Natural Law and the Present Turmoil

This week, at the annual session of United Nations General Assembly, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, delivered a remarkable address on the true sources of law and justice.

His speech included a longstanding Vatican theme: the United Nations “as a central point of reference for the creation of a true family of nations.”  This sentiment was notably absent from the remarks of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others of his ilk. 

Archbishop Mamberti’s call for “a just, equitable and effective world governance” was balanced by his warning that “national and international institutions [must] avoid being manipulated or coerced into interfering in the lives of individual citizens.”  In essence, he called for solidarity and subsidiarity.

But his central theme was that we must seek a rule of law that is also the rule of justice.  For that to happen, the rule of law must embody “a juridical order solidly based upon the dignity and nature of humanity, in other words, upon the natural law.”  He highlighted the dangers of positivistic laws imposed by majority vote, for functional or materialist reasons, without reference to natural law – what Aristotle might have called “democracy” in the sense of “mobocracy.”

The archbishop’s description of the intellectual and theological necessity of natural law was elegant and persuasive, and world leaders should hear such messages more often. They need to hear strong calls for the right to life and the full right to religious freedom that flow from natural law.


Archbishop Dominique Mamberti speaks at the UN

Also this week, my students in a class on foreign policy, which includes an examination of natural law, listed what they believe to be the top crisis-level situations facing American policy makers at the moment.  Their list included:

  • The unrest and violence that have surged in the Middle East in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. Some of this unrest, previously focused on corrupt and oppressive leaders and economic deprivation, changed to an anti-American and anti-Western tone, as protests erupted in reaction to a reportedly bad (and not very new) movie about the prophet Mohammed. France and Germany, not to be outdone, shut their embassies across the Muslim world after drawings of Mohammed appeared in journals from those countries. Further, Al Qaida seems to have retained enough capacity to engineer the 9/11/12 murder of the American ambassador in Libya.  At the United Nations, the new “Arab Spring” leaders of Egypt and Yemen rejected President Obama’s defense of free speech, if such speech insults Islam. 
  • Iran’s ongoing denunciation of Israel for its very existence while all evidence (relying here on the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency) points to a continuation of the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons capability.
  • President Putin’s marked progress in his program to tighten his control, further restricting the ability of Western non-governmental organizations to help create space for a legitimate civil society in Russia. While Mitt Romney may or may not have been right that Russia is the number one geopolitical foe of the United States, Russia certainly sees America and NATO as its most significant threat. The experienced and astute Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg warned this week that the West is losing to Putin in the latter’s contest to establish a Russian sphere of influence in Moscow’s region, describing Putin’s policy as more tsarist than Stalinist.
  • China’s deployment of its growing military power to joust with Japan (and others) over territory in the South China Sea, an area vital to sea lines of communication and energy, against the backdrop of nationalist protests at home and growing Chinese economic weakness. Nearby North Korea remains a nuclear-armed ark of inhumanity whose intentions are never clear.
  • Europe’s ongoing economic and financial problems, despite repeated new action plans and ministerial statements. The post-war effort to bring peace to Europe through economic integration and a common currency, after years of detour into regulatory dementia on the part of the technical-bureaucratic elite in Brussels, is off the rails. Europeans as a whole show no more signs of a renewed interest in strengthening their military capabilities than they do in renewing their populations (though American birth rates have fallen, at least temporarily, below those of France).  Political, economic, and most of all moral exhaustion characterizes the former Christendom.

Oh, and nuclear-armed Pakistan. And resource disputes and Islamist extremism in Africa. And Venezuela with its ties to Iran and Russia. And the possibility of a failed state in Mexico, as drug wars kill thousands.

At no point in living memory has the anarchy of international relations been so evident. The vast majority of the nations in this dangerous mélange have no familiarity with, much less interest in, governance through the faith and reason that bring us to natural law.

And while the neglect of natural law among nations is hardly new and there have been other dangerous moments (which usually result in war), there is a new element: the United States itself is more than ever split on the truth of the bare essentials of natural law, which the American founders recognized as the basis for government. The political divides at home, cutting down to the most basic questions of the nature of the human person and the balance of rights and duties, leave in doubt our ability to act effectively in favor of some semblance of international order or domestic justice.

Archbishop Mamberti’s words on natural law and justice were measured, but the dangers that grow from not recognizing the truth of those words are alarming. These are realities to confront as we soon begin the badly needed Year of Faith. To cheer up, we might all begin that year by re-reading one of Mamberti’s boss’s best efforts, Spe Salvi.


Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.