There is a song one sings in Polish to a man for whom one wishes to express love and honor: “May he live, may he live, one hundred years!”
May he live so many years, indeed—Pope John Paul II, whose great encyclical of one year ago today was called “The Hundredth Year.” His pontificate has brought many great blessings to the Church; it will be ranked among the greatest in several centuries. East and West have been reunited in the spirit to which in his very first days he dedicated his pontificate and offered his life. God worked through this pope.
Within the Church, too, there is a greater sense of discipline and direction. A love for fidelity has been restored, a sense that the Truth is not ours to invent but to be grasped by, in that Yes that Dostoevsky’s Alyosha learned to say to the Creator of the universe, the Yes of Our Lady. John Paul II is Mary’s pope. In the darkest days of the Cold War, in his own dark days when he lay almost dying under a would-be assassin’s bullets, he placed his trust in Mary, as so many have done in the turbulent history of the Church. He knew her promises at Fatima, about the conversion of Russia. He believed in the reuniting of the “twin branches of Christian Europe.” He understood the vocation of the Church in the Third World. He has nourished, as most Poles do, a deep love for the United States and an appreciation of her experiment in liberty and justice. He is the first truly planetary pope, the first to summon from the four corners of the world the leaders of all great religions to meet in common prayer.
We are privileged to live in an age when grace has been so visible.
Of the many great teaching documents issued by this pope, however, the great Magna Carta for the twenty-first century is The Hundredth Year. Following in the footsteps of the decree The Joy and Hope of the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council, The Hundredth Year set forth the three great lines on which the civilization of the twenty-first century ought to be built: in the political, economic, and cultural order. Ought to be built, that is, if human dignity is to be made manifest in the institutions and the daily life of the world. Pope John Paul II is the pope of solidarity, of caritas alive throughout the entire world, in the humble institutional ways in which it is given to humans to approximate the Kingdom of God. Solidarity so understood is neither gnostic nor utopian. It is rooted firmly in a grasp of “what is in man,” both in our sinfulness and in the Imago Dei imprinted in us.
The starting place of The Hundredth Year is a Christian vision of humankind, as its first commitment is to “the truth about man.” Tocqueville himself made the point that religion is the first institution of democracy because it establishes the realm of transcendence in which alone human dignity can be adequately grasped. The human being cannot be understood wholly in utilitarian or pragmatic categories, for in these categories the human being is bound to be the instrument or means to somebody or something else. As Imago Dei, the human being is an end, not a means. That is the context within which, from a Christian point of view, one can speak about human rights, the ground on which one properly speaks of the dignitas of the human being. For the state or anyone else to violate the liberty of the person is to injure the Imago Dei endowed in that person by the Creator. It is an offense against the Creator.
The Christian defense of human rights is quite different from that of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, although it cannot be said that philosophers such as they borrowed no fragments at all from the history of Christian philosophy.
Pope John Paul II’s defense of human rights is quite different, too, from that of the most famous of America’s contemporary philosophers, Richard Rorty, grandson of the founder of the American “Social Gospel,” Walter Rauschenbusch. Not much of Christianity is left in Rorty except sentimentality, and not much faith in reason either. According to Rorty, truth founded in independent reality is not available, there is only “contingency all the way down,” no truth to stand on; and those who think there is, because tempted to impose “their” truth on others, are a danger to democracy.
Pope John Paul II, a professional philosopher himself, has a certain personal experience with dangers to democracy, as also with establishments that hold that there is no truth. He has seen what philosophers do who have nothing to stand on but pragmatism, utilitarianism, and irony, and that picture is not pretty. There are some truths it is wise for humans to hold, if not as self-evident, at least as unshakable. Experience has taught him, moreover, that in God’s good time such truths prevail. Included among these are that the Creator has endowed human beings with responsibility for their own destiny, with its attendant liberties, rights, and inalienable dignity. Indeed, in a very large sense, one might even say that, pragmatically, persons who act in this way gain a spiritual strength that will prevail over the worst that some equivalent of the KGB can throw at them—in the 24 levels of torture the KGB regularly used against recalcitrants who held such truths, such as Bukovsky, Orlov, Sharansky, and so many others. Twentieth-century prisons turned out to be furnaces in which the truths we hold “to be self-evident” were hardened by fire.
A similar analysis led Pope John Paul II to express real fears about the current cultures of the free societies of the West, riven by new forms of supposedly gentle nihilism and sensual anomie. Human individuals do not live as hermetically sealed monads; a faulty cultural ecology may poison the ideas, perceptions, and habits of liberty. The pollution of this ecology can be fatal to liberty, as it proved to be in Europe earlier in this century. No culture can hope to preserve liberty apart from vigilance over its moral ecology. Since a culture of liberty is the only air human dignity properly lives by, such vigilance must be exercised through respect for the truths that make us free, and through that civil conversation by which one rational creature attempts to persuade his or her fellows. Human solidarity can countenance no violation of human conscience.
In America today, the culture of the people is far more religious, and far less secular, than that of those who set the tone in our public media and among our university elites. There, indeed, a limited relativism intermixed with an aggressive moralism wages war against Christian and Jewish religious truth. The fury of this aggression is visible in such eruptions as the assault on the Sacred Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the blasphemous hurling of the Body of Christ on the floor. Truly, a great and uncivil sickness rages through the culture of American elites. May it soon find a cure.
In The Hundredth Year, the Holy Father commended political institutions that protect human dignity: the rule of law, the separation of powers, independent courts to secure individual and civil rights, and the habits of democracy. He has experienced the absence of such institutions.
From all over the world, too, from Latin America as well as from Eastern Europe, questions have come to the pope about what sort of economic system Christian faith recommends after the collapse of socialist economics. Far better than any other religious leader, he went deep into his own philosophical and theological resources to give a new and profound definition of the kind of capitalism he holds to be consistent with Christian moral and religious principles, as well as with political liberties.
His discussion of the many meanings of “capital” (in sections 31 and 32) is truly brilliant, as is his philosophy of the business firm and the virtues necessary to the free economy. His teaching on the importance of human capital, which he roots in the concept of “creative subjectivity” that he began developing in Laborem Exercens and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, is deeper than that of Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek, and fits very well with his teaching on so-called “population control.” Human beings are the primary cause of wealth, not the cause of poverty. The chief causes of the latter are systems that repress the creativity of their own citizens.
It is a great encyclical, the fullest and best in the whole tradition. Pope John Paul II has been a great pope. May he live one hundred years, indeed.