Humanae Vitae

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical concerning human life and the regulation of birth. Bishop Robert Barron speaks to this anniversary in this Word on Fire reflection:

When I worked my first real job at The Philadelphia Bulletin in 2008, whose motto was “Philadelphia’s Family Newspaper,” we published a special section commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. The Bulletin went out of business by 2010, but I have a number of digital editions saved from those years, including that section.

We can do all sorts of things with and to the human body and to the human person. The essential question is always, “Should we?” And equally as important is answering that having considered the immediate costs and longer-term consequences of our decision. Humanae Vitae remains controversial, but true things tend to remain controversial in every time.

If the universe is meaningless…

Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity, one of my favorite books:

If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.

In the strictest sense, we cannot actually think about life and reality at all, because this would have to include thinking about thinking, thinking about thinking about thinking, and so ad infinitum. One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it. …

So long as the mind is split, life is perpetual conflict, tension, frustration, and disillusion. Suffering is piled on suffering, fear on fear, and boredom on boredom… But the undivided mind is free from this tension of trying always to stand outside oneself and to be elsewhere than here and now. Each moment is lived completely, and there is thus a sense of fulfillment and completeness. …

When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.

God is not a creature someplace “out there” in the universe. God is being itself, the basis for all contingent reality. When Watts writes that “you are this moment now” and not some separate constructed thing apart from the natural world you were born into, he’s advocating for recovering a sense of wholeness, and of an experience of reality as necessary for (wait for it) experiencing reality rather than simply trying to describe sensations. We are creatures in the world, which means we draw our liveliness, our existence, and our “beingness” itself, from whatever provides the basis for the being of everything else.

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. …

The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.”

But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves. … To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected. …

The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.

To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.

To live in harmony with the universe means recognizing that we did not create ourselves, and that we as beings are tied to whatever provides the basis for the being of everything else.

‘Christmas is about two caves’

I’m sharing Fr. George Rutler’s Christmas reflection, emailed by his Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Hell’s Kitchen, my once-upon-a-time neighborhood, along with a photo I snapped from my friend Alex’s 21st and Walnut Philadelphia apartment lobby. What does it mean that Christians believe in the bodily resurrection? Fr. Rutler sheds some light on this absurd-seeming belief:

Saint Paul was converted by the risen Christ, who appeared as a blinding light. Later, he would meet Peter and James who had seen the actual risen body, which had changed from the way it appeared during Christ’s three years with them.

The body of the resurrected Christ had four characteristics. First, it could no longer feel pain. This “impassibility” was a triumph over the horrors of the Passion. Second, by “subtlety” the body was no longer subject to the laws of physics. During his earthly life, Christ had to knock on doors to enter, but in the Resurrection, he could appear in a room though the doors were locked. Third, the “agility” of Christ’s body had a strength that freed him from the constraints of motion and enabled him to bi-locate. Fourth, the “clarity” of the risen body radiated a brilliance that emanated from the divine intelligence: “light from light.” This was glimpsed in the Transfiguration, and was what blinded Paul on the Damascus road.

These lines would seem to be an Easter meditation, but they are a Christmas meditation as well, for the two mysteries are inseparable. Without the Resurrection, the Nativity would be just another birthday, for even extraordinary people like Alexander the Great or Mozart had ordinary births. Because Christ is the Divine Word who created all things, the restrictions of his human nature are no less wonderful than the glory of his divine nature.

The infant in Bethlehem was not impassible: he hungered and cried like any other baby. Without subtlety, he was confined to the stable. While in the Resurrection his agility could cast aside the shroud, in the manger he was bound by swaddling clothes. And as for clarity, his infant body could be glimpsed in the darkness only by frail lamplight. As he has no beginning and no end, his divine glory was not something he attained as he grew up: rather, it was what he allowed to dim when he came into time and space. He “emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).

So Christmas is about two caves, and the birth in a stone stable would be only a sentimental reverie without the fact of the burial cave burst open. The Holy Infant in the manger is a kind of graphic hint for our limited intelligence, of the indescribable Ruler and Judge of the Universe. And the qualities of his risen body intimated what he would let us become in eternity.

That youngest of the apostles wrote in his old age: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (1 John 3:2).

