The writers and filmmakers of science fiction have been bold in depicting what life will be like far into the third millennium. Their efforts frequently result in brilliant, and very profitable, popular entertainments. Millions of people are eager to pay to see their fantasies played out in a make-believe world. Most of this may be relatively innocent entertainment, but it is just that: entertainment.
The fantasies and fatuities of popular entertainment, however, should not deter us from asking very seriously, What will be the shape of the human condition in the twenty-first century and the next millennium? The future is imaginable. As with a space rocket, culture and civilization have a trajectory; their course can be predicted, provided that the trajectory is not altered by external forces. Of course, history is marked by surprises, both positive and negative, but we can also discern the impetus, the direction, of cultural motion, and we can anticipate, at least in part, what the future may hold. Permit me to indulge in such an exercise of anticipation, with specific reference to the difference that Christian faith—by no means an external force!—may make in our common future.
The culture of which we are part is defined by the word “modernity.” For our purposes, modernity includes what today is called “postmodernity,” which may more accurately be viewed as hyper-modernity. The origins of modernity are commonly traced to the founding of the United States of America and, especially for us in France, to our Revolution of 1789. I hope I will not be accused of chauvinism in suggesting that modernity might be characterized by the three words of the motto of the French Republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. In our Revolution, that triad represented the rejection of the old regime and, for some of the protagonists, the rejection of the substantially Christian culture of the preceding centuries.
In the course of the two centuries since the Revolution, however, it has been more and more widely recognized that liberty, equality, and fraternity are, in fact, among the fruits borne by the biblical and Christian tradition. This is an argument vigorously and repeatedly pressed by Pope John Paul II. In his homily at Le Bourget in June 1980 the Holy Father declared to the French people:
What wonders the sons and daughters of your nation have done to understand man better, and to express who man really is by proclaiming his inalienable rights. Everyone knows how important the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity are in your culture and history. At bottom, these are Christian ideas. I am well aware that those who first put them forward did not have in mind man’s covenant with the Eternal Wisdom. Yet they wanted to do something for man.
Contrary to Marxist doctrine, culture—like history itself—is not simply the by-product of productive social forces in their complex interaction. Nor is culture simply an ideological framework, man’s projecting from his experience in order to create some cosmic scheme or system of meaning. Remembering man’s covenant with Eternal Wisdom is especially urgent at the end of this century in which allegedly scientific and rational ideologies have generated the most hideous atrocities. Of course, those who promoted these ideologies claimed to be serving human needs, and toward that professed end they designed and carried out crimes of unspeakable magnitude, crimes of unprecedented scale in human history. It is not enough to say that these ideologies were carried to unfortunate extremes, or that they contained dangerous errors. The massive experimental evidence demonstrates that these ideologies were rooted in falsehood.
Culture necessarily has to do with human liberty and responsibility. By our intelligence we construct a representation of the world, and that representation determines the horizon toward which a civilization moves, or by which it is brought to a halt. Thus it is culture that sets the direction for the political, social, and economic future of human societies. Culture is rightly viewed as the motor force of history. Culture is not the uncontrollable consequence of technological or economic developments. We human beings are responsible for the future of civilization, and all theories of a deterministic nature—whether economic, technological, or biological—are but efforts to escape that responsibility. Against all such theories, we must insist that we are answerable for our use of the gift of reason.
This brings us back to liberty, equality, and fraternity. While these three words express the aspirations that characterize modernity, the abuse of these words by those responsible for the unspeakable horrors of this century may lead us to disown the ideals themselves. There is a very real risk that people in the next century may repudiate the generosity that inspired these aspirations, and may draw back from the road they opened to a more promising human future. This would be a great sadness. We can help avoid such an unhappy development by discerning anew, and embracing anew, the Christian origins of the aspirations to liberty, equality, and fraternity. Christians can contribute, indeed can take the lead, in envisioning a more hopeful human future by recognizing that each of these aspirations is a way of formulating the questions asked by man in the face of God’s revelation.
