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Pontifications

Interesting linkage (or wild leap, to some) that Pope Benedict XVI made in his annual address to the Roman Curia earlier today.
The address is usually a look back at the highlights of the past year–or what the pontiff would like seen as the highlights–along with a meaty idea or two that the pope tosses out to give the chattering classes something to do over the holiday break. In 2005 it was a brief for the “hermeneutic of reform” (which is his way of saying a “hermeneutic of continuity,” i.e., nothing’s changed, just move along) school of Vatican II interpretation–no surprise–and in 2006 it was a comment regarding Islam’s need to integrate lessons of the Enlightenment (as the church has, he said)–an important observation I think has received too little notice.
There will likely be no such oversight this year, as the pope talked about World Youth Day and also about the protection of the environment–and then linked that last topic to the importance of defending “traditional” marriage and, it seems, against gay rights, especially gay marriage. Over at America’s blog, where I first saw this, Jim Martin links to the Reuters story, which is provocatively headlined, “Pope likens ‘saving’ gays to saving the rainforest.” As Father Martin noted, what Benedict was actually saying is that “it is humanity…that requires ‘saving’ from homosexuality.”
John Allen has the best tranlsation of the relevant passages that I’ve found:

Benedict clearly distinguished the church’s approach from secular environmental movements – insisting that concern for tropical rain forests and the church’s traditional pro-life commitments, including sexual morality, are indissolubly linked.
“[The church] must defend not only the earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to all,” he said. “It must also defend the human person against its own destruction. What’s needed is something like a ‘human ecology,’ understood in the right sense. It’s not simply an outdated metaphysics if the church speaks of the nature of the human person as man and woman, and asks that this order of creation be respected.”
“Here it’s a question of faith in creation, in listening to the language of creation, disregard of which would mean self-destruction of the human person and hence destruction of the very work of God,” the pope said. “That which is often expressed and understood by the term ‘gender’ in the end amounts to the self-emancipation of the human person from creation and from the Creator. Human beings want to do everything by themselves, and to control exclusively everything that regards them. But in this way, the human person lives against the truth, against the Creator Spirit.”
“Yes, the tropical forests merit our protection, but the human being as a creature merits no less protection – a creature in which a message is written which does not imply a contradiction of our liberty, but the condition for it,” the pope said.
On that basis, Benedict offered a defense of traditional marriage and Catholic sexual morality.
“Great Scholastic theologians defined marriage, meaning the lifetime bond between a man and a woman, as a sacrament of creation, which the Creator instituted and which Christ – without changing the message of creation – then welcomed into the story of his covenant with humanity,” the pope said. “This witness in favor of the Creator Spirit, present in the nature of this bond and in a special way in the nature of the human person, is also part of the proclamation which the church must offer. Starting from this perspective, it’s important to re-read the encyclical Humanae Vitae : the intention of Pope Paul VI was to defend love against treating sexuality as a kind of consumption, the future against the exclusive demands of the present, and the nature of the human being against manipulation.”

In one respect, the Pope could simply be seen as putting the “nature” in natural law. He didn’t sing Cole Porter, but his theme seems to be along the lines of, “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…” The danger, of course, lies in examples like those flaming Central Park Zoo penguins, Roy & Silo, and those peace-loving bonobo monkeys, and such. Just look the other way, kids…
The pontiff’s comments, coming amid the hullaballo over the Vatican’s rejection of a new U.N. move against discrimination (like execution) against gays, or the elevation of gay rights, if you like, is likely not coincidental. The focus on the issue perplexes me, but that’s for another time.
All comments are welcome, but my central question (apart from why the Pope has to give talks like this right before Christmas–“Happy Holidays, Homosexuals!”) is what seems to be a problematic difference between human rights and natural law. The Vatican (among others) is a great champion of human rights, and rights like religious freedom, the right to life, etc. But it often seems that when it comes to rights they don’t like, natural law is suddenly invoked. What is the relationship between these two? Are human rights “limited” to those that conform to faith’s view of natural law? Or is natural law like a natural revelation, a natural theology understandable (supposedly) to all that is the true human rights “charter”?

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