 

Fear-lined delights

Anthony Esolen writes:

I’m reading, for one of my classes at Thomas More College, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel set in the last days of Saints Peter and Paul, Quo Vadis? The Rome of that imperial matricide, mass murderer, poetaster, and buffoon, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero, was “a nest of evil,” “a seat of power, madness but also order, the capital of the world and also mankind’s most terrible oppressor, bringer of laws and peace, all-powerful, invulnerable, eternal,” so wicked, that Peter cannot fathom why God should lead him to build the Church upon such a foundation. Even the libertine Petronius understands that such a Rome cannot endure. “A society based on brute force and violence,” thinks that arbiter of taste, “on cruelty beyond anything possible among the barbarians, and on such universal viciousness and debauchery, could not survive forever. Rome ruled mankind, but it was also its cesspool and its seeping ulcer. It reeked of death and corpses. Death’s shadow lay over its decomposing life.”

Rome, pagan Rome, was exhausted. She would, in the next few centuries, produce a few fine public buildings, some aqueducts and roads, one near-great poet (Juvenal), a sad philosopher king (Marcus Aurelius), and a brief efflorescence of Platonic mysticism not uninfluenced by Christianity. That was it.

The west, the post-Christian west, is exhausted. She exceeds ancient Rome in population by twenty to one, she enjoys plentiful food and drink, and labor-saving (and labor-eliminating) machines, and the moral heritage of its Christian past, mainly spent down and in many places mortgaged. But she is exhausted. …

Quo Vadis? is a story of the irruption of the Christian faith into that exhausted world. Its protagonist, a young patrician named Marcus Vinicius, learns of a God who makes the Roman pantheon look ridiculous and shabby, and a force, a new thing in the world, Christian love, that the world dreads and yet desperately needs. Greece brought the world beauty, and Rome brought the world power, says his uncle Petronius, but what do these Christians bring? From what Petronius can see, all they bring is gloom; they spoil what few and fleeting pleasures are available to man in this life. But by the end of the novel Petronius admits that it is not so, though he cannot share in this new thing, this adoration of the God of love.

Vinicius will become a baptized follower of Christ. His passionate and violent desire for a young Christian woman—whom he would kidnap and rape rather than not enjoy—will be transformed, through his own defeat and humiliation, and a veritable miracle of Christ that saves her from the bloodthirsty Nero, into a love that he had never known, and that requires him to change his life forever. So he writes to Petronius, pleading with him to become Christian also. “Compare your fear-lined delights,” he says, “your concern for material objects when none of you is sure of tomorrow, your orgies that seem like funeral suppers, and you’ll find the answer. Come to our thyme-smelling mountains, to the shade of our olive groves, and to our ivy-covered coast. Peace waits for you here, the kind of peace you haven’t known in years. And love waits for you here, in hearts that truly love you. You have a good and noble soul, Petronius. You deserve to be happy. Your brilliant mind can recognize the truth, and when you’ve seen it, you will come to love it.”

“Compare your fear-lined delights … and you’ll find the answer.”

Literate, engaged citizens

I’m sharing one more excerpt from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land:

A friend of mine is a well-known economist at a leading American university. He’s also the gatekeeper for an elite doctoral program in his field. Asked once what he valued most in candidates for his program, he said, “an undergraduate degree in Classics.” Homer and Virgil, of course, have very little to do with things like debt-deflation theory. But my friend’s reasoning is, in fact, quite shrewd.

Since economics is a human (i.e., social) science, its practitioners should first know how to be actual human beings before learning their specialized skills. A formation in the classics or any of the other humanities is an immersion in beauty and knowledge. It has no utility other than enlarging the soul. But that achievement—the ennobling of a soul, the enlarging of the human spirit to revere the heritage of human excellence and to love things outside itself—is something no technical skill can accomplish.

As Leo Strauss once wrote, “liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.”18 A liberal education—a balanced experience of the humanities, art, music, mathematics, and the natural sciences—is designed to form a mature “liberal” adult; liberal in the original sense, meaning free as opposed to slave. Thus for Strauss, “liberal education is the counter-poison … to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing” but specialists without vision or heart.

Scholars like Anthony Esolen, Allan Bloom, Neil Postman, Matthew Crawford, and Alasdair MacIntyre, each in his own way and for different reasons, have all said similar things. For all of them, the point of a truly good education, from pre-K to graduate school, is to form students to think and act as fully rounded, mature, and engaged human beings. In other words, as adult persons of character.

As Matthew Crawford puts it, “Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out [of our addictive self-focus] to join the world beyond our heads.”20 But the dilemma of postmodern life is that we can’t agree on what a fully rounded, mature “human being” is—or should be. The fragmentation in American culture runs too deep. Recent battles over imposing gender ideology in school curricula and rewriting and politicizing civics and American history textbooks simply prove the point. So does the “progressive” intellectual conformism in so many of our university faculties.

Meanwhile, as American student skills decline in global comparisons, more and more stress is placed on developing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competence at earlier student ages. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. Technical skills are an important part of modern life. But as we’ve already seen, American trust in the promise of technology is robust and naive to the point of being a character flaw. And a real education involves more profound life lessons than training workers and managers to be cogs in an advanced economy.