Each of our three words has in the course of history suffered grave misadventures. The misadventures of liberty compel us to ask again the question of Psalm 8, “What is man?” The misadventures of equality raise afresh the question that the disciples put to Jesus, “Who is the greatest?” The misadventures of fraternity pose once more the question addressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who is my neighbor?” As we shall see, pursuing these questions in the context of contemporary culture leads us to the great mysteries of creation, redemption, and glorification.
First, the misadventures of liberty. In the modern context liberty has been understood as the ability of the individual to fulfill his own desires, declaring, “I want to do what I want, if I want, when I want, and how I want.” This is liberty construed as license. In this view, the very existence of others may be seen as an intolerable constraint on the freedom of the individual. Liberty expresses itself, indeed liberty exists in, the “transgressive” assertion of will against all limits, all prohibitions, all laws. Such is a dominant understanding of liberty in our time.
In the political sphere, the enemy of liberty is tyranny, and tyranny is as old as human history. The threat of tyranny, in the form of totalitarianism, is today greater than ever. It is a great mistake to think that the threat of totalitarianism has ended with the defeat of the overtly totalitarian regimes of our century. Technological power has gained unheard-of domination over human societies, brutally disrupting and often displacing traditional ways of life. The religions of secularism have taken the place of older beliefs, redefining social relations and giving political leaders the power to mobilize the energies and liberties of citizens who have become units of all-pervasive consumption. These dynamics we can see at work today, and it is more than possible that they will become ever more dominant in the century ahead. Against these forces are posited the words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:17)
In establishing this sharp differentiation between what is religious and what is political, Christianity does not throw up a wall of separation between different dimensions of human life. On the contrary, it establishes, in the form of a hierarchy, a connection between them and thus suggests their necessary and organic unity. The key truth is that man receives his liberty from God, and is able to live in liberty only through his continuing relationship with God. In this way, the person has within him something that is radically inalienable, something that no other man can control. That something is his dignity as a free person created in the image of God. This liberty can be maintained and exercised only in dependence upon the creative source of human liberty, which is God. Permit me to suggest that, rightly understood, the 1776 American Declaration of Independence from political tyranny, with its reference to “Nature and Nature’s God,” presupposes this radical dependence on the source of liberty.
This is the understanding of liberty that undermines all tyrannical and totalitarian pretensions. Submission to God does not alienate human liberty, for the source of liberty cannot be the enemy of liberty. On the other hand, and as history bears abundant testimony, liberty as license, liberty as self-will, consumes and destroys itself. In a free and democratic political order, no political leader or party can take God’s place. Politicians and parties must humbly serve what man is called to become. Their first duty is to assure that every one is able to decide freely, that every citizen, including the poorest and weakest, has a say in deciding both the ends and means of the common life.
Politics becomes totalitarian when it is declared that politics is the source of human liberty. The spiritual struggle of the Church is not to attack totalitarianism in a way that involves the Church in politics as simply one party among others. The Church’s task, rather, is to discern and denounce the alienations and seductions that destroy human liberty by severing it from its divine source. In this way, the Church not only defends human liberty and dignity, but she also protects the integrity of politics itself. There can be no authentic politics under totalitarianism, for politics is by its very nature the exercise of deliberation and decision by free persons.
This argument requires the asking of very basic questions: What is man? What is the meaning of liberty? How can we choose what is good, for ourselves and our neighbors? Here we enter the field of ethics. The course of our culture has rekindled the most fundamental question about good and evil. Today it is widely thought that the very notion of law is in a state of crisis. If we ask why this is the case, one crucially important answer is that law is almost unanimously perceived as prohibitive. Man’s obscured and listless conscience seems unable to comprehend the true meaning of law. The result is that law is viewed as the enemy of liberty. Some of the pioneers of modernity understood themselves to be resisting the conformism of an ossified social order, but they ended up by confusing liberation with systematic transgression of all order. Thus the Jesus who said, “Keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17), came to be viewed by many as the enemy of liberty.
In our cultural context, an alternative understanding of liberty meets with resistance. Many fail to understand that God’s commandments impose themselves on the human conscience not as arbitrary constraints but in the name of the distinction between good and evil. In history’s various declarations of human rights we can readily recognize a secular translation of God’s commandments. The law of God is the only sure guarantee of the rights of man, the only absolute warrant for the belief that every person is born free and must remain free. Liberty as license, on the other hand, ends up by destroying itself. My argument, then, is that the divine law is the guarantor of human freedom, the most firm foundation of all laws aimed at protecting liberty.
