Before I start my talk tonight I want to apologize for its length. One must be brilliant to be brief. One must have seen, and thought, and reflected upon everything to eliminate all but the essentials.
I'm just a struggler, a student, a pilgrim trying to see, and hear, and understand. I need you more than you need me. So please bear with me, as I try to share my thoughts with so many here who are much wiser, more learned, holier than I.
..."I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore"...
..."I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore"...
..."I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore"...
That's what everybody in America began to scream from the housetops and windows in "Network", the famous movie about TV news programs, the newscasters, their girls, their producers, their hang-ups.
That's what the voters of California apparently proclaimed when they overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition 13. Because, the theory goes, we Americans are the victims of rip-offs by everyone -- by lying politicians; by fraudulent businessmen; by greedy doctors and grasping lawyers; by Europeans and Japanese whom we financed back to financial health and political stability, and by leaders in less developed countries who demand more and more and give less and less. And we are ripped off most of all, they say, by useless, overpaid Washington bureaucrats.
Our Ambassadors are assassinated; our President is insulted; third-rate countries, according to John Connally, lecture us in public and vote against us in the United Nations; which they wouldn't even have as a place to denounce us if we hadn't created it for them. Read "Pat" Moynihan's diatribes in "Commentary" magazine against "those upstart Socialist nations!"
Our taxes are the lowest of any industrialized nation in the world. But we're mad as hell and we won't take it anymore!!!
We give less per capita to foreign aid than any industrialized nation; but we're mad as hell, especially at those countries where the birth rate stays high, or even increases, despite our efforts to explain that you can't have babies and butter ... Guns and butter, -- yes - but not babies! They consume the butter!
We have less government regulation than any industrialized nation yet we complain about over-regulation. We eat more food, consume more energy, smoke more cigarettes, drink more liquor, watch more TV sets, play more sports, sell more armaments and more food and more machinery and more technology than any nation. But we're mad as hell-- criticizing Jimmy Carter, criticizing the Cardinals and Bishops, criticizing the press which in turn criticizes business and labor and politicians. As the New York Times put it -- "...To the weak we represent power; to the poor we stand for exploitation. To the religious we seem irreverent. To the romantic and traditional we appear cold and efficient. Even in our most benign quest for progress and stability, we appear as the simultaneous agents of revolution and reaction"...
When Senator Charles Percy of Illinois in Senate debate on Iran, Afghanistan, Taiwan cries out:
"We've got to stand for something in this country"...
Everyone replies, yes! But when someone asks... “Stand for what?" No one can say what America does stand for today. So Germany goes its way. France goes its. The Japanese do what they want. And the only success or peace we can get must be bought ... with billions of dollars.
In the midst of this feverish atmosphere at the end o f the 1970s, we meet to discuss the role of the Christian laity in our time, in our place, in our Church. And precisely because of the frenetic world situation, I'd like to start my remarks by saying -- "Thank God for the new Pope"!!!
In the first ten lines of his first Encyclical, this Pope starts talking about year 2000! What optimism! Most intellectuals are doubtful about the very survival of mankind between now and 2000. Most ordinary, rank-and-file people wonder whether they can afford next year's grocery bills and gasoline costs, or whether they will have a job. Many married couples fear to have children. They don't want to bring babies into a world as dangerous as ours. So, I say, thank God for a Pope, who having survived years in a Nazi slave labor camp and fought for Christ under Communism, can still smile and look forward optimistically to the year 2000!
I thank God for a Pope who tells us that we can and should be full of hope no matter what the secular atmosphere may seem to be; we should be full of trust in God's providence no matter how bleak the prospects may be; we should focus on the redemptive message and personality of Christ no matter how distracting and threatening the situation may be. He does not say, however, that we should stand aside from the problems of the world or seek asylum in a monastery or convent, in the desert, or in any other retreat from the world! Quite the contrary. He says, in effect, "Get involved". "Christians are needed in politics, in the law, in medicine, in the marketplace..." Listen to his words: --
..."The Church cannot abandon man...Each man in all the unrepeatable reality of what he is and what he does ... each man in the full truth of his existence, of his personal being and also of his community and social being -- in the sphere of his own family, in the sphere of society ... in the sphere o f his own nation or people... Man is the primary route that the Church must travel. He (Man) is the primary or fundamental way for the Church..."
