The principle of the defence of human life and the public commitment of the Catholic faith

Scientific – medical Conference

Pontifical University Regina Apostotorum

Rome, 11 May 2013


I plan to devote this prentation to reflections on the centrality of the theme of the defence of human life from the moment of conception for the Social Doctrine of the Church, and, in general terms, in order to permit the Catholic religion to have the public role it necessarily must have[1]. Even though presented from a scientific-medical viewpoint at this conference, I deem it important to situate reflection on the defence of life within the Social Doctrine of the Church, that is to say within the Church’s relationship with the world, because this is the public role of the Catholic faith, which speaks not only to the interiority of persons, but expresses Christ’s kingship also over the temporal order and awaits the recapitulation of all things in Him, Alpha and Omega. The kingship of Christ certainly does have a spiritual meaning[2], but it also has a cosmic and social significance. Without this public dimension the Catholic faith becomes an individual gnosis, a cult not of the One and True God, but of the gods; it becomes a sect that pursues objectives related with psychological reassurance to offset the fear of being “cast” into existence.

First of all, the theme of the defence of life conveys the message of nature, telling us there is a nature, and a human nature in particular. There are no other valid reasons for calling for respect for the right to life, and those who do not respect that right do so either because they deny the existence of a human nature, or reduce it to a series of phenomena regulated by needs. Life, however, leads us to nature oriented in a finalistic manner, as language, as code[3]. Our culture has lost the idea of ‘end’.[4], and began to lose it when de Cartes interpreted the world as a machine and God as someone who had given the world a big kick, or even before that. As so evidently demonstrated by the onslaught of the gender ideology[5], nowadays we live in a post-natural culture, which comes across as a post-finalistic culture. In classical philosophy the principle of causality was connected with the principle of finality, but the former has now rent the bond with the latter. Reality no longer projects a design, but only a sequence of material causes. Relaunching a culture of the defence of life therefore also means to recover the culture of nature and the culture of ends.

The concept of nature embodies the dimension of unavailability. If nature is “discourse” and “word”, it expresses a sense preceding us. We are not only producers of words. We are also hearers of the word issuing forth from things, from reality, from the symphony of beinghood. Admitting life to be a priceless gift means to acknowledge the fact that in nature there is a word that reaches out to us and precedes us. Our every deed must take into account something that comes before: receiving precedes doing[6]. There is something stable before any becoming. Denying nature opens the cultural door to the manipulation of life because missing is the dimension of receptivity and gratitude. We are neither receptive nor grateful with respect to what we produce on our own, but only with respect to what reaches out to us and becomes manifest as a gift of sense. If this dimension is lacking as far as nascent life is concerned, it will then become weaker in all the other situations of life and society will inevitably lose the dimension of mutual responsibility, as we read in n°28 of Caritas in veritate[7].

While nature is a discourse that challenges us, it is not the ultimate foundation. Nature never speaks itself alone. Nascent life never speaks itself alone. It is a discourse that evokes an Author. In the human person as well there is no level that speaks only itself and in man there is nothing exclusively material. No level of reality is completely understandable by remaining at its own level. When we claim to consider something only at its own level the final outcome is that we don’t even consider it at that level. This morning Cardinal Caffarra concluded his lecture with a citation from Gómez d’Ávila[8], an author I too most willingly quote: “When things seem to us to be only what they seem, they will soon seem to be even less. Nature reveals the Creator and projects itself not only as discourse, but also as “discourse voiced”, as Word. When nature is detached from the Creator, nature is lost as well. When the natural law is detached from divine law, natural law is lost as well.  When the physical dimension of the person is separated from his spiritual and transcendent dimension, it is no longer possible to safeguard his physical dimension. If nature is thought to speak itself alone, then nature no longer says anything to us. Nowadays nascent life runs the risk of no longer saying anything in the sense of being understood not as nascent life, but as nothing more than a simple biological process. With respect to nascent life people are increasingly acting more as producers than as ‘hearers’. The fact is, however, that it’s not nature no longer saying anything to us, but rather our culture that has lost the code to understand it. And this code is more than just a human alphabet.

Therefore, the theme of the defence of life evokes and refers to nature, to what precedes us, to the Creator. Yes, defending life is defending life, but it is also a cultural endeavour to be seen as an alternative to today’s culture: start talking again about an order and not just about self-determination. There is an order that precedes us, an order willed by an Ordinant. Creation is an order and not a heap of things cast about in a random manner. This order is regular and regulating; in other words, it expresses an ought-to-be and an ought-to-do. This is to say it is a moral order, If the ontological order is an order in its own right, it cannot help but be a moral order[9]. Once the ontological good has been eliminated there is no longer any space for moral good. Belonging to the moral order rooted in the ontological order is also society or human togetherness. This is why the defence of life is a core issue for the construction of human togetherness worthy of the natural and supernatural dignity of the human person. This is why – I think I can say – the principle of respect for life always comes first in the list of the so-called “non negotiable principles” enunciated on various occasions by the supreme pontiffs of the Church, and is never missing.

