The bishops of France have published a new document offering a summary of the Church's teaching on the dignity of human nature and the importance of natural law in society.

The document, titled "What is man that you keep him in mind? Elements of Catholic anthropology," was published April 23 by the permanent council of the Bishops' Conference of France. It is intended to articulate a framework for discussion of the Church's moral teachings and how they should be applied to wider human society.

In a foreword to the text, Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris said that the Church's voice and wisdom were essential to preserving human dignity in society.

"To those seeing her from outside, the Church appears in the West as an old and shaken institution of scandals," Aupetit said, while warning against the "myth of progress" in Western society "that is invoked without knowing exactly where it leads." 

"But the Church is beautiful - in the face of her saints, in the immense mantle of tenderness which she spreads over the world, especially over the most neglected of men. She is the 'expert in humanity' because her faith is based on God's Covenant with His people, fulfilled in the Incarnation of Christ and Salvation by the Cross, open to the multitude of men 'of every race, language, people and nation.'"

The Bishop of Blois, Jean-Pierre Batut, said at the document's release that moral discussion had been distorted by relativism, and that without an understanding of the common dignity of human nature it was impossible to present the Church's teaching in its fullness.

"There is a great need today, not for a moral discussion, but for one that is anthropological," Batut said.

The bishop, who authored the afterword to the document, said that the spiritual crisis in France – illustrated by declining Mass attendance and vocations to the priesthood – was itself rooted in an "anthropological and civilizational" crisis through a loss of understanding of the natural law.

Natural law must be understood as the moral framework for all humanity, the bishops wrote, and not confused with the "law of nature," which would place mankind on the same moral level as animals.

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"From the point of view of humans, there is no point in learning whether monogamy or homosexuality exists among the animals. Animals do not even understand the prohibition against incest," the bishops wrote.

Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, told CNA that the concept of natural law is essential to human dignity.

"The French bishops are exactly right that our moral disputes need to be rooted in shared premises about human nature," Pecknold said. "We need to start with the understanding of the human person as a rational, relational, and religious creature made for happiness.

Pecknold said that the French bishops were also right to avoid being drawn into "moralizing discussions" about a law of nature which, he said, are "so often rooted in reductionist and materialist conceptions of human nature."

The French bishops wrote that "natural law is a law of human nature, which explains what is right for human beings to do in order to achieve happiness."

This, Pecknold said was a crucial distinction to make, since true happiness comes from the free choice to pursue the good in imitation of God.

"If we want to propose a true understanding of natural law as an ordinance of reason for the common good and flourishing of people, then we have work to do in helping our neighbors understand the reality of the human person as created in God's image for a higher happiness than physical pleasure."

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