Unshakable Dignity

"Just like you can be a 'cafeteria Catholic,' you can be a cafeteria reader of the Pope," warns Jesuit priest John Kavanaugh. A professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, he's steeped in the same personalism that grounds Pope John Paul II -- and he's tired of people misunderstanding him.

"There's a central issue for John Paul," begins Kavanaugh, "and that is our intrinsic human dignity and value. That's a philosophical theme for him, and it's also a religious theme. Philosophically, it's rooted in his theory about human nature: that we are what we are, regardless of what we produce or consume or own. Our intrinsic dignity is not a function of class, state or locale; it cannot be taken away from us by any government. It is a universal claim for human beings.

"Now, this universalism affects his ethics in a way that can trouble some people," acknowledges Kavan-augh, "because he makes objective universal claims in his view of sexuality, of money, of labor, of art.... He believes everything should serve our intrinsic human dignity. And this view becomes radicalized in his faith because he believes that Christ, who is God made human, embodies this theory. So instead of being a humanist and saying all humans have this great dignity, he says every human being becomes an image of God.

"The strong objective and universal claims are what make him very appealing and at the same time trouble people," continues Kavanaugh. "On World Peace Day, John Paul made some very strong challenges to capitalism and consumerism. He clearly thinks there are aspects of consumer culture and a free market that can be destructive of the human person. And people who elevate the free market do not like this, because it implies there have to be controls."

So -- the liberal puzzle -- how can someone so compassionate toward the poor condemn all but a few expressions of intimacy? "Any form of sexuality that treats humans as instruments, or treats oneself as an instrument for pleasure or for gain, he believes is dehumanizing," explains Kavanaugh. "He thinks we are called to live lives of very high sexual integrity, just as we are called to high economic integrity, in the name of personal dignity. With regard to homosexuality, he would say personal sexuality is a covenant, an expression of commitment. And he believes that, since we are natural bodies, it has to be oriented heterosexually. Procreation is a big part of that -- John Paul thinks all sexual love should be generative. Many would complain that he's making generativity totally biological. But he's saying you cannot pretend that the biology is not there."

Is this pope trying to brake Vatican II reforms? "First of all, he was there," Kavanaugh points out, "and he did important work. Second, anybody who thinks every change that has happened since Vatican II has been a change for liberation and for truth is being naive. That means there must be some ground to criticize what happened. Does that mean you want to return to the old ways? I don't think so. He believes we need to admit our failures.

"I believe many liberal Catholics do not want to examine whether there have been failures on our part," concludes Kavanaugh, "and neither do conservatives. We examine each other's failures and lose the challenge he might make to us."

-- Jeannette Batz