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Using the Moral Language of Cultures to Dialogue

Using the Moral Language of Cultures to Dialogue
David J. Harrison, M.A.
Note: This article will likely be published in Social Justice Review, so as it is pending publication, please do not quote it outside of this course.The age of increasing individualistic secularism which currently pervades the Western world – and is spreading to developing nations through intellectual colonialism – teaches societies that one's personal belief system and Weltanschauung (how one views the world, such as his beliefs, preconceived notions, and expectations of society) need only be developed by each person based on his or her own interpretation of all things sexual and spiritual, personal and societal, temporal and eternal. Wide-spread propaganda campaigns attempt to instill the belief that universally objective morals are dictatorial and repressive. Aside from recognizing the hypocrisy of such attempts to force this paradigm onto populations and religious communities, one must recognize that this is the the Zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century, and thereby grasp how a Christian is to function within today's culture.
Zeitgeist is a term which describes the guiding spirit of the age – such as colonialism which drove First World nations into hegemonic frenzy as they competed with each other, or the Enlightenment in which European scholars elevated their own powers of reason over thousands of years of accepted creeds and cults. The alarming Zeitgeist of today's ultra-personalism has its roots in post-Enlightenment Cartesian criticism which disbelieved every notion from history to religion to medicine until proven satisfactorily. Perhaps most violent was the assault on Christianity, the tempestuousness of the time explained by a contemporary scholar in 1905, referring to Auguste Sabatier and Adolf von Harnack and the rejection of the historicity of Christianity in favour of pure subjective religious experience:
They accept modern thought as authoritative. Christianity must be purged of any statements or belief that conflict with it. Modern thought is knowledge. And where Christianity, in its intellectual form, contradicts with modern culture, it is to be given up. Only the subjective feeling or sentiment – the essential element in Christianity – is to be kept. All else is husk, superstitious idealizings of facts.1
This legacy of the last century has blossomed into today's movements – often militant – which utilize the efforts of various private- and public-interest groups promoting hedonistic lifestyles and morals, often with promises of political and monetary rewards for adoption and cultural and political coercion for rejection. And for many regions which are, of yet, rejecting such an ideology, one can find fundamental religious paradigms which define the morals and Weltanschauung for their people, some of which are at odds with neighboring regions, thus leading to religious conflicts.
As there is an increasing interest in the formation of a global society coupled with various challenges to humanity and the environment,2 it must be asked how current societies, especially those divorced from a previous foundation of common Christian principles, are to form their political, legal, moral, and daily norms if any sense of international community and/or crises resolution are to be created and sustained. While a “society of one” is extremely harmonious and efficient, the opposite also tends to be true: heterogeneous collections of societies comprise vast differences, harbor conflicts, and require lengthy measures to resolve issues. At the root of such amalgamations lie the moral languages of cultures, frequently complicating and obfuscating the dialogic process.
In this present work I will examine a common platform which allows Catholics to work with non-Catholics that can then be used to promote dialogue and, hopefully, community: the moral language of cultures.
From Catholic-centric to Human-centric Language
Allow me to briefly draw a more concrete picture illustrating the concept of “the moral language of cultures.” Diplomatic dialogue between members of different nations can be a rather difficult assignment if the parties do not speak a common language, for the interlocutors cannot share priorities and interpretations, establish mutually agreeable frameworks within which to work, agree upon the definitions of words and concepts, and at least understand the other’s assignment of importance attached to these words and concepts. These interlocutors require the understanding of another, commonly held, language, such as French or English. In the area of global morals, the Church offers such a language.
One of the treasures of the Roman Catholic Church is the wealth of thought regarding the human
condition. Matters regarding our responsibilities to the environment and economic systems, spouses and enemies, children and ecclesiastical structures have been developed and refined over centuries. The Magisterium of the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, such pronouncements, being of moral matters, are in compliance with the will of He who created an ordered universe. Such pronouncements are made with the hope and joy that adoption thereof will help right-the-ship of mankind which has so faltered since the Garden of Eden.
