PONTIFICAL ACADEMY FOR LIFE
8th General Assembly
1. No one can ignore the fact that today we face many currents of thought that rather explicitly deny the existence of what we mean by human nature and the ability to know it. As a result, they do not admit that there is an unconditional and non-negotiable value to the dignity of the person in the first and last stages of human life when we find the greatest need for care and protection.
Indeed, as the Pope recalled in his address, "For many contemporary thinkers, the concepts of "nature' and of "natural law' appear to apply only to the physical and biological world, or as a way of expressing the order of the cosmos, in scientific research and in the field of ecology. Unfortunately, in such a view, it becomes difficult to use natural law to mean human nature in a metaphysical sense, and to use natural law in the moral order" (n. 2). While recognizing the change in the culture, the Academy for Life has felt the need to confront the new ways of thinking, in order to maintain continuity with the centuries-old Tradition of the Church, and with the substance of classical philosophical thought, while discerning new ways of presenting natural law that will foster dialogue with the contemporary world. Today the members of the Church have to explore the results of what has taken place in a certain number of legal systems and legislation to see how they incarnate essential human goods.
To this end, the General Assembly took up three areas related to the main theme: the anthropological issue; natural moral law, its existence, and the extent to which it can be known; human rights and, especially, the right to life.
Unity of the human person basis for a permanent human nature
2. On the anthropological question, the assembly reaffirmed the vision of the unity of the human person, "corpore et anima unus" (one in body and soul), rejecting any dualism or reductionism, either of the spiritualist or materialist type. Genuine respect for every human subject is based on his corporeal and spiritual identity, where corporeality is a component of the person who, through it, manifests and expresses himself (cf. Donum vitae, n. 3) along with the spiritual dimension in which the human person opens himself to God, finding in him the ultimate foundation for his dignity.
The problem becomes how to recognize the existence of a universal human nature for the purpose of understanding the natural moral law. Members reported on contemporary currents of thought that insist exclusively on the historical and evolutionary dimension of man, and deny the existence of a universal human nature. Yet, the substance of what we mean by a "rational nature" the Academicians concluded - in continuity with Church teaching - has to be an indispensable principle for understanding natural moral law. In fact, where else can we find the basis for the dignity of the human person than in his distinctive dimensions and necessities, that is, in his nature?
The Holy Father himself addressing the members of the Academy emphasized that "the human person, with his reason, is capable of recognizing both this profound and objective dignity of his own being, and the ethical requirements that derive from it. In other words, man can discern in himself the value and the moral requirements of his own dignity. It is a discernment that entails a discovery open to further refinement following the coordinates of the "historicity" that are typical of human knowledge" (John Paul II, Address to the General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, n. 3, 27 February).
Natural moral law: the light of human reason at work
3. On the basis of this anthropological vision, the academicians reflected on the theme of natural moral law. This is "nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation" (Veritatis splendor, nn. 12 and 40). The existence of the natural law is the direct result of the existence of human nature.
By recalling the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas on natural moral law, the Academicians stressed the fact that every human being is naturally capable of clearly discerning in his conscience the fundamental dictates (first principles) of this law, that prompt him to do good and to avoid evil (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 16). He has the capacity to recognize the moral norms deriving from what human nature requires - such are the ethical norms that concern the protection of human life - even if their determination, in some cases, seems more difficult because of the inevitable cultural and personal conditioning that mark the history of every person.
The practice of the moral virtues, understood as the acquired habit of doing a specific good act, is of great help in knowing and living the natural law while, on the contrary, the vices are a further obstacle to the good to be done.
Necessary foundation of natural rights in human nature
4. Natural rights codify and protect the indispensable necessities of human nature, such as the search for moral truth. One can speak of legal systems that codify "natural rights" since their foundations do not coincide with a mere act of human will, but indeed are inherent in the nature and dignity of the person himself.
In the history of human rights, this is the reason why almost constantly until the end of the 18th century, fundamental human rights were considered inviolable and non-negotiable, hence removed from the arbitrariness of social agreement and the consensus of the majority.
"The Catholic Church claims for every human being the right to life as the primary right. She does so in the name of the truth about man and to protect his freedom that cannot be sustained without respect for the right to life. The Church affirms the right to life of every innocent human being at every moment of his existence. The distinction sometimes implied in several international documents between "human being' and "human person', so as to limit the right to life and to physical integrity to persons already born is an artificial distinction, without any scientific or philosophical foundation.
Then the Academicians appealed to legislators everywhere to formulate juridical norms consistent with the genuine truth about man and the primacy of the right to life.
5. The Holy Father encouraged the participants to continue their "reflection on the natural moral law and natural rights with the hope that from your discussions will come fresh zeal for establishing the true good of the human being and of a just and peaceful social order. It is always by returning to the deep roots of human dignity and of the true good of the human being, and by building on the foundation of what exists as everlasting and essential in man, that a fruitful dialogue can take place with men of every culture in order to build a society inspired by the values of justice and brotherhood" (Address to participants..., n. 7).