What does this mean that "Man is the fundamental way for the Church"...and who is the Church -- the priests, sisters, Bishops"
Rumor says that the Pope answered that last question at the Vatican Council 15 years ago. According to the gossip, he was a member of the Commission on the structure, the Constitution, so to speak, of the Church. When the members sat down for their first working session they discussed a draft paper on the nature of the Church which had been prepared by the staff of the Roman Curia. At which point, Cardinal Wojtila of Cracow, Poland, said that the working paper had everything upside down and should be totally restructured and rewritten. Instead of starting out with definitions of the Papacy, its nature, functions, powers, and responsibilities, and proceeding logically to the Cardinals, Bishops, priests, and religious, the draft paper should begin with the laity -- with the laity's functions, power, responsibilities and mission. Because, Cardinal Wojtila is alleged to have said, the Pope and all other ecclesiastics are "servants of the servants of the Lord", helpers of the laity, inspirers of the laity, spiritual doctors to the laity, consecrated to inspire and to assist the laity, not to perform their roles, not to supplant them, in the world!
If that's a true story, and I believe it is, I repeat: -- "Thank God for the new Pope". Because if Christianity is to come alive in this land, at this time, the laity, must do the job!!! Not because we are running out of priests and nuns (although reductions in vocations should be a source of profound concern), but because Jesus Christ cannot be fully present in hospitals, or courts, or workshops, in homes or on college campuses, unless lay people, ordinary, rank-and-file "followers of Christ"-- Christians--represent Him there, reveal Him there, by their conduct and words!
Critics of Communist dictatorship frequently point out that in the whole Soviet Union only fifteen to twenty million persons are members of the Communist Party and they impose their ideology on the vast majority -- the 230,000,000 Soviet citizens who are not members of the Party. To a certain extent that criticism is justified. Not everyone can gain admittance to the Communist Party. But think of the zeal and ardor and intellectual commitment of those 15,000,000 Party members. Suppose we had 15,000,000 Christians in the U.S.A. who really gave up everything for Christ. Wouldn't that change the atmosphere and psychology and ethic here in the U.S.A.!!!
We need at least one "Commissar For Christ" in the USA to match at least every member of the Communist Party in the USSR. Instead of measuring only our Gross National Product in economic terms, we need to measure our Spiritual Strength. Fortunately, membership in the Christian Church is not limited. Everyone can become "A Party Member". But we're not going to achieve the membership we need or express the Spiritual Strength of the American people unless the laity do the job! Evangelization of America -- the conversion of America back to Christian values -- can be achieved only by a huge commitment by the laity to represent the person, ideas, attitude and reality of Jesus Christ to their fellow workers in the marketplace, in the intellectual life, on the farms, in politics, everywhere in the U.S.A.
This is an immense task. Centuries may be needed to achieve it. So we must hasten to begin now...here at this Conference, here on this campus, and back home in our work.
Let me illustrate how far we have to go by some anecdotes and recollections from my own life.
I went to Yale Law School in 1938, naively expecting to study about justice ... what was right and wrong; what ought to be done to improve society; how to extend the writ of the law to overcome the inequities of life. Did I get a shock! The Professors told me the law had little or nothing to do with justice. What the judge ate for breakfast had more to do with his rulings than legal precedents. There were plenty of precedents on either side of any case, they said. "Just give me the conclusion you want and I'll find the precedents", the learned Professors explained. Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous dicta were almost holy writ. Holmes had written concerning the law that there was "no brooding omnipresence in the sky" - no law that transcended the particularities of cases which were to be decided on pragmatic, social mores grounds. He wrote in the famous Virginia case authorizing the involuntary sterilization of the feeble minded, "three generations of imbeciles are enough". That was evidence enough for him. He didn't want any more "imbeciles" -- as he called them. So sterilize them, he said, "in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence"..."It is better for all the world, if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind"... The learned Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote those lines in 1927, five years before Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", in the era which produced Stalin, Hitler, the Gulag & The Holocaust. Holmes was not alone. Harold Laski, another one of the gurus of my time, wrote Holmes congratulating him on the decision, saying..."Sterilize all the unfit among whom include all the fundamentalists"!!!
