By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Probably no topic of broad public interest is a more signature Catholic concern than abortion, and more broadly, defense of the right to life. Ironically, this perception of abortion as a Catholic issue is less a source of pride for Pope Benedict XVI than of mounting frustration, a sentiment he voiced tonight in Vienna.
Along with a broad swath of Catholic leadership, Benedict worries that Church teaching on abortion and other life issues is often rejected as a basis for public policy because it’s taken to represent a sectarian position. For Benedict, that reaction has things backward. Abortion is not wrong because the Church says so, Benedict insists – rather, the Church says so because it’s wrong.
The way the pope sees it, the Church’s moral teachings are not like the doctrine of the Trinity, a matter of divine revelation. Instead, they're based on universal truths rooted in human nature, which in principle all people of good will can discover. It's a mode of reasoning known as a “natural law” argument.
In a nutshell, that’s the case that Benedict XVI laid out this evening in a session with the diplomatic community in Vienna, which is home to fourteen different international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.
In what is likely to be his only major policy address while in Austria, Benedict XVI urged the diplomats to make the fight against abortion and euthanasia a cornerstone of their efforts to defend human rights.
“The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself,” Benedict said in a session held at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace.
“Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right – it is the very opposite. It is a ‘deep wound in society,’ as the late Cardinal Franz König never tired of repeating.”
Benedict also warned against creating a society in which “the gravely ill or elderly will be subjected to tacit or even explicit pressure to request death or to administer it to themselves.”
In laying out these challenges, Benedict told the diplomats that the Catholic Church is not expressing “a specifically ecclesial concern.” Rather, the pope insisted, “We are acting as advocates for a profoundly human need.”
In other words, the pope suggested, the Church is not trying to impose a confessional position on a secular world. Rather, it's trying to remind secularity of the underlying values upon which it too depends.
On abortion, the pope said, the church is “speaking out on behalf of those unborn children who have no voice.”
At the same time, Benedict said, “I do not close my eyes to the difficulties and the conflicts which many women are experiencing, and I realize that the credibility of what we say also depends on what the church herself is doing to help women in trouble.”
Benedict’s interest in a revival of natural law thinking, hinted at in his Vienna address, cuts across a wide range of other issues.
For example, the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, currently has a sub-commission working on a document on Natural Law. A draft should be ready for discussion in October, and is expected to argue that without a concept of natural law it’s impossible to provide a philosophical basis for universal human rights. The project is being led by Dominican Fr. Serge Bonino, the editor of the Revue Thomist; the American member is Jesuit Fr. John Michael McDermott.
Benedict has also argued that the modern environmental movement offers a promising route for recovery of the natural law tradition. In July 2007, the pope said that environmentalism presumes that there are laws written into creation, and that “obedience to the voice of the earth is more important for our future happiness than the voices of the moment, the desires of the moment.” Without any reference to religion, Benedict believes, the secular world today is arriving at its own version of natural law theory.
Elsewhere in his speech to the diplomats, Benedict XVI offered a strong defense of the Christian identity of Europe.
"Europe cannot and must not deny her Christian roots," Benedict said.
He made the same argument about Austria.
"The faith has profoundly shaped the character of this country and its people,” he said. “Consequently it should be everyone’s concern to ensure that the day will never come when only its stones speak of Christianity! An Austria without a vibrant Christian faith would no longer be Austria.”
Benedict placed special emphasis on what he sees as the balance between reason and faith in Christianity. In this connection, he quoted German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a non-believer, who nevertheless said that “an alternative … does not exist” to Christianity as the basis for the “normative self-understanding of the modern period.”
Benedict also called upon Europe to play a leadership role in global struggles against poverty and in favor of peace, specifically urging greater efforts on Darfur, the Middle East, the HIV/AIDS crisis, the unjust exploitation of natural resources and the arms trade.