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Christmas messages

Dr. Charles E. Rice | Monday, December 8, 2008

Each Christmas Day, the Pope delivers a message “Urbi et Orbi” to the City and the World. Last year, Benedict XVI said that at Christmas, “the great hope that brings happiness entered the world.” Perhaps in his Urbi et Orbi this year, Benedict will sound again the Christmas note of hope. It would be familiar to the American people who have just elected a President who promises “change” through “the audacity of hope.” That political hope, however, is different from the hope Benedict sees in the Christmas event.

In his 2007 annual Christmas address to Rome’s university students, the Pope urged them to reflect on “the hope of the modern age” as described in his encyclical Spe Salvi (“In hope we were saved.”). From the 17th century on, he said, “human progress” was seen as the work only of “science and technology.” Reason and freedom were separated from God so as to construct the “kingdom of man … in opposition to the kingdom of God.” In this “materialistic concept … changing the economic and political structures… could finally bring about a just society where peace, freedom and equality reign.” The “fundamental error” in this, said Benedict, is that man is not merely the product of economic and social conditions. “[W]ithout ethical principles, science, technology and politics can be used, as … still happens… for … the harm of individuals and humanity.”

Some changes promised by our president-elect could serve as Exhibit A for the truth of that last comment. Barack Obama not only pledges that “the first thing I’d do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act,” which would remove all restrictions on the “fundamental right” to abortion. He also strongly supports, and co-sponsored as a Senator, federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) beyond the limited funding allowed heretofore. Each embryo is a living human being. In ESCR, human embryos are produced, by cloning or otherwise, for the purpose of killing them by removing their stem cells which are then used for biomedical research. This is not only wrong in itself. It opens the door to the mass production of human beings as objects of science, the creation of “designer” human beings, etc.

In his 2002 book, “God and the World,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, discussed the description in Genesis 3 of the posting of angels east of Eden with flaming swords to keep man, after the Fall, from eating of the Tree of Life (p. 133-138). After the Fall, man was forbidden to eat of that tree which gave immortality, “since to be immortal in this [fallen] condition would … be perdition.” People are now, Ratzinger said, “starting to pick from the tree of life and make themselves lords of life and death, to reassemble life.” “[P]recisely what man was supposed to be protected from is now actually happening: he is crossing the final boundary … [M]an makes other men his own artifacts. Man no longer originates in the mystery of love, by … conception and birth … but is produced industrially, like any other product.”

This is serious business, indeed. “[W]e can,” said Ratzinger, “be certain of this: God will take action to counter an ultimate crime, an ultimate act of self-destruction, on the part of man. He will take action against the attempt to demean mankind by the production of slave-beings. There are indeed final boundaries we cannot cross without turning into the agents of the destruction of creation itself, without going far beyond the original sin and the first Fall and all its negative consequences.”

In this presidential interregnum we already know that the “hope” offered by our political messiah includes the utilitarian abuses described above. In that “hope,” man can be treated as an object and the intentional killing of the innocent is an optional problem solving technique. Perhaps some Catholics, especially in the professoriate, will come to reconsider the enormity – and frivolity – of their voting into power a politician committed to the implementation of such a “hope.”

Christmas tells a different story. Christmas overturned “the world-view of that time, which … has become fashionable … again today. It is not … the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love – a Person … who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.” Spe Salvi (SS), No. 5.

The smart guys of the media, the academy, and the political world can’t tell you where you came from, where you are going and how you get there. But “Christians … have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality [is it] possible to live the present as well.” SS, No. 2. We know this by experience. We ask ourselves, “What’s it all for?” We look for answers here but we know there has to be more. “[W]e need,” said SS, “the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day.” But “anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life.” SS, No. 27.

So what is the lesson of Christmas? As Pope Benedict said last year, it gives us the “great hope” that is true. That hope transcends political counterfeits because the Person born at Christmas is, himself, Truth with a capital T. In him we “have a future.” Merry Christmas.

Charles E. Rice is professor emeritus at the Law School. He may be reached at rice.1@nd.edu or 574-633-4415.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necesarily those of The Observer.