Discussions about [the content of theology] remain isolated and losing skirmishes if no consideration is given to the question: Is there, in the course of historical time, a recognizable identity of man with himself? Is there a human ‘nature’? Is there a truth which remains true in every historical time because it is true? The question of hermeneutics is, in the last analysis, the ontological one, the question of the oneness of truth is the multiplicity of its historical manifestations.
Principles of Catholic Theology, 17
Reflection – OK, so we have headed into dry-technical-land here, after yesterday’s sensationalism of drugs and terrorism. It’s worth noting, mind you, that these dry technical questions, remote as they seem to be from our daily experience and thought, can be in fact the key underlying drivers of much contemporary mores and manners.
Here we have the whole question of truth and human nature. Is there such a thing? Do we have any access to it? Is it all just shifting sands and endless plasticity, ‘evolution’, not in the scientific sense but in the broad cultural usage of the term?
As I have said many times on this blog and will continue to say, this strict evolutionary relativistic plastic approach to reality has inherent incoherencies. There is no human nature… and you are wrong, aka ‘inhuman,’ if you say there is. Which is it? Either nothing is particularly human or inhuman or it is.
All standards are mutable and right and wrong are continually evolving… yet (for example) acceptance of same-sex marriage is heralded as ‘progress’ in human morality. Again, which is it? If there are no set standards, there can be no progress. What are we progressing towards? Progress by definition requires a fixed notion of the good. A football team can progress down the field towards the end zone only if that end zone stays put. If some mischievous genie kept moving the end zone after every play, now to the sidelines, then to the concession stands, then to the parking lot, then to the high bleachers, no touchdown will occur. Moving the goalposts—favorite sport of the blogosphere! But it makes any real discussion, and any real understanding of issues, impossible.
So it is in morality. We cannot get ‘better’, morally, unless there is a stable and true good to move towards. And if this stable and true good does not reside in a fixed human nature, some kind of abiding human reality that informs us of what we are to be and how we are to live, then where exactly does it reside? Social consensus? The state? Talk about building your house on shifting sands! Inexorable edicts of an absolute deity? Well, I have no real problem with that, but somehow I doubt that’s what advocates of same sex marriage and abortion rights envisage as the basis for their moral claims.
And so Ratzinger is arguing here that we need to talk on this basic level, lest our debates about this or that issue remain ‘isolated and losing skirmishes’. The question of hermeneutics—that is, the interpretation and understanding of things—resolves to questions of ontology—that is, whether or not there are any ‘things’, really to understand.
If there is no human nature, no abiding truth to man and his life in the world, then in reality we may as well kill and rape and rob and savage one another. We may not want to, because we’re socially conditioned to be nice people, but there’s no serious moral reason not to. We may not want to, because the state will arrest and imprison us, but there’s no serious moral reason not to.
As soon as we say that those actions are wrong, not just socially unacceptable or evolutionally unwise, we are committed to a fixed human nature or to a divine law imposed on us from outside, or both (which is the classical Christian understanding). One either becomes a moral idiot (in the precise etymological sense of that word) or must commit to some form of natural law theory.