Saturday, May 03, 2008

United Nations and Natural Law

On April 18, 2008 Benedict XVI addressed the United Nations. In the course of this address, Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of the United Nations, issued a challenge to be open to the discernment of the Church, warned against reductive scientific approaches that ignore the dignity of the person, and called the organizations to continually discern proper ways to safeguard human dignity without succumbing to culturally relativistic standards that ignore universal objective goods of human existence. One of the greatest ways the Catholic faith challenges culture is in her Social Doctrine and we have a religious leader, the Pope, addressing a secular institution on social matters. I think we should listen.

Benedict XVI cited the social reflection of the Church that has been occurring throughout history as an invaluable part of discerning the common good of society. This discernment is needed more than ever in a world of constant technological advancements and social situations that require a continual reflection on natural goods and the dignity of human persons. The theological perspective of Christianity has a privileged position of discernment because of the sacramental perspective of the Church that instructs the people of God about the sacredness of creation, the gift of life, and the will of the Creator.

The United Nations remains a privileged setting in which the Church is committed to contributing her experience "of humanity", developed over the centuries among peoples of every race and culture, and placing it at the disposal of all members of the international community. This experience and activity, directed towards attaining freedom for every believer, seeks also to increase the protection given to the rights of the person. Those rights are grounded and shaped by the transcendent nature of the person, which permits men and women to pursue their journey of faith and their search for God in this world.

Seeking true justice and freedom is always a matter of discernment and distinguishing good from evil through careful consideration of human nature and corresponding human actions. Traditionally this has been called natural law, reflecting on intrinsic goods of human existence and the means of achieving these goods without contradicting the intrinsic dignity of the person. Morality is based around the sacredness of the person and all of creation. This sacredness must be respected and upheld through our actions and it is the responsibility of the Church and society to protect this sacredness. In political language, this honor or respect due to the sacredness of existence has been translated as dignity. This dignity is the starting point of social justice. Because every person has an irreducible transcendental aspect of their being, we can speak of equality, freedom, and the common good.

The Catholic Church and other religion traditions have a responsibility to challenge society to recognize the transcendental nature of the person. Benedict XVI sees the religious dimension as aiding true discernment by creating inter-religious dialogue and preventing individual states from using subjective and culturally relative arguments to rationalize unjust treatment of people. This challenge is two-fold: the United Nations must be open to the fruit of religious dialogue and religions must be able to articulate a vision of faith that seeks a proper view of the human person in accordance with natural reason.

Discernment, then, shows that entrusting exclusively to individual States, with their laws and institutions, the final responsibility to meet the aspirations of persons, communities and entire peoples, can sometimes have consequences that exclude the possibility of a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person. On the other hand, a vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help to achieve this, since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace. This also provides the proper context for the inter-religious dialogue that the United Nations is called to support, just as it supports dialogue in other areas of human activity. Dialogue should be recognized as the means by which the various components of society can articulate their point of view and build consensus around the truth concerning particular values or goals. It pertains to the nature of religions, freely practiced, that they can autonomously conduct a dialogue of thought and life. If at this level, too, the religious sphere is kept separate from political action, then great benefits ensue for individuals and communities. On the other hand, the United Nations can count on the results of dialogue between religions, and can draw fruit from the willingness of believers to place their experiences at the service of the common good. Their task is to propose a vision of faith not in terms of intolerance, discrimination and conflict, but in terms of complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights, and reconciliation.

Secular societies and institutions should not ignore the contributions made by religious people and religious insights. Religious freedom is one of the natural goods of humanity that ought to be safe-guarded. Many pivot faith and reason against each other and argue that faith has no place in the public sphere. To the contrary, believers must not suppress this important part of themselves in order to be active citizens that contribute to the common good. As Catholics we are called to have a sacramental vision that enables us to see reality as sacred and to act in charity and humility towards God and others. Science by itself does not bring us to the mystery of the person, rather it is a method of collecting data and discovering the physical nature of the universe. Science can make us aware that many realties cannot be empirically observe. The limits of the scientific method can open us up to transcendental mystery that accompanies the physical universe. To deny the place of religion in the public sphere is to exclude an important perspective of reality and reduce the vision of humanity.

