National Catholic Register


Bridge to the 21st Century

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 3-9, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/3/96 at 2:00 AM


IN A VARIATION on Plato's famous line on philosophers and kings one could argue that Catholic prelates, too, should be men of ideas. Maybe that is not fair to the dynamic, hands-on men who lead the Church in the United States and are putting ideas into action. Nevertheless, a New York audience late last month was treated to a discourse by one of Europe's leading Churchmen, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris and one of John Paul II's small circle of intimate confidants, and made to understand why the Pope is so adamant that the European Church renew itself. For better and for worse, from Europe—and in particular Germany and France—flow the theories and ideas that mark the Church worldwide.

For the Jewish-born Cardinal Lustiger, whose mother perished in Auschwitz, the notion that ideas have power and must be rooted in truth is hardly theoretical. Witness, he said, this century's“crimes of unspeakable magnitude on an unprecedented scale in human history.”Belief in scientific rationality spawned murderous ideologies.

On the threshold of the third millennium, the cardinal, echoing John Paul II's As the Third Millennium Draws Near, argues that the Church is in a unique position as a guardian of the highest expression of the principles that“characterize‘modernity’”They are found in the motto of the French Revolution—├Čliberty, equality, fraternity.”These goods, he insists, can only be fruitful if they are considered and lived out in the context of their roots in Scripture and the Christian tradition. Cut off from their mooring, the cardinal said—delivering the annual Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by the Institute for Religion and Public Life—the freedoms and gains of the Enlightenment become instruments of darkness, creating a world, in which, he said,“might is right.“

Liberty, the cardinal notes, can degenerate into personal license and blindness to the needs of others, while, in the political realm, misuse of freedom leads to totalitarianism aided“by technological power.”Man, says Cardinal Lustiger, needs guidance and“bear judgment on the way he uses his liberty.”Ultimately, he says,“the divine law is the guarantor of human freedom, the deepest foundation of the human laws which protect liberty [and] Jesus said:‘The truth will set you free’“

The notion of equality, Cardinal Lustiger continues, supposedly won by seemingly unstoppable progress, has degenerated into the Darwinian theory of“life as a struggle,”in which the strongest prevail, a theory that also“[legitimatizes] economic competition.”Then there is this century's scourge of theories of racial inequality, the cardinal went on, even today, he adds, referring to controversial writings of Charles Murray, in the face of scientific agreement that“there exists only one human race.”Then there is artificially pursued equality of the sexes, which distorts the differences between men and women which are“anthropologically grounded.”Finally, the cardinal considers the fundamental inequality of the unborn and those elderly targeted for mercy killing. Again, in various forms,“might is right.”But if life is a struggle, the cardinal affirms, the“Cross stands up as the cipher that makes the world intelligible. Jesus invites the one who wants to be the greatest to make himself the smallest and the servant of all.“

As to fraternity, Paris' archbishop criticizes the perspective that fraternity or unity only concerns individuals, peoples and nations“at a given moment in history.”By contrast, he argues, fraternity must be pursued“diachronically,”across, in recognition of those who have gone before us, in particular our parents. With parents increasingly shut out from exercising their natural“authority,““young people no longer realize that they have received their own lives from their parents and, through them, from God [and] life becomes meaningless, whereas it makes sense when it opens itself to the others and ultimately to God.”Cardinal Lustiger extends the notion of fraternity also to our responsibility to care for all creation and not to dominate and exploit it, to discover and respect“its greatness and all its secrets.”The Bible, he says, teaches us that the world has been given to man for him to take care of it, to have it bear fruit and thus glorify the Creator Who made him His deputy.“

Revelation, according to the cardinal,“provides our culture with directions on the way to foster brotherhood not only among peoples and nations, but also between the generations and also in human relationship with the whole of creation.“

Masterfully, the cardinal demonstrates that at the dawn of the third millennium the gains of the Age of Reason—so often presented as made in defiance of the Church's obscurantism—need rescuing. Modernism has issued into post-modernist nihilism and relativism; the secular foundations of“liberty, equality and fraternity”are crumbling. Cardinal Lustiger makes it clear that the underpinnings of man's dignity have roots far beyond the 18th and 19th century—they belong to the dawn of Christianity.

And just as the Church has not always recognized and abided by these gifts in her 2,000-year history and is now prepared to make amends and start fresh in the new millennium, so human society at large stands to benefit as“liberty, equality and fraternity”are purged of their corruptible setting and newly calibrated to their foundation in truth as part of the new evangelization. Now there is a bridge to the 21st century.