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
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
"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" --
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."
"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
"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
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
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
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
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!