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Monday, February 21, 2005


A woman in Florida and a man in Rome have more in common than one might imagine. With the Polish release of Pope John Paul II’s newest book, Memory and Identity, we see first-hand what the Pope felt minutes after the bullet pierced his flesh. He recalls the pain, the blood loss and the slow drift into unconsciousness, a coma so deep, with blood pressure so dangerously low, that his attending physician recommended last rites be prayed.

Today, we see the Pope decades later experiencing the ravages of Parkinson’s disease - the mask-like, expressionless face, the hand tremors, the slow, garbled speech and the difficulty walking. What if time had flowed differently? It is impossible not to consider how similar his life today is to that of Terry Schiavo, the ciminal Florida courts want to kill. Her crime? Being inconvenient.

Schiavo’s coma, which some have implied may have been the result of a violent assault, has been the source of a seven-year controversy in the United States. Her husband received millions of dollars in a medical malpractice settlement for her treatment and rehabilitation. He has spent all of those millions in executing lawsuits aimed at making sure she never receives the rehabilitation treatment necessary to allow her to communicate again. Instead, he has been attempting to have her executed through court-sanctioned starvation/dehydration. While roasting her in an oven would accelerate the dehydration process and would certainly be about as comfortable, that remedy has not yet been suggested by her husband or the courts, although the possibility is not to be ruled out.

The attempts on her life remind us of the attempts on the Pope's life. According to the press releases, one of the things the Holy Father remarks on in his book is the enormous puzzlement Mehmet Ali Agca, the professional Turkish assassin who made the attempt on the Pope’s life. When the Pope visited Agca in jail following his recovery from the wound, Agca still could not figure out what had gone wrong. He was a professional assassin, a skilled marksman who had planned the event down to the smallest detail. He emptied his gun at the Pope from a distance of less than a few dozen feet, but only managed to hit him twice. Worse, his quarry survived. Agca simply could not get over the fact that he had failed to take his victim’s life.

If the Parkinson's-ravaged Pope had been shot by Agca while in the Florida panhandle, he would undoubtedly be in greater danger of losing his life than he had been in Rome in 1981. In Florida, as the Pope slipped towards death, there would be no shortage of people calling for the removal of John Paul II’s feeding tube. Even during his recent bout with the flu, so famous a Catholic as William Buckley took the time to write a column expressing his desire that the Pope die.

The Pope has suffered from Parkinson’s for roughly the same length of time Terry has suffered from the presence of a husband who wants her dead. The main difference is this: many medical experts agree Terry can be rehabilitated and restored to greater physical mobility, greater ability to communicate with those around her. No one holds out that hope for the Pope. All of this provokes meditation on the dignity of the human person.

I once had a discussion with one of the most enormous contradictions possible today: the atheistic Jewish philosopher. In the first century, he would have been stoned by his brothers for apostasy. Today, as he proudly announces, rabbis consult him.

During the course of the conversation, the professor insisted there was no such thing as human nature, nor was there such a thing as the natural law. He insisted that law drew its source only from the consent of the people, who agreed on how best to run the world. Government was his God – he thought every malady could be solved simply through the application of the people’s agreed-upon will, as expressed in governmental policy.

Now, “natural law” is only this: it is the natural right order to which all things, including human beings, conform. In other words, “natural law” simply means “justice.” Human nature is nothing more than the fact that all men have both certain natural needs and the power of reason, that is, the power to recognize what is really good for man in terms of those needs.

My atheistic Jewish friend (I simply cannot type those words without feeling the weight of that oxymoron) opposed the idea because it tasted too much of Christian monotheism. Now, certainly the idea can be found in Christian thought, but it is not unique to that thought. It can also be found in Judaism, in the pagan discourses of Plato, in the philosophers of India and China. Still, the whole thought of a God who actually has authority was more than he could bear.

