Crises of Law

Author: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger


Crises of Law - Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

The following address was delivered by Cardinal Ratzinger on the occasion of being conferred the degree of Doctor Honor's Causa by the LUMSA Faculty of Jurisprudence in Rome, Nov.10, 1999.

I wish to express my profound and heartfelt gratitude to the Faculty of Jurisprudence of LUMSA for the great honor of conferring on me a Doctorate Honoris Causa. Church and law, faith and law are united by a profound bond and related in a variety of ways. Suffice it to recall that the fundamental part of the Old Testament canon is under the title "Torah" (law). Israel’s liberation from Egypt did not end with the exodus—it only began. It became full reality only when Israel received a juridical ordering from God, which regulated the relation with God, with the community of the people, and with each individual in the community, as well as the relation with foreigners: common law is a condition of human liberty. As a result, the Old Testament ideal of the pious person was the "zaddik"—the just, the man who lives justly and acts justly according to the order of the law given by God. In the New Testament, in fact, the word "zaddik" was substituted by the term "pistos:" the essential attitude of the Christian is faith, which renders him "just." But how did the importance of law fade? Was the juridical ordering of the environment turned away from the sacred and allowed to become simply profane? This problem has been intensely debated, especially since the 16th century Reformation. It is due to the fact that the concept of "Law" (Torah) appears in Pauline writing with problematic accents and later, in Luther, is considered diametrically opposed to the Gospel. The development of law in modern times has been profoundly characterized by these contradictory positions.

This is not the place for extensive development of the problem. Nevertheless, I would like to speak very briefly about two current risks to law, which, between them, have a theological component and, therefore, do not only refer to jurists but also to theologians. The "end of metaphysics," which in broad sectors of modern philosophy is superimposed as an irreversible fact, has led to juridical positivism which today, especially, has taken on the form of the theory of consensus: if reason is no longer able to find the way to metaphysics as the source of law, the State can only refer to the common convictions of its citizens’ values, convictions that are reflected in the democratic consensus. Truth does not create consensus, and consensus does not create truth as much as it does a common ordering. The majority determines what must be regarded as true and just. In other words, law is exposed to the whim of the majority, and depends on the awareness of the values of the society at any given moment, which in turn is determined by a multiplicity of factors. This is manifested concretely by the progressive disappearance of the fundamentals of law inspired in the Christian tradition. Matrimony and family are increasingly less the accepted form of the statutory community and are substituted by multiple, even fleeting, and problematic forms of living together. The relation between man and woman becomes conflictive, as does the relation between generations. The Christian order of time is dissolved;

Sunday disappears and is increasingly substituted by changing ways of free time. The sense of the sacred no longer has any meaning for law; respect for God and for that which is sacred to others is now, with difficulty, regarded as a juridical value; it is displaced by the allegedly more important value of a limitless liberty in speech and judgment. Even human life is something that can be disposed of: abortion and euthanasia are no longer excluded from juridical ordering. Forms of manipulation of human life are manifested in the areas of embryo experimentation and transplants, in which man arrogates to himself not only the ability to dispose of life and death, but also of his being and of his development. Thus, the point has recently been reached of going so far as to claim the programmed selection and breeding for the continuous development of the human species, and the essential difference between man and animal is up for debate. Because in modern States metaphysics, and with it, Natural Law, seem to be definitely depreciated, there is an ongoing transformation of law, the ulterior steps of which cannot yet be foreseen; the very concept of law is losing its precise definition.

There is also a second threat to law, which today seems to be less present than it was ten years ago, but it can re-emerge at any moment and find a link with the theory of consensus. I am referring to the dissolution of law through the spirit of utopia, just as it assumed a systematic and practical form in Marxist thought. The point of departure was the conviction that the present world is evil—a world of oppression and lack of liberty; which must be substituted by a better way of planning and working. In this case, the real and ultimate source of law becomes the idea of the new society: which is moral, of juridical importance and useful to the advent of the future world. Based on this criteria, terrorism was articulated as a totally moral plan: killings and violence appeared like moral actions, because they were at the service of the great revolution, of the destruction of the present evil world and of the great ideal of the new society. Even here, the end of metaphysics is a given, whose place is taken in this case not by the consensus of contemporaries, but by the ideal model of the future world.

