Superseding the Culture of Death

At the end of World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer the director of Los Alamos (the labs that built the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan), said at his farewell: “If you are a scientist, it is good to find out how the world works. . . . It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is of intrinsic value to humanity.” He also described the need to deal with the consequences of such knowledge. This picture of the moral imperatives attached to technology, and the power that accompanies it, rapidly got lost in the post-war fascination with the sheer exercise of power.

The historian Tony Judt has observed that “by 1945, many Europeans had lived through three decades of military and political violence. Young people all across the continent were inured to a level of public brutality, in words and actions, that would have shocked their nineteenth-century forebears.” Although we didn’t have a war on our own soil, many Americans experienced something similar, or at one remove, by fighting in the Atlantic or Pacific theatres, or having someone in the family who had. In the East, Stalinism and Maoism were built on power. Missing in both East and West was any large-scale awareness of a profound fact underscored at the Second Vatican Council: “the greater man’s power becomes, the farther his individual and community responsibility extends.” The terrible corruption of the human spirit that comes from being surrounded by such violence, participating in such violence, and being too shocked, numbed, or even too blasé, to lessen violence, left many people without the ability to appreciate this fundamental axiom of human life.

The atomic bomb and the two World Wars II  split world history into a “before” and “after.” So did ideologies like Communism and Nazism, which killed over 100 million people, a figure unprecedented in human history. Such vast exercises of power and the consequent carnage seem to have even horribly scarred the survivors, much as slavery not only diminishes the humanity of the slave but the master as well. Violence, even exercised for the right reasons, in a just war, “puts the brakes on authentic development and impedes the evolution of peoples towards greater socio-economic and spiritual well-being.” (Benedict XVI) Put aside – if such a thing is even possible – the dozens of subsequent wars of liberation, the proxy wars, the wholesale massacres (Rwanda, Cambodia etc.), the ethnic wars in places like the Balkans, the terrorist acts, and we can see that vast currents of violence and death continue to be unleashed within the cultures of the world.

And let’s not forget: Contraception and abortion are further examples of such violence. Contraception does terrible harm to the human spirit. If one does not conceive of the human spirit as God-given and imaging God, then one can turn a blind eye to the appalling damage done by structuring one’s life around contraception. It is indeed a “structuring” because if offspring are allowed to live, the man and the woman having intercourse would have far richer and more fulfilled lives. They would have to care for real human beings, which is the foundation of all growth.

Abortion kills tens of millions of human beings annually, but in the cloud of death that clings to the world owing to widespread violence and in the deliberate cloaking of the reality of abortion by the media, it does not look like much. Certainly in abortion there are no bullet-riddled corpses, no blood – unless one is present for the “surgery.” Labeling the culture of death (John Paul II) was an important first step, but now there needs to be a profound effort to rebuild a culture where positive human values come to the fore again. And for that to happen, the cloud of death has to be faced, not skated over. Which parents, teachers, news outlets, politicians will speak about the ongoing violence? The recent popes have tried to keep the truth before the eyes of the world. But even the majority of Catholics have simply gone along with the culture of violence and the accompanying resignation.

How do we get past the culture of death in practical terms? The answer lies in the question: the dead need to be mourned. It’s only human to do so. In the United States, there has been virtually no effort to mourn, or to teach, or to make a different culture by a deep appreciation of what has happened – to others and to us. Couldn’t we say to everyone who wants to abort that the Catholic Church will take on the care of that child? This would also be a concrete way of expressing the truth of the teaching against abortion because truth always becomes concrete in actual human existence, just as the Son of God (the Divine Truth) became concrete in Jesus of Nazareth. The billions of dollars spent on the recent scandal certainly would have helped a lot of men and women reach adulthood. But this is not primarily a crisis of money, but of will. And if the Church does not lead the way, who else will?