Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Uncanny Prescience of the Popes

In a letter that Chesterton wrote to Maurice Baring on St. Valentine's Day 1923-- a time when the pull of the Catholic Church was becoming irresistible to him-- he put into words one of the strongest considerations-- perhaps even the strongest consideration-- behind my own belief that the Catholic Church holds the truth about life and the universe. (The letter is quoted in Maisie Ward's never-bettered biography of the great man.)

Chesterton wrote:

Another quality that impresses me is the power of being decisive first and being proved right afterwards. This is exactly the quality a supernatural power would have; and I know nothing else in modern religion that has it. For instance, there was a time when I should have thought psychical enquiry the most reasonable thing in the world, and rather favourable to religion. I was afterwards convinced, by experience and not merely faith, that spiritualism is a practical poison. Don’t people see that when that is found in experience, a prodigious prestige accrues to the authority which, long before the experiment, did not pretend to enquire but simply said, “Drop it.” We feel that the authority did not discover; it knew. There are a hundred other things of which that story is true, in my own experience. But the High Churchman has a perfect right to be a spiritualistic enquirer; only he has not a right to claim that his authority knew beforehand the truth about spiritualistic enquiry.

In my opinion, one of the "hundred other things" of which that story is true is the Church's attitude to birth control. At the time of Humanae Vitae, it seemed perfectly reasonable to many theologians and priests and lay Catholics that the Church should accept the use of artifical birth control. It was a surprise (and, to some, a scandal) when Pope Paul VI refused to do so.

But today, in a world in which cloning and genetic engineering and frozen embryos are presenting mankind with a thousand moral dilemmas, the supposedly backward-looking decision of the Pope seems amazingly prescient. Once you start manipulating human life-- its creation and destruction-- the road is open to untold perversions and indignities and horrors.

And, of course, there are any number of other examples.

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