There is even a crypto-theological origin for this negation of law. Because of this, it can be understood why vast currents of theology—especially the various forms of liberation theology—were subject to these temptations. It is not possible for me to present these connections here because of their extent. I shall content myself with pointing out that a mistaken Pauline idea has rapidly given way to radical and even anarchic interpretations of Christianity. Not to speak of the Gnostic movements, in which these tendencies were initially developed, which together with the "no" to God the Creator included also a "no" to metaphysics, to a law of creatures and Natural Law. We will not take time to analyze the social unrest and agitation of the 16th century, which resulted in the radical currents of the Reformation that gave life to revolutionary and utopian movements. Instead, I shall focus on a phenomenon which appears more innocuous: an interpretation of Christianity that from the scientific point of view seems to be altogether respectable, and was developed in the last century by the great evangelical jurist Rudolph Sohm. Sohm proposes the thesis that Christianity as Gospel, as a break with the law, originally would not have been able, or desired, to include any law, but that the Church was born initially as a "spiritual anarchy," which later no doubt, because of external needs of ecclesial existence, already manifest at the end of the first century, was substituted by a sacramental law. Instead of this law, which was based so to speak on Christ’s flesh, on the body of Christ and was of a sacramental nature, in Medieval times it became no longer the right of Christ’s body but of the corporation of Christians— in fact, the ecclesial law with which we are familiar. But for Sohm, the real model remained spiritual anarchy: in reality, in the ideal condition of the Church there is no need for law. Stemming from these positions, in our century what becomes fashionable is the confrontation between the Church of law and the Church of love, law presented as the opposite of love. A similar contrast can of course emerge in the concrete application of law, but to raise this to a principle twists the essence of law as well as the essence of love. These concessions are ultimately uprooted from reality, and do not arrive at the spirit of utopia, but seem like it, and are amply diffused in our society. The fact that since the 50s "Law and Order" have become an insult - -- even worse, "Law and Order" have become regarded as Fascist, stems from these conceptions. Moreover, to turn law into irony was a precept of National Socialism (I am not sufficiently familiar with the situation in regard to Italian Fascism). In the so-called years of struggle, law was consciously castigated and placed in opposition to so-called healthy popular feeling. The Fuhrer was successively declared the only source of law and, as a result, absolute power replaced law. The denigration of law is never in any way at the service of liberty, but is always an instrument of dictatorship. To eliminate law is to despise man; where there is no law there is no liberty.

At this point an answer can be given to the basic question I have been addressing in these reflections, but perhaps only in summary form. What can faith and theology do in this situation for the defense of law? I would like to attempt an answer to this question, in a summary and certainly very insufficient way, by proposing the following two theses:

1. The elaboration and structure of law is not immediately a theological problem, but a problem of "recta ratio," of right reason. Beyond opinions and currents of thought, this right reason must try to discern what is just -- the essence of law, and is in keeping with the internal need of the human being everywhere, distinguishing from that which is destructive of man. It is the duty of the Church and faith to contribute to the sanity of "ratio" and through the just education of man to preserve in his reason the capacity to see and perceive. If this right is to be called natural right or something else, is a secondary problem. But wherever this interior demand of the human being, which is directed to law, or the need that goes beyond changing currents, can no longer be perceived and therefore spells the total "end of metaphysics," the human being is undermined in his dignity and in his essence.

2. The Church must make an examination of conscience on the destructive forces of law, which have had their origin in unilateral interpretations of faith and have contributed to determine the history of this century. Its message goes beyond the realm of simple reason and redirects to new dimensions of liberty and communion. But faith in the Creator and his creation is inseparably joined to faith in the Redeemer and the Redemption. Redemption does not dissolve creation and its order but, on the contrary, restores the possibility of perceiving the voice of the Creator in his creation and, consequently, of better understanding the foundations of law. Metaphysics and faith, nature and grace, law and Gospel are not opposed but are intimately connected. Christian love, as the Sermon on the Mount proposes, can never become the foundation of statute law. It goes well beyond this and can only be realized, at least in an embryonic way, in faith. But this does not go against creation and its law; rather, it is based on it. Where there is no law, even love loses its vital context. Christian faith respects the nature of the State itself, especially of the State of a pluralist society, but it also feels its co-responsibility, in order that the fundamentals of law continue to remain visible and the State is not deprived of direction and simply at the mercy of changing currents. Since, in this sense, even with all the distinctions between reason and faith, between statutory law—necessarily drawn up with the help of reason --, and the vital structure of the Church, nevertheless, the ordering between them is in a reciprocal relation and they have a responsibility one for the other, this honorary doctorate is for me at once an occasion of gratitude and a call to develop my own work even further.


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