The importance of pressing this argument is evident today in widespread confusion about human rights. Who can deny that the political, moral, and conceptual foundation of human rights has become very shaky? Cynical power games and raw violence run roughshod over the most solemn agreements. It should come as no surprise that human dignity is violated when it is not understood that the claim that every person is endowed with inalienable rights is an appeal to universal conscience. That claim requires an acknowledgment, at least implicitly, that good and evil must not be confused. The distinction between good and evil is valid everywhere, at all times, across the diversity of cultures and civilizations, and notwithstanding whatever other misunderstandings there may be between people of good will. And so it is that in the field of ethics we cannot answer the question of the meaning of liberty without addressing the question, What is man? The question of liberty is the question of how to bear witness to his dignity as a person created in the image and likeness of God.
That task is never easy, and it is in many ways made more difficult in our cultural context. When we look at our culture today, we see a world caught up in a whirlwind of communications, of electronic memories and conflicting construals of reality, of a confusing profusion of images. Many people are fascinated by this new circumstance, and that is understandable. At the same time, however, it produces new forms of conformism, of unfreedom. This is not what was expected from modernity. The apostles of modernity had convinced nearly everyone that advances in knowledge would bring with it advances in liberty. Such hope was not ungrounded, but it had a condition attached to it. The condition was that knowledge would liberate man’s intelligence and teach him to critically distance himself from his senses, his impulses, his instincts. Although critical rationality can itself be perverted, it was and can still be viewed as an agent of human liberation. But we must ask whether today’s most striking advances in knowledge are not in the service of the very senses, impulses, and instincts from which knowledge was supposed to free us.
Please do not misunderstand. The way of human liberty is certainly not to disbelieve our senses, since it is through our senses that we acquire knowledge. Nor are we to distrust appearances, since appearances are to be read as the language of reality. My point is that the way of liberty requires that we be critical of our own free choices. Put differently, freedom can only be sustained by free persons who keep their exercise of freedom under critical judgment.
The technological profusion of images, far from liberating, may enslave the human imagination. They subject people to what they wish for. Our senses are provided with an abundance of materials, more than we had ever dreamed of, with the result that our liberty is not enhanced but paralyzed. To use the current phrase, individuals and our culture itself suffer from “overload.” This is a form of captivity that must be overcome if we are to be truly free. This does not mean that we simply renounce whatever we find attractive. Rather, the overcoming of this captivity requires that we engage the question of truth. What truth can fulfill the aspirations of human intelligence and make man free?
Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) At another point he said, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” (John 3:19-21)
In the world of high-tech communications, lies are increasingly concealed under the cloak of virtual images that reflect no reality. The question of reality is the question of truth. Jesus said, “I am the truth.” (John 14:6) The misadventures of liberty at the end of this millennium call us to listen again to the inquiring words of Psalm 8:
What is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?
Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honor.
God’s word is resounding at the crossroads as man ponders a way to the future. His word probes our contradictions and illumines our misadventures, sending us back to creation, back to that first and perfect act of creative liberty by which history began. Liberty cannot be sustained by theories about a primordial big bang. We will not recover our dignity unless we rediscover that sovereign liberty by which our liberty was given and is ceaselessly sustained.
Liberty, equality, fraternity. Political and social equality is one of the most adamant demands of our time. The demand for equality, however, encounters opposition in the notion of liberty. Alexis de Tocqueville viewed the progress toward equality as an irresistible historical trend, and he went so far as to deem this “providential.” He proposed an explanation of how this trend would unfold. Each person, he said, had first gained an equal juridical status with the passing of the feudal order. Every individual became legally capable of signing contracts, buying and selling property, and getting married. Closely associated with this, equal political rights were to be granted all. It followed, however belatedly, that women were to be given the right to vote and have a say in common decisions. Finally, in this scenario, the nations of the world would become more productive and wealthy. Gradually, the gap between rich and poor, affluence and poverty, would be closed. Moreover, in this optimistic view, everyone would eventually have access to education, health, and other goods, enabling them to share equally in the cultural treasures of society.
Such a philosophy of history, so prevalent in the nineteenth century, was premised on a kind of religious faith that progress would be forever. However battered by hard experience, that faith is still at the heart of our civilization. This has not been an easy century for uncritical faith in historical progress and the dream of ever-increasing equality. Especially in the economic sphere, the attempt was made to achieve equality by the state’s imposition of constraints, as we saw in the regimes of socialist inspiration. History has not dealt kindly with such experiments.
There is another approach to economic equality that is voluntary, humane, and, some would say, impossibly idealistic. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’“ (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)
Various communities have, at the microeconomic level, achieved this vision of equality. One thinks, for instance, of monastic communities founded on voluntary poverty, or of the egalitarian socialism practiced by the kibbutzim in the early years of Zionism. Such achievements are as impressive as any utopia come true. But in the larger course of history, economic liberalism—whether called democratic capitalism or the market economy—has decisively won. If there were ever doubts about this, they have been removed by the massive and dramatic failure of the socialist economies.
There are different ways of thinking about economic liberalism. One theoretical foundation for legitimating economic competition is the Darwinian principle of life as struggle. As global wealth grows, it is said that the victory of the fitter and stronger will serve the general interest in the long run, even if it means the elimination of the weaker and has as its result less rather than more equality. Thus the utopian dream of equality falls prey to the doctrine of “Might is Right,” a doctrine supposedly rooted in the physical, psychological, and even biological reality not only of the human species but of all living creatures. This doctrine has been with us for a long time. It was set forth by Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in his 1853 Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, and in 1859 received a more comprehensive theoretical development in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
Another dispute between conflicting ideas has also undermined the ideal of equality in our time. Is equality served by erasing differences between people, or by defiantly asserting them? At first the idea gained ascendancy that, in order to advance equality, differences should be denied, ignored, or declared irrelevant. This strategy of deliberate blindness, however, raised the suspicion that it might be just a more subtle way of reinforcing the doctrine of “Might is Right.” The historical fact is that programs of leveling—cultural, social, or political—have ended up by serving the interests of the stronger. In addition, the attempted negation of differences has provoked those who see themselves in a disadvantaged position to assert all the more insistently what they believe to be their distinctive differences, and to demand respect for those differences.
The contradictions in the modern striving for equality are mainly evident in three areas: ethnic identity, relations between the sexes, and the bodily condition of the human being. Despite the abominations of the Nazi regime, equality between the races remains an issue today. Indeed, in France the claim that human races are not equal has recently reignited polemics that we hoped were a thing of the past. At the same time, biologists are reminding us that, in scientific fact, there is but one human race. At a recent conference in Paris, leading biologists from around the world declared that “genetically speaking, a ‘race’ is a population that can be defined by ‘absolute’ markers, that is to say by a number of biological characteristics that are found exclusively among all the members of this population.” Research all over the world demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of the genetic characteristics of the human species are found in virtually all populations. “In consequence,” the scientists declared, “there exists only one human race, not several.” The notions of equality and inequality, they said, make sense in the political, social, and juridical spheres, but find no support whatever in honest science.
And yet the issue of racial inequality does not go away, as witness the recent controversy surrounding the publication of The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Claims about racial inequality require not only a scientific and philosophical response, but also a moral response. My response is derived from an experience when I first traveled extensively in the United States, long before I was a bishop. I had the privilege of attending in Chicago a meeting organized by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1969, and I have never forgotten the antiphonal exchange between the Rev. Jackson and thousands of young black people defiantly shouting, “I am somebody!” In that simple assertion is a profound moral and spiritual truth that must inform our response to all talk about inequality between the “races.”
As agitated today, perhaps even more so, is the question of the relationship between the sexes. Of course there are many forms of feminism, but the more aggressive expression of the feminist movement may be leading our civilization into a blind alley. I think it indisputable, although it is surely disputed by some, that the differences between man and woman are anthropologically grounded. They are irreducible and linked to our condition as creatures. Such differences did not make necessary, and certainly do not justify, social and other inequalities that are rightly protested. But I am persuaded that such inequalities will be remedied neither by the confusion of the sexes nor by war between the sexes.
