Mother Teresa, who dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor, said on more than one occasion that the greatest poverty in the world was not on the streets of Calcutta but here in the United States and Western Europe. She would say: "What a terrible poverty that says: I cannot feed one more child. I cannot clothe one more child. I cannot shelter one more child. I cannot care for one more child. I cannot love one more child."
This is the great poverty that has enveloped our nation these past thirty-five years¯a poverty that amid unprecedented prosperity and wealth places strict limits on our capacity to love.
One of the themes that John Paul II wove through his encyclical The Gospel of Life could be described as the crisis of truth . John Paul believed that objective truth was accessible to everyone through the light of reason. In this, he stood in opposition to many in Western society who question the existence of truth.
For many in our culture today, tolerance and diversity have become the new absolutes. Certainly, there is much good in such values. Tolerance is an important and helpful civic virtue in a democratic society. And it is consistent with Christian teaching.
In fact, as Christians, we are called to do much more than tolerate others who may be different from us in a whole host of ways. We are called to reverence every other human being as one made in the image of God and one the Son of God deemed of such worth that he gave his life on Calvary. This does not mean, however, that every action is to be approved, much less respected. There are some actions and activities that are against the innate dignity of the human person and that infringe on the rights and dignity of others.
The point, here, is that the ideological underpinnings for pro-choice rhetoric derive from the relativism against which the pope complained. It is the crisis of truth that allows otherwise intelligent individuals to posit that they are personally opposed to abortion but they support the right of others to choose an abortion.
The question that needs to be posed to those who make this claim is: Why are you personally opposed to abortion? Why do so many of the pro-choice politicians even say that they want to make abortion rare? Why want to make something rare if it is truly a valid choice? The rhetoric of choice has been a very clever marketing campaign for something that is of its nature evil and repugnant.
While it taps into some deeply held American values of personal freedom and individual liberty, pro-choice position is actually an exercise in illogic. Nobody is actually pro-choice in the sense that they are in favor of all choices. Indeed, one always has to ask the further question: What is being chosen? In the case of abortion, the honest answer is: to destroy a human life.
In some of the inner-city neighborhoods where I served as a priest, there was a great problem with gun violence. Could you imagine anyone saying that they were personally against drive-by shootings, but if someone else wanted to do it they should have that right? Yet it is precisely that illogic that has been used now for several decades to defend the legalization of abortion¯the destruction of an innocent human life.
Without the acceptance of objective truth, everything becomes negotiable. The moral conscience of society and the individual are impaired. There is confusion in the recognition of good and evil. We become uncertain about such fundamental institutions for family and society as marriage. From the denial of natural truth, a nihilism emerges that we find expressing itself today in art, literature, and films. We become confused about what is good and noble. We question what is worth devoting our life to. This confusion results in a great interior emptiness. We try to distract ourselves with more and more things, divert our attention with more and more entertainment, and numb ourselves with drugs and other addictions.
I remember watching, as a child, an episode of The Twilight Zone . It began with doctors and nurses with surgical masks gathered around a hospital bed of a female patient whose face was completely bandaged except for her eyes and nose. From their conversation, it became apparent that this woman suffered from a hideous disfigurement which a series of plastic surgeries had failed to correct. They had attempted one final surgery that the doctors were optimistic would solve the problem, but they would not know for certain until they unbandaged her face several days later.
They finally come to the moment of truth¯the unwrapping of the bandages¯and we see that the woman’s face is stunningly beautiful. The doctors and nurses shake their heads with disappointment and apologize for their failure. For the first time they remove their surgical masks revealing grotesquely hideous features. That is how it is in The Twilight Zone : The beautiful is ugly, and the ugly is beautiful.
This is a helpful image for the consequence of relativism that impairs a culture from recognizing what is objectively good, beautiful, and true. In The Gospel of Life , Pope John Paul had this to say about objective truth: "The Gospel of Life is not for believers alone: It is for everyone. The issue of life and its defense and promotion is not a concern of the Christian alone. Although faith provides special light and strength, this question arises in every human conscience which seeks the truth and which cares about the future of humanity. Life certainly has a sacred and religious value, but in no way is that value a concern only of believers. The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone."
This battle for the reality and existence of truth is not a new one, although the strength of secular relativism today is undermining the foundations of culture and society in a unique and devastating manner. We can find the battle between truth and its denial right in the Passion, when the accused prisoner, Jesus, asserts: "I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice," while his earthly judge, Pontius Pilate, feebly responds with the classic relativist’s question: "What is truth?"
I prefer to be a disciple of Jesus rather than of Pontius Pilate.
Joseph Naumann is the archbishop of Kansas City. These remarks are adapted from a talk he gave at the Gospel of Life Conference in Denver on October 20, 2007.
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