Yale and Harvard, Holmes and Laski were not alone in their ethic. We enjoyed, if that's the correct word, lectures by famous law professors and practitioners from Chicago, Columbia, New York, Washington & Boston. And, with this education, we "succeeded"! We won World War II, mastered the world militarily, ushered in the greatest economic prosperity in history fathered the baby boom, yawned with Eisenhower, and elected Kennedy. And then I chose the "Best and the Brightest". That's what the President-elect told me he wanted. And that's what he got -- no political partisanship; no regional or racial narrowness. He got the best businessmen, the best economists, the best diplomats, the best politicians. He even got the first Ph.D. ever to sit in a Presidential Cabinet. They stayed together longer and worked together longer than any Presidential Cabinet in this Century. None of them stole money. None of them divorced their wives or fell into the Tidal Basin, or sniffed cocaine, or perjured themselves. All of them got Honorary Degrees from everywhere. I got 24 myself! (But things didn't turn out so well, did they?)
I never understood why -- till about a year ago -- when a young, but extremely able, political operator told me...
"Mr. Shriver, we know everything about politics: -- how to win elections, how to get out the vote, how to use TV, how to interpret polls, how to choose winning issues, how to package the candidates ... We've got only one problem -- we don't know what to do with victory".
Neither did we -- as a group -- know what to do with victory. I did "my thing" with the Peace Corps but others did "their thing" in Vietnam. No one ethic influenced us all because none of us were truly educated in ethics or in morality.
As Director of the Peace Corps I hired the first Catholic priests and nuns and the first Protestant clergyman ever employed in regular Federal Government jobs. Was I violating the Constitutional doctrine involving separation of Church and State? No one could tell me. So I went ahead on my own. I was sued, of course, by "Protestants And Other Americans United". But we won.
I authorized the first Federal money for local distribution of contraceptive materials through Community Action Agencies provided the request originated locally and enjoyed local support. "Local Option" we called it. Was that morally right? At the same time I forbade Federal payment for sex information and contraceptive devices to minors without parental consent, and abortions no matter for whom. Was that right, morally? No one could tell me. I had no intellectual training to make those decisions despite seven years of American higher education. My decisions were based on my own reading and beliefs, plus advice from my friends who were as ill prepared as I.
These Washington activities were preceded by similar experiences in Chicago. By what right did I, as President of the Board of Education in Chicago, discriminate by constructing more new school buildings on the South side in the slum areas than in the well-to-do areas on the near North? By what moral right, incidentally did the University of Chicago participate in clearing thousands and thousands of poor Blacks from the Woodlawn area to protect the environment around that University? Did the Divinity School faculty members say anything about the University policy and program when it was carried out? Perhaps they did. But Monsignor Egan was the only clergyman I do remember who fought for those Black people then, and for his efforts he was "relieved of his command", and exiled to South Bend!!!
In the last six years I have visited the Soviet Union frequently on legal business. I've been there probably 20-30 times. I've got good friends who work in the Kremlin. I talk to them on the long distance phone. I drink vodka in the best restaurants there and sleep on clean, cool sheets in their best hotels?
What would Solzhenitsyn say about people like me?
That problem bothered me, so I scheduled a week at the Vatican to ask the experts there for criticism and advice. I had noticed that Gromyko and Podgorny visited the Pope and that Papal emissaries went often to the USSR, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. How could they consort, so to speak, with the atheists, the enemies of God? Should I? I didn't have to -- to earn a living.
No one ever suggested that experts in American higher education or even in American Church circles could help me resolve that personal, moral problem. Few if any of them had been to the Soviet Union or gained familiarity with Vatican policy on such a question. And when I ran for President and faced the ultimate contemporary political question -- would I or would I not "push the button". In a nuclear confrontation, there was no theologian or moral philosopher who knew enough about nuclear warfare to help me with that problem.
I could add dozens of practical questions and problems from politics, education, warfare, science, medicine, the law, but the point is obvious: --
When persons in our society reach a certain level in business, law, medicine, politics, education and other professions, many of the problems they face are moral problems. For the person who becomes President of the United States nearly all the problems are moral problems. Rarely, if ever, does the President lack for military advice, scientific advice, financial advice, medical advice, female advice, Chicano advice, Black advice, or diplomatic advice. He just can't get the advice he needs the most!!