The third area in which the ideal of equality is today under challenge has to do with the human condition itself, insofar as our condition is bodily. We are fragile beings. Fragility is the condition of the child in the mother’s womb, of old people who have lost their physical or mental capacities, of innumerable others who are maimed by illness, accident, or their own behavior. The laws of our societies attempt to single out and protect some of these disabled persons, placing them under guardianship because of their inability to care for themselves or make responsible decisions.
However, legal efforts to protect the most fragile among us are far from comprehensive or systematic. Protection is not extended to the unborn children, nor to all those who are subjected to one form or another of mercy-killing and euthanasia. Indeed, the tragic fact is that in recent decades there have been ominous retreats from the responsibility to guard those who cannot guard themselves. These retreats have been most dramatic at the entrance and exit gates of life, but there is also slight concern for the countless people in the middle of their lives who must simply put up with the fact that they are “less equal” than those who are healthy and self-sufficient. They are the victims of the unwritten rule that “Might is Right.” They are misfits, domestic exiles, freaks, derelicts, pariahs, untouchables. Through its witness and ministries of mercy, the Church must never tire of declaring to society that these people, too, are somebodies.
In these three areas—ethnic identity, relations between the sexes, and the neediness of the most fragile—the law is made by the stronger, and human beings trample upon the hope for equality. Our reflection on the misadventures of liberty led us to ask again the question of Psalm 8, “What is man?” The opening pages of Genesis provide the answer: He is created “in the image and likeness of God.” Human dignity is a derived dignity; it is the gift of God. This is not simply our answer to the question, “What is man?” It is God’s answer. Such dignity must never be subjected to our comparative measurements, for it has its source in the sovereign decision of the divine liberty. Human dignity must never be understood as resting on the differences that human sinfulness has introduced into history.
As I have suggested, these modern questions are very old. The disciples of Jesus, we are told, quarreled over the question, “Who is the greatest?” (Mark 9:33-37, 10:42-45) In response, Jesus places a child in the midst of them. He also points to himself, noting that they call him lord and master and yet he has come not to be served but to serve. He is the servant, indeed the slave, of his servants, and he freely accepts the humiliation this entails. He accepts such humiliation, as St. Paul says, “to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
God’s revelation could not be more direct in challenging the doctrine that “Might is Right.” The teaching and the life of the crucified Messiah stand in sharpest antithesis to the human will to power. This is not a dialectical relationship between power and powerlessness, but a victorious contradiction. The cross of Christ is indelibly imprinted upon history as the sign that what makes the world intelligible is this permanent and inescapable contradiction. It is a scandal that will not go away. Jesus invites those who would be greatest to make themselves the least and the servant of all.
The entirety of Christian truth rests inescapably and absolutely on this mystery. We dare not attempt to compromise it. The Christian message was rejected again in the nineteenth century by philosophies that invested their hopes in strength and progress. Influential thinkers declared repugnant a faith that invested its hope in a crucified Messiah and produced, they claimed, an ethic worthy only of the weak and cowardly. Their ideologies promised to liberate man from the alienation supported, they said, by Christianity. But now all should know better. What they and their ideologies failed to understand is that the secret of true strength is revealed in the weakness of the humiliated Messiah.
This and only this is the way of strength that can conquer violence. Exhibiting the wounds of his suffering, the risen Christ reveals that, across all their differences, human beings are fundamentally equal, even and especially those who are the weak and downtrodden. Our differences are not eliminated, and many of them are deserving of respect, but they are not the measure of our dignity. This is the key to the secret of human existence and of any promising human future. At the end of this terrible century, we must discover it again. The key, and we must learn to say it again without compromise or embarrassment, is love. It is the love of forgetting oneself in order to give oneself to the other. As Jesus said, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
Who is the greatest? The answer is: The one who makes himself the smallest, who loses everything and, as a result, is given everything. This is the principle of what Paul VI and John Paul II have called “the civilization of love.” This is not a utopian dream. It is the way reality most truly is, as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the lives of people beyond number who have followed him. Let the proponents of “Might is Right” scoff if they will. We know through bitter experience the fruits of those who propose alternatives to the way of love.
