Indeed, Pope Francis strives to reform the church in continuity with her rich millennial tradition. Like his predecessors, he holds to both faith in divine revelation and to the claims of human reason.
He is rationally convinced by traditional claims of objectivity. We are what we are. We don’t live in a make believe projection of our personal wishes. Our deepest dreams and hopes are shaped by our bodily experience. We humans possess a nature that specifies our capabilities by opening us to perfections that require our striving for the infinite, in accord with our reason and will, all while being limited by our bodily condition as humans, male or female.
So, where does natural law fit into Francis’ plans?
Breathing new life into natural law
Today, many see natural law as an old-fashioned and rigid theory, a medieval ruin overcome by evolution and other modern scientific discoveries – as if Darwin had defeated Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Modern science strives to overcome the boundaries and constraints of human biology with the power of reason – as if human creativity could surpass fixed objective truths of nature and universal norms.
Moreover, the post-modern mind prizes subjectivity, personal conscience and chosen identity. Drawing from the mindset of modern science and from the philosophical prejudices of post-modernism, many media pundits have characterized the Pope as not just a reformer but a revolutionary rule changer. Some seem to wish that the Pope could use his authority to change objective human nature so that what was once considered self-destructive and sinful behaviour could now be accepted, even celebrated by the Church. In fact, they go so far, that some seem to question the need that the Pope be Catholic.
Stewards of Nature
But recent interviews with Francis and his in-the-air press conferences reveal the depth and breadth of his views and their harmony with his pastoral tactics. For Francis, respect for nature and respect for human dignity go hand in hand. The Pope’s approach to nature and nature’s law appreciates science, without veering into scientism, and subjectivity, without collapsing into subjectivism.
For this reason, he sees stewardship of the environment as a trans-generational responsibility. Respect for humanity requires respect for our environment, and vice versa. Given our bodily nature’s openness to life, on account of sexual attraction and commitments of love, respect for humanity requires respect for the family, based on marriage between one man and one woman. Married love is so great and holy that it must always transcend the couple and remain open to the gift of life.
Francis’ emphasis on tenderness entails his priority of concern for the weakest: the sick, the unemployed, but especially the elderly and the youngest members of the human family, the unborn.
In his upcoming encyclical on the environment, we should expect Francis to continue his development of Benedict XVI’s critique of post-modernity. When Benedict addressed the Bundestag in Berlin, he drew from the political success of the German Green Party in defending the environment to develop a philosophical argument for the need to protect nature in all humans, including the most vulnerable.
The Pope’s challenges and denouncements are not harsh. They are a prophet’s audacious, yet affectionate, call to conversion so as to participate in the joy of Jesus’ mercy. Pope Francis’ second encyclical will probably continue Benedict’s critique of the dictatorship of relativism by defending the weakest among us from the ultimate social and legal rejection constituted by the pervasive throwaway culture, now employed to plunder the environment.