THE COURAGE TO SPEAK BLUNTLY
by J. 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
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
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
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
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.
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.