We tend to forget that “everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.” We also tend to forget that our political system, including its liberties, requires a particular kind of literate, engaged citizen—a kind that predates the computer keyboard.

True progress v. despair

I’m sharing two more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. This focuses on the idea of progress, and on Christianity’s ability to “play with death” thanks to Jesus Christ:

Americans talk about progress with an odd kind of reverence. Progress is the unstoppable force pushing human affairs forward. And it’s a religion with a simple premise: Except for the random detour, civilization instinctively changes for the better. And it’s up to us to get on board or get out of the way; to be part of the change or to get run over by history if we try to obstruct it. Hence we Catholics are routinely warned that we’re on the wrong side of history.

This idea of progress does have its appeal. As the economist Sidney Pollard put it: “The world today believes in progress because the only alternative to the belief in progress would be total despair.” We might go a step further: Clinging to a belief in progress is actually a product of despair, generously seasoned by sloth. History is cruel, social change is difficult, and a relationship with God involves a lot of unpleasant truth-telling—especially about ourselves. Better to just shift the burden of living in a flawed world at an imperfect time onto some positive force that will bring about the change we want “some” day.

It’s a heartwarming delusion. But that’s all it is: a delusion. A brief glance at the twentieth century destroys the myth. In just a few decades, “progressive” regimes and ideas produced two savage world wars, multiple murder ideologies, and the highest body count in history. And yet, as Christopher Lasch noted, people still cling to the religion of progress long after the evidence wrecks their dream.

The cult of progress is the child not only of despair, but also of presumption. It’s a kind of Pelagianism, the early Christian heresy that presumed human beings could attain salvation by their own efforts without the constant help of grace. Hence the philosopher Hans Blumenberg says that what separates the progressive idea of history from the Christian one is “the assertion that the principle of historical change comes from within history and not from on high, and that man can achieve a better life ‘by the exertion of his own powers’ instead of counting on divine grace.”

While we can and should work for social improvement—an obviously worthy goal—we’re too riddled with sin to ever build paradise on earth. As Benedict XVI put it, authentic progress doesn’t come automatically. In every age, human freedom must be weaned over to the good.23 And because our freedom can be used for good or evil, progress is always ambiguous:

“Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (see Eph 3:16 and 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

Ironically, it’s the religious subtext of progress that makes it so attractive. Again, as Friedrich Nietzsche and many others observed, progress is a kind of Christianity without Jesus and all the awkward baggage that he brings. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw this years ago when he wrote that “the idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks.”

This contrast is crucial. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Babylonians had a far darker view of history than Christians do. They saw humanity as controlled by fate, whose dictates could not be resisted. Greeks and Romans also had little hope of heaven. Many ancients believed that at death, human life ended. Hence the emperor Hadrian, one of Rome’s most cultivated and humane rulers, would write of his soul: “Poor ghost, my body’s friend and guest / Erewhile, thou leav’st thy home; / To what uncertain place of rest / A wanderer dost thou roam? / Pale, cold, and naked, henceforth to forgo / Thy jests among the sullen shades below.”

One of Christianity’s key contributions to Western civilization was to give men and women a sense of freedom from the whims of fate, a hope for life after death because of the victory of Jesus Christ. And over the centuries, that confidence in life beyond the grave has taken vivid form in the here and now.

***

THE CASTEL SANT’ANGELO IN Rome, the old papal fortress near the Vatican, is also the tomb of Hadrian. Visitors can find Hadrian’s poem about his soul on the wall. But walking eastward in Rome, the pilgrim will come to a very different meditation on death. The Capuchin Franciscans have an ordinary-looking church on the Via Veneto. But its crypt contains a series of rooms decorated with human bones—thousands of them.

The ceilings look like those of a baroque palace, except that they’re made of vertebrae. There’s a clock built of arm and finger bones. Skulls and femurs create decorative arches and columns. Through unbelieving eyes, it can easily seem ghoulish. It’s certainly a sobering encounter with our mortality. But it’s also very Franciscan. It takes death, that thing we fear most, and literally plays with it. And that couldn’t happen without a firm faith that Jesus Christ had crushed death, turning it from our ancient foe into what Saint Francis called “Sister Death,” the gateway to eternal life with God. The Capuchin bone crypt is uniquely Christian because beneath its somber appearance, it offers—for those who believe—a firm and joyful hope about what we find in Christ.

