Thursday, October 8, 2009

Politics, morality and original sin

NOTE: This is a very thought provoking article that I came across recently. For me, it represents a way to have a dialogue with our culture, and I think that is a very good thing. It is good to know there are thoughtful bishops like this out there, as opposed to the demonization that we hear too often closer to home.

by Cardinal Georges Cottier OP
Theologian Emeritus of the Pontifical Household

In recent weeks Barack Obama gave two important speeches in two very different university contexts. On 17 May he spoke at the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic university in Indiana where he had been invited to receive an honorary degree on graduation day for 2,900 students. On 4 June, in Cairo, at the Al-Azhar Islamic University, considered the main center of religious teaching in Sunni Islam, he gave a long speech addressed in particular to the Islamic world.

I don’t want to make a political comment, which does not come within my sphere of competence, but I was struck by many aspects of the two speeches by the President of the United States. Apart from the individual topics touched on, they gave a glimpse of politics that can be usefully compared with fundamental elements of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.

In the speech at Notre Dame, I was already struck by the words that Obama addressed to young people at the very beginning. The president pointed out that we are going through a particular historical moment, and described the fact as a privilege and a responsibility for young people. Already in that positive approach there is something Christian. The tasks of each generation are tasks from which the Providence of God is not absent.

To fully evaluate the import of the two speeches one must take two premises into account. First, it should be said that his speeches concern the problems of temporal society. And the Church has recognized, not least in important encyclicals and pronouncements of the Magisterium, the autonomy of temporal society. Autonomy does not mean separation, antagonism, isolation or hostility between temporal society and the Church. Simply, the Church acknowledges that temporal society has an entity of its own, with its own purposes. In dialogue with that entity, the contribution offered by the Church – which represents the Gospel and the values of grace – does not dim or deny but on the contrary exalts the autonomy of temporal society.

The second premise is that Obama talked about the world as it is today. His words referred to the United States, but with the great movements of peoples over recent decades, his words can be applied to all areas of the world – in particular in the West – now inhabited by pluralistic societies. Obama is a head of government called upon to handle a pluralist society. This is a fact to consider if one really wants to understand his words.

In fact, the speech at the University of Notre Dame seems littered with references taken from the Christian tradition. There was, for example, an expression that returned frequently, “common ground”, which corresponds to a fundamental concept of the social doctrine of the Church, that of the common good.

There is a tendency in current mentality to think that morality concerns only the sphere of private life and relationships. Whereas the quest for the common good calls upon reference to moral criteria and norms (cf. Pacem in Terris, n. 80). Morality is always the same, it does not change depending on whether it applies to the public or the private sphere. But morality always takes account of the reality to which it applies. In this case, it is a matter of the quest for the common good in a pluralistic society.

Obama took his cue precisely from a datum always recognized and taken into account in the Christian tradition: the consequences of original sin. “Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man - our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos: all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin”

The problem is complex in the extreme: how to seek together for the common good in a society where there are different and even conflicting ideas about what is good and what is evil. And how to proceed together in this quest without anyone being forced to sacrifice any of their essential beliefs. I think that we can agree with Obama’s way of setting out the search for solutions. Not least because in proposing it Obama took his cue precisely from a datum always recognized and taken into account in the Christian tradition: the consequences of original sin. “Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man - our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin”.

At a certain point in his speech Obama warned: “The ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt... It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us, or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom [the wisdom of the Lord, ed.] is greater than our own”. There are, in appearance, words in this passage that seem to go against the teaching of the Church. As St Thomas writes, the faith as gift of God is infallible. There is no doubt in faith. One can’t be wrong. But the believer can err when his judgment does not proceed from faith. Moreover, it is a fact that the believer, especially when faced by various practical choices, wonders how to act, wonders what criteria the faith suggests. And in the face of the concrete situations of life, these criteria may not always seem so clear and crisp, cases of conscience may well arise.

The second part of the sentence makes clear the meaning that Obama meant to give to his words: certain knowledge of what God wants from us “is beyond our capacity as human beings”, but we “must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own”.

On its part the Catholic Church maintains and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be already known with certainty by the natural light of human reason with created things as the starting point. But in the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in fruitfully using this natural ability to gain through its own strength alone a true and certain knowledge of God as personal, as also of the natural law inscribed by the Creator in our souls. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in paragraphs 37 and 38, which cite the encyclical Humani generis, mankind needs to be enlightened by the revelation of God not only on what exceeds its understanding but also on “religious and moral truths which of themselves, are not beyond the grasp of human reason”, because in the current condition of the human race, “hampered by... disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin”, such truths cannot be known “with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error”.

