Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner

VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 16) by Fr. Peter Pilsner I hope everyone had a joyful Christmas. May God's blessing follow you throughout the new year.

There is a story about a bus that my mother used to read to me when I was a child. I don't remember the name of it, but I do wish that it belonged to the repertoire of every good Catholic parent. It went something like this:

Once upon the time there was a bus, that would drive around the neighborhood picking people up and dropping them off. It was a very happy bus. It would see the same people nearly every day, and the driver would whistle a happy tune as he went up and down the streets. But one day, the bus was driven to an old garage that it had never been to before. Its motor was turned off, and it was left there. As the days passed, the bus became very sad. It began to rust, and its windows became very dusty. Then one day, the garage door was opened, and the bus was driven to a new place. It was cleaned up and given a fresh coat of yellow paint. Then it was taken back on to the street, where it began to pick up children and drive them to school. The bus was happy once again.

Now, before you begin to think that you are reading the messages of the Home Schooling forum or that I have been staring at my monitor longer than is good for my mental health, let me make my point. In this story what makes the bus happy is simply doing what a bus was made to do. It is happy when it is driving along the street, picking up people and dropping them off. It is sad when it is sitting idle in a garage. The story thus gives a very important lesson, not for busses that cannot really be "happy" but for people: happiness comes from being what God made you to be, and doing what God made you to do.

You and I were created by God, who is (to say the least) a higher intelligence. He did not create us to no purpose. (Indeed, no intelligent being acts without a purpose.) He gave us, we might say, a general purpose that each of us has in common with all other human beings, and a specific purpose, one that belongs to each one of us individually and to no one else.

In general we can say that God made us "to know him, love him, and serve him in this life and to be happy with him together in the next." But in addition to this, each one of us has a mission in life, a different way of serving God and reflecting his glorious image. Some of us are called to raise a family, some to serve God as priests, some to work with the poor, some to educate the future leaders of society, or to carry out some other task. No one can replace us. Indeed, we can say that if any of us does not carry out the mission for which he was created, then what he was supposed to do for God will be left undone for all eternity.

John Paul II never tires of pointing this out to young people. Consider for example, his words to youth during his visit to New Orleans:

"My dear young people, I...want to speak about your mission, the reason for your life on earth, the truth of your lives. It is extremely vital for you to have a clear idea of your mission, to avoid being confused or deceived.

Each of us is an individual, a person, a creature of God, one of his children, someone very special whom God loves and for whom Christ died. This identity of ours determines the way we must live, the way we must act, the way we must view our mission in the world. We come from God; we depend on God. God has a plan for us -- a plan for our lives, for our bodies, for our souls for our future. This plan for us is extremely important -- so important that God became man to explain it to us."

If this is true, if each of us has been created by God with a purpose and a mission in life, then the wisest thing for us to do is to use the free will that God has given us to fulfill that purpose and accomplish that mission. We should strive to unite our wills to God's will and do what he wants us to do--indeed, what he made us to do. Does this mean though, that if we commit ourselves to putting God's will above our own, we thereby consign ourselves with somber resignation to a life of joyless deprivation? Not at all. Just as the bus was happiest when he was doing what he was made to do, we are happiest when we do what God made us to do. Or, to put it another way, if we choose to do God's will, even to the point of sacrifice, we will realize -- perhaps right away, perhaps a long time later -- that our choice brought us more happiness than any other choice we might have made.

Let me tell you another story--a personal one. When I was in college, I thought at times about becoming a priest, although I did so very much in spite of myself. I was very attached to the idea of falling in love, getting married, and having a family, and resisted the thought that God might be calling me to a vocation that did not include these things. Finally though, I got tired of fighting God and told him that if it was his will that I give up what I felt I really wanted and become a priest, I would do it. Then two things struck me simultaneously. One was that I was convinced that God was calling me to the priesthood, and the other -- I did not expect this -- was that I was immensely happy about it. There was no feeling of sad resignation that I always imagined I would have if I ever decided to make the sacrifice of celibacy. Instead, I felt peace and fulfillment. It was as if I had "found myself" at last, as if I had discovered what I wanted most of all, and what I had been waiting and searching for my whole life long. I felt as if I had found my niche in the universe, the place where I belonged, the reason my life had turned out the way it did up to that point. Since that time I have never doubted that God made me to be a priest.

Do you see my point? It is the law of the creation that we are happiest when we freely choose to do what God wants us to do, and indeed, made us to do. Or, to put it another way, if we try to make God happy, he will make us happy.

