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The Absolutist

FYI, Damon LInker on John Paul II’s legacy, from a year ago:

After a century of mass murder, John Paul’s unconditional defense of human dignity cannot fail to impress. His articulate and passionate advocacy for human rights helped to bring about the fall of communism, and it justly earned him the respect and admiration of humanists (Christian and non-Christian alike) around the globe.

Yet there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms–even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself.


Take the Pope’s influence on the way stem-cell research is discussed in the United States. John Paul convinced many American conservatives that the union of sperm and ovum instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same dignity (and thus rights) as a mature human being; embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys this person within two weeks of conception, must therefore be prohibited. From this standpoint, those who support such research appear to be immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty "culture of death." But this is far from fair. It is neither nihilism nor a craving for "death" that leads many of us to conclude that we should support research that promises to relieve human suffering when doing so inflicts no suffering of its own. (A microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish is, of course, non-sentient.) On the contrary, this conclusion flows from an intuition embedded in moral common sense. This is not to deny a certain moral grandeur to the Pope’s absolutist stance, which holds that the defense of innate human dignity ought to trump suffering every time. But denying that both positions have moral weight does serious damage to the richness and complexity of moral experience.


It also tends to poison and polarize political debate, as we recently observed in the rancorous conflict over the fate of Terri Schiavo. It is an eerie coincidence that John Paul’s death followed so swiftly on the heels of this saga, since it stands as a further, and even more troubling, example of the Pope’s influence on moral argument in the United States. Those who sided with Schiavo’s parents in their efforts to have her feeding tube reinserted (including President Bush and leading members of the Republican Party) explicitly described themselves as defenders of a "culture of life" against its enemies. It didn’t matter to them that 19 judges had ruled that removing Schiavo’s feeding tube was permitted under Florida law. It didn’t matter that established legal procedures precluded appeals to the federal courts. It didn’t matter that the U.S. Constitution left open no role for Congress or the president. Such procedural and pragmatic considerations were irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was that they turn back the "culture of death" by any means possible.


Their efforts failed, of course. And things could certainly have been much worse. (Bill Bennett, as usual, distinguished himself by advocating the least responsible course of action, advising Governor Jeb Bush to reject the principle of judicial review, disregard the Florida and appellate courts, and send in the National Guard to reinsert Schiavo’s feeding tube by force.) But then, the nearly two-week national spectacle was quite disturbing enough: We witnessed significant numbers of American citizens and their representatives in Washington refusing to settle for the imperfect justice of the rule of law and demanding an extra-legal means of bringing the nation into conformity with morality understood in the absolute, unambiguous terms defined by John Paul II. For these moral perfectionists, the lawful course of action–the slow, difficult, and possibly futile task of persuading Florida voters and their representatives to change the laws of their state so that a similar situation would not arise in the future–was simply unacceptable.


Self-government is hard on perfectionists. How will John Paul’s admirers respond to future disappointments as they go about advocating their "culture of life" in the United States? Only when it has become possible to answer that question will we be able to form a settled judgment about the political and moral legacy of Pope John Paul II.

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posted March 26, 2006 at 4:21 pm

Llnker makes much more of the pope’s role than it deserves in the context of the Schaivo case. The pope said, on March 20, 2005, “I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.” Terri Schiavo died on March 31, 2005, ten days after the papal statement was made. Her tube for feeding was withdrawn in accord with court order on March 18, 2005. The legal dispute between Terri’s parents and husband began in 1993.
Until the pope spoke, very late in the game, there was little or no Catholic clarity on when, if ever, it was permissible to withhold or withdraw artificially provided feeding/hydration, with the strong majority of Catholic moralists (including the moralist who testified during the Schiavo litigation) supporting allowing foregoing tube feeding/hydration on the same or similar grounds on which air is denied patients when breathing assistance is withheld or withdrawn. There is still considerable confusion, with many orthodox moralists arguing the rule does not apply to the terminnally ill even if they are able to assimilate nutrition (though the pope makes no such distinction) or to methods of feeding/hydration, such as total parenteral feeding (injecting nutrients directly into the blood).
So how can it be honestly said that the proponents of continued tube feeding/hydration of Terri were walking lock-step with the Vatican all along?

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Kevin Jones

posted March 26, 2006 at 4:36 pm

“Yet there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms–even the noblest kinds.”
Is there such a thing as a noble relativism? There are certainly suspicious kinds.
I’m incredibly tired of armchair psychoanalysts’ admonitions about the dangers of certainty. The self-congratulations of “nuanced moderates” who claim to be above the rough-and-tumble absolutist extremists likewise chafe me. Moderates are just extremists who are in power.

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posted March 26, 2006 at 5:32 pm

Celine, the Pope said the thing about administering water and food in March, 2004, not 2005 — a year before Terri Schiavo died. But your point is still valid. I lived through a situation fairly similar to the Terri Schiavo situation and I can tell you first hand that a mother and a father who are fighting for the life of their child does not need the Vatican to tell them what to do.
(Ex-First Things employees are almost as bad as ex-priests. It is amazing to think that First Things had as a senior editor someone who invokes the “clump of cells” argument in defense of stem cell research.)

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posted March 26, 2006 at 7:57 pm

The “paradoxical character of morality” stuff always makes me smile mirthlessly. It hardly ever issues from someone of such notorious holiness that (s)he has fully conformed to “the rules” and, having plumbed the surface of ethics, is driven to protecting innocents by lying to jackbooted atheist militia, or some such courageous ethics of the extremes.

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