you in this room already know the challenges to the sanctity of
human life that exist in nearly every developed country Many of
you have been warning about the drift toward infanticide and euthanasia
since the United States legalized abortion 30 years ago. But what’s
always struck me as strange – and what we might reflect on for just
a moment -- is the size of the gulf between how right the
warnings of the prolife movement have been, and how stubborn so
many people have seemed in ignoring those warnings. It’s as if prolifers
were the Cassandras of American politics – doomed to be correct
and doomed to be ignored at the same time.
Now I think
prolifers can and do have a significant influence on American political
life. But it seems pretty reasonable to ask why so many otherwise
good people in our country simply don’t see any connection
between the advent of Roe v Wade and today’s arguments over human
cloning, or eugenics, or breeding embryos purely for science.
So I want
to suggest four problems embedded in American culture today that
make it almost impossible for some people to understand what prolifers
are talking about. And maybe we can explore these further in our
questions and answers after my remarks.
the first problem: our inability to reason. Most of the arguments
in favor of embryonic stem cell research come down to two main points:
(a) Stem cells are really, really small, therefore they can’t be
human; and (b) the end justifies the means.
requires time. It requires a vocabulary of ideas. It involves the
testing and comparison of competing arguments. But America in our
lifetimes is a culture built on marketing, and marketing works in
exactly the opposite way. Marketing appeals to desire and emotion,
and it depends on the suppression of critical thought, which gets
in the way of buying the product or the message. That’s why marketing
is tied so tightly to image – images operate quickly and very effectively
at the sub-rational level. That explains why car manufacturers usually
stand a good-looking blonde in front of their latest sports car
instead of a stack of performance statistics. And that’s also why
we’ve seen so many alien-looking closeups of stem cells in magazine
and newspaper spreads. The implicit message of the image is: This
can’t be human; it doesn’t even look like us. The fact that these
cells are unique and contain all the genetic information a person
will ever need, and that left alone they will inevitably progress
to a fetus, to an infant and finally to an human adult, is often
argument for embryonic stem cell research – the end justifies the
means – is basically an exercise in cost-benefit analysis. And it
goes like this: We need to sacrifice the few for the sake of the
many, because the many outweigh the few. But again, the power of
that argument is not rational but emotional, and it usually
translates, in the media, into stories that pit this or that suffering
Parkinson’s Disease patient against an inarticulate petri dish.
Of course, we should never dismiss the suffering of individual patients
or their hunger for a cure. But my point is that the structure of
such a comparison is inherently flawed; it’s designed to appeal
to something other than our reason. We gravitate to the Parkinson’s
Disease patient naturally and emotionally . . . and meanwhile, a
very dangerous argument from utility sneaks past us masquerading
the second problem: our inability to remember. The historian
Christopher Lasch once observed that Americans have a kind of addiction
to the new, the fresh and the practical. We’re a people of the "now"
-- the present moment. We enjoy nostalgia, because it’s a kind of
entertainment, but we don’t really like history because the
past, as it really happened, burdens us with memories and unfinished
business, and it imposes obligations on the present. We like to
think that we invent ourselves, and that anything is possible. It’s
part of the American ethos. But the cost of that illusion is that
Americans tend to have a very poor grasp of history, and thus we
often learn too little from the lessons of the past.
just one example: Quite a few Americans have some general knowledge
of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. But I suspect very few understand
that the ethical framework for the Holocaust was already in place
in the German medical establishment before the Nazis ever came to
power. Before turning its attention to the Jews, the Third Reich
had already systematically killed tens of thousands of people --
the official word was "disinfected" -- people who were
insane, mentally handicapped or terminally ill . . . and it did
so using some of the same utilitarian excuses we now hear in the
problem three: our inability to imagine and hope. Americans
have never been ideologues. We’re pragmatists and tool makers. We
respect results. Therefore it’s no surprise that we have the strongest
economic machine in the world, and that we excel at science and
technology, and that these disciplines enjoy such esteem in our
culture. But as the writer Edward Tenner once observed, technology
always carries with it a "revenge of unintended consequences"
– and one of the unintended consequences of our science is that
we’ve now become its objects and its victims. One of the costs of
our science has been a decline in our vocabulary of the soul, a
rise in a purely materialist, determinist view of the world, and
a decline in our sense that humanity is somehow unique in creation.
