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Quality of life questions await new pope


In preparation for a cosmic celebration of the third millennium, Pope John Paul II has issued an invitation to leaders of the world’s religions as well as members of his own flock to prepare for a mystagogic prayer experience, one he hopes will be terminated on Mount Sinai near Jerusalem.

In his apostolic letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente (on the approach of the third millennium) the pontiff has outlined a series of prayers, liturgical celebrations, theological meditations and ecclesial functions based on a Trinitarian unfolding of the presence of the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit in the modern world. In so doing, the pope has suggested the need for a better understanding of the signs of hope present in the last part of this century.

Some 40 years earlier, almost in anticipation of this optimistic appraisal of the church’s attitude toward earthly things, the archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley, delivered a discourse to a medical association in India in which he described the church’s ambiguous attitude toward the “quality of life” through the ages.

The phrase evoked the image of finding the time and space for nature, art, friendship and religion. On the other side, it evoked the image of a crushed subhuman existence lacking all the better things of life.

While engaged down the centuries in the pursuit of learning, art and holiness, the church seemed unable to enunciate its involvement with the quality of life because of an ambivalence about the world and earthly things that tainted Christianity almost from the start.

It was the infection of Mesopotamian dualism. In the Mesopotamian cultures, a religion flourished that ascribed the creation of the world to a good God as well as to an evil influence. Since evil was so prevalent and so difficult a phenomenon to explain, it was reasonable enough to conclude that with so much evil around, an evil deity must have been responsible.

Judaism had reacted vigorously against this idea. The first book of the Jewish scriptures hammers out the truth that there is only one God, that he created all things, and, in regard to everything he created, “he saw that it was good.”

Indeed, after finishing the job with the creation of mankind, “God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Nevertheless, Mesopotamian dualism lived on and came into contact with the early Christian belief in the form of gnosticism. Anchored on the Greek word for knowledge -- gnosis -- it assured the adept that through knowledge of his inner self, he comes to recognize the divine origin of his inner being. Gnostics saw themselves enslaved in the flesh and saw the body as evil. Gnosticism quickly established itself in North Africa, influencing even so brilliant a mind as that of St. Augustine. Augustine’s teachings harnessed the church in the West with a pessimistic attitude toward sin, guilt and the need for repentance.

Reveling in creation

The Jews of earlier times had no such problems. The psalms indicate how they reveled in creation. They did not hesitate to present marriage as a symbol of God’s love for his people. The earliest Christian philosophers, however, when it became necessary to confront the cultural world, turned to Plato, one of whose primary concerns was the spirituality of the soul.

Unfortunately, Plato in his enthusiasm for the spiritual soul went too far by minimizing the physical. He had come to see man as spirit imprisoned in the flesh. Thus an attitudinal ambiguity persisted regarding the world and the flesh. It was fostered by the popularity of the monastic life, which held up monks and nuns as models of authentic Christianity. But with priests, monks and nuns making up the first category of Christians, the laity, with no theology of their state or of marriage or of secular involvement, were quickly reduced to the status of second-class citizens.

In the liturgy, likewise, there was a reflection of this clerical attitude that saw mankind as “poor banished children of Eve, weeping and wailing in this vale of tears.”

Despite the vigorous condemnations of the religionless movement known as secularism (synthesized in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors), Leo XIII, in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, finally recognized that with the rise of secularism a whole new civilization -- scientific and technical -- was growing up and growing away from the church.

New values had begun to emerge such as the supremacy of human reason and the sacredness of human freedom. Instinctively the church began to feel that the long-overlooked laity held the key to the new situation. In a century or so, the world of clerical and monastic priorities had been turned upside down.

Now the much despised secularism was gaining the upper hand. And it was only the laity that was capable of confronting this new phenomenon with the skills and competence required by a new type of professionalism.

Teilhard’s contribution

Side by side with these movements, a new interest began to arise in the liturgy, cathechetics, in Bible studies and theology. It was at this juncture in the church’s self-evaluation inaugurated by Pope John XXIII that, with the publication in the late 1950s of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man, the basis of a new creational theology was provided for the Vatican Council.

