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  • Searching for a Universal Ethic: Multidisciplinary, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Responses to the Catholic Natural Law Traditioned. by John Berkman and William C. Mattison III
  • William A. Barbieri Jr.
John Berkman and William C. Mattison III, eds. Searching for a Universal Ethic: Multidisciplinary, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Responses to the Catholic Natural Law Tradition. Grand Rapids, mi. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. xi + 327. Paper, us$35.00. isbn978-0-8028-6844-2.

In 2009 the International Theological Commission ( itc) of the Catholic Church published a document commissioned by John Paul iito update the Catholic natural law tradition and relate it to the broader project of developing a universal ethic in dialogue with other traditions. The document, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law, is published here for the first time in its long-awaited official English translation, with brief commentaries from twenty-three prominent (mostly Catholic) scholars.

In its introduction, the itcdocument suggests that Catholic thought on natural law can enrich the post–Second World War search for universal ethical commitments in ways that improve on the approaches of juridical human rights, the ‘‘global ethic’’ movement, and discourse ethics. In five chapters, the commission identifies evidence of a ‘‘common moral patrimony’’ in convergences between the Catholic account of natural law and the world’s other wisdom traditions; provides a phenomenology of the basic workings of the natural law in human persons; presents a metaphysics of nature that reconciles human freedom and divine agency; expounds natural law and the common good as measures of the political order; and finally proposes that although the natural law has its own integrity, it is ultimately fulfilled only in the order of Christ’s grace. In articulating its view of ‘‘a universal ethical message inherent in the nature of things, which everyone is capable of discerning’’ (para. 11), the itcinvites members of other wisdom traditions to engage in analogous work. As John Berkman and William Mattison point out, among the notable features of the commission’s account are its concern with engaging other religious and philosophical traditions, its acknowledgement of past errors along with the historicity and non-static nature of natural law, and its explicit attention to ecological questions.

The editors propose that in contrast to the document’s presentation of natural law as a species of universal ethic, we think of the two as distinct ‘‘paths’’: thus, the exposition of a natural law account rooted in a particular wisdom tradition (namely, Christianity) can be seen as constituting an alternativeto the more comparative or dialogical task of finding where discrete traditions converge in universal moral commitments. They use this conception of twin ‘‘universal ethic’’ and ‘‘natural law’’ paths to organize the essays commissioned for their volume.

First, however, they provide a section comprising accounts of the background and context of the document. Two of these, by itcmembers Serge-Thomas Bonino and Anthony J. Kelly, provide insight into the production of the document, while a third, by Russell Hittinger, comments on its place in the broader development of Catholic moral theology since Vatican ii.

The ‘‘universal ethic’’ section begins with essays by Anver Emon and David Novak reflecting critically on the document from the standpoints of Islam and Judaism respectively. Jean Porter addresses the relationship between natural law and legal positivism. Tracey Rowland examines to what degree contemporary natural law arguments are [End Page 286]capable of engaging secular, liberal, postmodern interlocutors, while Fergus Kerr revisits the philosophical critiques of naturalism in Hume and Moore. In a vigorous and wideranging essay, Michael Northcott explores what the Catholic natural law tradition has and has not learned from the ecological movement. Lastly, David Burrell elegantly comments on how grammar and beauty provide a basis for intercultural inquiry into morals.

The ‘‘natural law’’ section starts off with reflections by Jennifer Herdt and David Cloutier on Protestant perspectives on natural law. Gilbert Meilaender, a Protestant, identifies shortcomings in the document on anthropology, Christology, and virtue ethics. Cathleen Kaveny writes approvingly of the itc’s adoption of the ‘‘humanist rhetoric of Vatican ii,’’ and Lisa Cahill likewise lauds the commission for its recognition of the historicity and...


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