2cornucopias

Being Human in an Age of Unbelief by Archbishop Chaput – Part I

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2012/04/12 at 8:11 PM

+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.,Archbishop of Philadelphia, Penn for Life, University of Pennsylvania

In getting ready for tonight, Charles Gray asked me to keep two things in mind. First, he asked me to remember that we have a mixed audience here in Houston Hall, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Second, he asked me to explain what Catholics mean when we talk about the “sanctity” of human life, and why the Church deals with issues like abortion so vigorously in the public square.

As it turns out, most of my sources tonight are not Catholic. That shouldn’t be surprising. Catholics have no monopoly on respect for human dignity. Catholics do have a very long tradition of thinking about the nature of the human person and society, and I’ll be glad to talk about that in my remarks. But I’d like to begin by setting the proper framework for our discussion, which needs to be broader than abortion.

Last year I had the good fortune to read Eric Metaxas’ wonderful book, Bonhoeffer. It’s a biography of the great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve quoted Bonhoeffer’s work many times over the years. The reason is simple. I admire him. He could have been a professor. Instead he chose to be a pastor. He could have had a sterling academic career of lecturing about his ideas and his faith. Instead he chose to put them into action and to immerse himself in people’s lives. He was a man not of “values” in the meager modern sense, but of virtues in the classical and religious sense — the virtues of justice, courage and love, all grounded in the deep virtue of faith in a loving God.

The Third Reich hanged Bonhoeffer for his resistance activities just a few weeks before the end of the Second World War. Today we see him – rightly — as one of the great moral witnesses of the last century; a man who fought for the good, in the face of very grave evil, at the cost of his life.

Another great moral witness of the 20th century was the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who began as an atheist but ended as a Russian Orthodox. His history of The Gulag Archipelago, in its indictment of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and the brutality of Soviet repression that grew naturally from their thought, is a masterpiece of modern literature.

Like Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn wrote from direct experience of imprisonment and organized inhumanity. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn survived the war, survived years in prison camps and was eventually exiled to the West. And that’s where his story gets useful for our purposes tonight.

In 1978, four years after Solzhenitsyn left Russia, Harvard University asked him to speak to its graduating students. What Harvard may have expected was praise for Western abundance, freedom and diversity. What it got was very different.

Solzhenitsyn began by noting that Harvard’s motto is Veritas. This is the Latin word for “truth.” Then he added that “truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” Then he spent the next 6,000 words saying what nobody wanted to hear. He methodically criticized Western cowardice and self-indulgence; the vanity and weakness of America’s intellectual classes; the “tilt of freedom in the direction of evil;” the right of people “not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense [and] vain talk” by the mass media; a pervasive Western atmosphere of legalism and moral mediocrity; and the rise of a destructive individualism that now forces decent people “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

Some of Solzhenitsyn’s hard words came from his suffering. Some flowed from loneliness for his own country. But while Solzhenitsyn was harsh in his comments at Harvard, he was also accurate in at least some of what he said. Speaking of his Russian homeland he said, “After suffering decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer” than anything offered by the practical atheism now common in the West.

The reason for the problems of the West, said Solzhenitsyn, is found “at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past [several] centuries.” Our culture has fallen away from our own biblically informed heritage. We’ve lost the foundation for our moral vocabulary. This loss has starved our spirit, debased our sense of any higher purpose to life, and destroyed our ability to defend or even to explain any special dignity we assigned to the human person in the past.i

Now I’ve said all of this to give a context for four simple points I’d like to share. I’ll be brief. Then we can discuss them together.

Here’s my first point. We remember Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn and other men and women like them because of their moral witness. But the whole idea of “moral witness” comes from the assumption that good and evil are real, and that certain basic truths about humanity don’t change. These truths are knowable and worth defending. One of these truths is the notion of man’s special dignity as a creature of reason and will. Man is part of nature, but also distinct from it.

The philosopher Hans Jonas said that three things have distinguished human life from other animal experience since early prehistory: the tool, the image and the grave.ii The tool imposes man’s knowledge and will onto nature. The image – man’s paintings and other art – projects his imagination. It implies a sense of beauty and memory, and a desire to express them. But the greatest difference between humans and other animals is the grave. Only man buries his dead. Only man knows his own mortality. And knowing that he will die, only man can ask where he came from, what his life means and what comes after it.

The grave then is an expression of reverence and hope. When Christians and other people of good will talk about “the dignity of the human person” and “the sanctity of human life,” they’re putting into words what we all instinctively know – and have known for a very long time. Unique in nature, and unlike any other creature, something elevated and sacred in men and women demands our special respect. When we violate that human dignity, we do evil. When we serve it, we do good. And therein lies one of many ironies.

We live in a society that speaks persuasively about protecting the environment and rescuing species on the brink of extinction. But then it tolerates the killing of unborn children and the abuse of human fetal tissue as lab material.

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