The Christian alternative to the cult of progress is not only hope, but the idea of providence. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for each of our lives and for the whole world, and that for each of us, his plan is good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas progress might claim that history has an inevitable arc, faith in providence has confidence that the Lord of history will one day make all things right. …

Without a final vindication of right and wrong—and without a just judge to do the vindicating—we would live in a world where good and evil have no meaning.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is that just judge. He’s not only the guide of history, but its focal point.

We didn’t create ourselves

I’m sharing three more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. I was struck by his reflection on the Beatitudes in general, but particularly with this reflection on what it means to the “poor in spirit”:

It’s worth pausing to reflect on each of the Beatitudes. And with the moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, O.P., as our guide, we can start to think about how we might live them in our own lives. So let’s begin.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The first Beatitude reminds us of one of the strongest themes of Scripture: God’s love for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. We see this in the Old Covenant, in which God instructs the people of Israel to care for the poor and the alien in their midst. He tells the Israelites not to harvest every speck of grain in their fields, but to leave some for the poor and the stranger who have no food of their own (Lev 19:9–10). He also commands them to set aside every fiftieth year as a Jubilee. In that year property that was bought or sold must be returned to its original owners (Lev 25:8–28).

Through the prophets God rebukes those who violate the spirit of these commands: “Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11–12).

Later Jesus says that, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, he is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one whom the Lord has anointed to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4:16–21).19 In our own time we tend to distinguish between spiritual and material poverty. But in the Bible, these concepts are tightly linked. The rich have wealth, but they become overly proud and ignore or oppress others. They use their money to buy influence and exploit the needy. They forget their dependence on God. The poor man, by contrast, is always reminded of his dependence. He will be humble and trust in the Lord.

We see this clearly in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man had elegant clothes and ate sumptuously. But he ignored Lazarus, who sat right at his gate, covered in sores that the dogs licked. Every time he entered or left his house the rich man would pass Lazarus, yet he did nothing to ease his needs. When the rich man died, he ended up in Hades. Now he suffered, while Lazarus sat in the bosom of Abraham.

The story underscores a simple fact: If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.

We might assume that Scripture condemns the wealthy. But that’s not the case. As the early Church Fathers noted, the Lazarus parable is really a tale of two rich men: an unnamed callous one, and the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was a rich man who never forgot his dependence on God. Whereas the wealthy sinner let Lazarus wallow in squalor, Abraham welcomed the three strangers in the Old Testament who visited him, and he fed them with rich food. Abraham was generous and shared his abundance, always remembering that everything he owned was a gift from God. The lesson is obvious: Possession is really about service. When it’s not, we become slaves to our goods instead of living in a culture of interior freedom.

Poverty comes in many forms, and Father Pinckaers names some that are familiar: illness, loneliness, age, failure, ignorance, and sin. All of these come back to the poverty at the heart of our very being: We didn’t create ourselves, and someday everything we have will be taken away by death. Even our body will turn to dust. Our poverty, in turn, puts us at a crossroads. We can either rebel against God, or let ourselves be shaped by suffering and become more open to God and others.

For believers, then, the poverty we experience purifies us. It keeps us from getting weighed down by excess baggage on the road to heaven. The first Beatitude is addressed to all of us.22 It asks us how we will respond to the blessings and sufferings of life. Even if we don’t embrace the complete poverty of a Dorothy Day, the principle of her life still speaks to us. In giving away our treasure and our very selves, we find life and freedom. Only if our hearts are open can we receive the kingdom of heaven, which is the richest gift of all.

“If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.” A frightening, but necessary, call for perpetual conversion of heart that hits me in a deep way.

To Notre Dame

I’m writing this as I land in Chicago, where I’ll be meeting up with Eric, Chris, and Nick Snyder for a weekend in South Bend and at Notre Dame for their game against Wake Forest. It’s been a few years since I visited Notre Dame, and over the past decade or so I’ve been there maybe a bit more than a half dozen times, from visiting retired Holy Cross priests for research on a manuscript about Fr. Richard Novak, C.S.C., to weekends for fun and fellowship like this one.

It’s a special place, and more than any other Catholic university in this country, the Congregation of Holy Cross has built a remarkable and resilient place of learning. It’s supposed to be a beautiful, unseasonably warm day. I’ll post scenes tonight from the activities of today.

And I recorded the “Trumpets Under the Dome” performance that took place shortly before the outdoor video:

Public life v. politics

George Weigel writes on John Paul II in 2001:

Pope John Paul II’s considerable effect on our times is conceded by admirers and critics alike. The imprint of the shoes of this fisherman can be found throughout the new democracies of east central Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. His critique of “real existing democracy” has helped define the key moral issues of public life in the developed democracies and in the complex world of international institutions. Some sober analysts of papal history argue that one must return to the early thirteenth century, to Pope Innocent III, to find a pontificate with such a marked influence on contemporary public life.

