Wednesday, February 09, 2005

One Man Against the World

I posted last evening on my reaction to Professor Bainbridge's hypothesis that Pope John Paul II would not take the easy way out and retire from the Papacy. Then, this morning I chimed in on Nelson Ascher's thoughts on the global left as a movement and its drive to destroy everything the United States stands for. It was only on reflection that I recognized the relationship between both posts: the topics really dealt, in microcosm, with the two dominant philosophical strains that have been running through Western civilization since at least the Enlightenment.

On the one hand, you have Pope John Paul II (and the United States, most visibly through its Founding Documents) standing for the dignity of the person, in and of him/herself and as a child of God. The Pope's teachings have uniformly hewed to this doctrine, cf. Evangelium Vitae (1985), and now, as both Professor Bainbridge and I agree, the Pope will become the embodiment of those teachings, as his health continues to deteriorate, in full view of the millions who love him.

In contrast, you have what I will term the collectivists -- those for whom It Takes a Village to raise a child; those for whom the Elite, the Guardians, the Politburo or whatever name the ruling junta happens to don, are necessary to govern human relations. Ultimately, though they pay lip service to the contrary, the collectivists do not value personal human dignity; rather they value dignity as a function of society as a whole. If the dignity of one person must be sacrificed for the good of society, the collectivists maintain, so be it. The decision as to whose dignity must be sacrificed is solely for the ruling elite to determine. This philosophical strain reached its crescendo with the inception of the Soviet Union in 1917, continuing on more or less apace until the Communist bloc crumbled in the late 1980's and early 90's.

However, the collectivist strain also made inroads in Western Europe and the United States in the years following World War II. Socialism, abortion on demand, the increasing legal acceptance and endorsement of libertine behavior are all manifestations of this influence, the pedigree of which are amply demonstrated in Allan Bloom's excellent book, The Closing of the American Mind(1987). This insidious strain now takes the form of the anti-globalization movement, the anti-war movement (inasmuch as that movement is animated by a hostility to initiatives undertaken by any non-collectivist leaning (i.e. Republican) US administrations), the political correctness movement, the environmental movement, the multiculturalist movement, the feminist movement and a whole host of other "-isms." Uniting all of these movements is the underlying philosophy that human dignity must be subsumed to the collective good, something akin to how bees and ants operate at the hive level. The ultimate goal would be a world like that posited by George Orwell in 1984: joyless, techocratic and ruled by unimpeachable elites who always know what's best.

The man who, more than any other, has attacked both strains of collectivism, the external and the insidious, has been Pope John Paul II. He, along with his co-belligerent, Ronald Reagan, was responsible for the collapse of Soviet Communism. The Pope's weapon in that conflict was the power of ideas, of hope and of personal courage in the face of adversity. He stood, and stands, for the proposition that one man can make a difference. As a result, the Soviet Union and its vassal states are no more. The Pope has also, of course, consistently attacked insidious collectivism, maintaining the Church's stand against abortion and birth control, as well as combatting licentiousness in all its many forms.

It is tempting, therefore, to view the Pontiff as a lonely figure in white, bending into the wind, miter in hand, stating: "You will not pass!", in this epochal battle for philosophical preeminence. Some would even say that this is ultimately the battle of Good versus evil. I'll leave that for you to decide.

UPDATE: In the midst of preparing this post, Professor Bainbridge posted in a related vein on the issue of whether contemporary Catholic social thought draws more heavily on Marxism or on classic liberalism.

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