April 3, 2005
John Paul II and Terri SchiavoBy Ed Houser
A master of theatrical timing to the very end, it is worth noting that John Paul II II, 264th successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ, died two days after Terri Schiavo, a small and seemingly insignificant member of his enormous flock. There is no doubt John Paul II will go down in the history books as one of the finest of Popes. There has been for some time talk of him as only the third Pope to deserve the title 'Great,' after Leo I (� 461) and Gregory I (� 604), and even the most conservative assessment will rank him along with Innocent III (� 1216) and Leo XIII (� 1903) as one of the outstanding popes in history.
But what was impossible to know before the events of the past few days is that this world historical figure might well be paired with Terri, heretofore relatively unknown, on the recto and verso sides of a single holy medal, as it were—the one the latest victim, the other the most prominent opponent—of what John Paul II himself has called the 'culture of death.' Stranger things have happened. The Roman matron Vibia Perpetua and the slave woman Felicitas never met until they were martyred in the circus at Carthage, but there they became 'Perpetua and Felicity,' declaimed together countless times in the Roman canon that is still celebrated in the Catholic church as the first Eucharistic Prayer. We pray for John Paul II and for Terri; but I doubt if they need our prayers.
What brings these two together is the problem of justice, an issue to which John Paul II devoted much of his pontificate. He told us he would do so from the outset. In the very first of his many encyclicals, Redemptor hominis (1979), he said: 'The redemption of the world—this tremendous mystery of love in which creation is renewed—is, at its deepest root, the fullness of justice in a human heart—the heart of the first—born Son—in order that it may become justice in the hearts of many human beings' [sec. 9]. Virtually the last individual case of justice to which he turned his mind was that of Terri Schiavo. We are by this time all too familiar with her sad demise. But let us turn to her case once more, this time looking at her as the reverse side of John Paul II's emblem.
Now every moral and legal decision involves knowing two very different kinds of things: the facts on the ground, particular facts about the particular case we face; and some set of principles or guidelines or rules, most often only implicit in our minds. Moral and legal decisions are made by bringing together 'facts and law' or 'facts and principles.' Decisions are good or bad based upon whether our moral or legal principles are good and are well understood, and also whether the principles are properly applied to the particulars of the case at hand. The traditional terms for these two kinds of practical knowledge are 'moral wisdom' for understanding principles and 'prudence' for knowing how to apply principles to particular cases. Judges are still occasionally called 'magistrates,' a term first used in the Middle Ages to indicate that a good judge must be a 'master (magister)' who correctly understands both things, a person wise in the law and prudent in its application. Let me attempt to illustrate how deep is the trouble in Terri's America, by pointing to mistakes on both counts so profound that her case has been characterized by a prominent writer on the left as 'judicial murder.' We can then turn to how this man of justice, John Paul II II, would have treated her case.
The prudent verdict would have been to turn her over to the care of her parents, not because of their relation to her but because they wanted to take care of her, not to turn her over to Michael Schiavo, who wanted to kill her, and did. And one need not be a Bible reader to see what prudence requires. The injustice of her case would have been equally as obvious to a Greek physician called Hippocrates, who wrote around 400BC: 'First, do no harm.' How then did the matter come to such a pass?
Here we come to moral principles or rules or guidelines, call them what you will, and here we come to the kind of comic relief Shakespeare always inserted in his tragedies, supplied by a self—styled 'medical ethicist' from New York. In her best pseudo—professional bedside manner she sagely informed us on national TV that the 'one silver lining' in Terri's case was that it showed the need for everyone to have a 'living will.' This couldn't be further from the truth. But this inanity does point out the problem of principle. Terri had no living will. Her judge realized that the present legal basis for such cases as Terri's is not for him to act like Solomon in 'rendering impartial justice' in a particular case, because there is no longer agreement on what justice is. His humbler function was to bow to Terri's own decision, to her own will in the matter.
Since Terri had made no living will, one was concocted for her. While watching TV coverage of a case she did not then realize would have similarities to her own, she supposedly remarked that she would not want to go on living in such a condition. In the hands of her husband, lawyers, judges, psychologists, and doctors, this off—hand remark was elevated to the status of her long sought living will, that is, her own decision about her own case. Don't blame the judges, don't blame the lawyers, don't blame her husband; this is what Terri wanted.