So we decided about ten years ago to see if a new kind of intellectual institution could be created to bring some of the best moral theologians, moral philosophers, social and religious ethicists together on a permanent basis with experts from medicine, law, nursing, foreign policy, and science, not just to talk with one another socially, not just for conferences or ad hoc dialogue sessions, but permanently, for joint work. By which I mean writing books and articles together; participating in joint research projects; participating in weekly working seminars together; criticizing one another's scholarly work in utero (so to speak), and teaching courses together. We wanted this institution to be in a university setting - for students, for permanence, for basic research, for scholarly environment, for infiltration or subversion (if you will) of the existing, isolated, university schools and departments. We wanted this institution to be located in Washington where its faculty would be readily available to the Federal Executive Branch, to the Congress, to the national press, to the diplomatic corps, and to the headquarters staff personnel of all the churches who center their national work in Washington.
Well, today we've got it -- The Kennedy Institute of Ethics. It started slowly but it's beginning to get results.
How do we measure results? It’s not easy, nor a scientific process. But there are at least some signs.
The permanent faculty is large and growing. Scholars do accept invitations to join The Institute. And some even pay to work with us! Faculty members serve on Ethics Advisory Boards to the Secretary of H.E.W., to the Director of N.I.H., to the Technology Assessment Committee of the Congress. The National Commission for Research on Human Subjects now has a "staff philosopher" (which must be a first in American Political History) and that "staff philosopher" is a Kennedy Institute faculty member. Books, articles, and even an Encyclopedia of Bioethics have appeared. New Doctorates are being offered; instructional materials rewritten for undergraduates and graduate students; endowment funds developed for professorships, specialized libraries, and computer services; post- Doctoral students are being drawn in; new courses offered in law school, in medical school, and for undergraduates; visiting lecturers expand The Institute's influence and outreach. Muslims have joined Jews and Christians and secularists in a cooperative effort to make this Institute an intellectual resource for the entire University. In mundane, technologic terms the Institute might be likened to a central heating system or a central power plant from which ethics, moral theology, and philosophy can radiate out to and into every school and department in an entire University; and through that university to the capitol city and Government of our country.
But even this new institution, were it totally successful, would not be able to provide what is ultimately needed for modern man and modern government. For this Institution is committed only to the pursuit of knowledge, to the integration of knowledge with ethics and philosophy, and to the application of that unified perspective, and those insights, to secular problems. The Institute is dedicated to the cognitive discipline befitting a University and a community of scholars.
But beyond knowledge lies wisdom, beyond cognition lies volition; beyond truth lies sanctity. How can academic persons and universities, how can ordinary lay people, contribute to the greatest need of contemporary American society which suffers not from the absence of food or drink, home or health, nor from lack of physical security, material possessions, freedom of thought, religion, assembly, travel or press.
In a brilliant, recent speech in Washington, Octavio Paz, the Mexican Poet, historian and philosopher said:
"The sickness of the West is moral, rather than social and economic. It is true that our economic problems are serious, and that they have not been resolved; on the contrary, inflation, and unemployment are on the rise. It is also true that poverty has not disappeared, despite our abundance. Huge groups -- women, racial, religious and linguistic minorities -- still are or feel excluded. But the real, most profound discord lies in the soul of each of us. The future has become the realm of horror, and the present has turned into a desert. The liberal societies spin tirelessly, not forward, but round and round. If they change, they are not transfigured. The hedonism of the West is the other face of its desperation; its nihilism ends in suicide, and in inferior forms of credulity, -- such as political fanaticisms and magical chimeras. The empty place left by Christianity in the modern soul is not filled by philosophy, but by the crudest superstitions. Our eroticism is a technique, not an art or a passion"… These haunting words so full of truth, so poetic, so wise -- stun the mind with their clarity and insight.
What can be done about the world they describe?
I am not sure. Who is? But I have a thought.
I suggest we commence the long, hard task -- where scholars are needed as much as saints -- of lifting ourselves from "the pursuit of happiness" to an additional and new level of political thought and moral vigor: to "the pursuit of holiness"...
So it will take a thousand years for human beings to see "the pursuit of holiness" as a practical, transforming personal, and societal possibility.
It took as long to reach the high Renaissance after the Fall of Rome. It took the Jews from 70 A.D. till 1967 -- 1,900 years -- to regain the Western Wall of The Temple in Jerusalem. Time need not be the most important consideration in "the pursuit of holiness".
