By Dr. Rodney Howsare
April 6, 2005
I have been compulsively watching the news coverage of the death and significance of John Paul II. On the one hand, the media have been on their best behavior. It's difficult to be too hard on somebody who has just died. On the other hand, there is the usual tension in their coverage. Namely, how can a man who was so compassionate regarding the poor, so critical of unbridled capitalism, so "soft" on violent crime, so kind to other religions, be so "backward" with regard issues such as sex, gender and bio-ethics?
The German poet Goethe once said that anybody who can't give an account of the past 3,000 years of intellectual history shouldn't be allowed to speak. If we took Goethe's directive seriously we would have very quiet journalists. But we don't; instead we have a media which insists upon placing John Paul II into modern political categories. Little do they realize that the difference between Newt Gingrich and Ted Kennedy is relatively trivial compared to the difference between modern philosophical liberalism and, say, the philosophy of Aristotle or Aquinas. It is against protocol for American journalists to study philosophy; it is against the law for them to study theology.
John Paul II was a man who thought about issues in the light of 3,000 years of thought and faith. This is precisely why he doesn't fit into the neat divides of American journalism. For instance, John Paul II's views on sex are considered by our media as being "old-fashioned." But even a cursory look at the history of "sexual mores" shows that the Judeo-Christian sex ethic which John Paul II endorsed is actually "cutting edge" compared to that of, say, the Canaanites of the 8th century BCE or the Romans of the 1st Century CE. In both of these societies women—and some men—were treated as little more than sexual property. Jesus' condemnation, in the New Testament, of both lust and divorce served as foundational elements of what one perceptive woman has called "the pope's new feminism." But because our journalists only know the difference between the "prudish" fifties and the "liberated" sixties, anybody who isn't for all of the innovations of the sexual revolution must be "old fashioned." It never dawns on them that the view of sex proffered by Howard Stern and the pornography industry—in which women are treated as objects for men's jollies—might be the outdated one.
Finally, for John Paul II, morality is not something that changes with trends. Rather, morality is something that is rooted in the nature of the human person. Things which were morally wrong yesterday don't become morally right today because they are now considered right by Oprah Winfrey and Ben Affleck. Rather, moral norms flow from the nature of things. Because, for instance, human life is not an artifice (a machine) but a gift (a mystery), we do not have complete control or ownership over it. I do not own my body like I own my car. I have been entrusted with something that I did not purchase or make. The proper attitude to life is, first, reverence, something Wendell Berry has been telling us for years. But this is precisely why John Paul II is at once a fierce defender of the environment (an allegedly "liberal" concern) and of human life, from the moment of conception till the moment of natural death (an allegedly "conservative" concern).
I would like to agree with our media that John Paul II presents a problem for them; I would also like to suggest that the problem isn't with John Paul II.
Dr. Rodney Howsare is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and theology at DeSales University.
Press Release: The "Conflicted" Legacy of Pope John Paul II By Dr. Rodney Howsare | Posted on: 4/6/2005
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