A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
LAST AUTUMN a senior writer at Time was advised to put the final touches on the obituary of Pope John Paul II. The pope’s health seemed to be failing, and like the rest of the media, Time was getting ready to wrap up his pontificate. Since then, however, he has, if anything, been moving even faster. John Paul has resumed his punishing world travels, drawing four million people in Manila — the largest crowd to assemble in history. He has stepped up his literary output, feeding a sudden public appetite for papal books and documents. And he is talking about the year 2000 as though he fully expects to be there, having announced plans for a meeting of the great monotheistic faiths at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Enlightened opinion long ago wrote off the papacy as a quaint relic of the Middle Ages. When Pius IX barricaded the Church against all forms of liberalism a century and a half ago, it was widely held that the papacy was slated for a long slide into oblivion. But the papal chair is now occupied by a man who, alone among his contemporaries, has the international stature associated with the generation of Churchill and de Gaulle. And John Paul could not be more “modern” — he is a survivor of two totalitarian regimes, a disciple of Scheler and Husserl, and an underground playwright and actor whose delivery on television John Gielgud once called “perfect.”
That in a dreary decade of Clinton and Yeltsin the pope has a monopoly on public gravitas may partly explain the attention he now commands. But something deeper is going on here, a historical reversal whose drift is sensed even by the religiously tone-deaf media. After the European wars of religion centuries ago, faith was banished to the realm of private opinion. Thinkers like Spinoza, who was agnostic, maintained that we had to give up on the idea of religion as a bond between people; man-made philosophy would have to do the job instead. This of course was the project of the Enlightenment. It was in many respects successful, although its prophets did not appreciate the extent to which the modern state would have to draw on the reserves of Judeo-Christianity in order to survive and prosper.
John Paul II is not alone in thinking that the West is close to depleting its religious account. As Nietzsche said to the West: You have killed off God, but it will take a century for you to start behaving as though it were really true. This is the “culture of death” about which John Paul is so eloquent. And he is attempting a dramatic reversal. He is trying to put God back into the public discourse of the West, not as private opinion or under the sectarian banner of Catholicism, but as normative reality. No other antidote exists for the skepticism and moral relativism eating away at our democracies.
John Paul is urging on the West a Christian humanism that can be grasped by all but the most obdurate materialist. The United States and Western Europe are the only credible political and economic models left, but their cultures are another matter. A kind of soft nihilism has settled on the West, one that, in John Paul’s view, does not differ radically from the hard nihilism of Marxism. Both treat man as a thing or, at best, a clever ape. Both deny to man mystery and transcendence. The pope, who is a great admirer of the West, believes that we can do better and that if we don’t, we are headed the way of the late classical Greek and Roman cultures.
BORN IN 1920 as Karol Wojtyla, he came to maturity just in time for the Nazi occupation of Poland. During the early war years, he worked in a chemical factory and a stone quarry. He was placed on the Gestapo blacklist for helping Jewish families escape from Cracow, just a short distance from Auschwitz. After Hitler came Yalta, where, as the Poles say, they lost World War II a second time. Wojtyla was ordained a priest in 1946 after training in an underground seminary, and soon became an adversary of the Communist regime. The main lesson he drew from the Stalinist decades was that a political order based on a radical misreading of the human person will fail for reasons not purely technical or economic. Far from producing the New Socialist Man, the militant atheism of Marxism-Leninism created instead a hunger for religion that is now playing itself out in remarkable ways.
As pope, Wojtyla was a key player in the endgame of the Cold War. He and Ronald Reagan were the two forces that hastened the end of the Soviet empire. Western journalists and academics have not given either man proper credit. (Nor have they grasped the role that Christianity played in the Revolution of 1989. Those crucifixes and Madonnas in the Gdansk shipyard made our pundits uneasy, when they noticed them at all.) But it is premature to talk of a dramatic spiritual revival in the former Soviet bloc. Those countries are too busy playing catch-up with Western materialism. The pope has been very vocal about their new pursuit of consumerism. In his view, the Central European countries are simply trading one faulty anthropology for another.