What's the relevance, however, of holiness to our contemporary problems? How can its pursuit fill "the empty place left by Christianity in the modern soul"?
What is holiness, and why pursue it?
No one could answer those questions, in a few moments, let alone in the conclusion to a mere speech. But in this place speaking to this audience please let me clarify what I mean by holiness and also try to point out its relevance for all of us lay people today, -- especially perhaps for politicians and professionals, for academics, for the young.
First of all, our understanding of "holiness" has probably become too ecclesialized, too "churchy," and too ethereal. "Holiness" for many Catholics today, and perhaps for many other Christians in the West, probably would be seen as withdrawing from life, with praying, with being uninvolved in conflictual situations in this world. Yet the task for lay Christians has much to do with all manner of highly conflictual, highly technical, highly politicized situations in which intelligent, decisive and perhaps even quite aggressive action is required. What then can holiness mean, what can holiness give to a lay Christian?
Holiness, originally in the Biblical sources, is associated with God rather than human beings. "Holy" is the quality of transcendence of God. But he might think of that quality as being either that God is terribly far away, or we might think of it as being that God is so different He is irrelevant to human affairs. But if you look carefully at the Biblical testimony, God appears as different from what people expect him to be because He never comes as a rival to human beings - because he never really operates as a Bully! They discover over and over again that bullying is not his mode. God is different because God is loving, if you like, is intensely creative - because God is unthreatened by the well- being or progress of others ... Because God is always standing, so to speak, in front of us, beckoning; and, is always desiring for us more than we can desire for ourselves!!
When, in the Bible, the notion of "holiness" is applied to the people -- that they are called to be a people Holy (wholly) to God, holy in relation to the Holy God, Holy in mirroring the Holy God to the world, we find that this doesn't mean that they withdraw from earthly, activities or that they're always praying. It means, strangely enough, in the first place, that they are called to throw off the slavery - the yoke of Egypt! It means in the second place that they get into the desert and discover that to be free of Egypt is not yet to be free; that to be a people - a holy people -- or of that matter, any people, means a concern for others, means just laws, means decent moral, ethical behavior; means fidelity, trustworthiness, and means caring about issues - being concerned enough about public issues, about the life of the people - to get involved, and .to attempt to make a difference and build a community according to the "Call of God".
One could interpret the whole testimony of the Hebrew scriptures in a rather static way, that their function was, -- that the function of Israel, called by God, elected by God, was simply to set up a society, and then stay that way!! The Prophets didn't interpret their mission that way. The Prophets interpreted the Call of Israel, the Sinai Covenant, the election, and so on, in terms of being called to other, better things, -- being called to a constant critique of the society and its structure as it was then, and to a restructuring according to the call and the invitation of God. In other words, "the prophetic understanding" (and I do believe that this is the understanding that Jesus of the Gospels picks up) is an understanding that is never content with simply staying in your slot in the society as it is, but which always challenges in a radical way what the world would be like if God really reigned among us!!!
If, instead of selfish values, exclusive values, short-sighted values, twisted and distorted values, the values were in fact those of God in Creation, and in His summons to human persons to come together in charity, with one another, for Him!
The call of holiness, as Jesus picks it up, is interpreted in such simple, and, if you like, such secular terms that the people around Him were often shocked. They were shocked at how lightly he treated Sabbath rules when the welfare, the health, the life, or even the happiness of an afflicted person was at stake. They were rather shocked how his focus - at the way his focus - was on basic human relations with one another, and the basic human attitude to God, and not with the performance of rituals. It is not recorded of Him that He denied the importance of ritual - in fact He participated - but people in His time seem to have been shocked at the hierarchy of His values. What He put first was, in fact, the secular - was, in fact, what we would think of as the layman's natural field. It wasn't the churchy business of organizing worship.
