Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The dark side of moral absolutism

Needless to say, my comments on Pope John Paul II have been overwhelmingly positive, even going so far as to describe his faith and good works as extraordinary. I do not retract what I have written. I do think that he was an extraordinary man who countered the 20th century's culture of death with a culture of life that dignified human beings qua human beings. That culture of life, in terms of its social conservatism, did go too far, and I do not hesitate to refer to the pope's -- and hence the Church's -- moral absolutism. It is one thing to oppose Fascism and Communism and to speak for the destitute poor throughout the developing world, quite another to take absolutist stands on abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and homosexuality. (I will not comment on the pope's opposition to the ordination of women and his continued support for the male-only celibate priesthood, even in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals in the U.S. -- I find these doctrines quite repellent, but, as a non-Catholic, it's really none of my business.) These are, of course, delicate political issues, especially in the U.S., but, for my part, I am pro-choice (agreeing with the Clintons that abortion should be rare -- safe and legal, yes, but above all rare), pro-contraception (this is obvious to me: more contraception means fewer abortions, less sexually-transmitted disease, and less poverty, among other social and political goods), pro-euthanasia (for the sake of the dignity of life, rather than mere life, as long as there is strict regulation and oversight), and... well, yes, I'm pro-homosexual insofar as I support equal rights, including the right to marry as equals to heterosexuals, and, more so, as I value the inherent dignity, akin to my own, of gays, lesbians, and others who do not fall into the category of strict heterosexuality.

It will take time for any sort of detached perspective on John Paul II's papacy to take hold, but, already, there is good reason to question its absolutism. Plus, we're not looking at any real change in the near future, as his successor will most likely be similarly absolutist. Cardinal Danneels of Belgium would be a welcome exception, and I suppose that he's my favourite of the top cardinals, the one who could lead the Church in the direction of serious reform and greater social progressivism, but we're more likely to get a pope who stays the course.

I have repeatedly stressed that this blog will steer the moderate course between the extremes. But this means balance, and I have not, I think, adequately addressed this darker side of John Paul II's papacy. For this, let me at least allow one of the pope's -- and, generally, organized religion's -- most vocal opponents to have a say: Christopher Hitchens. I do not always agree with him, but his case against John Paul II, and the papacy generally, is a powerful one -- one with which I do not entirely disagree. From Hitchens's recent piece at Slate, "On Not Mourning the Pope":
  • Without, it seems, quite noticing what they are saying, the partisans of the late pope have been praising him for his many apologies. He apologized to the Jewish people for the Vatican's glacial coldness during the Final Solution, and for historic filiations between the church and anti-Semitism. He apologized to the Eastern Orthodox Christians, and to the Muslims, for the appalling damage done to civilization by papal advocacy of the Crusades, and by forced conversion and massacre in the Balkans during the church's open alliance with fascism during World War II. He apologized to the world of science and reason by admitting that Galileo should not have been condemned by the Inquisition. These are not small climb-downs, and they do not apply just to the past. They are and were admissions that the Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for the retarding of human development on a colossal scale.
  • However, "be not afraid." The God-given right of the papacy to make and enforce absolute judgments is not at all at stake. Popes may have been wrong on everything, but they were right in general. By the time the church apologizes for saying that condoms are worse than AIDS, or admits that it was complicit at best in the mass murder in Rwanda, another few generations will have died out.
  • Unbelievers are more merciful and understanding than believers, as well as more rational. We do not believe that the pope will face judgment or eternal punishment for the millions who will die needlessly from AIDS, or for his excusing and sheltering of those who committed the unpardonable sin of raping and torturing children, or for the countless people whose sex lives have been ruined by guilt and shame and who are taught to respect the body only when it is a lifeless cadaver like that of Terri Schiavo. For us, this day is only the interment of an elderly and querulous celibate, who came too late and who stayed too long, and whose primitive ideology did not permit him the true self-criticism that could have saved him, and others less innocent, from so many errors and crimes.

Well, fine. I don't entirely disagree, though Hitchens's characteristically pompous tone never fails to annoy... and to turn me off. And I certainly don't agree (see my last post), that John Paul II's funeral was only about "the interment of an elderly and querulous celibate..." And I'm not sure that standing up against totalitarianism and the brutalization of the poor throughout the developing world reflects a "primitive ideology". But Hitchens is an absolutist secularist with many, many axes to grind, and one shouldn't read him without expecting to be provoked. I may not share his absolutism, but, as a social liberal, I cannot help but agree with much of his assessment. In particular, I agree that "the Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for the retarding of human development on a colossal scale". But is that John Paul II's fault? Perhaps, to a point, insofar as he promoted the very absolutism against which Hitchens rails and may not adequately have guided the Church away from much of its repellent past. Perhaps not, insofar as his extraordinary faith and good works elevated him to a certain greatness that not even that absolutism can tarnish completely. Sober reflections on the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II -- and there have been many in recent days, including one by E.J. Dionne in The New Republic -- recognize that greatness while acknowledging that it has, in fact, been tarnished. Indeed, it is possible to refer to Pope John Paul II's flawed greatness.

What worries me, however, is that, to a certain extent, the retardation of human development continues precisely because the Church according to Pope John Paul II did not do enough to confront the challenges of the modern world with realistic, progressive positions on key moral issues. Perhaps it's too much to expect such progressivism from an institution that is so anachronistic and whose very identity involves renouncing much that can be called progress. Pope John Paul II did pursue his Vatican II leanings insofar as he pursued ecumenism, embraced science and technology (even accepting Darwin, which shows that the Roman Catholic Church is in many ways much more progressive than certain evangelical elements in the U.S.), and responded to the pressures of modern capitalism in the developing world. But there will always be that darker side, and advocating policies that endanger women's health on an extraordinary scale and that denounce homosexuality as a despicable perversion do nothing to reverse the retardation of human development that has been at least part of the Church's unfortunate legacy throughout its history.

Pope John Paul II taught us all, Catholic or not, to respect the dignity of all human beings. If that is what is truly important, and I think that it is, then we need to look beyond moral absolutism to a more progressive culture of life that respects women's health, values different sexual orientations, and otherwise acknowledges the complexity of human nature and the human condition.

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