Confronted by God’s revelation, we are asked: What kind of civilization do you want? What are you willing to pay for it? We examined the misadventures of liberty and were led to the mystery of creation. We examined the misadventures of equality and were led to the mystery of redemption. Now we must examine the misadventures of fraternity.
At first flush, fraternity would seem to be no more than the logical consequence of liberty and equality. But it has other roots at the deepest levels of human self-consciousness. Brothers and sisters are born of the same father and the same mother. They are more to one another than are other relatives. Their common origin means that they share one and the same identity. For each, it is not possible to say “I” without entailing “we.”
The idea of universal fraternity reflects the wish that all human beings might live together as loving brothers and sisters, each with the other as “another self.” The commandment to love one’s neighbor is given in Leviticus (19:18), and is joined by the Gospel with the commandment to love God (Matthew 5:43). The modern aspiration toward fraternity conforms to this commandment. One can treat like oneself only another self, or somebody who is perceived to be another self, as with a brother or sister.
The demand of fraternity raises its own questions, questions that have no easy answers. Again, the key question was put to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) The need for fraternity is urgently felt in our day, and becomes more urgent as we consider the new millennium that is almost upon us. And yet, it seems that the demand is ever more cruelly crushed by the increasingly powerful means at man’s disposal. Once again, there are three problems that must be addressed and may be decisive for the human future.
First, there is the problem of peace. At the beginning of the eighteenth century a new literary genre was born, the literature of pacifism. It began in 1712 when the Abbé de Saint-Pierre published his Project to Make Peace Perpetual in Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Judgment on the Project of Perpetual Peace was published posthumously in Geneva in 1782, and in 1795 an aging Immanuel Kant produced his Project of Perpetual Peace. There the idea of a “society of nations” was first formulated.
Also in our century we have seen various efforts to produce political, legal, and diplomatic systems that would ensure peace between the nations of the world. And yet, never before in human history have wars killed so many people as during these last two hundred years. After the end of the Cold War, some are so foolish as to think that the specter of war has vanished. More thoughtful people understand the terror of conflicts that may await us in the future.
The fear of war, the wish for peace, and the dream of universal fraternity are typically expressed in a synchronic vision of the world. That is to say, we think in terms of the relationships between peoples and nations at a given moment of history. But there is also the phenomenon of diachronic fraternity, of fraternity across time. Here I would direct our attention to the relationship between the generations. Probably more than others, Western societies, and the United States in particular, have dreamed of fashioning the relationship between older and younger generations on the model of fraternity. The consequence, and often the intent, is to eliminate the factor of authority that is inherent in paternal and maternal responsibilities.
This aspiration to fraternity has influenced deeply our educational systems and our everyday ways of living, popularly called our lifestyles. The result of this misadventure of fraternity has been, once again, just the opposite of what was hoped for. The voluntary withdrawal of parents, or their inability to play their role that necessarily involves the exercise of authority, has broken the vital links of transmission from one generation to another. The result is that the young then constitute themselves as a separate, autonomous social class. This is the “youth culture” that declares itself a world unto itself.
The attempt at diachronic fraternity ends up by undermining both diachrony and fraternity. When the responsibilities of paternity and maternity are denied, memory is weakened, and the very notion of history becomes unthinkable. Human experience is compressed, and distorted, by an all-pervasive presentism. The attempt at diachronic fraternity results in discarding life as something that, in its very essence, is received and is to be given to others. When young people no longer know that they have received their lives from their parents and, through them, from God, life becomes meaningless. Life is no longer open to others and, ultimately, to God.
This trend does not signify “the end of history,” as some suggested at the disappearance of the hostile brother, meaning the former Soviet Union. In fact, the disappearance of the father could be a much more momentous development. We must not forget that civilizations that appear at some point in history can also disappear when they forget their origin and destiny. Paul Valery rightly said, “We civilizations know only too well that we are mortal.”
The third domain in which the aspiration to fraternity is being put to the test is the ecological. The appearance of ecological concerns has several facets. At one level, it may reflect a kind of psychological regression, a longing to return to “Mother Earth” as depicted in ancient mythologies. But I would raise the caution that it is too easy to caricature the excesses and distortions that march under the banner of ecological concern. Environmentalism asks a very important question touching on fraternity, namely, What is humanity’s spiritual goal when the aim is to master the cosmos?