Now, it is sometimes assumed that if you take Jesus as the model, you must be apolitical in your understanding of your obligations, your Christian duty, your Christian vocation. It is sometimes said the Jesus is, after all, an apolitical figure - that he rejected alignments with the zealot revolutionaries, that he rejected alignments with Pharisaic party then in power, which would have made it possible to work through existing structures. I don't think that is true. I think that contemporary scholarship, when you add it all up, comes to the conclusion (that) Jesus is a political figure as well as religious leader. Jesus is a political figure because He was crucified, first of all, by the Romans. That was a political execution. He may not have stood for what they thought He stood for, but He certainly was a political figure to them when they executed Him. And if we believe that the crucifixion was God's redemptive action in the world, then we have to take account of its political aspect. Jesus stands for a reign, a kingdom, a wave, a movement that was not going on in the world in His time, or, for that matter, fully in our time, -- but which is a goal for human society, and for human life, and for the structuring of human possibilities. We have to strive for these things. And these are political realities, as well as spiritual.
We have no blueprint of the reign of heaven, of the kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus preached. We only are able to understand, better and better, what it means when we live by compassion, and when we live responsively in our society, to the extent that we notice the people that are being excluded -- the people that are being starved -- the people that are being stripped of dignity - the people that are stripped of hope. To that extent, we do begin to glimpse some of the implications of the reign of God and can work towards it further. To the extent that we are creative for others - we begin to understand what God is.
Most of us begin to understand something of what God is when we have the experience of being parents. When we raise a child, we discover that compassion can totally outweigh judgment - that is to say, a negative or punitive judgment! When you raise children, you can begin to understand how the wellbeing and the fulfillment of another person can really be your wellbeing and your fulfillment. When you raise children, you get some glimpse of how it may be possible to offer freedom and offer possibilities to others without seeing them as a threat or a rival to yourself. But, as Gandhi and others pointed out, this experience of fostering, of nurturing, of creating or co-creating - should not only be within the family. This should extend into the wider relations we have with the rest of mankind. And that is exactly how charity has to begin to penetrate into the political sphere. It begins not with self-promotion, but with compassion, concern for the raising of others, so that they may become what they are able to be and what they are destined to be.
I believe that one of the main obstacles that we find in lay spirituality is that the Church has never been able to get rid of the remnants of Gnosticism in its spirituality and its outlook. Gnosticism cropped up explicitly in the second century. Jewish spirituality was earthy. It was very concrete and had to do with justice. It had to do with building decent laws and a decent economy where people could live in peace and in security and happiness and openness to others. However, there are other ways of spirituality in the world. One approach suggests that everything which has to do with self-awareness with the consciousness of the individual, is properly matter for spirituality, for a religious way of life; but that engagement in the economic sphere, in the political sphere, even sexual engagement, is somehow militating against a spiritual life. From that comes a weakened, diminished spiritual) From that comes a spirituality which has the individual interested in saving his own soul, and doing kind things for other people because that may help him to save his own soul!! And you get a weakened spirituality because there is a lack of compassion - for the real problems in other` people's lives, the real issues of pain, of frustration, of fear, of deprivation, and loss of human dignity and human hope.
Gnosticism -- which said that there was one Creator, a good Creator of spirit, and another Creator, a bad Creator, of matter (and that it's a misfortune anyway for souls to be in a material universe) -- was roundly condemned by all the great thinkers of the Christian churches of the Second and Third centuries. However, it came back in another form in the guise or the movement of Manichaeism in the fifth century and again was roundly condemned. St. Augustine of Hippo was one of those who fought against it, though he himself was somewhat influenced by it in his attitudes toward sexuality. It came back again in Western Europe in the guise of the Cathari and Albigenses. Again, it was roundly condemned. The Church struggled against it. It came back again in the 18th century in the guise of Jansenism! But in every one of those cases, the Church through its mystics, its saints, its theologians, and its official spokesmen, rejected the thesis that the body, and the world, and things of the world, are bad! Nevertheless, again and again the spirituality of Christians has been much influenced by this. In fact, the spirituality we have inherited from medieval Christendom has left us pretty much with a monastic ideal diluted -- watered down -- for the layman.
What I think we must recover as against the Gnostic tendencies that haunt us is the passionate conviction that to follow Jesus is to be concerned about the reign of God now, in this world. Not that we make the reign of God; it is the gift of God. But Jesus said then, and Christian teaching is now, that God is at all times ready to bestow His reign. His rule on the human situation. But we must ask for it, work for it, accept it. We have got to welcome it, by doing what we are able to do to restructure the social system.
How is our attitude different from that of atheists? Of Marxists? Of unthinking unbelievers? Of irreligious persons?