Not everybody accepts this.

Many people do not believe in God, and so it makes no sense to them that they should submit their free will to him. But if they will not submit their free will to God, what should they do with it? (They will claim that they have it, especially if someone tries to cross it.) Very often, they will form the habit of exercising their free will exclusively on their own behalf. Indeed, many will go further than that. They will adopt as a philosophy of life the idea that the exercise of freedom is the greatest expression of human dignity and the very definition of self-fulfillment. They will make freedom to be an absolute value, and hence judge as evil and unjust any person or institution that tries to place any limits on its exercise. Sometimes they will speak out against unjust violations of freedom, such as slavery or unjust working conditions. But sadly enough they will also oppose limits on freedom that are wholly justified. They will fight to allow the spread of pornography as a form of "free speech," or the practice of abortion as "freedom of choice." Many of them will see the Church as the great enemy of freedom, because as far as they are concerned, it is a merely human institution that stifles the human spirit by error, superstition, and manipulation.

Sometimes the idea that man is at his best when he submits his freedom to no one and no thing (not even God) is written about by philosophers, and embraced by people as a way of thinking about life. Indeed, the pope refers, in number 32, to "Certain currents of modern thought," that "have gone so far as to 'exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values.'"

I do not have the time (or the library) to go through all of the "currents of thought" that might fit the description of John Paul II. But I think there is one such current that represents this kind of thinking very well, and which does have a pervasive influence. It is the atheistic existentialism of another "John Paul" -- Jean-Paul Sartre.

Again, if I had the time to give proper footnotes and quotations, I would. Please accept my attempt to summarize Sartre, and check it against your own understanding.

Very simply, Sartre's philosophy denies everything I wrote above regarding human nature, God's will, and happiness, and tries to spell out what that denial means for everyday life. For starters, Sartre would tell you that there is no God. "But if that is so," you might say to Sartre, "then we are not the creatures of God." "That is so," Sartre would say in response. "And God has not sent us here with a plan. There is no mission for us to fulfill for God." "Well spoken," he would reply. "Indeed," you might go on, "there is no reason at all why any one of us should be here on the planet. Our lives are not part of some larger picture, because there is no larger picture--indeed, no God to draw a larger picture." "Yes, you're on a roll!" "In fact," you continue, "there is not even such a thing as 'human nature.' For to have a nature, it is necessary that someone else made you to be a certain kind of being. But according to you, there is no 'someone else.' There is no God, and so there is no human nature." "That's right." "And if there is no human nature, then we cannot say that some actions are 'unworthy of a human being,' that is to say, of themselves immoral or wrong."

"By George I think you've got it!" says Sartre, merely as a figure of speech since he does not believe in St. George or any other saints. "But," you say, "if we have no purpose in life, if God has given us no mission to fulfill and no goals to strive for; if we have nothing to hope for from God (since there is no God) how do we go about the business of living?" "Good question," says Sartre, as he rolls up his sleeves. "If there is no God to give a you a human nature and a purpose in life, then you must give these things to yourself." "How so?" you ask. "You decide what you want the purpose of your life to be. Then you choose to fulfill that purpose." "But what if I choose to be thief?" "If you choose this, not because poverty forces it on you, or because someone else drags you into it, but because YOU want to live that way; and if you know what the dangers and difficulties of such a life might be, and you freely choose to accept them, then who am I to tell you that you do wrong?" "Does that mean that I would be doing good?" "Words like 'good' or 'evil' mean nothing to me, at least insofar as they are traditionally understood. If you want to steal, and you do it freely, and no one and no thing is 'twisting your arm,' --not even a little bit--then you have achieved harmony between what you truly want for yourself and what you do. You are no hypocrite. You are acting in a way that I would call, AUTHENTIC." "But isn't stealing against the natural law?" "There is no natural law, because there is no such thing human nature -- that is to say, there is no human nature that you are 'born with.' Human nature is something that you create for yourself, one decision at a time. By the time you die, your nature will be the sum total of all the decisions you have made for yourself throughout your life. At your death you will say, 'I made myself what I am.'" "Is this way of thinking supposed to make me happy?" "No. If you are a person of intelligence you will realize that you will never reach the state of 'being happy.' Quite the contrary, life will bore to the point of making you want to throw up. But at least you will know that you were not living in a dream world. You did not escape into a fantasy world, such as that offered by religion. You faced life, as awful as it was. And at your funeral, someone can sing for you, "I did it MYYYYYYYYYY WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY."