John Paul’s criticisms of the Western democracies have been widely misrepresented in such places as the New York Times, which is always quick to run a headline like “Papal Encyclical Urges Capitalism to Shed Injustices.” The pope is actually a strong advocate of private property and individual initiative. In Centesimus Annus (1991), which marked a watershed in Catholic social thinking, he not only excoriated the modern welfare state but also closed the door on the so-called “third way,” that non-existent compromise between collectivism and capitalism so dear to left-wing Catholics. (As a Czech minister once snapped, the third way leads to the Third World.) But what concerns John Paul is not so much specific economic mechanisms as the cultural norms that support them. And this is where he is warning the East to keep a tactful distance from its new mentors.
FIRST AND FOREMOST, he points to the West’s loss of “the truth about man.” For those who don’t mind the Bible, the best way to get at John Paul’s thinking is to read his meditations on the opening of Genesis in books like The Original Unity of Man and Woman. Like St. Augustine, he draws from it lessons that make the most cutting-edge mildly quaint. He focuses on the second chapter, which depicts the original solitude of Adam and his finding himself in relation to Eve. This account, which obviously has metaphorical elements, points to the difference between man and beast: Man is a creature defined by interiority and inwardness — and by the need to make a gift of self to another being. This, if anything, is what it means to be created in the image of God.
After making the case for the inviolable dignity of man, the pope makes a second point: Man, however noble, is not his own creator. This self-evident fact tortured the young Marx until he discovered Darwin. But even unaided reason, according to John Paul, does not support the idea of man as self-created and thus free of norms and obligations.
Above all, the pope objects to the notion of the individual conscience as a little god, a supreme tribunal making categorical decisions about right and wrong. Along with a new generation of Catholic intellectuals, he is suggesting that the modern world either rediscover the principles of natural law, found in documents ranging from the Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, or prepare itself for an increasingly fragmented and unhappy existence.
The idea of natural law, an antecedent moral sense implanted in man and written into the nature of things, was last broached in public during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Educated in Catholic schools, Thomas was skewered by the Senate Judiciary Committee because he had once given a speech agreeing with Abraham Lincoln about the natural-law basis of the Constitution. Thomas did not help matters by backing away from the questions. He ought to have asked the senators where else one can find a basis for morality. The alternative is a legal positivism which keeps manufacturing “rights” with no reference to duties or obligations. The result is a splintered and demoralized social order. If God has created an objective moral order, it is beyond whim and manipulation. On the other hand, if there is no God, and man is the result of a blind, material process, there is no basis for constructing any moral order whatsoever. Sartre, modernity’s Village Atheist, understood this quite clearly. He was merely being consistent when he criticized the Nazi war-crime trials at Nuremberg, since “crimes against humanity” must be deduced from a natural law decreed by a Creator.
THERE IS A CERTAIN IRONY in a Polish pope suggesting that a democracy go back and read its founding documents. Fifty years ago, Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain expressed delight and amazement that the most powerful nation on earth should believe in limited, constitutional government based on natural law. The legal forms of this country worked because of the unwritten consensus that produced them. (Read Tocqueville, another insightful Catholic.) But that consensus has been replaced by a radical pluralism that obliges people to respect all views and honor no truths. Instead of values, frail humanity now has “options” and opinions to guide it.
John Paul has repeatedly warned, most recently in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), that the kind of pluralism now espoused in the West is a thinly disguised tyranny. Our liberal champions of pluralism do not want society to be truly pluralistic. That would leave too much room for people who believe in moral absolutes. What they want is that each person be a walking container of pluralism, so that religious values have no chance of reaching the public square. The new ground rules are odd by any historical standard: an unborn child is not sacrosanct, for example, but a plurality of views about the child’s worth is.
This absolutizing of the relative produces rich contradictions in the behavior of liberals. The English medical journal Lancet recently published an article which claimed that the unborn child, or whatever you wish to call it, experiences extreme pain during an abortion and so ought to be given anesthetic (we have yet to hear from the animal rights crowd). Similarly, in overturning the state of Washington’s assisted suicide law, federal judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that each individual has the right to define his or her own “concept of existence, meaning, and the universe.” If that is so, and Judge Rothstein inhabits a different universe from the rest of us, how does she come to be handing down legal opinions?
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