Pope Francis and the Return of Natural Law

by Samuel Gregg

Anyone who might have thought that Pope Francis’s choice of name somehow suggested that the Catholic Church was going to be led by someone who imagines Francis of Assisi to be a jolly, badly-dressed, Gaia-worshipping baby-boomer from 1972 received a severe jolt of reality today. In his first speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See today, the new pope made it very clear that the Church’s struggle against the relativism that disfigures so much of the contemporary West isn’t going away. In fact, it’s about to be intensified.

Pope Francis underscored the point when he revealed that one of the reasons he chose his name was to draw attention to the deep spiritual poverty that he sees as characterizing the West. Poverty, Pope Francis reminded the assembled diplomats, goes beyond the material dimension. That of course is a classic Christian insight. In the sight of God, everyone — whatever their economic class, sex, or skin color — is inadequate and needy. And the spiritual poverty which Francis especially has in mind has a name: It’s called moral relativism and skepticism.

So that no one labors under any misapprehension about the pope’s words, here’s the precise sentences used by Jorge Bergoglio in explaining why he decided upon the name Francis:

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism,” which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.

And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.

Put another way, there’s going to be no let-up in the orthodox Catholic critique of what passes for Western culture these days which Benedict XVI made so central to his pontificate.

Note, however, how Francis underscores that the truth to which he refers is written into the very nature of all human beings. That’s a clear reference to natural law. It harkens back to St. Paul’s insistence that the gentiles can know the difference between moral good and moral evil by virtue of the fact that such knowledge is inscribed upon human reason itself.

In short, one need not be a Catholic or a Christian to know what’s eternally right and eternally wrong in the realm of morality. Through reason, we can know those truths that go beyond the scientific and the measurable. Indeed, this is the only basis, Francis maintains, upon which we can identify what is, for example, an authentic human right, and that which is merely a projection of subjective opinion, feelings, or raw power. This argument was integral to the last of John XXIII’s encyclicals, Pacem in Terris, which squarely addressed the issue of human rights and whose 50th anniversary—as I suspect Francis knows—occurs this year.#more#

There was, however, something else that mattered about Pope Francis’s speech. He seemed to indicate that it is on the basis of natural law that Catholics and other Christians can engage with two groups with whom relations have been especially difficult, and not just in recent times: Muslims and non-believers.

Francis’s point is that establishing better relations can’t be just about short-term accommodations that try to paper over deep differences of view with lots of diversity talk. Nor can we be content with establishing skepticism about truth claims as the only acceptable context for discussion. We need to be willing to argue about our differences, and to do so on grounds acceptable to all. And that means we must engage in the even more difficult preliminary work of establishing just what those grounds are.

Classical natural-law scholars have always claimed to provide precisely this foundation. This has been elaborated upon at length by not only Catholics such as Aquinas but also many Protestants as well as Jews, such as the medieval philosopher Maimonides (not to mention pagans such as Aristotle). And as Francis is no doubt acutely aware, natural-law claims provided an indispensible background to Bartolomé de las Casas’s insistence at the famous debate at Valladolid, Spain, in 1550–1 that the native peoples of the Americas were just as human as everyone else and therefore merited precisely the same protections from injustice as the European settlers.

The good news is that natural-law theory has undergone a veritable renaissance in recent years, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, thanks to the efforts of figures such as John Finnis, Robert P. George, Russell Hittinger, David Novak, John Haldane, and many others. The bad news is that it’s far less evident that the same development has occurred in continental Western Europe, let alone Latin America. Today’s speech, however, indicates that Pope Francis believes that in an ever-more interdependent world the imperative of making robust claims based on natural law can’t be an optional extra for Catholics or anyone else who believes that there is moral truth, we can know it, and, most important, freely choose to live it.

The only alternative is to opt for what Jorge Bergoglio once described as the opposite of civilization—unculture. Which is of course no alternative at all.


— Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including The Modern Papacy and, most recently, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America can Avoid a European Future.