Post-Einsteinian physics and papal metaphysics
By Robert Royal
Scientists at Europe’s CERN laboratories announced recently that wispy particles called neutrinos seem to travel faster than light, which may mean that Einstein’s theory of relativity, the basis of modern physics, may just have exploded. On Thursday, Benedict XVI told the German Bundestag that the theory of legal positivism has produced legal and moral disasters, when it’s taken as the full truth about human beings and society.
Which finding is more revolutionary? Admittedly, it’s apples and oranges, but I come down on the pope’s. We can live without Einstein, but not without the truth. (65 billion solar neutrinos strike per square centimeter/second. Only 1 in 10 trillion interacts with an atom on our planet – which often seems to be the fate of papal teaching as well.)
The pope’s speech will provoke numerous commentaries. It’s remarkable not only for its richness, perhaps a bit too rich, it must be said, for German politicians, who are not all that different than their American counterparts when it comes to philosophical, theological, and legal questions. But Benedict XVI was clearly after bigger game than the immediate audience.
As a German addressing Germans, he recalled, of course, the perversion of politics and justice that took place under Nazism, and the perpetual threat – magnified now by “previously inconceivable [technological] power” – that political power will trump what is morally right. The pope is no utopian, and he recognized that a politician must be successful in attracting popular support, but that should always be regarded as a pre-condition for doing what is right.
Benedict was invited to Germany, however, as pope and in recognition of “the role that the Holy See plays as a partner within the community of peoples and states.” What he said about that was far more significant, pointed, and far-reaching.
He invoked what he calls “the foundations of law.” As befits a pope, he cited a Biblical example, Solomon, whom God encourages, upon his becoming king, to make a request. Solomon famously asks for “a listening heart so that he may govern God’s people and discern between good and evil.” (1 Kings 3:9)
St. Augustine remarked that without justice a state is magnum latrocinium (“a great band of robbers”). Germans, in particular, can understand that, said Benedict. Their government in living memory turned into such a band, “threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”
The perennial question remains: how to know what is right and just? For many questions, majority rule is sufficient. But on “fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake,” all citizens, and Christians in particular, may have to resist a given legal system.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that anti-Nazi resisters were correct. It’s not as easy to see what may call for resistance today. Recognizing what is fundamentally right and just is never a simple task, says Benedict, but it’s been made harder by certain modern developments.
Historically, the notion of what is right has almost always been “based on religion.” At least in Catholicism, however, this has never simply meant some revealed form of the state. The Church finds the sources of law in nature and reason, both in turn founded in the “creative reason of God.” As he has said at other times, our notions of the rational at bottom depend on a prior divine Logos.
Solomon’s “listening heart,” Stoic philosophy, Roman law, and the Catholic natural law tradition all reflect this basic orientation, as do Enlightenment approaches, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and the post-Nazi German Basic Law.
But in the last half century, the large tradition of “natural law” has been dismissed as merely Catholic. Actually, at this point in his argument, Benedict suggests, without openly saying so, that a similar dismissal had made the Nazi acquisition of power possible, through democratic means. The positivist legal theories of Hans Kelsen – who argued that the law “gave only functional answers,” and relegated God, nature, and a robust sense of rationality to “subjective” judgments – tragically encouraged law-abiding Germans to accept what was wrong in the name of legality.
Benedict explicitly names Kelsen without linking him to the triumph of Nazism. He warns, though, that:
Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else – and that is broadly the case in our public mindset – then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded. This is a dramatic situation which affects everyone, and on which a public debate is necessary. Indeed, an essential goal of this address is to issue an urgent invitation to launch one.
This will no doubt lead to widespread weeping and gnashing of teeth, since the mere recognition of other sources of law has implications for a host of neuralgic contemporary issues.
The critics will probably not notice that Benedict, as his wont, allows a real value for positivist reason, but when it claims to be the only rationality, it becomes a windowless concrete bunker, closed to God and the world, and diminishes and threatens humanity. Europe in particular now finds itself in a state of “culturelessness,” vulnerable to radical forces ready to fill the vacuum.
