The revival of natural law has been a dream of Pope Benedict XVI's since even before he became pope. That is no surprise. This system based on the idea of universal, objective moral principles is an obvious antidote to the "dictatorship of relativism" that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously deplored three years ago in his address to the cardinals on the eve of his election to the chair of Peter.
Now it looks as if natural law will be a central theme of Benedict's visit to the United States. The tipoff was his pre-visit video message to Americans speaking of "the law written on the human heart" — St. Paul's formula for natural law in his letter to the Romans (2:15) — as the key to agreement on controverted issues in a pluralistic world
The pope has made this point before, and he probably will make it again in his address next Friday to the United Nations General Assembly. Other contexts in which he may allude to natural law include his White House meeting on Wednesday with President Bush, where he's likely to speak of the natural law grounding of America's founding documents and of the defense of unborn human life, and his session Thursday afternoon with presidents of Catholic colleges and universities and other Catholic educators.
A major international conference held at the end of March at the Catholic University of America in Washington focused on the revival of natural law at the specific urging of the Holy Father. As Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he asked for such a gathering in a letter sent four years ago to Vincentian Father David O'Connell, the university's president.
This time around he may well call on the presidents of other Catholic schools to pitch in and do their share. But he has his work cut out. Although natural law has been fundamental to Catholic thinking about morality for many centuries and St. Thomas Aquinas may have been its greatest exponent, many Catholic moral theologians since Vatican II have jettisoned natural law in favor of one form or another of the relativism the pope condemns.
— Russell Shaw