End Notes

In his new encyclical released March 25th, Evangelium vitae, the Holy Father speaks of a culture of death, not as a threatening possibility, but as something that has already arrived. The phrase, I am told, is original with Cardinal O’Connor, so it seems unlikely that it is some dark and distant part of the globe whose culture is being so described. It is ours.

One of the standard criticisms of Christianity over the years is that it devalues the present life in favor of some putative life beyond, pie in the sky, is the phrase. The gist of the objection, presumably, is that if we really put our minds to the present life, to the exclusion of all thoughts about another, well then, everything would become better and better. It is in the nature of such claims that they are more easily disproved after they have been put into practice. The west has been in the grips of a this-world materialism for some centuries. It began with an elite, consciously thinking against the wisdom of the ages, who saw what they were doing as épatissant les bourgeoisie. However it might be in economics, there is certainly a trickle-down phenomenon in the world of ideas. What begins as the radical revisions of a clique will often after a few generations become the unexamined assumptions of the many. So it has been with the notion of the human person as an autonomous, unencumbered individual whose greatest glory is an unguided freedom.

Only 50 years ago, when Jean-Paul Sartre served up a kind of Nietzschean nihilism for the masses, in Existentialism as a Humanism, this sort of thing was still feisty and counter-cultural. Sartre spoke with the obvious delight of a naughty boy about the public reaction to his views. He summed those views up in a slogan: existence precedes essence. This is the obverse of the traditional view that what a person is provides a clue to what is fulfilling of or good for the person. If there is no nature to guide us — and Sartre saw this denial as a necessary implication of his postulatory atheism — then I am responsible for my standards of behavior as well as my behavior. And there is no restriction on the standards I might adopt.

Wow, as the French do not say. But they did say oui, at least over time, and so has the whole of western culture which the Holy Father describes as a culture of death. He has in mind the programmatic acceptance of abortion and euthanasia and assisted suicide, the production of expendable embryos for experimentation, and the like. Arguments against such practices are based on a true understanding of the human person, as the introduction to Donum vitae — the hacker might say that vitae has become the default extension of magisterial documents — emphasizes, but it is the very possibility of a true conception that is undermined by the new nihilism. There is no theoretical defense against the dealers of death. Of course, arguments can be fashioned on behalf of abortion and euthanasia if all argument requires is that I freely choose the principles of argumentation. The innocence of the victim is no longer a defense.

It is a rule of logic of sorts that the adoption of any falsehood will get you into all kinds of incoherences. And so it is with this view of the human agent who is through and through his own boss, beholden to no one, freely defining himself as he cuts his swath through the world. This imperial self is taken to be the bearer of rights, that is, of claims against others. But if I am nothing at all before I freely fashion myself it is difficult to see how I can be the carrier of rights. Obviously, some minimal nature antecedent to free action is being smuggled in.

This street may be a cul de sac but it is not one way. The Holy Father makes it clear in Evangelium vitae that to speak the language of rights is to invite misunderstanding. And, of course, the Church, increasingly since Vatican II, has adopted this language. For that matter, nothing is more fundamental to this encyclical than the right to life. But rights cannot be properly understood unless we properly understand the bearer of rights. It is because we are creatures of God that we have the rights and dignity that we do. They are conferred upon us; they are not a result of what we do. The modern effort to divorce freedom from truth — as the encyclical Veritatis splendor emphasized — distorts freedom. How could human freedom be more distorted than when it is taken to have dominion over life and death? To speak of a woman’s right to an abortion is to say that she can decide whether another person, an innocent person, will live or die. To speak of the right to kill oneself under certain conditions is to claim to be the ultimate master of one’s fate. The Pope points out that such “rights” are really the power of some over others. How then can one consistently deny to another the rights over one’s own life? What would be the principle involved?

Turning away from “pie in the sky” does not enhance this life, nor does life become merely playing with mud pies. To turn away from Life leads to a turning away from life. As we are seeing more and more, the supernatural functions as the protector and defender of the natural. When it is taken away, when human beings try to view themselves as untrammeled freedom the results are dreadful — ultimately, a culture of death. Sartre, to give him credit, foresaw this. Our first reaction to the notion that we can do whatever we like, that nothing and no one can restrict our freedom, is the sophisticated equivalent of Whoopee. But if there is no nature, there are not excuses either. We become responsible for everything, even for having been born. What initially looked like an invitation to the banquet in Quo Vadis becomes the war of all against all. We are condemned to freedom, Sartre said, and it is not just a well-turned phrase. With his customary clarity, Pope John Paul II has identified the confusions of the day and shows us the way we live now. It is a deadly way.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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