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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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