But, to be fair, his way of approaching the world has at least as long a lineage. The Sophists of ancient Greece founded the concepts he espouses. Plato merely reacted to the pre-existing “sophisticated” concept, as it were. It is, perhaps, no surprise to find that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the meaning of the words “sophisticate” this way: “to alter deceptively; especially : ADULTERATE, to deprive of genuineness, naturalness, or simplicity; especially : to deprive of naïveté and make worldly-wise.”

This Sophistic concept, the concept that law ultimately derives from man, the rejection of the idea that law is an image of a greater Being, has always been fought by men who know the law reflects something higher, deeper, broader than just man in himself. As the great philosopher Mortimer Adler points out, “If justice is relevant to man’s condition, then the natural law is likewise relevant.”

The great irony in our conversation revolved around the militant Judaism, bordering on bigotry towards Catholicism, my atheistic friend displayed while he simultaneously dismissed the natural law. Let me explain.

The Sophists argued that since fire burns equally well in Greece as in Persia, but the laws of Greece are not the same as the laws in Persia, this demonstrated that there was no human nature and no natural law. For them, these facts demonstrated that law is mere convention, whim, the fancy of the masses that holds today and may be the opposite tomorrow. Law is morality, and law is what the people say it is.

Meanwhile, the great natural law thinkers, men like Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Kant, point to those same human laws as examples of the problem. The natural law tells us what we need and what harms us, but it is left to human law to work out the details for each situation. Their understanding holds out a nuance that sophism does not contain: when the law of man is not in conformance with the natural law, then it is no law at all, and need not be obeyed.

For Sophists, justice and law are identical. For natural law thinkers, justice is not the same as law. But today’s Sophistic philosophers, the secular humanists who would place government where God is, and make it the arbiter of life and death, want to insist that morality, that “values,” is not the same as legality. That is, they recognize the distinction natural law makes while rejecting natural law itself. Why would they adulterate, why would they sophisticate, their philosophy this way?

Because it is too stiff a drink to take straight. You see, my atheistic Jewish friend is militantly anti-God and pro-Jewish, in the sense that he sees everything in terms of the Holocaust. For this man, who never experienced the camps or the enormous assistance the Catholic Church alone rendered to Jews who were attempting to escape Nazi depredations, the Holocaust is a defining experience.

But the question Mortimer Adler asks, the question Catholics ask, the question orthodox Jews ask, the questions secular atheistic humanists refuse to face is precisely this, “On what grounds could a decent German citizen in Nazi times justify his opposition to the laws of the land? On private sentiments or merely personal opinion? Even purely inner resistance to iniquity must be rooted in firmer ground.”

If there is no human nature, if there is no natural law, there is no basis to make a distinction between morality and legality. One may say many things about the eugenics movement which began with Malthus and Darwin, grew in the forced sterilization laws so popular to the America and American law schools of the 1920’s, and found its full flower in the Nazi death camps, but one must insist on this: the Germans, like the Americans, like the English, took great pains to keep everything legal. Before each turn of the screw, the law that permitted the screw to be turned was first carefully discussed and legislated into existence. Man made law on his own authority, without respect to the natural law divinely ordained or the human nature which is its divinely established basis.

This lies at the basis of the court animosity towards Terry Schiavo, the secular Jewish animosity towards the papal comparison between abortion and the Holocaust, and the philosophy professor’s animosity towards all things Catholic. The Holocaust has become the touchstone for my atheistic friend precisely because the minority of atheistic secular humanists among his people have gone to great pains to make it so. The secularists view the Holocaust as a particular sign that God does not exist, for if He did, He surely would have done something to stop it.

The insistence that Terry is worth saving because God says she is, the insistence that children in the womb are worth saving because God says they are, the insistence that God wants to save every one of us from our sins, these things are all vicious slanders from the Sophisticated point of view. The secular humanist view is, as Merriam-Webster points out, “worldly-wise.” Perhaps this is why the greatest Jewish philosopher of all warned, “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

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