In October, in Spokane, Washington, I baptized my new little grandnephew, one Sean Michael Jones. This young gentleman was born the day the Senate upheld the partial-birth abortion veto. The irony of these two events did not escape me. I recall being very careful not to splash a lot of water on the children while performing my first baptisms after ordination, but young Sean Michael endured a good dose of baptismal water all over his face. To his nine-pound, nine-ounce credit, we did not hear a peep out of him, though my brother, the grandfather, did wonder at the unaccustomed inaccuracy of his clerical brother’s reliable pouring arm.
After returning to Washington, I looked through accumulated mail. In the stack was the September 4 issue of L’Osservatore Romano. On the front page was the reflection of the Holy Father at the Angelus on September 1 entitled, “Christianity Has Deeply Marked Culture of Peoples.” In this short address, the pope spoke of his upcoming visit to Hungary for the Thousandth Anniversary of the founding of the great Hungarian Benedictine Monastery of Pannonhalma.
The Holy Father took this occasion to speak of the Orthodox tradition in Christianity—he mentioned the architecture in Moscow, Constantinople, and St. Petersburg. He recalled the icons on the Trinity of Andre Rublev. He talked particularly of Dostoevsky and Soloviev, of how they understood the relation between culture and the Gospel.
Recalling Soloviev, the pope said that “for him, the very basis of culture was recognizing the unconditional existence of others. Hence his rejection of a monolithic type of cultural universalism, incapable of respecting and accepting civilization’s many different expressions.” The pope’s phrase “the unconditional existence of others” made me think of my niece and her husband’s new baby and of their other children.
The latter part of the pope’s remark about a kind of lethal universalism reminded me of the excellent lecture on patriotism I had recently heard by Professor Walter Berns. There is something dangerous in a kind of rigid theory of human rights or democracy that does not see that there are many good (and bad) ways to construct human society.
When I finished the pope’s remarks, only five paragraphs—the man can say so much in so brief a time—I almost did not notice the addendum, the remarks that the Holy Father made in other languages. The first comment was in Polish. I recalled seeing that Poland had recently passed a law permitting abortion, so it could be “like other nations.” I had wondered what the pope would say about this obviously unhappy event.
John Paul II, I must say, is fearless. He always tells the truth; yet we know that his having to say these things to his own people must have been agonizing for him. But what he said, in one paragraph, again reminded me of this new little grandnephew, of his existence in the culture into which he is born. “I have learned with deep sorrow that the Polish Parliament has approved the law which once again legalizes the practice of killing unborn babies,” the pope began.
Notice that the pope tells the truth. He identifies accurately what is actually being done. No masking the truth with the language of choice. One can almost hear the “deep sorrow” of his warm, manly voice. For the past nine months, I thought, my niece had been carrying precisely an unborn baby, nothing else.
“It is a sad fact,” the pope went on, “that in our country, which suffered so much during the Second World War, the drama of the death of thousands of innocent, defenseless beings who are denied the right to life, still exists. There is no true justice in a country which permits innocent people to be killed. A people which kills its own children is a people without a future.”
We are wont, of course, to write off these two statements as so much ecclesiastical rhetoric. But this pope does not resort to empty words. We all now live in countries with judgment over our heads—no true justice, no future. Modern democracies are bet-ting their lives, literally, that the pope is wrong because they are “free” to choose what they want for themselves. The pope, however, stands his ground, even before his own people—there is no true justice in a country that permits innocent people to be killed; a people that kills its own children is a people without a future.