January 15, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Catholics have an obligation to speak out for the dignity of human life

What are you doing to affect the culture in the United States?”

Pope John Paul II put this question to Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago during a visit in the late 1990s.

An observer of the lectures and writings of the cardinal in recent years would indicate that he has taken up the challenge of the late Holy Father.

Recently, a book by Cardinal George was published under the title The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture (Herder & Herder, 2009). It is a collection of scholarly and spiritual essays on the role of Catholicism in our modern culture.

The cardinal’s essays came to mind as I was thinking about the approaching anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court and the effect of the so-called “Free Choice” movement.

In a chapter titled “Sowing the Gospel on American Soil,” he reflects on the challenge to revelation and authority in our American culture.

We are familiar with the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that under our government we have the right to life, liberty and happiness. The contemporary interpretation of the Declaration is problematic.

The cardinal writes: “When John Paul II spoke against a Western conception of freedom that is detached from justice and truth, it was this peculiarly modern, Hobbesian sense of freedom that he had in mind” (p. 48). The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1677) in effect proposed individualism as the supreme value. God is bracketed in his teachings.

Cardinal George cited an example of the individualist concept of freedom gone astray. He wrote: “One of the most remarkable and disturbing expressions of this Hobbesian freedom is the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 dealing with abortion rights. The majority of the justices determined that ‘at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.’ What we see here, with breathtaking clarity, is the complete eclipse of truth by freedom and hence the subjectivizing of any and all moral, metaphysical or religious claims” (p. 49).

The “Right to Life” movement faces the challenge of this secular cultural eclipse of truth by the conviction that freedom is the right to define one’s own concept about the mystery of human life.

When God is bracketed or “privatized,” what is true is vitiated. The result is inevitable violence; in this case, violence against human dignity and the right to life at all stages.

The Supreme Court’s assertion that every individual has the right to define his or her concept of existence and human life in effect asserts that morality and its definition is up for grabs. And so we have a “Free Choice” movement. Thus we have an association called Planned Parenthood which can embrace its own brand of freedom concerning life issues.

Our Catholic moral theologians and philosophers and thoughtful pastoral teachers like Cardinal George will continue to propose the true concept of freedom and the responsibility to acknowledge the place of God and to protect the common good. One cannot separate freedom and responsibility, which is to say, the nature of their inseparable relationship is not a matter of individual choice or opinion.

It is not unusual to read or to hear that Catholics are out of order when we speak for the rights of the unborn or those of the aged. We are told not to impose our opinions on the public.

The fact is that we Catholics have an obligation to speak out for the truth and for the authentic rights of all of human life. Nor may we compromise in matters of the truth. We serve no one if and when we are tempted to allow God to be put in brackets or privatized. It is not OK to concede to the secular notion that God should not be brought into or influence public discourse.

So, what are we doing to affect the culture in the United States? We need to speak up for the dignity of the human person and for what is true by objective standards before God. We need to witness to an honest understanding of the dignity of all human life and the choice to honor it in all circumstances.

Two final thoughts should influence us as we promote the cause for the right to life. The first is civility. We must stand for and speak the truth in love. A lack of civility in public debate is wrong and does not promote human dignity.

Secondly, we must never underestimate the power of prayer. We pray for greater clarity of what is true, and in recognition that with God all things are possible. †

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