The Pope Answers Occupy
“If you want peace, work for justice,” Pope Paul VI famously said in 1972. The aphorism, part of his Message for the World Day of Peace, soon showed up on posters and bumper stickers. Though some of the faithful viewed the sentiment as a passing fad of progressive Catholics in the 1970s, the truth remains that justice is a prerequisite for peace.
In his Message for the 45th World Day of Peace, which is observed Jan. 1, Pope Benedict XVI takes up and develops Pope Paul’s theme in his own characteristic way. Benedict alludes to the economic crises that continue to wrack the world — crises that could very well lead to serious conflicts. “It seems as if a shadow has fallen over our time, preventing us from clearly seeing the light of day,” he writes. But young people, ever idealistic and hopeful, continue to believe that a “dawn” will pierce this shadow, he notes.
Apparently referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement that gained international attention in 2011, the Pope states: “The concerns expressed in recent times by many young people around the world demonstrate that they desire to look to the future with solid hope. At the present time, they are experiencing apprehension about many things: They want to receive an education that prepares them more fully to deal with the real world; they see how difficult it is to form a family and to find stable employment; they wonder if they can really contribute to political, cultural and economic life in order to build a society with a more human and fraternal face.”
For that reason, the Pope states, the proper education of youth is of utmost importance, and he makes his theme for the message “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace.”
It is a task to which many are called: Parents should “encourage children by the example of their lives to put their hope before all else in God, the one source of authentic justice and peace.” Those in charge of educational institutions need to “reassure families that their children can receive an education that does not conflict with their consciences and their religious principles.”
And what is the first lesson? “Learning to recognize the Creator’s image in man, and consequently learning to have a profound respect for every human being and helping others to live a life consonant with this supreme dignity,” says the Pope.
That is the reason for acting justly.
In an increasingly secular world, many will ignore such counsel. But even those who do not acknowledge God are called to recognize the natural law, which calls us to live justly and, therefore, in peace. This begins with a recognition of an objective truth about humanity and about the universe.
“In order to exercise his freedom,” Pope Benedict declares, “man must move beyond the relativistic horizon and come to know the truth about himself and the truth about good and evil. Deep within his conscience, man discovers a law that he did not lay upon himself, but which he must obey. Its voice calls him to love and to do what is good, to avoid evil and to take responsibility for the good he does and the evil he commits.
“If you want peace, work for justice,” indeed. But justice is done only when we recognize that universal code, written in the heart of man, that is intimately tied to the dignity of every person.
Right to Liberty
“The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty,” observed Vaclav Havel in his 1994 address in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy. “It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”
A writer, activist and former president of the Czech Republic, who welcomed the participation of believers and atheists alike in the long struggle against the “totalitarian lie,” Havel died on Dec. 18. His death should prompt a reassessment of an emerging secular ideology that seeks to suppress faith-based values and witness from the public square.
Now more than ever, the legacy of this courageous man, a Catholic who survived persecution and imprisonment in his fight against the Soviet Empire, should inspire all people of good will to resist efforts to replace respect for fundamental truths enshrined in natural law with a “tyranny of relativism.” Those who doubt that this sea change is under way need only read his eulogy in Britain’s Guardian newspaper: Vaclav Havel, “whose spirited defiance of Soviet-imposed totalitarianism … [has] nothing to offer to the Czech or European experience of today.”
At the very least, that summary judgment should serve as a warning that the suppression of a continent’s religious legacy will soon lead to the sidelining of residual moral truths embedded in that faith. The inalienable dignity of the human person, for which Havel risked his life, is still under threat in new and insidious ways.
A gifted yet humble man, Havel employed his talents as a writer and activist to spearhead the Charter 77 movement that called on socialist regimes to actually fulfill their pledges to uphold fundamental human rights. He gained fame as a playwright whose sense of the absurd appealed to citizens who were raised on a diet of communist propaganda. But he was not a nihilist. “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” Havel said during one address.
As a moral and political leader in Eastern Europe, he appreciated the role of the Church as a powerful civil institution that mediated the dominance of the state, creating pockets of freedom. Indeed, the Church nurtured independent democratic activism precisely because she refused to make politics ultimate.
None of this was news to Pope John Paul II, a close ally of Havel’s, and it is not news to Pope Benedict XVI, who has repeatedly called on his fellow Europeans to embrace rather than repudiate their Christian roots. Let us hope that Vaclav Havel’s passing will lead secular and religious leaders to affirm their joint commitment to natural-law principles and revive their efforts to jointly defend human freedom at home and abroad.