The Orthodox Church and Public Policy Debates

With a few changes here and there, the following passage from John Finnis’s essay “Catholic Positions in Liberal Debates” (Collected Essays of John Finnis, Vol. V: Religion and Public Reasons, pp. 113-26) is equally applicable to the Orthodox Church as the Catholic Church. Read on and discuss among yourselves:

We should not be nostalgic for, and do not need to defend, the paternalism defended by Plato and Aristotle, or the religious intolerance of the mediaeval and post-mediaeval Catholic (not to mention Protestant) states. Nor should we accept other package deals, in which Catholicism might be yoked to a restorationist politics of conservatism or a liberationist politics of socialism or state capitalism, or whatever. So far as anyone can see, the Catholic Church is still near the beginning of its long journey to the end of the ages; its Augustinian, mediaeval, and subsequent experiments with harnessing state power were no more than a passing phase in which faith and benevolence were harnessed together without sufficient attention to differentiations which the faith itself suggests and, when developed, ratifies. If we make and insist upon those differentiations, we can peacefully and without even implicit threat affirm, in our own reflections and when and as appropriate in public, that the centre of human history is the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and that the truths which his Church conveys, even in periods when it is humanly speaking as decayed, confused, and weak as it at present is, are the true centre of the culture which can and should direct political deliberation in western liberal as much as any other kind of political society. The disarray within the Roman Catholic Church is surely a substantial cause (as well as a consequence) of the disarray within these societies, even those societies which for many centuries have had no reason to think (or have made it their business not to think) of Catholics as other than virtual strangers.

From: Finnis on Catholic Engagement in Public Debates

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Kind Words on Natural Law and Objective Morality

A friend sent me John Finnis’s thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the German Parliament (here) For the rest of the interview with Finnis, go here.

. . . I would say that true human freedom (as St Thomas says on the first page of his great treatment of morality) is the freedom of an image of God – one who has freedom of choice and exercises it in line with goods that are truly fulfilling – fulfilling for individuals and for the friendships and wider societies in which they find so much of their fulfilment. As Augustine says, just before the passage the Pope quoted – and here the saint is transmitting the philosophical tradition established by Plato and carried forward by Aristotle – the life of an individual who gives in to cupiditas is a life of enslavement to anxiety, insecurity, unslakeable lusts, and so forth. No true freedom that way. Nor by any “existentialist” “self-determination” by which one might seek to recreate oneself as a quasi-Nietzschean master, free from the constraints of human equality and justice.  Perhaps also related to the Pope’s thought in these sentences is this: any manipulation of human nature, for example, by non-therapeutic genetic modification, makes the products of that manipulation the slaves of the manipulators, even if the latter were benevolently motivated.

Reading this I can’t help wonder how substantively close this is to the argument made by Christos Yannaras in  The Freedom of Morality. Yannaras in the forward to this works writes:

In the book’s title, The Freedom of Morality, the Greek word translated as “morality” is ithos, a term signifying “ethics,” but also meaning “ethos,” distinctive character, the “thusness” or the “Ah!’ of a person or thing. When using ithos, the author has in view both these senses. Morality, “theics” is nothing more or less than the expression of the person’s proper “ethos.” It is not to obey external rules but to become as person that which one truly is. By the same token, sin is not the transgression of some impersonal law, but “missing the mark,” the failure to become oneself.

While I agree with Yanaras that “sin is not the transgression of some impersonal law, but “missing the mark,” I think he and other Orthodox thinkers are simply wrong when they dismiss out of hand an objective morality in general and natural law theory in particular.  Both, as Finnis I think argues in the interview quoted about, are simply another way of saying that sin is “the failure to become oneself.” Or, as Finnis has it, “true human freedom … is the freedom of an image of God – one who has freedom of choice and exercises it in line with goods that are truly fulfilling – fulfilling for individuals and for the friendships and wider societies in which they find so much of their fulfilment.” Continue reading

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