In October, 2004, Father David O’Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, received a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

The letter requested an international symposium on the possibility of a common morality for the global age.

Coming from a Church that “thinks in centuries,” Cardinal Ratzinger’s request was like an ecclesial alarm.

Father O’Connell agreed immediately.

Three years later, on March 27-30, just two weeks before Pope Benedict XVI’s first official visit to the United States, the symposium became a reality. Over 50 of the world’s leading scholars in philosophy, theology, science, law and political theory, together with some 500 participants, gathered to participate in the symposium, “A Common Morality for the Global Age: In Gratitude for What We Are Given.”

Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter explained: “The Catholic Church has become increasingly concerned by the contemporary difficulty in finding a common denominator among the moral principles held by all people, which are based on the constitution of the human person and which function as the fundamental criteria for law, affecting the rights and duties of all.”

The University of Notre Dame and the Ave Maria School of Law also received requests to organize similar conferences.

Father O’Connell is glad for his quick affirmative.

“Looking back, our decision was a good thing,” said the Vincentian priest, “since he became Pope six months later.”

Father O’Connell turned to William Wagner, a Catholic University law professor and founder and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Culture.

The symposium, which can be viewed online, consisted of 23 plenary addresses, prepared responses, and open discussions among panelists and attendees.

“I hope that this conference would be the beginning of a process of moving towards that unity which will save us as a human race,” said Father O’Connell.

According to Wagner, the Pope wanted the symposium to pursue a threefold purpose:

• to reconnect moral life with the theological narratives of creation and redemption, and in so doing to liberate Christians to critique their own culture. This is crucial since it is culture that in turn enables and sustains moral life;

• for scholars of different disciplines to move towards mutual understanding and common ground on natural law questions; and

• to invite representatives of all world religions to reason together on the natural law — not by “bracketing” their religious beliefs — but precisely as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and secular humanist thinkers.

Joseph Capizzi, professor of moral theology at Catholic University explained that “it is a great interest of the Pope not to have a ‘clash of civilizations’ but a ‘dialogue of civilizations.’ He believes the natural law can contribute to this dialogue.”

“In Deus Caritas Est the Pope develops the Church’s intrinsic role to care for humanity,” said Wagner. “He is in a unique position to invite the scholarly community to generate ideas and jumpstart the renewal of the global culture of law-making.”

Cardinal Scola

Scholars at the conference accepted the invitation with obvious enthusiasm.

“The Roman Catholic tradition has the richest tradition on the natural law,” said attendee Joseph Kickasola, a Protestant and a professor of foreign policy at Regent University who teaches both Quranic and biblical law. “But I came to realize here how many non-Christian species of natural law there are. The richness it imparted to me is tremendous.”

Cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice, opened the symposium via video by proposing a universal and Christian basis for a common morality. He began with Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s metaphor of the child’s first experience of love through his mother’s smile. This formative personal experience of reality as goodness in the unity of desire, recognition, and communion, he argued, is entrusted to our freedom, interpreted in the light of our reason, and fulfilled in our personal encounter with Christ, the living unity of personal and universal moral truth.

The ensuing discussion between Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas, noted Protestant theologian, and Cambridge University’s Reverend Sir John Polkinghorne, Anglican theologian and physicist, set the serious, respectful, honest and at times humorous tone of the following four days.

Diverse Crowd

Natural law theorists Robert George and Hadley Arkes also made compelling cases for the possibility of knowing and acting on natural law through human reason alone. Universal moral truths are discovered, not invented, Arkes argued, and they apply “where and when the laws of reason are intact.”

Conference participants also tackled tough political and legal questions. Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago, discussed the possibility of war as an instrument of justice. “We are reminded daily of ethno-nationalism run amok, of the murders in Darfur and Congo,” she said. “But there is a huge gap between that and our self-assured articulation of human rights. We need to narrow that gap.”

Nicholas Boyle, literary scholar from Cambridge University, gave a provocative paper drawing on Freud and Hegel in which he concluded that America needs to renounce its national “myth” and accept the role of regulating the global community and market through military and economic power. Without the mediation of state power, argued Boyle, the ethical ordering of society is impossible.

The interreligious dialogue at the symposium included papers from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian scholars.

Charles Jones, professor of religious studies at Catholic University, described the differences between the Western and Taoist approach to reality itself.

Western thinking approached reality in terms of “being” and “existence,” he said, while the Taoist approach was in terms of “patterns” and “activity.” From a Western point of view, a person is like a Greek marble statue, while for the Taoist, a person is more like a tornado, a temporary pattern of energy. Paradigmatic differences like this highlighted the challenges of finding a common language, challenges that surfaced at times throughout the four-day discussion.

The symposium also sparked several new initiatives in answer to Pope Benedict’s “clarion call” for dialogue.

The Center for Law, Philosophy, and Culture plans to hold a conference on natural law specifically for the legal community, and Wagner agreed to organize a forum of Buddhist scholars to discuss further the symposium’s theme.

“This is just the beginning,” said Wagner at the conclusion of the symposium. “People should look for more signs of life that are responses to the initiatives of Pope Benedict XVI.”

John Romanowsky is based in Rockville Centre, New York.


See the Conference Yourself

A video archive of the entire proceedings is available on Catholic University’s website: