John BERKMAN and William C. MATTISON, III, eds. Searching for a University Ethic: Multidisciplinary, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Responses to the Catholic Natural Law Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. 327. $35.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-6844-2. Reviewed by James T. BRETZKE, S.J., Boston College School of Theology & Ministry, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
The book presents twenty solicited essays reflecting on and/or taking up various themes connected with the 2009 International Theological Commission’s “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law” which are introduced in a twenty-first essay by the editors. The book also contains the official English translation of the Vatican document. The book though is not titled entirely accurately. What we have here is not so much a collection of essays on the whole of the “Catholic Natural Law Tradition,” as various reactions to the ITC document itself. Taken together the essays do reveal some serious defects in the ITC document on several levels—methodologies, claims, judgments, untested or unverified premises, and so on, which hypothetically could have be valuable to the drafting committee of the ITC if they were to have worked in this fashion. So what we do have here in this book is a collection of essays gathered around a rather imperfect ITC reflection on the natural law, rather than on the natural law itself. A benefit of the book project then may be to stimulate more critical reflections on Catholic approaches to natural law theory and praxis, giving us at some later date a better articulation of both the possibilities, and limits, of contemporary natural law theory.
If one skipped reading the ITC document first and went directly to the essays it would not take long to conclude that the touchstone document is open to a wide assortment of interpretations. Cathy Kaveny’s essay follows immediately upon that of Gilbert Meilaender’s though their overall tone and substantive conclusions are quite diverse—almost as if they were reading two quite different drafts of the ITC document. This may show one facet of the long document itself—if it cannot be all things to all people, clearly it can be many different things to readers of rather diverse backgrounds and ideological/theological perspectives. In this vein it would have been quite interesting to have some of the contributors dialogue with each other on key points on Thomistic interpretation on which they seem to have quite contradictory views, e.g., Steven Long’s strong contention that the ITC teaching “vindicates the primacy of the speculative in relation to the practical” (261) with contrary views expressed, albeit a bit more softly, by several others in the volume.
The ideological spectrum of the collection largely (though not completely) mirrors that of the ITC itself. The contributors include two members of the ITC (Bonino and Kerr), plus a number associated with the “New Wineskins” group Catholic theologians. Only Robert George’s essay represents the New Natural Law Theory. None come from the farther Left of Center group of moral theologians which is unfortunate since this under-represented minority is not insignificant in the larger academy. There are 5 women, 18 men including 6 male religious: 2 Dominicans, 1 each from Communione e Liberazione, Opus Dei, Holy Cross, Redemptorist (no one from the Pope’s own order made the grade). 15 lay people including a couple of Protestants and a new appointee to the ITC (Tracey Rowland).
A surprising editorial omission is the unaddressed question of the magisterial weight of the document itself. This is a most unfortunate neglect since the focus of the essays really is not on the Catholic natural tradition as such, but just this one particular document which would not constitute by the “manner” criterion of Lumen gentium #25 a particularly “heavy” exercise of the ordinary magisterium—lacking the extrinsic authority not only a papal teaching, but even that of a formal document of the CDF itself.
Given the nature of the book project in which each contributor is reflecting specifically on the ITC document itself, rather than natural law as theory or reality, there is a good amount of overlap and repetition. Perhaps a longer production time-line might have allowed the individuals to revise their essays in view of the others’ contributions, but as the editors note in their Introduction the manuscript production time-line did not afford this luxury. A final, though minor point, is the failure to ensure inclusive language throughout the essays (e.g. Melina). Perhaps this may signal an editorial bias towards a certain “gender-free” conception of human nature. Though I cannot treat even briefly, every essay I have provided short summaries of each in my Research Bibliography on Natural Law at https://www2.bc.edu/james-bretzke/NaturalLawBibliographyByBretzke.pdf.