On Monday, July 8, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of an advisory commission: the “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” He hopes it “will provide the intellectual grist of what I hope will be one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”
The Commission on Unalienable Rights will be headed by Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See. When he was a law student at Harvard, Pompeo was Glendon’s research assistant. Glendon, when thanking Pompeo for the appointment, stressed that this is a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.” One can agree with her, perhaps, but then one needs to make some important distinctions.
Mary Ann Glendon’s statement, underlines my current concerns about the basis for human rights today and what has been called the “natural law.” Indeed, when setting up the commission at the State Department, the Secretary of State said its purpose would be to redefine human rights based on “natural law and natural rights.”
What is natural is a perennial question. Viewed over several centuries, “natural law” has often had a wax nose, which has been twisted to accommodate the morality of those in power, in church and state. Arguments based on natural law have been used to justify slavery, condone torture, denigrate women, condemn gays, and of course (in the Catholic Church) to condemn contraception.
Nevertheless, my observations today are not about politics, Pompeo, or Glendon. The more important issue is clarifying, first of all, what we mean by “natural law” and, secondly, how one can promote an international ethic, still struggling to be born under the rubric of human rights.
When we survey the history of Western philosophy and theology, we see of course many thinkers who have referred to natural law. By no means have they always understood the same thing. They often came to different conclusions about what the natural law called for in human conduct. For centuries now there have been disputes between the Thomistic and Suarezian interpretations of natural law. These divergent views show that even older Catholic authors never agreed on a univocal understanding of natural law. In fact, natural law as a coherent theory with an agreed upon body of ethical content throughout history has never existed, even in the Catholic tradition. The approach of Thomas Aquinas to natural law, for instance, differs from that of many Scholastics; and outside the Catholic tradition there does not exist a concept of natural law as a monolithic theory, with an agreed-upon body of ethical content.
People who argue, for example, that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a clear statement of the “natural law” principle that “all men are created equal” forget that this eighteenth century understanding of “natural law” did not apply to imported African slaves, to Native Americans, and certainly did not support any natural equality of men and women.
It takes time but institutional perspectives do change, thanks to, as I wrote last week, coalitions of transformation. The Catholic perspective on the world and “natural law” certainly changed dramatically in the mid 1960s.
At the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), Catholic moral theology — what is more often called today “theological ethics” —moved from classicism to historical consciousness; and historical consciousness greatly affects the understanding of natural law.
Classicism and historical consciousness are two different ways of looking at the world. Classicism sees reality in terms of the static, the unchanging, and the eternal. (Actually, before his great awakening, Jack was a very pious young man solidly anchored in classicism.) Historical consciousness, on the other hand, sees reality in terms of historical change and places more emphasis on the particular and the individual, while classicism stresses the abstract and the universal.
Classicism (strongly upheld by many fundamentalists and by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, “Splendor of the Truth”) understands objective truth as unchanged in the course of history.
Historical consciousness says ultimately there is objective truth, but it recognizes the historicity of truth and the need for people to grasp and understand it. Historical consciousness gives greater importance to the subject seeking truth and to the historical reality itself. We are still on the road to discovery.
As an historical theologian and a proponent of historical consciousness I would be quick to point out, contrary to the objections of people like the former-pope Cardinal Ratzinger, that historical consciousness is not the same thing as historical relativism. It is a matter of perspective. Our human history involves both continuity and discontinuity. Historical consciousness is a middle position between the extremes of classicism and relativism. We are anchored in human life and tradition; and we move toward a greater understanding of life and tradition.
We learn. We grow. We are always moving toward ultimate truth. And we maintain our stability with the words of Jesus of Nazareth: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” THAT is our fundamental moral principle. That covers a lot of human territory and re enforces human dignity.
I don’t recall that Jesus ever distinguished between gay and straight, male and female, Latinos and Gringos, black and white, etc. Jesus, truly human and truly divine, had a marvellous respect for the other.
We say we live in his spirit. That is not just our challenge. It is our duty.. No relativism here.
Jack Dick is an American retired theologian at the University of Leuven, Belgium. His article was published 12 July 2019 on his blog Another Voice