Pope Francis recently has made a few comments that are consistent with things he has said previously, but he they are worth discussing nonetheless since he makes some interesting points.
In an audience given on April 11th to an Italian prolife group, the Pope emphatically condemned abortion as an “unspeakable crime” quoting Vatican II. The full text of his comments can be read here here . You will need to use Google Chrome as the browser and translate from Italian into English. For a summarized version you can read about it here .
It is not surprising that the Pope would condemn abortion, and in fact in spite of the media spin that he would not be a “moralistic” pope focused on abortion; he has spoken about it pretty regularly. Again no surprise since Jesus was pretty “moralistic” as well. What is notable is that Pope Francis links abortion quite specifically to his concerns about the poor, or more precisely the economy. He states the following:
“We know, human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil law is based on the recognition of the first and most fundamental right, the right to life, which is not subject to any condition, neither qualitative nor economic nor ideological. “Just as the commandment” Thou shalt not kill “poses a clear limit to ensure the value of human life, today we have to say” no to an economy of exclusion and inequity. “This economy kills … It considers the human being in himself as a commodity, which you can use and then throw. We started the culture of “waste” that, indeed, is promoted “(ibid., n. Evangelii gaudium , 53). And so it is discarded even his life. “
“One of the most serious risks it is exposed to this modern age, it is the divorce between economics and morality, among the possibilities offered by a market equipped with every technological innovation, and elementary ethical standards of human nature, more and more neglected. It is therefore necessary to reiterate in the strongest opposition to any direct attack on life, especially innocent and defenseless, and her unborn child in the womb is the innocent par excellence. Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: “Life once conceived, must be protected with the utmost care; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes”
The Pope keeps repeating this theme in which he is critical of modern society and in some sense the “market “ and he links it to many of the ills permeating the culture. Now it has been our position that the “market economy” is very efficient in terms of promoting economic growth, and economic growth is a very efficient mechanism to alleviate the plight of the poor. We continue to think this is supported by the available evidence. We have discussed this topic several times, for example here and here . In terms of whether anything would be improved by further massive government regulation of the economy we continue to answer this with a resounding “No!” for all kind of reasons, not the least of which is most governments are run by folks who are amoral and cannot be trusted with the power that massive intervention into the economy entails. This is certainly the case in the United States. We discuss this at some length here .
From another viewpoint however the Pope may be on to something that is particularly relevant to Western technological societies and America in particular. Currently there are trends in society which would reduce all progress to purely material gains. Blessed John Paul II echoed this theme in 1994 in his letters to families “Gratissimam Sane” the full test of which can be read here . In fact this letter really should be widely proclaimed as it is so rich in meaning a summary cannot do it justice. I would call to attention the following passage:
“Why is the “splendor of truth” so important? First of all, by way of contrast: the development of contemporary civilization is linked to a scientific and technological progress which is often achieved in a one-sided way, and thus appears purely positivistic. Positivism, as we know, results in agnosticism in theory and utilitarianism in practice and in ethics. In our own day, history is in a way repeating itself. Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of “things” and not of “persons”, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used. In the context of a civilization of use, woman can become an object for man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members. To be convinced that this is the case, one need only look at certain sexual education programmes introduced into the schools, often notwithstanding the disagreement and even the protests of many parents; or pro-abortion tendencies which vainly try to hide behind the so-called “right to choose” (“pro-choice“) on the part of both spouses, and in particular on the part of the woman. These are only two examples; many more could be mentioned.
It is evident that in this sort of a cultural situation the family cannot fail to feel threatened, since it is endangered at its very foundations. Everything contrary to the civilization of love is contrary to the whole truth about man and becomes a threat to him: it does not allow him to find himself and to feel secure, as spouse, parent, or child. So-called “safe sex”, which is touted by the “civilization of technology”, is actually, in view of the overall requirements of the person, radically not safe, indeed it is extremely dangerous. It endangers both the person and the family. And what is this danger? It is the loss of the truth about one’s own self and about the family, together with the risk of a loss of freedom and consequently of a loss of love itself. “You will know the truth”, Jesus says, “and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32): the truth, and only the truth, will prepare you for a love which can be called “fairest love” (cf. Sir 24:24, Vulg.).”
