Wednesday, April 13, 2005

MH - The Paradox of Modern Thinking

Jarrett Connor has a very good post regarding a discussion earlier this week in The Corner as to whether or not Pope John Paul II was a "paradox." What do they mean by this? Well, the Pope was certainly a conservative when it came to social issues such as abortion, but then he also opposed capital punishment (or at least felt its use should be dramatically curtailed). You don't need to document his opposition to Communism, and yet he was often harsh in his assessment of unfettered capitalism. As one correspondent put it, while the Pope's religious legacy was "mana from heaven," his "*political/economic* views were often, um, wrong. So what? They were mostly harmless."

Jarrett couldn't disagree with that more. Excerpt:
I think that it is a mistake to dub the Pope paradoxical, however. It is the parties that have the paradoxes. The Pope's positions are all in sympathy with one another. Why oppose totally unregulated free markets? Because they degrade human beings. Why oppose communist domination? Because it degrades human beings.


Consider stem cell research on human embryos. If the principle of human dignity is to be upheld (and applied to embryos as the church would have it) then embryonic stem cell research should not only be unfunded--it should be illegal. Neither party has the political stomach for that, which suggests that the political center of the brave new world debates is much further away from the church's teaching than on say, social safety nets or abortion. On biotech--and many related issues--it appears that neither party genuinely wants to stand with the church. None of that changes the fundamentally un-paradoxical nature of the Pope's teaching.

And that's it in a nutshell. Was the Pope a paradox? Sure, if you use worldly values as the standard. He was a paradox to a world that put its value in power and prestige, in wealth and material posessions, in self-satisfaction rather than self-sacrifice. If you're a political party that defines values to mean what wins votes, he was a paradox. If you're a corporate executive who looks at employees as units of commerce whose value is in helping to meet the bottom line, he was a paradox. If your job is to sell products regardless of, or in spite of, the harm they might cause to society, he was a paradox.

To the modern world, or large portions of it, he was a paradox. But then being a Christian has always meant being countercultural, moving against the tide. To live in this world and yet not be of the world is a paradox, if you measure it by worldly standards.

It was why people respected the Pope, and at the same time felt challenged by him. Rick Brookhiser once said of his George Washington biography Founding Father that if you had to reduce it to four words, they would be "He really meant it." People on both the right and left (perhaps the right more so) embraced John Paul, but there was often that moment of hesitation when they looked deeper into his thoughts and words and realized, "He really meant it."

So was the Pope's thinking paradoxical? Only for those who look at the small picture, who fail to realize that, as Shakespeare said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

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