In Christian doctrine, heeding the consequences of original sin does not mean becoming accomplices of sin, or refusing to offer all mankind moral truths, knowledge of which, in the real historical situation experienced by mankind on this earth, appears blurred to many.

Nor in his speech did Obama suggest hiding one’s moral certainties, as if to maintain the existence of objective truths were to be considered impossible or at least inappropriate in the context of a pluralistic society. He merely pointed out that the experience of our limitations, of our weakness, of our misery, “should not push us away from our faith”, but should simply “humble us”, remaining “open and curious” even in situations of challenge and opposition on ethically sensitive issues.

Thus, the traditional teaching on original sin itself suggests an approach to human reality that can turn out to be useful in the present historical circumstances experienced in pluralistic societies.

Every pluralistic society suffers tensions, conflicts, divisions over what is just and what is unjust. But there’s a democratic way of experiencing them that Obama described in his speech, and that can be in harmony with a Christian understanding of the relationships among people. Obama says: we must be persuaded, as pre-judice (for once giving a positive meaning to the word) that the other is in good faith. Even those who do not think like me. We must avoid caricaturing the other, respect the other, not demonize him. Democracy lives by this inspiration of an inwardly Christian kind. When I read the speeches, I immediately thought of that very fine encyclical from Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, in which Pope Montini wrote that the way of human relations in society is that of dialogue, even on vital truths for which one may go so far as to give one’s life.

This is not a matter of dragging these speeches into our camp, but of looking for points of encounter. The speech at the University of Notre Dame also reminded me of the Dignitatis humanae, a great text of the social doctrine of the Church, which recognizes the duty of individuals to seek the truth, which is a duty before God and springs from human nature. Thus, when I respect the other, I respect in him this capacity for truth.

Another issue that sometimes causes tension in pluralistic societies is the demand for religious freedom made by individuals before the State. This demand does not make religious indifference an obligatory choice for the State, but requires awareness of the limits of its powers.

I was struck by how Obama did not dodge the thorniest issue, that of abortion, on which he had received so much criticism not least from the US bishops. On the one hand such reactions are justified: non-negotiable values are involved in political decisions about abortion. For us what is at stake is the defense of the human person and his inalienable rights, the first of which is precisely that to life. Now in pluralistic society there are radical differences on this point. There are those who, like us, consider abortion an intrinsece malum, there are those who accept it, and even some who claim it as a right. The President has never taken the latter position. On the contrary, I think he has made positive suggestions – something also stressed by L’Osservatore Romano of 19 May – proposing again in this case the search for common ground. In this search – Obama points out – nobody should censor their beliefs, but on the contrary maintain them and defend them in the face of all. His position is not the misunderstood relativism of those who say that it is a matter of contrasting views, and that all personal opinions are subjective and uncertain, and thus it is better to set them aside when speaking of these things.

Nor in his speech did Obama suggest hiding one’s moral certainties, as if to maintain the existence of objective truths were to be considered impossible or at least inappropriate in the context of a pluralistic society. He merely pointed out that the experience of our limitations, of our weakness, of our misery, “should not push us away from our faith”, but should simply “humble us”, remaining “open and curious” even in situations of challenge and opposition on ethically sensitive issues

In addition, Obama recognizes the tragic seriousness of the problem. That the decision to abort “is a heart-wrenching decison for any woman”. The common ground that he is proposing is that we all work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortion. He adds that any legal regulation of the matter must guarantee in absolute fashion conscientious objection for health workers who do not want to engage in the practice of abortion. His words go in the direction of diminishing the evil. The government and the State must make every effort to ensure that the number of abortions is minimized. It is, of course, only a minimum, but a precious minimum. It reminds me of the attitude of the early Christian legislators who did not repeal the Roman laws tolerating practices that did not comply with or even went counter to natural law, such as concubinage and slavery. The change was arrived at by slow degrees, often marked by setbacks, as the number of Christians in the population increased and with them the impact of the sense of the dignity of the person. At first, to obtain the consent of citizens and preserve social peace, the so-called “imperfect laws” were left in force, which prevented persecution for acts and behavior contrary to natural law. Even St Thomas, who had no doubt that the law must be moral, added that the State should not make laws too severe and “lofty” because they would be despised by those incapable of applying them.

The realism of the politician recognizes evil and calls it by its name. It recognizes that we must be humble and patient, fighting without the presumption of eradicating it from human history by means of legal coercion. It is the parable of the tares, which also applies at the political level. On the other hand, this does not become justification for cynicism and indifference to it. The effort to decrease evil as much as possible remains persistent. It is a duty.

