One of Pope Benedict’s favorite themes in his preaching, his publications and his official pronouncements is the natural law.
The Holy Father, with an impressive ancestry of theological and philosophical thinkers behind him, believes that there are certain ageless truths written in the heart of man reflecting the unchanging truth found in God himself. For example, the vast majority of human beings believe in some sort of divine being and many invoke a deity and celebrate religious festivals. The majority of mankind acknowledges that fidelity to the family unit is the basis of society. Everyone knows that respect for authority and keeping one’s word are vital to decent living. Just about everyone esteems some form of private property. And, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, violence is not an agreed reaction to humanity’s challenges. These fundamental intuitions signal the natural law.
Although these basic human impulses have been violated countless times down through the centuries, a broad agreement about divinity, family, property and respect permeates every culture, every society, every nationality. Adherents to native religions, animists, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Moslems, Jews, Christians, agnostics and even atheists esteem a number of fundamental principles that allows each of them to be known as a human being. It is true that there have been incredibly inhuman societies, but, clearly, these exceptions have proved the rule and have paid for their excesses. Right eventually prevails over might.
The Decalogue, the very familiar Ten Commandments, forms the first reading for this coming Third Sunday of Lent. The Ten Commandments are presented more than once in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy offers the “Ten Words” in both complete and partial fashion several times. Jesus and the New Testament authors make frequent reference to the Decalogue – all with amazing consistency. The ancient author records Moses receiving the Ten Commandments directly from Yaweh on tablets in God’s own handwriting. Moses then brings the tablets, eventually, to the Hebrew people and enjoins that they be observed perpetually. This direct link through the commandments between the mind and heart of God in heaven and the enlightened mind and heart of the Hebrew nation on earth is the basis of the natural law. Respect for God, his name, his day, respect for authority, life, marriage, private property, honesty and even proper thoughts flows directly from the nature of God who, as Creator, implants these mandates in his creatures. There is a consistency in human nature that reflects the immutability of God himself. Greatly flawed by original sin, mankind does not always perceive his noble opportunity, in fact, his noble responsibility, to mirror the image of God to his fellow men and women. The Ten Commandments are a handy, external prescription for a sometimes dulled internal obligation. The natural law is not imposed from without. The natural law is discovered from within.
Moses and Pope Benedict are not alone in their endorsement of the natural law as revealed in the Ten Commandments and as found in the heart of God himself. St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “The light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.” And Blessed Pope John Paul II certainly and happily concurs, “The natural law is itself the eternal law, implanted in beings endowed with reason and inclining them towards their right action and end.”
Moses, in concert with God, discerned that the path to salvation would be a long and arduous journey. The trek to redemption would be filled with twists and turns and, alas, with even some dead ends. The Ten Commandments wisely and paternally forewarn mankind of these dead ends: neglect of God, contempt for authority, disregard for life, disrespect for marriage, scorn for private property, disdain for another’s good name, covetous thoughts. These actions lead to worse than nowhere. They lead to the eternal loss of human dignity, the dignity enshrined in the Ten Commandments