December 16, 2009

Pope on John of Salisbury: 'Natural Law Must Inspire Positive Law'

VATICAN CITY (VIS) - Pope Benedict XVI focused his catechesis during this morning's general audience on the figure of John of Salisbury, a philosopher and theologian born in England towards the beginning of the twelfth century.

Educated in Paris and Chartres, John of Salisbury acted as counsellor to various archbishops of Canterbury at whose service he placed his vast knowledge and diplomatic skills. One of these was Thomas Becket whom John followed into exile in France when that archbishop fell into dispute with King Henry II who wished to affirmed his authority over the Church and thus limit her freedom. As an elderly man, John was appointed bishop of Chartres, where he remained until his death in 1180.

The Pope mentioned John of Salisbury's two principal works: the "Metaloghicon" (In defence of logic) and the "Policraticus" (The man of government). In the first of these John expresses the view that "believers and theologians who study the treasure of the faith deeply also open themselves to the practical knowledge which guides everyday actions; in other words, to moral laws and the exercise of virtue".

The central thesis of the "Policraticus" is that there exists "an objective and immutable truth, the origin of which is in God, a truth accessible to human reason and which concerns practical and social activities. This is a natural law from which human legislation, and political and religious authorities, must draw inspiration in order to promote the common good". This natural law is characterised by a property "which John calls 'equity', by which he means giving each person his rights. From here arise precepts which are legitimate to all peoples and which cannot under any circumstances be abrogated".

"The question of the relationship between natural law and positive law, as mediated by equity, is still of great importance", said Benedict XVI. "Indeed, in our own time, and especially in certain countries, we are witnessing a disquieting fracture between reason, which has the task of discovering the ethical values associated with human dignity, and freedom, which has the responsibility of accepting and promoting those values.

"Perhaps", he added, "John of Salisbury would remind us today that the only 'equitable' laws are those that defend the sacredness of human life and reject the legitimacy of abortion, euthanasia and unrestrained genetic experimentation; the laws that respect the dignity of marriage between a man and a woman, that are inspired by a correct understanding of the secularism of the State - a secularism that must always include the safeguarding of religious freedom - and that seek subsidiarity and solidarity at the national and international level.

"Otherwise", the Holy Father concluded: "we would end up with what John of Salisbury defined as the 'tyranny of the prince' or, as we would say, 'the dictatorship of relativism', a relativism which, as I said some years ago, 'recognises nothing as definite and has as its ultimate measure only the self and its own desires'".

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