The Courage to Speak Bluntly

Author: Joaquin Navarro-Valls


The Holy Father has spoken a good deal about courage in recent years. He means the courage needed by the pope and his bishops to face ridicule and ostracism for their positions on the issues that lie at the foundations of human life and of the Christian revelation. An entire culture that held that the right to life was "self-evident" now wants to reject this fundamental principle in every sphere of life.

In the Vatican's view, next week's United Nations population conference in Cairo presents itself as a crucial challenge to Christianity's most fundamental doctrine on the sanctity of life as it is to come to be and exist in the family. The Holy Father is not merely defending a sort of odd Catholic view about life and family. He is in fact pointing to the key issue on which future humanity must make a choice. This issue of human life and population undergirds all others. A false step here leads to a general disorder of civilization itself. A small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end, as Aristotle said. This error is precisely what is at issue.

According to the Vatican, the conference's themes include coerced family planning, abortion, homosexuality and versions of women's rights that are harmful to women. Recent assertions by American and U.N. officials and by liberal Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere attempt to challenge the church's view of what the conference proposals really mean. But while it is true that a studied ambiguity is often evident in the conference proposals, allowing contradictory interpretations, the Vatican is especially attentive to the dubious use of words and language that imply only verbal agreement but leave the door open for judicial or legislative interpretations later.

Rights of Women

The Vatican's position is not in any sense in opposition to the rights of women around the world. The presumably popular "rights of women," unfortunately, have become an expression for pro-abortion and anti-family positions. This implies that there is no room for other statements about the "rights" of women if they contradict these Cairo and American proposals.

If we sort through the various controversial issues dealing with population, we see that they continually come back to human life, the conditions of its coming to be, its growth and its purpose. What are the principles that stand behind the conference's thinking about population control, the means to achieve it and the nature of human life subsequent to accepting these means?

First of all there is said to be, however much disputed on empirical grounds, a world population crisis. In this doubtful view, the need to control populations becomes the paramount ethical and political issue. World population is to be set at some such figure as 7 1/2 billion. Since that figure is said to represent the "carrying capacity" of the earth- something itself purely arbitrary-this end justifies the means to achieve it.

Human beings then, on this hypothesis, cannot be expected to live by the ethical laws that the pope, following natural law and reason, proposes and insists on. However noble such proposals might sound, they cannot, it is said, deal with actual human beings. Actual human beings, it is implied are not really ruled by moral criteria. We thus need to impose a widespread system of control of the reproductive act's consequences. All activity that results in children will be subject to political scrutiny and, if need be, to force.

All essentially sterile acts, on the other hand, are said to be relatively insignificant. Homosexual or lesbian activity, contraception or sterilization, all are viewed in a positive light because they have no visible consequences. Sex becomes literally insignificant. The social and political freedom of homosexual activity is thus rooted precisely in its lack of any real existential purpose or consequence. Only sexual activity, that has potential consequences in the conception of a child has any political importance. And this activity must be limited and controlled as much as possible by the eugenic state.

This theoretical position has its own prior logic. Its premise is that there is no nature or principle of morality that is not subject to the state. The state cannot be itself limited by anything-except necessity. The Holy Father has affirmed that "Thou shalt not kill" is as valid for the embryo as for the individuals already born. Since the proposals at the population conference envision the killing of such embryos as a means to achieve their political ends, they must deny the validity of the Holy Father's premises, which are based not on the Holy Father's will but on the nature of things.

The advocates of population control by such means usually deny, contrary to all scientific fact, that a human embryo is human. Or if they admit that the power of the state extends even to human life so that the definition of who lives and who dies is not based on the prior existence or sacredness of a human life in any of its forms, but on the political will to control human population according to a questionable theory of world resources and human needs. Ironically, it is the church that primarily upholds the scientific reality of the human fetus in all its forms.

The Holy Father sees at work in this conference a series of principles that undermine revelation, human dignity and natural law as they have been understood in our tradition. For him to be silent would be unconscionable. This conference alerted him to the extreme dangers of bending man to the will of civil societies.

The constitutions and laws of many of political societies affirm that life is sacred and that human enterprise and freedom can provide for human needs. The Holy Father represents a way that looks not to consequences but to causes. He understands, along with Plato and our whole tradition, that a reform of society must begin in a reform in the heart of the indiviual and an accurate understanding of the worth of each human life.

We live in a dishonest age. We call abortion everything but what it is. The Holy Father cuts through this verbiage and calls it an evil as heinous as killing any other human being. This blunt talk sends a shock wave through the highest ranks of our civil societies because many of them have been busy, by their laws, killing our kind and calling it something ese.

Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo suggested that if the principles of the Cairo conference are enacted and carried out, we shall see "the most disastrous masacres in history." This is not simply because of the numbers, though it is true that abortions already represent the greatest systematic slaughter of mankind ever known. It is also a disaster because human beings killed before their births have brains--brains that are, as the Holy Father recognized in Centesimus Annus, the ultimate source of the wealth needed to meet human problems. If we cut these huan beings off before they are born, or if we do not let them be conceived, born and raised in a proper family, we will deprive ourselves of the very means by which the goods of the earth become our goods.

Stalin's Question

When the Holy Father devotes so much attention to the principles of such a conference, it is not because he enjoys the fray or is making a mountain out of a mole hill. It is because, as he says, "the future of humanity" is at stake. He has received widespread, if sometimes begrudging, praise for his role in the dismantling of Marxism. He has more than amply answered Stalin's question about how many troops the pope had: more than enough to help undermine Stalin's empire.

If the Holy Father is largely isolated and alone on-this issue, as many would have it, it may well be because modern thought and politics have embraced principles that cannot enhance human worth and destiny. If he is free enough and courageous enough to stand firm when everyone else compromises with the essential dignity of man, it must mean that something more must be going on here than an a mere exercise of political will. Civilization is at stake. We would be foolish to see The Cairo conference as anything less.