Yet there is a paradox here: the “political” impact of this pontificate, unlike that of Innocent III, has not come from deploying what political realists recognize as the instruments of political power. Rather, the Pope’s capacity to shape history has been exercised through a different set of levers.

As Bishop of Rome and sovereign of the Vatican City micro-state, John Paul has no military or economic power at his disposal. The Holy See maintains an extensive network of diplomatic relations and holds Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. But whatever influence John Paul has had through these channels simply underscores the fact that the power of his papacy lies in a charism of moral persuasion capable of being translated into political effectiveness.

This paradox—political effectiveness achieved without the normal instruments of political power—is interesting in itself. It also has heuristic value. It tells us something about the nature of politics at the dawn of a new millennium. Contrary to notions widely accepted since the late eighteenth century, the public impact of John Paul II suggests that politics (understood as the contest for power), or economics, or some combination of politics and economics, is not the only, or perhaps even the primary, engine of history. The revolution of conscience that John Paul ignited in June 1979 in Poland—the moral revolution that made the Revolution of 1989 possible—is simply not explicable in conventional political or economic categories. John Paul’s public accomplishment has provided empirical ballast for intellectual and moral challenges to several potent modern theories of politics, including French revolutionary Jacobinism, Marxism-Leninism, and utilitarianism. The political world just doesn’t work the way the materialists claim.

At the end of a century in which it was widely agreed that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” the paradox in the public impact of John Paul II also reminds us of five other truths: that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change; that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past; that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world; that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities.

In sum, and precisely because it has not been mediated through the “normal” instruments of political power, the “worldly accomplishment” of John Paul II has helped free us from the tyranny of politics. By demonstrating in action the linkage between profound moral conviction and effective political power, this pontificate has helped restore politics to its true dignity while keeping politics within its proper sphere.

The distinctive modus operandi of this politically potent Pope also suggests something about the future of the papacy, the world’s oldest institutional office, and about Catholicism in the third millennium of its history.

Those five truths aside from power through violence are worth emphasizing:

  1. that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change;
  2. that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past;
  3. that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world;
  4. that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and
  5. that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities

Public life and politics are not the same things.

Directing progress

From the Venerable Fulton Sheen’s “plea for intolerance:”

America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot; but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broadminded. A bigoted man is one who refuses to accept a reason for anything; a broadminded man is one who will accept anything for a reason—providing it is not a good reason. It is true that there is a demand for precision, exactness, and definiteness, but it is only for precision in scientific measurement, not in logic. The breakdown that has produced this unnatural broadmindedness is mental, not moral. The evidence for this statement is threefold: the tendency to settle issues not by arguments but by words, the unqualified willingness to accept the authority of anyone on the subject of religion, and, lastly, the love of novelty.

The acids of modernity are eating away the fossils of orthodoxy.

Belief in the existence of God, in the Divinity of Christ, in the moral law, is considered passing fashions. The latest thing in this new tolerance is considered the true thing, as if truth were a fashion, like a hat, instead of an institution like a head.

The final argument for modern broad-mindedness is that truth is novelty and hence “truth” changes with the passing fancies of the moment. Like the chameleon that changes his colors to suit the vesture on which he is placed, so truth is supposed to change to fit the foibles and obliquities of the age. The nature of certain things is fixed, and none more so than the nature of truth. Truth may be contradicted a thousand times, but that only proves that it is strong enough to survive a thousand assaults. But for any one to say, “Some say this, some say that, therefore, there is no truth,” is about as logical as it would have been for Columbus who heard some say, “The earth is round”, and others say “The earth is flat” to conclude: “Therefore, there is no earth.” Like a carpenter who might throw away his rule and use each beam as a measuring rod, so, too, those who have thrown away the standard of objective truth have nothing left with which to measure but the mental fashion of the moment.

The giggling giddiness of novelty, the sentimental restlessness of a mind unhinged, and the unnatural fear of a good dose of hard thinking, all conjoin to produce a group of sophomoric latitudinarians who think there is no difference between God as Cause and God as a “mental projection”; who equate Christ and Buddha, and then enlarge their broad-mindedness into a sweeping synthesis that says not only that one Christian sect is as good as another, but even that one world-religion is just as good as another. The great god “Progress” is then enthroned on the altars of fashion, and as the hectic worshippers are asked, “Progress toward what?” the tolerant comes back with “More progress.” All the while sane men are wondering how there can be progress without direction and how there can be direction without a fixed point. And because they speak of a “fixed point”, they are said to be behind the times, when really they are beyond the times mentally and spiritually.