Although Catholic theology possesses such clearly defined concepts due to the grace of the Holy Spirit, and while Catholics are obligated to adhere to these principles,3 such adherence fundamentally requires an assent of faith and obedience to Catholic Christianity. Should one not possess such, the entire set of Catholic religious norms and teachings cannot impart the force of truth upon this individual. There may thus be a dearth of mutually understood metaphysical concepts, teleological definitions of humanity (the proper ordering of one's end vis-à-vis his properly understood nature), the definition of divinity, the divine origin of the Church, etc. This lack of agreement regarding the ontological and philological meanings of the terms – the “language” – upon which discussions are to take place may mean that neither party will be able to convince the other of his understanding of words and concepts. Hence, the basis for a meaningful and mutually benefiting dialogue may not exist.
The challenge, then, is how to couch Catholic moral teachings which address the human condition and international relations into terms which are understandable and mutually agreeable to others. To evaluate this issue, I must first begin with the heart of Catholic moral teaching: it is not fideistic, that is, does not derive its authority and efficacy solely from faith and belief. If it was, Magisterial pronouncements in matters of faith and morals would only be binding on those who hold similar fideistic beliefs, and only for so long as they held them. Rather, Magisterial moral teachings are based on the premise that the moral pronouncements found within the Bible are promulgated by the Creator of the universe Who intended that Creation be orderly, and when it is so ordered, is good.4
Such order applies to the entirety of Creation – those who worship and reject God. That His Chosen People, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, be the priestly nation,5 thereby sanctifying the entire world through the re-ordering of society, God gave the Israelites the Torah. The Torah includes the Ten Commandments and regulations regarding sexual and familial relations, the relationships between Israelites and others, the equitable treatment of the poor and elderly, and the relationships of individuals and society with God. Such re-ordering reflects God's omniscient understanding of how Creation is to harmoniously act in accordance with its nature as God's creation and possession.
Such instructions are therefore not capriciously assigned by an omnipotent deity, but are based on the intrinsic nature of all things and God's desire for order and harmony. It is upon this that Catholic moral teachings are based: a divinely-inspired understanding of the proper ordering of Creation that will, if followed, lead humanity back into harmony with itself and its Creator.This understanding – what I referred as the moral languages of cultures – is known as “natural law,” the precepts of a properly-functioning humanity working in harmony with the Divine Law which rules the universe. And it is with this natural law that Catholics can find the common language with which to dialogue with non-Catholics about a great many items of critical global and personal importance.
Understanding Natural Law
The doctrine of natural law, as recently explained in a document by the International Theological Commission, a curial entity, is quite simple: individuals and communities are capable of employing reason in recognizing the fundamental morality of acts to determine if such acts are in conformity with the nature of the human subject, and that such determination can be presented in the form of legal precepts or commandments. Such basic precepts are objective, universal, and are to be the inspiration for all moral and legal policies which govern the lives of men and society.6 The Commission states this succinctly: “The natural law is what is naturally right before any legal wording.”7
One is not completely defined by his specific culture and historical period but rather, as Pope John Paul II teaches us, one transcends them through his “human nature.”8 All humans thus share commonalities, regardless of external factors: the need for food, shelter, self-fulfillment, health, love, procreation, beauty, education, etc. The proper attainment of such commonalities is what Aristotle defined as the “good.” He admits that the “good” which man seeks is different for each action and art – such as “[i]n medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house…in every action a pursuit of the end,”9 that is, the proper completion of the teleological attributes of the act and art. But each and every action and art is only “good” if its teleological potentialities are completed in harmony with its ontological nature; otherwise what results will be a mutation, a distortion of the nature of the act. For instance, if the nature of building is to create a safe, stable, and usable house, then the “good” is achieved when one is created that withstands the elements over time while the “bad” is achieved when the house does not keep its occupants dry or if it collapses. The teleological “good,” then, for an act – and especially for man – is the completion of that which is proper to its nature.