Only if there is a nature, and only if this nature is a discourse in itself is the use of reason possible. I am speaking here not about reason measuring phenomena, but reason that discovers horizons of sense. Only if the social order is based on such a nature is the use of public reason possible. Otherwise there will be nothing but procedural reason[10]. Understandable, therefore, is why the defence of life is of fundamental importance for reconstructing the selfsame possibility of a public use of reason. And in fact – as we see – the negation of the public duty to protect nascent life stems forth from a defection on the part of reason from being public reason, reducing itself to private reason. The truth unites, opinions divide. Quite meaningful is the fact that even philosophers like Habermas have recently recognized the fundamental importance of the concept of nature[11], albeit considered in less than a full sense, but such as to acknowledge the limits of purely procedural reason, with which public dialogue is polluted from the outset.

The public use of reason is of fundamental importance for the public role of the Catholic faith. In fact, it does not immediately transfer revealed law into civil law, but avails itself of natural law, and hence the concept of nature and public reason[12]. Pertaining to the latter is the task of recognizing the social order as a finalistic discourse about human togetherness. Faith does not replace reason, but at the same time does not abandon it to its own devices. If there is no natural order there is no public reason, and if there is no public reason there is no public dialogue between reason and faith. If there is no public dialogue between reason and faith there is no public dimension of the Catholic faith.  If there is no public dimension of the Catholic faith there is no Catholic faith. This is what we see in fact: as reason gradually withdraws into the private sphere, so too does the faith. If believers have to forego the reasons of their own faith when entering the public arena, they end up thinking their faith has no reasons.  Without reasons, however, disappearing is not only the public character of the faith, but also the personal and intimate one. This is why the theme of the defence of life from the moment of conception is fundamental in order to preserve and develop dialogue between reason and faith. And, as we know, this is the essence of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Emerging from these simple and brief observations is the full importance not only of tomorrow’s march, but also this conference, as well as the full importance of the multifaceted commitment in the defence of nascent life deployed by those listening to me and the associations to which you belong. Equally evident, but in contrast thereto, are the grave consequences ensuing from a waning of this resolute commitment not only with respect to the specific subject of the defence of nascent life, but also regarding the life of faith. Faith in life in also beneficial for the life of faith. 

In order to pursue and attain this result it is necessary to situate the defence of life within the Social Doctrine of the Church, just as the Magisterium has always done, beginning with Evangelium vitae. This does not mean the theme of life is locked away behind fences. What actually happens is that this theme is placed right where the Church interfaces with the world, and where public reason and public faith dialogue with one another in the unity of the Trut

[1] I illustrated the theological reasons of the public role of the faith in the first charter of my book Il Cattolico in politica. Manuale per la ripresa, Cantagalli, Siena 20122.

[2] As Benedict XVI said in Mexico in his Discorso a León on 25 March 2012.

[3] Human nature as “language” was referred to, for example, by Benedict XVI in his Address to a group of bishops from the United States of America on their ‘ad limina’ visit: 19 January 2012.

[4] Cf R. Spaemann-Reinhard Löw, Fini naturali. Storia e riscoperta del pensiero teleotogico, Ares, Milan 2013.

[5] Cf G. Crepaldi and S. Fontana, Quarto Rapporto sulla Dottrina sociale della Chiesa nel mondo – La cotonizzazione della natura umana, Cantagalli, Siena 2012.

[6]J. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity. Lessons on the Apostolic Symbol, twelfth edition with a new introductory essay, Queriniana, Brescia 2003, pg. 41. I deemed it necessary to interpret Benedict XI’s encyclical letter Caritas in veritate in this sense: G. Crepaldi, Introduzione a Benedetto XVI, Caritas in veritate, Cantagalli, Siena 2009, pgs. 7-42.

[7] “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (Benedict XVI, Encyc. Let. Caritas in veritate  n. 28).

[8] In margine a un testo implicito, Adelphi, Milan 1996.

[9] This is explained very well by J. Pieper in La realtà e il bene, Morcelliana, Brescia 2011.

[10] G. Crepaldi, Ragione pubblica e verità del Cristianesimo negli insegnamenti di Benedetto XVI, in G. Crepaldi, Dio o gli dèi. Dottrina sociale della Chiesa, percorsi, Cantagalli, Siena 2008, pgs. 81-94.

[11] M. Borghesi, I presupposti naturali del poter-essere-se-stessi. La polarità natura-libertà di Jürgen Habermas, in F. Russo (a cura di), Natura cultura libertà, Armando, Rome 2010.

[12] Benedict XVI, Speech to the Reichstag in Berlin, 22 September 2011.