A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
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In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul makes the reasonable suggestion that we “call things by their proper name.” The advocates of abortion and euthanasia operate on a classic Orwellian principle: before engineering a social reality, you must first engineer the language. Phrases such as “reproductive health” and “safe motherhood” hardly do justice to what happens in a second-trimester abortion.
Fifty years ago, euthanasia was a Nazi war crime; now it is a desideratum of progressive opinion. Hidden in the Clinton Administration’s health-care bill was a shocking money-saving device that got little attention. Medical care was to be denied to older persons who no longer enjoyed “quality of life.” This utilitarian approach to life has already been adopted in Holland, where many elderly are terrified of entering a hospital even for routine tests.
THE MAIN BATTLE GROUND of John Paul’s war against this “culture of death” has been the population conferences sponsored by the United Nations. These forums have been going on for decades, but it took the Clinton administration to make them dangerous. The one constant theme discernible in the twists and turns of the Clinton White House is support for abortion on demand — at any stage of pregnancy — and population control abroad. Led by Under Secretary of State Tim Wirth, the Clinton team wants to spend billions of dollars to spread its sexual philosophy to every corner of the globe.
The track record of the zero-population lobby that runs these forums is remarkable — a perfect score of being wrong in their apocalyptic forecasts. First there was Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which forecast worldwide famines in the seventies; then the 1974 Club of Rome report, whose prediction of imminent scarcities of basic resources was laughably off the mark. Such Malthusian scenarios take no account of man’s ingenuity in using the earth’s resources. Since World War II the food output of the world has tripled while its population has doubled. The earth’s present population of six billion occupies less than two percent of the earth’s land mass; if every one of them moved to Texas, each would have the living space of the average American.
John Paul recognizes that there are places where demographics are a problem and the prudential spacing of children is in order. But he should make even clearer an obvious fact: wars and famines today are caused by ethnic feuding and socialism, not by population pressures. Birth rates in Europe, America, and even China are now below replacement level. Germany is offering cash rewards to married couples who have babies, since there are not enough children to fill the schools. At some point in the next millennium, every Italian will fit comfortably in a medium suburb of Rome. This “birth dearth,” in Ben Wattenberg’s phrase, is the geo-political story of the end of the century; if history is any guide, the coming decline of numbers in the West promises to be a devastating phenomenon.
“The evil nature” of the population control movement, writes Charles Rice of Notre Dame, “is one of the best kept secrets in the world.” This perhaps explains why the Vatican gets such bad press for its skirmishes against the radical feminists and eugenicists who are drafting documents for the U.N. Conference on Women in Peking in September. (China’s policy of forced abortions was apparently not a negative in the choice of venue.) High on the radical agenda is a proposal to expand the number of “genders” to five.
SEX, OF COURSE, is the engine that drives much of the hostility to the Catholic Church. In 1959, Wojtyla wrote a wise and densely philosophical book on the subject, Love and Responsibility. It influenced Paul VI’s arguments against birth control in Humanae Vitae, a document that does not look as retrograde now as it did in the early days of the sexual revolution. (Suffice it to say the pope has to contend with in this that the divorce rate among couples who use contraceptives is way above the national average). John Paul is anything but a puritan. But he does insist that having sex is not the same thing as shaking hands; it has consequences. Now that our society has become a hothouse of divorce, illegitimacy, and sexually transmitted diseases, it may be worth pondering his contention that the “trivialization of sexuality” is opposed to the truth about man. The Catholic Church does not assert that certain behavior is evil simply because it has bad consequences, but it does suggest that acts which violate objective norms inevitably have such results.
Mention of sex leads us to the situation of the Catholic Church in America. The whining and gnashing of teeth the pope has to contend with in this country stems from a widespread frustration at not finding loopholes in the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. Cardinal Ratzinger once dismissed American Catholic dissent as the expression of a “bourgeois” Christianity that seeks to make religion as undemanding as possible. He suggested that this Catholicism Lite does not have much of a future. He is right about that; but in the meantime, it is very popular in Catholic seminaries and universities, and its adherents make no secret of their impatience for a new pope, who, they presume, will canonize all their whims.
Still, a healthy populism has sprung up among Catholics in the United States; it communicates on the Internet, tunes in to Mother Angelica’s cable network, buys the Pope’s books and audio tapes, and reads the new Catechism, a volume that the official Catholic apparatus in Washington did not exactly welcome, since it makes crystal clear that the Second Vatican Council did not abolish any of the traditional teachings of the Church. This Catholic populism has connections with the new political populism; both are going to bring down cultural fiefdoms which have ruled since the sixties.
IT IS HARD TO CONVEY what this pope means to orthodox Catholics who for decades have suffered a catalogue of stupidities — ranging from the new churches that look like auto-parts distribution warehouses to liturgical abuses whose purpose seems to be the inflation of the collective ego of the congregation. Apart from his forceful articulation of Catholic doctrine, this pope has an effect on people which Mikhail Gorbachev, who reportedly still visits John Paul when in Rome, calls “extraordinary.” The French journalist André Frossard probably expressed it best:
That October day when he appeared for the first time on the steps of St. Peter’s, with a big crucifix planted in front of him like a two-handed sword, and his first words, Non abbiate paura! (“Be not afraid”), echoing over the square, everyone realized then and there that something had happened in heaven: after the man of good will who had opened the Council, after the deeply spiritual man who had closed it and after an interlude as gentle and fleeting as the flight of a dove, God was sending us a witness.
The political sideshows ought not to distract us from the person and message of a pope who some day may be the third in his line to be called “the Great.” The West has come to a parting of ways. On the one hand there is an understanding of man that has sustained Christendom, however imperfectly, for two millennia; on the other, the way summed up by Pascal: Man without a Creator either becomes a deity and goes mad, or becomes a beast. The pope is a great friend of the West, and his warning ought to be regarded as coming from one who wants to see it stand for something beyond a morally vacuous “freedom of choice.”
Apart from a great man with a message, the same message of two thousand years ago, what does Catholicism have to offer the sole remaining superpower? Richard Rodriguez once observed that Mexico is Catholic and tragic, and everyone there is cheerful; the United States is Protestant and optimistic, and everyone is depressed. With the Cold War over, however, even our optimism seems to have faded a bit. The promised end of history, in which man, tired of ideologies, spends several millennia fine-tuning sophisticated consumer needs, is a dreary prospect.
1. Tad Szulc’s new book, Pope John Paul II: The Biography (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 542 pages, $27.50), gives a surprisingly good account of the pope’s life.
George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York.
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