Professor Simoncini explains Benedict XVI’s call for law’s return to nature and reason

While “legal theorist” is not a description most people ascribe to Pope Benedict XVI, Professor Andrea Simoncini did just that during his lecture entitled “Pope Benedict’s Legal Thought” on Thursday, September 17, at the Notre Dame Law School.

Simoncini is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Florence and a permanent fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, which sponsored the talk, along with the Kellogg Institute, Program on Constitutional Structure, and Program on Church, State and Society.

Alongside Marta Cartabia, Simoncini co-edited the recently released Pope Benedict XVI’s Legal Thought: A Dialogue on the Foundation of Law, which presents how five of the pope emeritus’ speeches pertain explicitly to questions of law, justice, and democracy through commentary from legal scholars.

Simoncini explained how as Bishop of Rome, the pope shepherds his community of believers, a community living in the world and therefore influencing humanity at large.  Speaking as the “representative of the community of believers,” the pope is to be a “voice for the ethical reasoning of humanity.”

Senior Domenic Canonico, a Sorin Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, spoke with the Rover about the event.  “[I] was struck by Professor Simoncini’s observation that in Pope Benedict’s addresses to secular governments and institutions, he did not necessarily speak from a dogmatic or authoritative position,” Canonico said, “but rather spoke to his audiences in the spirit of dialogue, inviting them to engage in a rational conversation about the nature of law and of human goods.”

Simoncini said of the pope, “The capacity he exercises and the authority he invokes is that of nature and reason,” to which, according to Benedict, the Christian faith points as the two sources of law.  The pope’s speeches explain Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the human understanding of nature and reason and their impact on law.

First, Simoncini addressed nature.  “An attitude of the Christian experience towards nature and its impact on later culture is quite simple,” he stated.  “Nature intended as reality is a given, and that means that it is given, and if it is given, there must be a giver.”  

Simoncini explained that, according to Benedict, man is a “dependent rational animal,” and from the conviction that there is a giver follow human rights and dignity.  “Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights.  To ignore or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness,” Benedict says.

Next, Simoncini addressed reason and its relationship with the Christian faith.  Benedict decries the domination of positivist reasoning, according to which “anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable … does not belong to the realm of reason … Hence, ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective and remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word,” Simoncini quoted Benedict.

Contemporary positivism, Benedict proposes, is akin to a “closed bunker with no windows, where air and light are self-produced … We need to re-open the windows on reality outside and let light and fresh air in.”

The positivist approach to nature and reason, while important, is not sufficient “to respond to the full breadth of the human condition,” and has devastating effects on legal-political order, Simoncini said.  “If reason is reduced to his ability of measuring, and it is not open to some transcending limitation, it becomes also the measure of justice.  So justice is reduced … it becomes extremely difficult to find areas of true agreement on ethical issues,” he continued.

The role of Catholic experience is to expose how faith can reopen reason, which is the opposite of prejudicial beliefs that faith closes the mind.  “Faith is a formidable ally of reason,” Simoncini asserted.  Benedict says, “Faith, as a historical instrument, can set reason itself free again.”

Canonico told the Rover that he attended the talk “to learn how [Benedict’s] thought on regaining the fullness of reason would apply to legal issues and the general relationship of the papacy to the secular world.

“The pope, according to Professor Simoncini, found it more fruitful to attempt to reground Western legal thought in a full and healthy understanding of reason than authoritatively to assert and reject the errors in aspects of modern law,” Canonico continued.

Faith, reason, and law are not equivalent but are linked relationally, akin to friendship, Simoncini explained.  Furthermore, “without a robust and sound idea of reason and nature, the use of power inevitably becomes limitless,” he said.

Indeed, Pope Francis warns about the limitations of our age, irresponsible use of power, and conflation of freedom and autonomy in his encyclical Laudato Si.  The “technocratic paradigm” depends on the responsibility of choice inherent in freedom.

“The problem today is not technology, but freedom.  Our freedom is deeply fascinated by the prospect of becoming totally self-sufficient,” said Simoncini.

For example, we use the Internet as a way of increasing our freedom, yet we unconsciously feed the market that controls, predicts, and tracks our behavior.  “The more we depend on technology to be free and powerful, the more technology becomes free and powerful, and so the owners of such companies,” Simoncini proposed.

He advocated listening to the words of Pope Benedict XVI for a new, creative age of legal culture, built on a common ethical background that understands nature and reason as setting paths and limits.

Brief remarks from book contributor and Notre Dame Professor of Law Paolo Carozza followed.
Stephanie Reuter is a sophomore majoring in PLS and theology and is a Sorin Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture.  While her lawyer dad has repeatedly advised her not to go to law school, it’s rumored that PLS really stands for “Probably Law School,” so who knows?  Contact her at