When I first left the practice of law to study theology at the graduate level, it was with the conviction that learning more, knowing more about God and God's relationship with human beings, would bring me closer to God. I also believed it would make me happier, because I would be at least closer to the answer to the great question “What's it all about, Alfie?” I could then try harder to live in harmony with the real meaning and purpose of life.
And you know what? I was right. Catholic studies have an enormous amount to offer, not just the mind, but the heart and soul.
Many, many people believe otherwise, however. They believe that whether the subject is God, or God acting in the world, or the Catholic faith — its Sacred Scriptures or Traditions — it's mostly a matter of subjective feeling or opinion. There are no “facts” to learn, or if there are, they are unrelated to the project of living a happier, more authentically human life.
Which is why I believe that one of the great legacies of this Pope, the Pope who has come to our shores this week, will be to reinstate the respect given to the Catholic intellectual tradition, and its power to effect personal conversion. Particularly that part of our tradition that uses human reason, and illuminates it with the eyes of faith, to such devastating effect and insight.
Scholars from a variety of backgrounds could undoubtedly describe this phenomenon from within their own areas of expertise. Areas like economics, international development, philosophy, and history. The areas I know best include national culture and politics particularly as these relate to the life and death issues of abortion and euthanasia.
Certainly, before the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the pro-life movement had tirelessly promoted the scientific truths upon which the pro-life stance was based. They had pointed out the intellectual and indeed the human-rights soundness of the pro-life position that all human life, without any exception, ought to be treated with great respect. And that at the very rock bottom of respecting human life is refraining from killing it.
Then along came Pope John Paul II, speaking on the matter of the dignity of each human person again and again and again. Speaking of it in dozens of countries, and in addresses to countless varieties of groups in Rome and around the world. Most especially, he addressed the subject of the “inviolability of the human person” in his great encyclical in 1995, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). There he laid out the undisputed scientific evidence about life's beginnings at conception. He showed how the progress of science, particularly genetic science, only continues to confirm the awesome value of life before birth. He spoke of the humanity of the disabled and the terminally ill, those often recommended as candidates for euthanasia and assisted suicide.
The Pope exposed the ‘roots of the culture of death’ in a way that could be described as chillingly accurate.
Perhaps most persuasively, and most unsparingly, however, he described in Evangelium Vitae the flawed belief systems that give rise to a culture's embrace of the killing of family members when they are most frail and dependent, and most in need of our unfailing care. He exposed the “roots of the culture of death” in a way that could be described as chillingly accurate. It was as if he laid bare the worst features of America's soul. Our growing belief that freedom is a “me, me, me” proposition. That it is not about solidarity with or service to others. That the common good is not freedom's concern.
He described our growing tendency to believe that freedom and truth are also separate concepts. This is the idea that leads us to believe that violating the truth about the sacred value of human life will have no consequences. Thus the country's elites deny the existence of post-abortion syndrome and the feelings of misery and “un-freedom” it brings to women. They deny that violating the truth about human sexuality burdens us with sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock child rearing, and all manner of unmeasured grief.
John Paul II described how our forgetting God could lead to our treating the human body like a “thing” to be manipulated and maximized. Thus the movement for assisted suicide when lives/bodies are perceived to be “useless.”
Our Holy Father's knowledge about these matters comes from history, from reason, and from faith. His writings on these subjects — particularly Evangelium Vitae — are loaded with scholarly references from all of these sources. Philosophers, scientists, social observers, members of the media — all are impressed with the intelligence and well-groundedness of his observations. He has re-established the Catholic intellectual tradition as a force to be reckoned with. And he has established forcefully that knowing is closely related to being happy and being authentically free. Wouldn't you know that one of the most personal, most pastoral, and most well-loved popes in history, could do this too?