I doubt that many people today would identify themselves as atheistic existentialists or as disciples of Sartre if you asked them what their philosophy of life was. However, many of the ideas expressed by Sartre have worked their way into the normal thinking patterns of people. The January 6 edition of the New York Times gives us a prime example. The Op-ed page has an article called "The Killers and the Healers," written by Louise A. Osborne, one of the workers (i.e. "healers") at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts where two of her coworkers were shot to death by John Salvi. She writes:

"Over and over, the news media and protesters call this place an abortion clinic. I hate that term. We do much more than provide abortions. We screen women for cervical cancer. We treat them for sexually transmitted infections. We connect women who want to continue their pregnancies with the services they need. We help women prevent pregnancies they do not want. We help them plan when and whether they will become parents.

Unfortunately, women seeking reproductive health care often feel vulnerable, afraid or embarrassed. Our patients trust us with the most intimate details of their lives, and we must earn their trust.

We listen. We do not pass judgment. We provide information and make sure it is understood. We want women to take care of themselves, to be strong and healthy. Too many of our patients are surprised that we are nice to them; too many are not used to being treated with respect.

Often women are under pressure from parents, husbands or boyfriends to have an abortion, and the clinic is the only place they can safely say they do not want one. "Can she make me?" asks a 17-year old caller whose mother is insisting that she end her pregnancy. I tell her the decision is hers. After we spend 45 minutes sorting out her options, she thanks me and says, "You're the only one who hasn't told me what to do."

Less than a month ago, I was pregnant. My husband and I told our 3-year old she would soon be a big sister. Then an ultrasound test revealed severe fetal abnormalities.

I went to work the next day. A pregnant colleague and I shared the same due date. She took one look at my face and said, "Oh God, what's wrong?" She held me as I wept. She acknowledged my pain and the enormity of the decision I had to make. She did not tell me what to do.

For hours, I spoke with my colleagues. My husband and I agonized and prayed. We decided to end the pregnancy, and I had an abortion at four and a half months. It was the most traumatic experience of my life."

Much could be said about this piece. (Perhaps some of you would like to give your own observations.) But what I want to point out is that there is a single ethical principle that underlies everything Ms. Osborne says. It is that human dignity is shown not by choosing good over evil, but by choosing FOR ONESELF. Perhaps her college professors have passed on to her something of the legacy of Sartre. Perhaps she has simply taken the traditional American love for freedom to the extreme. In either case, she clearly considers the free choice of the individual to be the greatest expression of human dignity, the highest human good, and an absolute ethical value. In her way of thinking, the individual's exercise of free will is always and everywhere above reproach, and morally speaking, not subject to challenge.

Her respect for freedom motivates her work at the clinic and gives it meaning. In her mind, she is there to help women. How does she help? First, by saving them from people or situations that hurt their freedom. Boyfriends, husbands, and parents may pressure women to have abortions. Ms. Osborne and her colleagues help them to resist that pressure, not because they don't want them to have abortions, but because they don't want to be part of what they consider the REAL moral evil to be--making someone do something they don't want to do. For example, when a seventeen-year-old girl calls the clinic and complains that her mother is insisting that she have an abortion, Ms. Osborne rescues her from her mother's coercive influence. She assures the young woman, "The decision is yours." The girl, her freedom thus shored up, thanks Ms. Osborne by saying, "You're the only one who hasn't told me what to do." It's exactly the kind of thanks she is looking for -- an affirmation that she has been the voice of freedom and self-determination in a world of pressure and manipulation.

Indeed, not only does Ms. Osborne help others to stand up to the people who try to pressure them to do things that they don't want to do, but she and her colleagues are at pains never to be guilty of the same crime. They tell no one "what to do." In other words, they not only refrain from pressuring a woman to do what they think is best, they even refrain from offering an opinion. They have such respect for the freedom of their clients that they will not contaminate the decision of any one of them by saying, "I think that such-and-such is the best thing for you to do."

Once it is established that a client is asking for something she wants -- not what others want for her, but what SHE HERSELF REALLY WANTS, then Ms. Osborne and the other will help her obtain it. Does she want screening for cervical cancer? Does she want treatment for sexually transmitted infections? Ms. Osborne will schedule the appointment. Does she just want someone to listen to her? If so, Ms. Osborne's clinic is the place for her to be, because there, "We listen." Does she want information? She can go to Ms. Osborne's clinic, where "We provide information and make sure it is understood." Does she want someone to be nice to her? Once again, she should consider herself lucky to have come to Planned Parenthood where "we...are nice to them." Does she want a doctor who will help her have a healthy baby? Good Ms. Osborne will help her find one. Does she want a doctor who will kill her baby? Not to worry -- Ms. Osborne can get one of those doctors too.

