A conservative politics faithful to its Burkean heritage must be rooted in more than an emphasis on prudence or skepticism: it needs natural law.
In his recent addresses to the British Parliament and to the German Bundestag, Pope Benedict XVI, attempts to build a bridge between the discourse of secular politics and Christian faith. He calls for a dialogue between “the world of secular rationality” and the world of “religious belief”. Benedict identifies two main threats to this dialogue: ideological distortions of secular reason and religious fundamentalism. He argues that a proper dialogue between faith and reason can “purify” both by helping us to avoid ideological blindness and religious fanaticism. How to span the realms of Christian faith and secular reason? Benedict builds his bridge from what he calls “natural law.” He claims that natural law provides genuinely common ground between religious believers and secular rationalists. No doubt Benedict himself is an exemplar of the Christian humanism he champions, given his comprehensive knowledge of Western culture and Christian theology. As evidence for his claim that natural law provides common ground, he points out that theories of natural law emerged from non-Christian Greek philosophy but were also explicitly incorporated into biblical Christianity by St. Paul (Romans 2:14).
Benedict argues that natural law theories of politics lead the Church to affirm many of the basic axioms of modern secular politics, including “pluralist democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law…the equality of all citizens before law.” Benedict might have pointed out that official Catholic natural law teaching only began to endorse some of these axioms in the mid-20th century. So the Church has learned from modern secular politics about many of the institutional requisites for the protection of the common good in today’s world. What can secular politics learn from the natural law ethics of the Church? Benedict argues that, in the wake of the recent collapse of the world economy and widespread financial scandal, the secular world needs to develop a natural law ethics of economic life, modeled on Benedict’s own encyclical letter “Caritas in Veritate”. This new economic ethics, he says, must address the urgent needs of the poor worldwide; he calls for “the integral human development of the world’s peoples”. Benedict also argues that secular ideologies often fail to protect the infinite value of every human person, as in the cases of the slave trade, fascism, communism, and the refusal to accord rights to the unborn. So Benedict sees a large benefit both for Christian faith and for secular politics in a robust dialogue couched in the language of natural law and human rights.
How exactly is natural law going to bridge faith and secular reason? But before we can answer that question, let’s consider how natural law might serve to “purify” religion on the one hand and secular reason on the other. In Thomas Aquinas, divine law and natural law are the two primary manifestations in human life of God’s eternal law, which is nothing less than his providential design. Aquinas argued that our understanding of both divine and natural law is imperfect, which is why we need natural reason to guide our interpretation of Scripture just as we need Scripture to guide our interpretation of natural law. Reason and Revelation teach the same thing, since both stem from God’s providence, but our fallible interpretation of each leads to the appearance of conflict. Those who rely wholly on divine law are what Benedict calls “fanatics or fundamentalists”: their dogmatic adherence to divine law makes dialogue with secular humanists impossible. So Benedict is clear that natural law plays an essential role in the “purification” of religion.
Interestingly, Benedict argues that divine law does not have much to offer to secular politics: “Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation.” In other words, unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity does not offer a comprehensive legal code for the regulation of moral and political life. So what does Christianity have to offer to modern politics? Benedict answers: natural law ethics. But since natural law ethics is not founded upon faith or revelation, natural law is not a distinctively or uniquely Christian tradition of thought.
How might natural law purify secular reason? Benedict realizes that the notion of “reason” is itself deeply contested. He argues that secular conceptions of reason are often distorted by two main ideologies. The first is positivism which reduces reason, he says, to mere empirical verification or falsification. Positivism identifies reason too narrowly with scientific knowledge, banishing ethics and religion to the realm of the merely subjective or subrational. In a striking image, he compares positivist reason to a concrete bunker with no windows. Within a bunker we provide an artificial climate, ignoring the reality of God’s cosmos outside. He calls for a reason that does not dogmatically exclude the possibility of the reality of God but is open to the cognitive claims of faith. How can we give reason its metaphysical depth without the dangers of obscurantism and irrationality? The second distortion of reason is “arbitrary subjectivism” in which reason becomes nothing more than an instrument of subjective desire. Here Benedict challenges the modern notion of the “naturalistic fallacy”: he claims that nature itself is normative. Just as we must respect the constraints of natural ecosystems upon our economic behavior, so we must respect the constraints imposed by the “ecology of man” on human moral freedom. Our human nature is not mere raw material for our arbitrary manipulation; human nature must be respected. In short, both the moral natural law and the scientific laws of nature flow from the same divine Creator: we must defend the ultimate unity of rational order both in objective nature and in our own subjective willing.
In short, Benedict appeals to a tradition of natural law reason in order to explicate Christian faith and to elevate secular rationality. In these addresses, he struggles to bridge Christian faith and secular politics. Perhaps his implicit message is that until Christians can more rationally ground moral claims and until secular reason is sufficiently open to a dialogue of faith and reason, no secure bridge can be built between them.