Or is it? This is not the solution, it is the problem. Rendering justice, that is, prudently applying general principles to a particular case, has been replaced by rendering the individual will, in this case, Terri's will. Though of course it is not really Terri's will, it is her so—called husband's will. But who among us has not changed his own mind in a situation where before—hand we thought one way, but once we come face to face with the facts we finally see we must act differently. Such old—fashioned prudence has been rendered impossible in Terri's and many other cases.
Terri's judge was not striking out on his own. He was simply following his leaders, all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Kennedy's explanation of the Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) that laws against sodomy are un—constitutional humbly noted that there is an
'emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex.'
The reason such laws are now null and void is because each individual person has the right, not to apply common moral principles to the particular cases they face, but to create for himself and out of whole cloth his own rules and his own particular theorem of the universe. In short, there are no universal moral principles that a prudent magistrate could make use of in rendering justice to a person under distress. What then is to be done?
But even more perniciously, at the level of general moral principles themselves, what can one do? There is only one option: try to discern the general will that emerges from the collectivity of individual wills. But that general will is and must be 'emerging,' to use Justice Kennedy's term, it is not quite here yet—and never will be. In ancient times, priests and priestesses looked to the entrails of the birds and lambs and oxen they sacrificed to the gods, in order to forecast the future.
Once there are no over—arching and permanent principles of justice, what else is there to do but for our judges to don the robes of the ancient priests and try to read the entrails of the Zeitgeist. What results, of course, as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who coined the term, predicted, is 'the will to power.' It is power, pure and simple, nothing else, that took over in Terri's case, and produced injustice.
At the level of prudence, his reaction to living in such extraordinary and difficult circumstances was to become the 'people's' Pope. As a philosophy professor in Lublin he developed a 'personalist' philosophy, one he lived out as Pope. Ethics for him was not primarily a matter of abstractions but of persons, and he taught in many venues and many ways that prudence must be directed toward the true good of individual persons. While his own view of the nature of the Church told him that it is the duty of the clergy to set moral principles, the duty of the laity to figure out how to apply them to practical life, his own personalism drove him to very definite conclusions about how to apply such principles.
John Paul II's prudence is what brought together the seeming contradictions in his life: tradition and innovation, liberal and conservative, the Catholic who prayed and worked with Jews, Muslims, and non—believers. Even many of his own followers seem not to understand when his controversial stands were taken at the level of principle—as on abortion and euthanasia—and when, as was more often the case, he was applying unchanging principles to changed circumstances—most notably and recently on capital punishment, his consistent opposition to wars, including Iraq, and, most poignantly, on hydration and feeding tubes as non—extraordinary means of preserving life. At the level of prudence, there is simply no doubt that, had John Paul II been Terri's judge, she would be alive today.
If in his prudential decisions John Paul II grew more and more innovative the longer he lived, the opposite is true at the level of moral principle. Because it fell to him to deal with the long term fallout from Paul VI's encyclical on birth control, Humanae vitae (1968), as his pontificate lengthened out, John Paul II found himself turning more and more to the great tradition of Catholic moral teaching, and most of all to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Dominican friar whose theological and philosophical thought had been so strongly recommended by John Paul II's important predecessor, Leo XIII.
John Paul II's encyclicals grew clearer and more persuasive during the course of his pontificate, in direct proportion to the influence of Leo and Aquinas on the writing of the former philosophy professor from Lublin. And the reason he turned increasingly in this direction was primarily because of the doctrine that there is a kind of natural law, revealed in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, to be sure, but also in 'the hearts of many [indeed, all] human beings.'
This is the law, so ridiculed by Catholic politicians of the left beginning in the Bork hearings, that stands over the statutes of the U.S., even over its Constitution—the law of nature and nature's God to which Jefferson and Lincoln and Martin Luther King appealed so effectively. Within this law reside the ultimate principles guiding all human laws and all human decisions. His confidence in this law, a law open to all humans, would have guided John Paul II in rendering justice to Terri; and it was abandoning this law, the common heritage of humankind, in favor of the latest whisperings of the fascists of the
Ed Houser teaches philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, and writes occasional pieces for The American Thinker