I think, in the first place, that Christians should have a deep conviction that life has ultimate meaning, and that we know what that ultimate meaning is, that we know what the goals for life are, and that we can work towards them - that we can relate everything in our activity to them. It is, I think, the new idolatry of our times to say science is science, politics is politics, economics is economics, a law practice is a law practice, a medical practice is a technical affair; to act as though all these activities were not subject to ultimate scrutiny by the light of our Christian conviction, our Christian faith of what life is all about - our Christian faith, giving us an understanding of fundamental and far-reaching principles of ethics. "The new idolatry" says "these are technical requirements - these are technical considerations. Don't bother with ultimate questions." Questions are "solved" within the secular framework of this discipline, of this profession, of this activity.
I protest against that attitude, that ethic. The Number one task for the Christian in the world today is to attack that attitude head-on and radically. We must show that each profession has not only its technical requirements, but underlying assumptions about ultimate values, ultimate judgments about life; and that even where they don't acknowledge them, they're operative. We ought to acknowledge them. We ought to examine them. We ought to require that all the means we use -- all the detailed and technical decisions we make - come under "exigent scrutiny" in the light of what we think are the ultimate goals in life. This is where I think the real action is. That's what we're trying to do at The Kennedy Institute of Ethics.
To get a little more specific, we should ask again how does a Christian perspective differ from an irreligious or an atheist one?
The Christian perspective says not only is every individual ultimate: worthwhile, but salvation in the full sense of that word, that is the salvation of the whole person, the whole consciousness, the whole activity - is possible for everyone! In other words, we have a guarantee in our faith that the human project is not ultimately absurd - that it needn't end in catastrophe - that it needn't fade out in an ecological disaster - that it needn't grind on through the centuries in utter, continuing and mounting frustration - that the project is possible! To make that again more specific, we believe not only that the world can be saved, and by the world I mean all the human activities of human beings; but we believe that in principle, in the person of Jesus, the world has been saved! In other words, we believe that essentially the battle has been won and that we have only to join the task of fulfilling the implications, -- working out the implications of that victory. We have the guarantee of victory over destruction, over total darkness, over annihilation, and over-despair. We know that historically and concretely, in the person of Jesus, we have reason for hope that is not foolish, is not trivial, is not just wishful thinking, but is a basis for the most vigorous and energetic action; that no matter how bad a particular situation looks or how hopeless, we really have the basis for investing all we've got into transforming it because essentially we believe that God's way has conquered over the way of destruction; that hope has already conquered over despair in the impact that the person of Jesus, extended through His community in the world, has had on the whole human situation.
I think there is one more way that our action should differ from what the atheist or the unbeliever does. That one more way arises from the fact we also have community supports to lean on. The atheist or the unbeliever often is a responsible, ethically sensitive, dedicated person who sees a non-theistic humanism as a motivating power in life, and acts accordingly. But this unbeliever who is radically hopeful and ethical in his conduct, is often terribly alone. On the other hand we have the strong support of a vast church tradition - and Catholics are richer and stronger in that than most others (if only they would exploit their resources). We have the support of a Sacramental system that brings us again and again in contact with the mystery and the community and the person of Jesus. We have the support of a long, thoughtful, prayerful, and sophisticated tradition of trying to figure out moral problems, and we shouldn't abandon the backing of all that work from the generations that are behind us. We also have the prayer and the dedication of many generations behind us with which we can link ourselves!
What we're poorest in today - and that's entirely up to us - is a pattern of concrete association in which we give one another support in pursuing our objectives - in pursuing our values – in maintaining our hope - fostering our vision - and reflectively working out a discernment of what is to be done in the present situation. This is important right now for Christians generally - Catholics in particular - in the professional fields. It's enormously important for Christians in politics, and its very important for the Christian layman - lay woman, lay person - as such, to figure out ways of getting mutual support in citizenship, in neighborliness, in ways of functioning in society, in lifestyle, in spending and budgeting patterns, in the budgeting of times as well of material resources. This is the aspect of support that we really need to keep on developing and initiating. No age-old structure provides you with that ready-made. We have to start where we are.
This Conference taking place at Notre Dame is one starting point, where people could commit themselves to local associations, for the purpose, not specifically of action, but for the purpose of maintaining the impetus, the spirit, the enthusiasm, the vision, the hope - maintaining in other words, the "chain of grace" that links us to our source of grace in Christ.