Many faith based initiatives embodied academic institutions, health care agencies, and charitable organizations have positively influenced the public policy and contributed to building up society. As Christians we have a responsibility to contribute to the just ordering of society. Christ makes clear that one cannot love God and hate our neighbors because love is not divided.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke about how religious insight stood at the founding of the United Nations. He recalled that the Dominican Friar Francisco de Vitoria, a precursor to the United Nations, formulated the organizations task of protecting freedom and human dignity while the concept of the sovereign state was still developing. Francisco de Vitoria “described this responsibility as an aspect of natural reason shared by all nations, and the result of an international order whose task it was to regulate relations between peoples.” The reality is that if injustice did not exist the United Nations would not be needed. Because injustices do exist, we have a responsibility to protect the dignity of the human persons.

The founding of the United Nations, as we know, coincided with the profound upheavals that humanity experienced when reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations.

Ideally universal objective goods should coincide with the total common good, however if an organization works for a limited set of these goods this work should be encouraged. A part of evangelization is recognizing what is good in society and encouraging this goodness to continue. On the flip side, an equally important task is to recognize what is evil and unjust while calling for change. Both must be done in a spirit of humility and charity. Pope Benedict commented on the limited set of goods for which the United Nations labor:

Through the United Nations, States have established universal objectives which, even if they do not coincide with the total common good of the human family, undoubtedly represent a fundamental part of that good. The founding principles of the Organization -- the desire for peace, the quest for justice, respect for the dignity of the person, humanitarian cooperation and assistance -- express the just aspirations of the human spirit, and constitute the ideals which should underpin international relations.

Indeed, questions of security, development goals, reduction of local and global inequalities, protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet. I am thinking especially of those countries in Africa and other parts of the world which remain on the margins of authentic integral development, and are therefore at risk of experiencing only the negative effects of globalization. In the context of international relations, it is necessary to recognize the higher role played by rules and structures that are intrinsically ordered to promote the common good, and therefore to safeguard human freedom.

After affirming the mission of the United Nations, the Holy Father issued forth many challenges to the continual discernment of the organization. Although technological advancements have improved the quality of physical life, science must be in service to the common good. Many scientific methods and techniques act against the natural order of creation and contradict the sacredness of life, the environment, and attack the identity of the human person and family. Benedict XVI says that the choice should not be between science and ethics but one of adopting a scientific method that works within an ethical framework that upholds the sacredness of creation.

The United Nations must recognize the importance of subsidiarity, but also be willing to take action when a humanitarian crisis arises whether man-made or natural, especially when not taking action would cause real damage. This call to action should be characterized by humility- openness to dialogue. The United Nations should seek ways to harmonize relationships between states and try to prevent any kind of outcome that would result in war or conflict that threatens human life. “What is needed is a deeper search for ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation.”

Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI stressed that what we consider human rights must be rooted in natural law, namely the objective goods intrinsic to human existence. Otherwise, the argument for certain “human rights” over other “human rights” merely becomes the competing whims of the powerful. This will to power becomes characterized by people trying to rationalize certain actions motivated by selfish ends. We must be aware of those trying to manipulate certain rights to satisfy trends and selective groups because this runs “the risks of contradicting unity of the human person and thus the indivisibility of rights.” Rather the legality of rights must always be consistent with the ethical and rational dimension upon which the rights are rooted. We must always make a rational consideration of the social interactions between humans and ways to act according to natural goods of human existence. Our understanding of rights must always include the Common Good, which upholds the collective dignity of every person while refraining from directly acting against the good of any individual.


Jared said...


Thanks for taking the time to, first, read what the Holy Father wrote for his trip to the US and, second, share some of that with us. If only more of us would do at least the first thing.


Ryan Hallford said...


Santiago Chiva de Agustín said...

Hello. Congratulations for your blog. Do you know why the young people pray the holy rosary? You can watch here fifty testimonies of young university students
(in Spanish, with english subtitles)
See it:

Santiago (Granada, Spain)