Similar beliefs of good vis-á-vis ontology are found throughout history and cultures. For instance, Hindu traditions teach that the cosmos and human societies are regulated by an order or a fundamental law (dharma) which must be respected that imbalances not occur.10 The search for harmony with nature, incorporating both the physical and the spiritual, is at the heart of Taoist ethics11 and Stoicism taught that man is to live according to nature, thereby being integrated into the universe.12
St. Thomas Aquinas argued that “certain axioms or propositions are universally self-evident to all,” such as the concepts that the whole is greater than each individual part, things equal to another thing are all equal, and “that the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time.”13 Such self-evident principles to be found in natural law are the ontological “goods” of Aristotle's philosophy. St. Thomas wrote that the “good” of man is that which is congruent with our nature, being our own preservation, procreation, the training of children, harmonious living, and “to know the truth about God.”14 Such are the interior inclinations which are ordered to our good, providing us with a proper understanding and a judgment of our desires to avoid things that are contrary to our natures. Such things that are congruent with our natures are morally good; such things that are contrary to our natures are morally evil. The pursuance of good and avoidance of evil form the first precept of natural law:
Hence, this is the first precept of law, that good is to be pursued and done, and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this, so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as mans' good belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.15
According to the International Theological Commission, there are, therefore, three sets of activities within which are found the good moral acts according to natural law (the examples are mine):16
1.The inclination to preserve and develop one's existence (procurement of food, shelter, and clothing; engaging in work and artistic expression, etc.)
2.The inclination to perpetuate the human race (procreation; proper management of ecological resources; education of children; protection of the family structure; etc.)
3.The inclination to know the truth about God and proper societal living (going beyond one's self and seeking the love of one's Maker and of other people; protection of the right to pursue religious activities; right of personal property; sanctity of contracts and marriage vows, etc.)
This can be seen in the fact that most cultures recognize certain actions as beneficial, such as acts of courage, patience in times of trial, compassion, respect for the environment, and dedication to the common good, while most also disapprove of murder, theft, deceit, anger, and avarice.17
African ethics perhaps best sum up the canon of natural moral law as being anthropocentric while yet in harmony with nature: acts deemed likely to promote the procreation of life, to keep, to protect, to develop or increase the potential life of the community are considered good. Any act that can be considered to be detrimental to the life of individuals or the community is considered to be bad.18
It is such that one can, with the use of reason, agree with those of different cultures and religions to create a common moral language with which to dialogue.
Using Natural Law

Natural law therefore provides an excellent platform upon which to examine the actions and arts of humanity. In matters of global importance, such as war, biotechnology, famine, economic exploitation,
environmental abuse, and human trafficking, we can draw from the wealth of Catholic moral teaching and “translate” it into natural law precepts germane to the topic at hand. The Holy See faithfully dialogues in such manner with societies and religious traditions for the betterment of all humanity. Much progress has been made on numerous fronts, while others need continued vigilance and reciprocity.
On a personal level, however, one may wonder how the concepts of natural law can be used in daily settings with those outside of the Catholic Church. We must remember that natural law allows the Catholic to engage in dialogue with peoples of any culture, religious system, or historical background, utilizing the same concepts of the nature of humanity that a non-Catholic interlocutor should understand, and hopefully, accept. This frees one from initially attempting to define the Trinity, eternity, salvation, concupiscence, Magisterium, etc. while still explaining the Catholic faith and Weltanschuung.
One can, for instance, begin by showing the complete compatibility of natural law with the Christian’s understanding of the Divine Law through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Cosmological Arguments which relies upon natural law principles to “prove” the existence of a Creator, and therefore, of Divine Law. This Law demonstrates that man was created in the image of God, imagio Dei, which has profound implications for dialogue regarding man’s teleological nature.
