between all people of good will, beyond their religious beliefs," they write.

According to Fr. Bonino, there are two alternative paths in the globalization project: either the effort advances "more or less regulated in a juridical framework that is purely positivist" and is therefore rendered "incapable of avoiding in the long-term the power and rights of the strongest," or else it will avoid that end when "man involves himself in the process to orient it based on the finality that is properly human."

"These fundamental precepts - objective and universal - are called to found and inspire together the moral, juridical and political determinations that regulate the life of man and society," says the document.

Keep this news available to you and millions more

Your gift will spread truth, defeat lies, and save lives

Share this article