It seems clear that John Paul II is pointing out the very same problem. As society becomes more materialistic it will view progress in terms purely of utilitarian gain. In wealthy societies like ours, well being will be measured purely in terms of things that equate to a higher standard of living. Our material standard of living is of course a “good thing” and having a plentiful society in which material wants are alleviated is surely a good thing as well. Indeed the will is never attracted in itself to something bad or evil. Moral evil occurs when we subordinate higher goods to lesser ones. If we elevate material goods over spiritual ones then we fall into a trap. As human beings we are not made for a primarily material end. This is obvious enough from the fact that we all are destined to die and all our material wealth eventually is erased. If we fail to pursue our correct end we will not reach this end and that is the ultimate disaster of hell. We are warned repeatedly about this in the Gospels. One of the problems with our wealth pursuing capitalist society is that it is very good at producing material wealth, but it is also very good at distracting us from our proper end. It focuses us on acquiring and pursuing stuff. If we focus enough on this, the danger both John Paul II and Pope Francis point to is that we will see people not as ends in themselves but as things to be used to directly or indirectly acquire “stuff”. We can define “stuff” broadly as both tangible things like money but also other intangible temporal goods, like prestige, power, sexual pleasure or similar things. We will then behave in sinful ways that are incompatible with our ultimate end which of course is God. I think it is pretty much self evident that our decadent society is awash in this kind of thinking.
It is pretty obvious if you follow politics that this line of materialist thinking has a following. It is instructive that there is an internecine political battle among Republicans regarding to what extent “social” issues (translation cultural issues like opposition to abortion etc) should be a feature of their party’s platform, with many in the party making the argument that we need to put cultural issues aside (and presumably thus accept the status quo of industrial scale killing of unborn children) and focus on “jobs” and “the economy”. I find it hard to accept this argument, as a society in which over a million unborn children a year are killed in utero has much bigger problems then whether the top marginal tax rate is 35% or 33%. I would note in passing for all the moral failings of the Republicans, the Democrats are much worse. They do not debate whether social issues are important, they see them as vital. It’s just that they are on the side of the devil as they actively promote abortion as a good.
That said the point of this post is not to focus on politics but rather to highlight a current of thought. It has been common in recent years for orthodox Catholics to complain about what the Vatican has said or what the Pope has said. We plead guilty to these things ourselves. At times some of the complaining is legitimate, but when two Popes are hitting on the same underlying theme it’s time to pause and wonder if we should not take the message a little more seriously.
So bottom line. The materialist and utilitarian philosophy that is killing the West is manifested in abortion, contraception and sexual immorality that is destroying the family on the one hand, and greed, lack of concern for the poor and the various kinds of economic and political corruption on the other. I do not agree that the solution is some sort of political choice between helping the poor and more government regulation of the economy courtesy of liberal political experts on one hand versus legal protection of the unborn on the other. A government regulated by liberal materialists will not help the poor regardless of what lies the liberal materialists tell. So again this is not a common variation on the “Republicans and Democrats are equivalent ” riff . If this were a purely political post I would argue that the Democrats are totally committed to a near demonic atheistic utilitarianism, that treats abortion ( unspeakable crime that is) as something “sacred” ( recall our recent post on April 2). Granted, many of the Republicans have a less advanced form of the same infection, but in our fallen world in order to slow the collapse into moral chaos, we are forced to work through the Republicans, who bad as they are, still appear to have a moral pulse. OK it’s a thready faint pulse, but the Democrats are undead vampires at this point, so we do what we need to do. Nonetheless, the precise political measures necessary to sort out this mess are a topic for another day. The immediate point is for serious Catholics to understand the materialist utilitarian philosophy that treats people as things is one of our central problems, and regardless of the media spin, Pope Francis and John Paul II are pretty much saying the same thing.
This blog has been pretty critical of Pope Francis, and we have wrestled with just how much of a “liberal” he really is and how much this is a media fiction designed to promote a dynamic similar to the false “Spirit of Vatican II “ wave that swept the Church in the 60s and 70s. No doubt we will probably wrestle with this a lot more. For today at least he does not look like a liberal at all, He sort of looks like John Paul II, and we at Catholic X-ray salute him for it.
Blessed John Paul II pray for us!