While a non-Catholic may not agree that a Triune God created man in a primordial Garden of Eden, he will, if properly applying natural law, at least understand the Catholic perspective that a Prime Creator does in fact exist. It is from this premise that we seek to order our nature and thereby judge personal and societal actions. If, within the dialogue, there is perhaps no common understanding of this point, one need only keep in mind that man yet has the Divine Law written in his heart by his very nature. We need not force the point, but merely rely upon the fact that deep within our interlocutor lays the seed of such understanding. We can then gently posit our understanding in terms that would be intelligible to this seed and pray that a connection be made and the seed watered by the Holy Spirit.19
Presuppositions to Consider
There exist numerous presuppositions to the existence of – and therefore the efficacious use of –
natural law that one must consider before utilizing it as a basis of dialogue. If an opposing interlocutor does not accept these presuppositions, then the use of natural law in dialogue will be severely hampered.
The natural law assumes that:
1.There exists an orderliness which is universally objective, not locally subjective20
2.The cosmos is harmonious, and this harmony extends down to every level of nature, including the private behaviours of humanity
3.Nature is able to make man aware of ethical and moral standards which are in harmony with and discernible by human reason21
4.Reason is common to all humanity
5.All humans possess a common human nature which requires a common moral behaviour22
6.Every human possess an inner call to do good23
7.All cultures desire good and not evil of the people, of societal perpetuation and not annihilation
One must be aware that these presuppositions may not be held by everyone and so may need to first “test the waters” to ensure a satisfactory level of agreement on these concepts and adjust accordingly.
Other Barriers to Using the Natural Law to Dialogue
As just noted, the presuppositions and precepts of natural law are not consciously held by everyone, thus we again have the problem of speaking to people in a common moral language. There are various reasons for such discontinuity in reason, such as historical and religious traditions. These, however, are not serious barriers to utilizing natural law, as such traditions have internal cohesiveness of beliefs and definitions of creation that can be accessed and related to the Catholic understanding of natural law. But effort will be required to establish mutually understood terminology.
One such example are those matters regarding differing interpretations of the teleology of humanity. Varying interpretations can affect the agreement of morals which are dependent upon one's understanding of the eternal destination of individuals, such as matters of death and respect for the remains of the deceased, or man's proper relationship with the environment. Eastern Oriental religious
traditions, for instance, differ with Catholic understanding of the teleological aims of humanity in that the former embraces the absorption of individual humanity into a collective spiritual consciousness without physical matter, while the latter seeks the Beatific Vision, a union with God's holiness that yet leaves the individual as a separate, physical, and spiritual being. Many Protestant communities, while disagreeing with only some authentic Magisterial teachings (even if unknowingly so), yet tend to display a disdain for the physical world as they intently focus on the spiritual aspects of heaven, thereby conflicting with Catholic teaching which embraces the dual nature of humans: “On the contrary, nature and person are two concepts that compliment each other,”24 most profoundly seen in the Incarnation.
More troublesome reasons for the discontinuity of reason are to be found in grave matters: erasure of the understanding of human nature through sin, twisted ideologies, and insidious propaganda.25 Sin has the consequence of distorting reason and removing us from the Source of Wisdom,26 found in the preternatural communion with God. This has obscured the image of God in man27 and caused humanity to tend toward perversions of the Aristotelian good (love into lust, self-preservation into avarice, pleasure into hedonism, etc.).
Ideologies which violently deny the existence of God, such as atheistic evolution and Marxism, exacerbate the consequences of sin by denying universal objective moral standards and replacing them with standards defined by malleable legal positivism This tends to obviate the existence of sin. It is often found in war that the most dangerous enemy is the one that cannot be discerned; so, too, the most dangerous sin is the one that is denied existence.
Insidious propaganda takes many forms, of which the current manifestations thereof were mentioned at the beginning of this article: the use of coercion and bribery to expand the ideology of individualistic secularism, and thereby, personal moral anarchy.