Without endorsing any political agenda, the pope offered the ecological movement as an insight into the need to recover a value-laden nature. He believes we also lack a sense of human nature as inviolable, not to be manipulated, and not something that human beings create at will. God has put meaning and value into both nature and human nature that require respect: “In this way and no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”
There’s much to discuss about this, of course. The prospects are not good for it to take hold on either side of the Atlantic. But is there any living figure who could lay out the fundamental questions facing Western culture as poignantly as this soft-spoken, scholarly pope?
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West , now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Holy Father addressing the Bundestag
Much Needed Words
By James V. Schall, S. J.
The pope’s address to the German Parliament was brief and straightforward. He tells the German legislators to be like Solomon: “Choose wisdom.” Most of them probably thought that they had already made this choice, which explains why they are there in the first place. But the Holy Father suggests that wisdom is not just anything we happen to choose. It has an objective content that needs to be discovered. Wisdom is always set against what is not wise, what is not true.
Benedict understands “human rights” and “ecology” benignly in this address. These will be, when seen in modern context, terms fraught with ambiguity. Thus the pope speaks of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” He understands “human rights,” that most popular term in modernity, to mean a natural law explanation of why the human person is dignified and why the person is to be respected in its totality.
“Human rights,” with their de facto origins in Hobbes, also mean whatever a government or the individual wants them to mean. They frequently mean the power of the strongest, as the pope noted from recent German history. The positivist and historicist background of this view of “human rights” is discussed with reference to Hans Kelsen and his realization in his old age that a “pure” concept of reason is not sufficient: “Previously he [Kelsen] said that norms can only come from the will. Nature therefore could only contain norms, he adds, if a will had put them there. But this, he says, would presuppose a Creator God.”
Kelsen thought that this supposition of a Creator was “futile,” but the pope suggests that this is the very point: “Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason?” This pope, as he did in Spe Salvi with Adorno and Horkheimer, is fond of citing German agnostic thinkers themselves to indicate a way to the right conclusions. The alternative to “divine will” in things is “human will” in politics. But both divine will and human will are related to logos. Christianity never proposed the establishment of a divine law as civil law. One detects a reference to Islam here. Christianity “has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law.”
Benedict uses “ecology” as a foil against a positivist rationality that is separated from nature. I myself think that ecology has many “unpleasant” overtones. Ecological theory has pioneered a way by which man, in his individual dignity, is reassumed into nature to become subject to natural and political forces without any independent status of his own. The pope uses ecology to bring up the issue of “human ecology,” that is, that there is a human nature that is to be itself respected as indicating the outlines of what we are.
Ecology, with the save the earth programs, has too often worked against the interests of the poor and normal people. Man is not for the earth; earth is for man. The earth is not man’s goddess. The pope understands that a reasonable care is needed but not the notion that man’s numbers and well-being are subordinate to the very dubious notions of earth warming, species preservations, and the total state control that flows logically from these theories. They have often of late replaced other absolutism theories such as Marxism as the main justification for political control of all humans living.
That being said, the pope, as he did with “human rights,” keeps the word “ecology” but gives it a different meaning from the more usual ones, which have a dubious and dangerous heritage. Whether this strategy of redefining popular concepts will work remains to be seen. The old approach of going in someone else’s door but coming out your own may be the most practical one available today in the confused understanding of these notions. Their dominant ideological meanings and usage, however, are not the ones that the pope embraces.
I think that my favorite line in the pope’s lecture was in the beginning when he spoke to the Parliament of his native Germany. He told them that its members were to “work for the good of the Federal Republic of Germany.” That was the key word: the “good” of the people, not something subjective, not something based on will alone. It was founded on an understanding of what man is in his political life, what his “good,” including his transcendent good, is.
The major alienation of the modern world has to do with just what is “good,” just who is “good.” “Man is not the measure of all things.” The measure of all things is the good willed by the Creator and understood in our nature to be good. We did not make the good to be good. We discovered it already there, already good. The denial that there is a good to which we can knowingly order ourselves is what characterizes our time. God alone is “good,” as both Plato and the New Testament tell us. Essentially, this truth is that about which Benedict XVI affectionately reminded his German countrymen in their governing body when they invited him to address them. Many of them, I suspect, knew that they needed to hear such words clearly spoken in their midst.
James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic .
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