- Wednesday, March 13, 2024

I spent last week living and studying at the Vatican as a guest lecturer at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, or PASS. This organization of scholars explores ideas of interest to the Vatican. Last week, PASS addressed the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas; last Friday, March 8, was the 750th anniversary of his death.

This is not an esoteric subject. Aquinas taught that all rational people are capable of discerning right from wrong and good from evil by the exercise of free will and human reason, and they do not need the government to aid them in this endeavor.

This is generally known as natural law. My presentation was on the concept of natural rights, a derivation of natural law.

The Vatican, which is about one-eighth the size of New York’s Central Park, has a lovely guesthouse on the grounds called the Domus, which was my home for four days. It is also the residence of Pope Francis.

My PASS colleagues and I — 25 of us — were dining in the small Domus dining room when the pope came in and sat two tables away from us. It was surreal.

Here is the backstory.

How do we know what we know? Aquinas set about to answer that intriguing question. How do we know that we exist, that 2 plus 2 equals 4, that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? These are truisms; thus, they cannot change, and all rational people can discern them. They are true intrinsically, whether we believe they are or not.

Aquinas taught that all rational adults can discover the truth by exercising free will. That exercise requires rational thinking. When he taught this, it was radical, as other scholars taught that forces outside of us drew us to discover truths.

Let’s say you like chocolate ice cream. Aquinas taught that you rationally choose chocolate whenever you have an ice cream choice to make. Others taught that you really didn’t choose chocolate. Instead, it chose you — meaning that you can’t control your taste buds.

This is not hairsplitting; rather, it is central to Western thinking. If we don’t have free will, if we are just animals drawn to satiate our tastes, then are we responsible for our behavior? Can we take credit when we hit a home run or compose a symphony, or is all this just animal instinct acting out?

Aquinas’ views are known today as natural law. And the derivative of natural law is natural rights. Aquinas taught that the same God who made us in his own image and likeness gave us the gift of free will. We can use that free will to discover truth, practice baseball, learn music or choose our favorite ice cream. We can also use that free will to harm others, like stealing a purse or robbing a bank.

Aquinas taught that when we see a purse being stolen or a bank being robbed, we instinctively know that we are witnessing evil. How do we know this? Our Creator hard-wires us to discern good from evil.

But we cannot know this unless we are free to reject it. That freedom is called free will. As God is perfectly free, so are we — his creatures — perfectly free. Free will is so perfect that one can use it to become a monster or a saint. Stated differently, we are free to reject the truths that we are hard-wired to discern. There are monsters among us who see no wrong in stealing a purse or robbing a bank.

The theory of natural rights — extrapolated from Aquinas — teaches that our rights are permanent claims against the world that no one, not even government, can take away. Of course, the purse snatcher and the bank robber give up their rights when they violate the rights of the purse owner and the bank depositors.

Today, we allow the government to take our right to own property — under the guise of taxation or regulation — and to take other rights, such as privacy and free speech, from us all the time.

Aquinas knew that government is the negation of liberty. In the 21st century, we realize that we have a government that is utterly indifferent to our rights. The people who run the federal government — no matter which political party is in power — believe they can kill any foe, steal any property, claim any right, declare any wrong, regulate any behavior, tax any event, and insinuate themselves into any relationship so long as they can get away with it politically. This is all in defiance of natural law.

In America today, we see the destruction of natural law principles and the rejection of natural rights.

Now, back to the pope.

Catholics believe that he is the Vicar of Christ on earth. But the current pope may be the worst in history. He has watered down church teachings on marriage, sexuality and confession. He has suppressed the Mass that every canonized saint in heaven attended and participated in. His attacks on traditional theology and liturgy are the opposite of what he is supposed to do — which is to preserve them.

Nevertheless, it was surreal when he was brought into the guesthouse dining room; he was using a walker and had an assistant at each arm. It was bizarre when he sat with his back to us. I wanted to go up to him and greet him, but the Swiss Guards had warned us not to approach him or call out to him.

Two days later, I turned a corner in the guesthouse lobby, where he was 10 feet away. I gently bowed and whispered, “Your Holiness.” He looked at me and moved on.

Pope Francis is in poor health. He can barely speak or walk, and he radiates sadness. I was thrilled to reside in his home for four days, but I don’t think he’ll be there much longer.

• To learn more about Judge Andrew Napolitano, visit https://JudgeNap.com.

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