The hidden, and perhaps most harmful, danger to using natural law to dialogue with others is the threat of rationalism. This ideology, at the heart of the preceding three conditions, divorces the concept of natural law from the Divine Law, stating that nature possesses intrinsic coherence and rationality
without regard for a Creator. This interpretation of natural law has the tendency to put humanity either at the centre of its interpretation of nature, or at the fringes. The former tendency creates an artificial canon of morals which are completely divorced from a Creator that are then used to justify subjective desires which wax and wane according to the winds of a culture's Zeitgeist. Natural law is then emasculated due to perversion of the ego in pursuit of temporal hedonism.
The latter tendency polemically posits nature as superior to individual entities contained therein with interior balance as the ultimate goal. This has led to the thinking that mankind is simply one of billions of lifeforms in the universe, as insignificant as any other – until it begins to assert itself in the world, whereupon it becomes a dangerous parasite that should be eradicated so as to restore the natural order.
When facing differing or non-existent presuppositions and precepts of natural law, we must preface all dialogue with fervent prayer and humility, removing ourselves as further barriers that the Spirit might work through us.
Ultimate Goal of Natural Law: Leading others to the Truth Who fulfills all law, Christ
Pope John Paul II indicated the intricate relationship of Christ and natural law: “Natural law is the rational creature's participation in the eternal law of God. On the one hand, we depend on the new law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus in order to grasp it, on the other hand, the natural law itself offers a basis for dialogue with persons who come from another cultural orientation or formation in the search for the common good.”28
While the language of natural law can facilitate dialogue between societies, cultures, and individuals to achieve the common good, we need to remember that we must focus on the goal of using natural law, not the tool itself. Christ is the fulfillment of all law, and only within Him and salvific history does natural law, and ultimately each individual person, find its full meaning.29 As man is returned to his true self only when the image of God is restored in each person,30 dialogue based on the common language of natural law will only be fulfilled when the participants' reason is fully restored to Christ and His Spirit. Natural law can facilitate the Great Commission by gently exposing all of humanity to the wonders of its Creator and Redeemer who, like the stars, calls each individual person by name.

1 Sterrett, J. Macbride. 1905. The Freedom of Authority.London: MacMillan Company. 73.
2 Commissione Teologica Internazional. 2009. "Alla Ricerca di Un'Etica Universale: Nuovo Sguardo Sulla Legge Naturale." Retrieved from § 1.
3 While Catholics are obligated to believe what these three pillars of our faith teach us and define for us, it is hoped that Catholics will adhere to the faith not simply out of a sense of obligation but actual personal and intrinsic faith.
4 See Genesis 1, where from primordial chaos God established order and declared it good.
5 Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy7:6.
6 Commissione Teologica Internazional. 2009. §9.
7 Ibid. §92.
8 John Paul II, Pope. Veritatis splendor. §53.
9 Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Book I, Chapter 7.
10 Commissione Teologica Internazional. 2009. §13.
11 Ibid. §17.
12 Ibid §18.
13 Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. I-II, Q94, a.2.
14 Ibid I-II, Q91, a.4.
15 Ibid I-II, Q94, a.2.
16 Commissione Teologica Internazional. 2009. §46.
17 Ibid §36.
18 Ibid §16.
19 Pope John Paul II tells us that “God has already given an answer to this question: he did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart” (VS, §12. Emphasis original). The Spirit explains through St. Paul that even those who do not specifically adhere to the Divine Law yet do so by their natural observations of the law, thus showing “that the demands of the law are written in their hearts…” (Romans 2:14, 15a, NAB)
20 Commissione Teologica Internazional. 2009. §9, 12.
21 Ibid §69.
22 Ibid §12.
23 Ibid§39.
24 Ibid §68.
25 Ibid §52.
26 Ibid§104.
27 Ibid.
28 John Paul II, Pope. 2002. “Address of John Paul II to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”Retrieved from
29 Commissione Teologica Internazional. 2009. §11.
30 Cf. Ibid. §104.d content here

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