Book Review

Searching For A Universal Ethic

Edited by John Berkman and William C Mattison
William B Eerdmans
ISBN 978-0-8028-6844

Book coverThe Vatican document "In search of a universal ethic" was produced in 2009 by The International Theological Commission. As such, it does not pertain to magisterial teaching.

This highly readable book consists of twenty responses to the document by academics. I will concentrate on a small number of responses. It is important to note that none of the authors in my selection are critical of natural law theory. They are, however, critical of certain aspects of the document.

Tracey Rowland notes that the document fails to address the value of natural law and natural rights when confronted by a secularism which denies the very idea of creation. In a really excellent essay, Gilbert Meilaender writes that the document assumes that once different people have an understanding of natural law, they are bound to agree on basic moral principles. But Jean Porter, for example, who contributes an article to this book, is a proponent of natural law while disagreeing with the Catholic Church on the inviolability of life principle. Meilaender believes that the document fails to give sufficient emphasis to the practice of the virtues and it has a certain thumbs-up optimism, something we find all too often within the Church these days. 

Robert George notes that the document fails to address the relations of faith to reason to a sufficient degree. Russell Hittinger writes that there is an under-emphasis on universal moral norms in the document and an over-emphasis on dialogue with those who are likely to reject such norms. He believes that the document contrasts unfavourably with the encyclical Veritatis Splendor of Pope John Paul.

Other authors are more positive towards the document. David Burrell notes that the document is open to other religious traditions without falling into relativism. Lisa Sowle Cahill believes the document will assist in the process of debate and discernment. Cathleen Kaveny is pleased that the style of the document is persuasive rather than coercive.

This book will help us deepen our understanding of natural law theory. The essays by Meilaender and Hittinger were especially helpful.