October 19, 2006
In the 19
th century, Albert Nobel received U.S. patent number 78,317 for dynamite. His invention of dynamite helped in construction work and in mining. But, it also was used in armed conflicts for destruction and death.
In the 20
th century, Nobel Prize-winner Enrico Fermi accomplished the first controlled nuclear reaction under Stagg Field in Chicago. This unleashed the energy of the atom. The United States now uses nuclear power to provide 20% of the electricity it consumes; and, France produces 80% of its electricity from nuclear reactors.
But nuclear energy can bring untold harm. With the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, close to 200,000 people were killed instantly. Since then, nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for testing. And today, the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, The People's Republic of China, India, Pakistan, and now North Korea, all have nuclear weapons ready for war and unimaginable destruction.
In the 21
st century, scientists have opened the secrets of the beginnings of human life. Today, they routinely bring new human life into existence in test tubes. In vitro fertilization. Cloning. Embryonic stem cell research. This is a time when human life is quickly becoming an object to be manipulated for someone else’s use and then discarded when no longer wanted.
With each new century, we unlock the mysteries of the universe and hold within our hands greater and greater power. We can use that power for good or evil. We must decide. The many advances in science and technology bring us face to face each day with serious moral challenges. All our choices affect the common good.
Unfortunately, some have popularized the idea that morality is a private matter and should have no influence on the public discussion of these issues. For example, they say that they privately hold abortion is wrong, but they publicly favor laws allowing people to choose abortion. These same individuals would hardly say that they believe killing doctors who perform abortions is correct, but they publicly favor laws to give people the choice to do so (cf Robert P. George, “Killing Abortionists,”
First Things, December 1994, pp 24-31).
The separation of one’s private morality from the public forum is very un-American. At the beginning of our country, one of our founding fathers expressed a view contrary to what many hold today. When he was the first United States Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter on August 28, 1789 to James Madison. In it, he stated, "I know but one code of morality for all, whether acting singly or collectively." Jefferson did not bless the disastrous divorce of morality from public matters. Underlying his insistence on the union of private morality and public activity was his philosophical understanding that there is an objective truth about life that can be reached by the use of human reason. There is a natural law.
This understanding of the existence of the natural law had a formative influence on American culture at its birth. In June 1776, the Continental Congress delegated the task of writing the Declaration of Independence to a Committee of Five. The committee unanimously chose Thomas Jefferson to be the primary author. He used the philosophical idea of the natural law as his guide. And this idea can still enlighten the open mind and guide us.
The natural law provides a basis for people of different religions and cultures to live together in peace. For when reason discovers the Creator's divine plan for the world, i.e. the natural law, society itself advances beyond mere scientific and technological skills; and, we understand the basic truth about the human person, his dignity and his rights. In fact, “democracy succeeds only to the extent that it is based on truth and a correct understanding of the human person” (Pope Benedict XVI,
Address to the Bishops of Canada-Ontario, September 8, 2006). As Pope Benedict XVI has so often said, it is because our Catholic faith brings together reason and culture that we have so much to offer our world in its search for justice and peace.
This is the first of two articles on the natural law.