Creation rose up again as the work of God. The first chapter of Genesis took on new meaning and Teilhard’s favorite passages in St. John and St. Paul revealed the glorious vision of the cosmic Christ -- Jesus not only responsible for the mystery of redemption but also as the Word of the eternal Father and co-giver of the Spirit, the incarnate agent of ongoing creation.

Teilhard’s two passions -- his appreciation of the significance of matter as the substance of creation and his concern with the divinity of Christ -- had led him to an acceptance of the theory of evolution, not of course as the result of sheer chance, but as a phenomenon that was going somewhere guided by a divine force.

At the same time, there seems to be a fatal flaw that mars our magnificent capacities -- the fact that we cannot stand each other, that animosity and conflict are of our very nature. And yet there is in all human beings the capacity to rise above our own aggressiveness, the capacity to match our ability for intellectual reflection, the capacity for personalization, for becoming more and more ourselves by becoming more open to others -- all others: the capacity for love, universal love. Human creativity, human reason will succeed only if guaranteed by human love.

In his capacity as a scientist, Teilhard postulates the existence of such a force, though he does not name it but designates its existence as the Omega Point. Then, as a Christian reaction, his faith has him turn the page and proclaim that the Omega Point is Christ.

After the long years of estrangement, the mystery of creation has been reconciled with the mystery of redemption. Despite his difficulties with the official church, Teilhard’s ideas burst on the world and the church just in time to be a major influence on Pope John’s Vatican Council (1962-1965).

While previous to Vatican Council II, the church’s moral theology tended to be a set of rules concerned with distinguishing mortal from venial sins and prescribing the elements of a virtuous life, the great revival of scripture studies under Pope Pius XII and the Vatican Council re-established the fact that Jesus had taught a morality of ideals, of being perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, with love as the supreme value.

No easy matter

It is no easy matter to arrive at definite conclusions about what the natural law prescribes amid the complexities of modern life. Even Aquinas had admitted that while the discernment of good and evil in general is fairly easy, once the problem of particulars surfaces, great difficulty arises. Much disarray in Catholic moral teaching is due to this factor, this coming to grips with the massive increase in knowledge about the human person in the multiple dimensions of being, activity and social evolution.

It is to this situation that we owe the trauma of Humanae Vitae. The promulgation of this anti-artificial contraception document led to the conviction on the part of a large proportion of the church’s moralists that Catholic ethics must give due place to a consideration that traditionally does not seem to have received enough attention, namely, that in complex human situations there can be a conflict of moral values in which the choice must be left to the conscience of the individual.

This conviction has run up against the opposition of the current pope who in his encyclical Splendor Veritatis, as well as in the Vatican’s decisions on many moral -- particularly medical -- matters, insists that there are absolutes in the field of ethics that cannot be nuanced. Such, for example, is the pontiff’s constant condemnation of artificial contraception in which he opposes the secular wisdom concerned with the dangers of overpopulation on both a family and a worldwide horizon.

In the past, the church has had to develop its teaching on important issues such as slavery, the Inquisition, torture and usury. Pope John XXIII threw out the pseudoprinciple that “error has no rights” which had been used down the centuries to justify the condemnation of nonconformists. The pope maintained that only persons had rights, and even in error those rights had to be respected.

John Paul II’s frequent reference to the similarity between our own age and that of the early church martyrs reflects a reality. There can be no doubt that his successor will be confronted with a plethora of issues whose unraveling will require an exceptionally astute intelligence and an extraordinary theological awareness.

Unless of course, the next pope -- imitating John XXIII -- inaugurates a truly ecumenical council that would include representatives of all the major Christian bodies or churches, with Moslem leaders and representatives of the world’s other major religions as observers. With an estimated one billion faithful on its registry, the Catholic church simply cannot continue to avoid taking responsibility for the world’s demographic situation.

Quality of life will then mean human development seen as a contribution to God’s overall plan, and human development will embrace every aspect of our multiple roles as human persons: as mystics, as artists, as philosophers, as scientists and as technicians, as well as in our personal domestic and social involvements.

Redemptorist Fr. F.X. Murphy, who lives in Annapolis, Md., served as a military chaplain and taught at the Academia Alfonsiana in Rome. As Xavier Rynne, he covered Vatican Council II for The New Yorker magazine.

This is the seventh of 11 articles exploring the future of the papacy. It will be published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God, by Orbis Books.

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 1997