You see, it doesn't matter what the woman wants. Whether she wants to do something good or evil is not even an issue. What matters to the people at the clinic--THE moral question--is whether she wants it freely.

Why is this? Because, even though Ms. Osborne does not say it, there is something she values even more than the freedom of the woman to decide what to do in the situation for which she is seeking help. Ms. Osborne believes in the freedom of the woman TO DECIDE FOR HERSELF WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS WRONG. When she says that she and her colleagues do not "pass judgment" or tell anyone "what to do" she does not simply mean that she will not force her opinion on them about what is the most PRACTICAL thing to do. It also means that she will never raise the moral question--never speak about what might or might not be the moral thing to do. Why not? Primarily because, for Ms. Osborne, it is NOT POSSIBLE to make an objective judgment about the morality of human action. She will not tell anyone "what to do," because in her mind there is no correct answer to the question, "What SHOULD I do?" Moral questions are decided solely by the individual. The woman and she alone can decide what is for her the right thing to do. Indeed, not only is it impossible for others to say what is right or wrong, it is DEFINITELY WRONG even to try! According to Ms. Osborne's way of thinking, any suggestion to a woman that she is doing something wrong is an unconscionable form of manipulation. Raising the question of morality raises the possibility of guilt; and guilt to such people is nothing more than a psychological torture chamber used by some to control the actions of others. Making someone feel guilty by "passing judgment" it is something Ms. Osborne and her colleagues would NEVER be guilty of. It is the only mortal sin in the trade.

To sum up then, what reasons does Ms. Osborne give to show that she and her colleagues are the "healers," and not the "killers"? She explains to the reader that her clinic is not a cold fee-for-service business that provides only abortions. They really CARE about women. This means first, that they take the time to make sure that a woman is not being pushed by someone else into asking for the services of the clinic, but is making her decision FREELY. Second, it means that they will offer her a range of services.

What is somewhat disturbing to me is not that Ms. Osborne thinks this way. Different people have all kinds of unusual ideas. What disturbs me is how confident she is that her audience will accept what she has written as proof that she and her colleagues are morally justified, if not virtuous. She simply takes it for granted that reasonable people understand that as long as a decision is well informed and freely made, its gains a moral worth that cannot be challenged.

If I may, I would like to raise a question about what she has said. She claims that she keeps herself completely removed from the moral choices of her clients. She does not "pass judgment" or tell them "what to do." But is this really the case? Does she NEVER, IN ANY WAY tell them what to do? For example, when she gives women information, does she tell them about the development of the unborn child, the possible complications and side-effects of the procedure (including the increased chances of breast cancer), post abortion syndrome, or the reasons that some people consider abortion to be inhumane? Giving people one-sided information is, I think, one way of telling them what to do. I don't think she is as removed from the choice of the woman as she claims to be.

At the risk of stating the obvious, enough said. Let's look at VS. I hope that the background I have given will make little commentary necessary.

VS>> 32. Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to "exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values". This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent which are explicitly atheistic.

FP>> Sounds like Sartre, doesn't it? His philosophy is one that is "explicitly atheistic."

VS>>The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and "being at peace with oneself", so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

FP>> According to such ways of thinking, the question is not whether I am doing right or wrong according to an objective standard of morality. The question is, "Was I sincere?" "Did I honestly mean well?" "Was it my own decision?" "Was I true to myself and my own values?" The underlying idea is that as long as I choose for myself and am satisfied with my decision, I have satisfied the demands of morality. I choose for myself what is right and wrong -- this is what is called "a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment."

VS>> As is immediately evident, "the crisis of truth" is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly.

FP>> In this way of thinking, if the individual conscience decides what is right or wrong independently of truth and objective moral norms, no one else has the right to tell him "what to do." More on conscience later. There is a big section on it coming up.

VS>> Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.

These different notions are at the origin of currents of thought which posit a radical opposition between moral law and conscience, and between nature and freedom.

FP>> One question for all of you: It is said that in every error, there is a seed of truth. (If there were not, no one would buy into the error in the first place.) Can you find the seed of truth in the philosophy and Sartre and the ideas of Ms. Osborne, and then put it in its correct Catholic perspective?

See you next week!

Fr. Peter