What is needed, I am convinced, is a greater sense of the intrinsic relationship between the Gospel and the natural law on the one hand and, on the other, the pursuit of authentic human good, as embodied in civil law and in personal moral decisions.
–Benedict XVI, April 16, 2008
There has been enough commentary, to be sure, on Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States. For those of us who looked to his visit with heightened interest, we have probably already shared our high points and disappointments. For myself, I had no disappointments, from the moment when I saw Benedict confessing our shame over the child-abuse scandal, to his healing encounter with the victims, to the powerfully moving session with our handicapped brothers and sisters (“marginal persons,” as some philosophical geniuses describe them), to his last-day prayer at ground zero and the Mass at Yankee Stadium. Indeed, it was a sojourn of hope.
What particularly struck me was the deft way that Benedict spoke both to Catholics and Christians as well as to the rest of humanity who do not share our faith. There are two challenges we believers face: how do we raise our voices in the public square without imposing our religious ethos on others, and how do we engage our own zeal to bring Christ to the world?
In speaking to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other believers as well as unbelievers, Benedict reminded me of the capacious Cicero. Cicero is known as an orator and Roman senator, but I admire him for his intellectual reach and integration. Even in his own time, he discerned that there were moral constants uniting all humans beyond the reach of Rome—quite a stretch for a Roman senator. During Benedict’s visit to the United States, it was as if he were introducing Cicero to the public square. Thus, each of the following paragraphs will begin with Cicero’s words, from De Republica, Book III, 33 (from Lactantius).
There is truly a law that is right reason fitted to our nature. Benedict holds that all men and women are gifted with reason by the very fact that they are human. Our ability to use reason is both from our nature and at the same time critically reflective on our nature, our flourishing and our authentic fulfillment. This is the search for the “truth” of our humanity, of which Benedict so frequently speaks.
Proclaimed to all humans, constant and everlasting. No decree of Senate or people can free us from it. There will not be found one law at Rome and another at Athens, one now and another later, but one law everlasting and unchangeable extending to all nations at all times. The law of our nature, known to us by reason, is available to any human. It transcends the vagaries of time and the spray of cultures. Slavery was not good, ever, even though people may have accepted it. And it was only by an appeal to a more universal law than positive law that, as Benedict points out, slavery could be challenged and overthrown. It was that “higher truth” that confirmed Gandhi in his quest for Indian independence. Tellingly, it is the foundation for the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so dear to Benedict.
With one common teacher and ruler of us all, God, this law’s founder, promulgator and enforcer. Cicero’s acknowledgement of the divine lawgiver is a forerunner of Benedict’s appeal to all who believe in God, the Most High. But it rests upon the conviction that God could not will us to do something contrary to our rational nature, as God has created us. As Benedict said at the University of Regensburg, to understand the Fourth Gospel’s “In the beginning was the word,” is to see that the Greek word logos means both “reason” and “word,” a “reason which is creative and capable of self-communication.” Benedict’s hope for dialogue is based upon this “breadth of reason,” an endowment all humans are blessed with as images of God.
The human who does not obey flees from himself...and despises human nature in himself. This is Cicero’s (and Benedict’s) move to appeal to any humanist. Whether you believe in God or not, the rejection of your very self is the deepest rejection you can make. Thus dialogue opens even for the nonbeliever, unless the nonbeliever thinks rejection of one’s self is to be admired. For Benedict, as for Cicero, morality is a matter of whether we choose to be faithful to the truth of what we are as humans.
Commentators after Cicero, crystallized in Aquinas, would note that an essential characteristic of any law is that it be for the common good; and determining the “authentic” common good is, as the pope notes, the task of civil law and the conscientious choice of the citizen.
When you add Jesus to the mix, it radicalizes everything, not for the nonbeliever, but for us. Christians, as Benedict pointed out in his talk to Catholic educators, have been granted the “vision of the Logos, God’s creative reason, which in the incarnation is revealed as goodness itself.” The vision is the face of Jesus Christ, prompting Benedict at St. Joseph’s Seminary to proclaim, “Ultimately, truth is a person.” Reason may be the foundation for our common discourse. But love is its purpose. God, after all, as Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, is not just reason, but a reason that loves and affirms the good. The radical revelation of our Christian faith is that even the least of our brothers and sisters bears the face of God in Christ. This truth is both the key to our salvation and the basis of our mission in the world.
Injustice, depersonalization and violence are not matters of mere politics. They are matters of sacrilege.