Pope's Family Handbook; Law -- Naturally

Volume Compiles Papal Texts on Marriage

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, FEB. 15, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI has been an eloquent defender of the institution of marriage and the family since the beginning of his pontificate. And now, thanks to L'Osservatore Romano, his most poignant texts on these issues have been gathered in one place.

The Vatican daily has published a booklet comprised of choice excerpts from the Pontiff's work entitled: "The Truth About the Family: Marriage and De Facto Unions in the Words of Benedict XVI."

The director of the Vatican press office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, presented the publication this week. He said that "the correct compilation of the works helps us to more adequately understand the Pope's concerns and motivations behind them. … Presented in abundance, they are in stark juxtaposition to the more superficial and improvised way these considerations are often portrayed."

Mario Agnes, director of L'Osservatore Romano, said his team was motivated by the Holy Father's call for Christians not to be silent on these issues.

"On Dec. 22," said Agnes, "Benedict XVI pronounced to the Roman Curia that he couldn't silence his concern for civil union legislations around the world. We want to help him to be heard and we saw this as an opportune moment to offer a collection of the Pope's works as an instrument for reflection for all."

Francesco D'Agostino, president of the Union of Catholic Judges, reminded those of us attending the launch that "even before being made Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke extensively about our collective task to protect and promote the family and its traditional makeup."

The professor added though that Christians shouldn't merely reduce the faith to a private experience. He said these works help them be prepared to express their convictions more publicly to make a difference in society.

"Let's face it," said D'Agostino, "the family wasn't invented over the course of history like technologies. … It's at the heart of a human's identity, and we have proof of the devastating effects its breakdown has on different cultures from varying epochs."

A copy of the booklet, currently only available in Italian, can be obtained by writing a request directly via e-mail: info@ossrom.va or via fax: +39 06 69 88 28 18.

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Truth, Not Authority

It's an intense subject, but a fundamental one for our world. It's natural law, and Benedict XVI stressed the urgency of studying it this week to those attending an international congress on the topic organized by the Pontifical Lateran University. The Pope received in audience some 200 participants of the congress.

The convention examined all the perspectives and problems surrounding the issue of natural law, and then looked at how to best reintroduce it into today's society.

To get an insiders perspective into the congress, I asked Redemptorist Father Terrence Kennedy to highlight some of the main issues.

The dean of theology for the Pontifical Alfonsianum University began with his address in which he underlined the role human rights has over natural law in our society. "It's an idea that most people appear to be aware of, and it's only been around for 200 years, whereas the age-old natural law, of which it was born, goes practically unmentioned. … So, from the point of view of civil or 'Roman' law, concerns come up over whether human rights have replaced natural law."

And why would this be a problem? According to these scholars, it seems that in an attempt to open up the discussion to the world, natural law eventually became prone to elements like secularization, and was thereby distorted from the protection of the inherent "right" to the trendy "want."

This panel of experts also explained that legal positivism, which holds that all laws are valid, runs contrary to natural law jurisprudence, which says that a law must be just to be valid.

The theologian for the Pontifical Household, Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, noted that new virtues and vices, such as the "virtue of tolerance" and the "vice of exclusion," have eroded those natural ones identified by St. Thomas Aquinas.

The rector of the Lateran University of Rome, Auxiliary Bishop Salvatore Fisichella, said that he traces the real demise of the definition of natural law to the 1970s when "there was a general internal crisis within the academia." He said some schools and philosophers deny the existence of natural law because they say the very concept of nature can be different from one person to the next.

Bishop Fisichella added that "the concept of nature is subject to generational trends, which is very risky."

The participants of the congress recalled that the current debate is an age-old argument.

Aristotle criticized one of Plato's proposals from "The Republic" that promotes abolishing the family unit and replacing it with a commune state.

Aristotle said in "The Politics" that any societal model other than the family would erode the core foundations of our community, as it would be in direct opposition to humanity's basic disposition.

More than 2,000 years later the Catholic Church is in the forefront of the same debate. Father Kennedy commented to me: "The magisterium of the Church has intervened on this type of issue particularly over the last 20 years through such encyclicals as 'Veritatis Splendor' and 'Fides et Ratio.'"

Bishop Fisichella said that "we are seeing legal proposals today being increasingly based upon sheer interpretation without any consideration for the basic conscience."

Laws that go against human nature, according to Father Giertych, are only upheld and continued through "brute political force," as they can't be upheld by reason.

Father Kennedy says all Christians must act: "It's of grave concern when you get on that sort of open sea where there's no point of reference anymore and people are saying, 'Let's change social institutions.' Often enough the discussion doesn't even get back to the level of -- 'What should it be anyhow?'"

"And at that level," adds Bishop Fisichella, "is when you get back to something like natural law as we can see it through the eyes of faith … going back to God as Creator and that he made the person good and for goodness with himself."

But Father Kennedy notes, "A mere discussion of what's good in the here and now is not sufficient; you need to look at the whole vocation of humanity, the vocation to God, and make it actual."

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The Parish Group that Grew and Grew

As they enter their 40th year of ministry this week, the Community of Sant'Egidio is determined to "use the signs of the times" to guide its next moves.

A small group of Roman youths, imbibed with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, grew into a lay movement that now boasts more than 60,000 members in 70 countries.

Aside from their activities in ecumenism, dialogue and peace-building, they're most recognized for their work in solidarity and in championing social justice issues.

During their anniversary celebrations, some members of the community shared their secret to the longevity and effectiveness.

"We want to try to live the call of Pope John XXIII to Christians to observe what the world around us is living today and respond to it," said Claudio Betti, one of the original community members. "So today it's the death penalty, tomorrow it may be climate change."

But that's not to say classic societal indicators can't dictate action. On the contrary, the heart of this award-winning Catholic community is none other than the poor.

"Throughout these years," said Betti, "we've been close to the poor to the point that the poor are not clients of our services but they are really members of our family."

Betti clarified that in actual fact the real service of the community is none of the above but is actually grounded in daily prayer. He's convinced that their path has been enriched by the Holy Spirit because of their being consistently rooted in the Gospel and its call to be close to the suffering.

"All those years ago the founder realized that being close to the poor meant being close to Scripture and vice versa," he told me. "We have never detached ourselves from these."

Indeed, a walk over the cobbled paths of the Trastevere area of Rome will provide you with the thrilling sound of bells chiming out and the music of exquisite liturgies any evening of the week.

"It only makes sense that we dedicate ourselves by the thousands to that at the end of a work day," said this co-founder of one of Europe's most influential lay associations. "Just think that the prayer in the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere alone, in one year, has welcomed 300,000 friends of the community who have joined us. This is done all over the world."

The president of the Council for Culture, Cardinal Paul Poupard, presided over their anniversary mass and was flanked by other prelates who are friends of the group and had met with Benedict XVI that same day.

"It's certainly encouraging to experience the consistent support from the Church hierarchy and it's a link of friendship and fraternity that we want to stress very much," says Betti. "It just shows again that we're all one big family tree working through different branches."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.