Hope and imagination flow out of a belief in a higher purpose to
our lives. If all we are is very intelligent carbon, then hope and
imagination are just quirks of the species. And so is any talk about
the sanctity of the human person.
four: our inability to live real freedom. Freedom is not
an endless supply of choices and options. Choice for its own sake
is just another form of idolatry. Freedom is the ability to see
-- and the courage to do -- what is right. But if, as a people,
we begin to doubt that any absolute principles of right and wrong
exist, then how can we even begin to discuss things like freedom,
truth and the sanctity of the human person in a common vocabulary?
How can we agree on which rights take precedence, and who has responsibility
get in place of freedom is a kind of anarchy of conflicting pressure
groups and personal agendas held together by just one thing: the
economy we all share . . . and that’s not the basis of a community
or even a useful conversation. In fact our economy, more than anything
else in modern American life, teaches us to see almost everything
as a commodity to be bought or sold. This is what Jeremy Rifkin
warns about when he describes American culture as increasingly a
"paid-for experience" based on the commodification of
passion, ideals, relationships and even time. If we want freedom,
we buy it by purchasing this car or that computer; if we
want romance, we buy it by purchasing this cruise or that
is, the more our advertising misuses the language of our dreams
and ideals to sell consumer goods . . . the more confused our dreams
and ideals themselves become. We delude ourselves to the point where
we no longer recognize what real love, honest work, freedom, family,
patriotism -- and even life itself -- look like.
why Neil Postman once described television commercials as "a
form of religious literature" and any serious commentary on
them as a kind of "hermeneutics, the branch of theology concerned
with interpreting and explaining the Scriptures." Postman wrote
that "the majority of important television commercials take
the form of religious parables organized around a coherent theology.
Like all religious parables they put forward a concept of sin, intimations
of the way to redemption, and a vision of heaven. They also suggest
what are the roots of evil, and what are the obligations of the
holy." And of course, the first obligation of the holy
is always to buy the product.
four problems we’ve just outlined act as a kind of background noise
in American culture that can screen out much of the work the good
people in this room do. And I know that can be discouraging. The
Prophet Jeremiah certainly struggled with discouragement when God
sent him to preach repentance to his people. He was treated with
contempt and disbelief, and I know that some of you are as well.
But he was faithful – and because he was faithful, the truth
was served and God remained alive in hearts of the Jewish people.
Mother Teresa once said that we’re not called to be successful,
we’re called to be faithful, and in due time, God will ensure the
to remember that. But we also need to take joy and confidence in
the fact that, in the long run, right makes might, not the
other way around. A friend once shared with me the unofficial motto
of the Texas Rangers. It’s in Texan, not English, but it goes like
this: Little man whup a big man every time if the little man’s
in the right and keeps a-comin. I probably like that because
I’m short -- but I also believe it’s true.
us have a freedom given to us by God, so in the near term, no one
can stop an individual or even a nation that consciously chooses
to die. But in the long run, life always wins; right always
wins; God is always glorified – and nothing is more beautiful
or more powerful than the simple, single person who witnesses the
sanctity of life even in the face of his or her own destruction.
Nobody remembers the party hacks or police thugs at Tienanmen Square.
But we all remember the single young man who blocked the
line of tanks.
lie of the modern age is that individuals can’t make a difference.
But it’s exactly individuals who do make a difference,
men and women who refuse to cooperate with evil and insist on doing
good. Human beings make history, not the other way around,
and we do it day in and day out, one by one, in our choices of whom
and what we love, what we build , what we live for, and what we
my remarks today by quoting a brother bishop. His name was Clemens
August von Galen. He was quite an extraordinary man because he was
one of the very few German religious leaders who publicly, forcefully
and courageously condemned the Nazi regime at the height of its
power for murdering the mentally and physically handicapped. Bishop
von Galen delivered his homily almost exactly 60 years ago this
week – August 3, 1941 – and his message is just as urgent today
as it was then.
between 1941 and 2001 is that America, perhaps unlike Germany at
that time, still has a deep reservoir of goodness in its public
life. The struggle for the soul of our country can still be won,
and the people in this room are all von Galens. You all know history,
and you’re all working to create something better and more humane
-- a future worthy of the human person as a child of God. And in
John Paul’s The Gospel of Life and the American bishops’
Living the Gospel of Life we have tools that can guide us
in the task.
man whup a big man every time, if the little man’s in the right
and keeps a-comin. Be faithful to God, as He is faithful to
us. And know that in saving one child, you save the world.
you, and welcome to Denver!