The Church has always perceived the illusion of eliminating evil from history by legal, political or religious means as unattainable and dangerous. Recent history is also full of disasters produced by the fanaticism of those who aimed to dry up the sources of evil in human history, ultimately transforming everything into a vast cemetery. The communist regimes followed exactly this logic. As does the religious terrorism which kills even in the name of God. When a doctor who favored abortion was killed by militant anti-abortionists – as happened recently in the US – one has to admit that even the highest ideals, such as the sacrosanct defense of the absolute value of human life, can be corrupted and turn into their opposite, becoming slogans at the disposition an aberrant ideology.

Christians are bearers in the world of a realistic temporal hope, not of a vain utopian dream, also when they give witness of their loyalty to such absolute values as life. St Gianna Beretta Molla, the doctor who died by refusing treatment that might have hurt the baby she carried in her womb, touches the hearts not only of Christians with her ordinary and quiet heroism, she reminds everyone of the common destiny to which we tend. It is a prophetic form of the evangelical style of Christian witness.

In his speech at the University of Notre Dame Obama made a very important remark precisely on this point. He spoke of when he was involved in a social work project in the slums of Chicago – funded by some Catholic parishes – in which Protestant and Jewish volunteers also participated. On that occasion he happened to meet welcoming and understanding people. He saw the performance of good works nourished by the Lord amongst them. And he was “drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the Church. It was through this service”, he concluded, “that I was brought to Christ”. He also gave a moving eulogy of the great Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was then archbishop of Chicago. He described him as “a lighthouse and a crossroads”, lovable in his way of persuading and in his continuous attempt to “bring people together always trying to find common ground”. In that experience, Obama said, “My heart and mind were touched by the words and deeds of the men and women I worked alongside with in Chicago”. The spectacle of charity, which comes from God, has the power to touch and attract the minds and hearts of mankind. And it is the only seed of real change in human history. Obama also quoted Martin Luther King, of whom he feels he is a disciple.

That only forty-one years after the assassination of King he himself is president of the US is a sign and proof of the historical efficacy of trust in the power of truth. In these decades we have seen so many ideologies base their pretence to change on violence, from revolutionary programs to the project of exporting democracy by military force. And we have seen only tragic failures and retrogression. Obama’s humble realism opens up new vistas also at the geopolitical level, as evinced by his speech at the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

In that speech also, Obama sought to identify a “common ground” on which the complicated relationship between Islam and the Western world, in particular the US, might make progress. In this search, according to the President, everyone is called upon to look within their own tradition to rediscover the core values and shared interests on which to build mutual respect and peace. This approach represents a radical refutation of the notion of a clash of civilizations and an antidote to the tendency to apply negative stereotypes to others. In a speech heard by hundreds of millions of Muslims Obama took an entirely different line, with full confidence in the good faith and ability to judge of his hearers. For that very reason he was able to touch on all the controversial points with clarity and courage: the violent extremism – which affects everyone, starting with the Muslims – the Western missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of torture, the Israeli-Palestinian question, on which he reaffirmed the right of both peoples to live in safety in their own homeland and described the situation of the Palestinian people as “intolerable”, in tune with what the Pope had said during his recent visit to the land of Jesus. On the theme of nuclear power, in reference to Iran, Obama said that no one can be denied the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Reaffirming that we must aim at a situation in which no country – beginning with his own – develops the project of making recourse to nuclear power in the military field. In his speech in Cairo, the US president also reiterated that democracy cannot be imposed from outside, and that on the path to democracy all peoples must find their own way. He stressed that religious freedom is fundamental for peace. And on Islamic soil he also spoke of women’s rights. Among his quotations from sacred texts – the Torah, the Koran and the Bible – I was struck that the biblical text he chose to quote was the Sermon on the Mount. That discourse is addressed directly to the disciples of Christ. It was not made in primis for temporal, political and civil society. But Obama has perceived its positive meaning and its inspiration for the life of the civitas. That reminded me of the insight of John Paul II on the political meaning of forgiveness and requests for the purification of memory. One sees no way of coming out of intolerable situations, such as those experienced in the Middle East, if people’s pain for the malice and wrongs suffered does not get embraced and dissolved by the reconciling power of forgiveness.

I imagine that this man, Obama, felt all these things when he had to prepare his two speeches. This surprises me. It seems to me an interesting fact, even in terms of the political commitment of Christians in our pluralistic and globalized world.

This originally appeared in "30 Days in the Church and the World" -

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