The Bible teaches that the world has been given to man with the mandate that he care for it, so that it may bear fruit to the glory of the Creator whose deputy man is. In this view, man is like a father who receives from his father a legacy from which all the members of the family are to benefit. The cosmos may be seen as the home inhabited by the human fraternity. We are to cherish this home, exploring its greatness and its secrets. For us human beings, the cosmos is like the body of our bodies, and we are responsible for all the creatures that surround us and depend for survival upon our care of the world in which we and they live.
Peace, the relationship between generations, and ecology—in all three areas the aspiration to fraternity is challenged. In all three, God’s revelation provides our culture with directions for fostering fraternity among peoples and nations, between the generations, and with the entire creation. If we ask how it is possible to foster fraternity in all these dimensions, we are in fact asking the question put to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” After telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus responds with another question, “Which of these, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” And the lawyer who asked the first question said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” “Go, and do likewise,” said Jesus (Luke 10:25-37).
Most translations say that the Samaritan “had compassion on” the man by the roadside. The words used by Luke, however, indicate that the Samaritan was moved to pity “deep in his entrails.” The Gospels reserve this Greek expression to describe not human compassion but what Jesus feels when he encounters the suffering. This is the case when he meets the widow of Nain (Luke 7:13), when he sees the crowd without a shepherd (Mark 6:34), and when the two blind men call out to him as he leaves Jericho (Matthew 20:34). This is also the expression used to indicate God’s response when he sees his wounded and lost creatures. It is how the father felt when he saw his prodigal son coming back home (Luke 15:20); it is the attitude of the master toward the servant who could not pay his debt (Matthew 18:27).
In the Good Samaritan parable, the answer reported by Luke—“The one who showed mercy on him”—employs the Greek word normally used in the Gospels to depict God’s love as it is manifested in his Son. Thus also the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Magnificat: “And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation . . . .” (Luke 1:50) Zechariah takes up the same truth in the Benedictus: “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers . . . through the tender mercy of our God when the day shall dawn upon us from on high . . . .” (Luke 1:72,78) When Jesus concludes the parable with the command to go and do likewise, he is saying that to “make oneself neighbor” to the wounded, the abandoned, and the needy is to act divinely. It is to act as the Heavenly Father has, in Jesus Christ, acted toward us.
Even for the believer, such a command seems to be altogether too much. It challenges our human weakness. This command can make sense only within the logic of the mystery of the glorification of humanity. Liberty led us to an encounter with creation; equality led us to an encounter with redemption; and now fraternity brings us to glorification. To be neighbor to others as God is neighbor to us—this is a possibility only through our participation in the resurrected life of Christ. In the language of St. Paul, the Holy Spirit comforts our spirits, giving us the strength to love as we are loved (Romans 8:16). The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to taste already now, in this historical moment before the End Time, the first fruits and the pledge of the final glorification when humanity enters God’s abode and becomes the temple of its Creator and Redeemer (2 Corinthians 1:22).
Of course this participation in the final consummation is an act of faith, a glimmering of dawn that stirs and sustains hope for the sunrise. The contradictions that challenge and test our culture’s aspirations to liberty, equality, and fraternity also challenge and test faith’s response to these aspirations, which are in fact engraved in history by God’s revelation. How can we help our culture to keep on hoping in the face of so much that seems to deny any reason for hope?
I have contended that the aspirations to liberty, equality, and fraternity have their origin in Christian faith. So also their future depends upon Christians who know that, despite all their misadventures, these aspirations are not in vain. They are not sentimental idealism or utopian delusion. They are human responses to God’s love and faithfulness in creation, redemption, and glorification. Even when others despair, we Christians must, for our sake and for the sake of all humanity, keep the faith. This is the mission we have received from God as the disciples of Jesus Christ. Gratefully receiving what has been given us, we are to live out the gift; until the end of time faithfully bearing witness to the advent of the Kingdom of God among us.
Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger is the Archbishop of Paris. This article is adapted from his Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life and delivered last year at Our Savior Roman Catholic Church in New York City.