Fort Worth, Texas. -- Prophets bearing messages to people who are misbehaving have always had a hard go of it, because the people to whom the messages were delivered generally resented the hell out of moral admonitions.
Moses pretty well kept an upper hand over his rebellious followers because, among other things, he carried a big stick with which he performed wondrous feats. But many meddlesome prophets in later ages who fell from favor and weren't simply banished in a fit of popular pique often met with such disagreeable fates as stonings, beheadings and nailings.
The modern era is more sophisticated, so Pope John Paul II is likely to be spared the ancient forms of indignant retribution for his taking impassioned exception to an "objective conspiracy against life" that is breeding a universal "culture of death."
Advocates of abortion, euthanasia, suicide, capital punishment and experimentation with fetal tissue will angrily vilify the pope's denunciation of the actions they espouse, which he argues violate essential morality by exalting the freedom of individuals at the expense of their personal moral responsibilities -- "the freedom of 'the strong' against the weak.' "
People today whose deeply held convictions are pronounced as immoral will still react with indignant outrage, but they don't stone their antagonists. They either ignore and dismiss them as irrelevant or lash out with vehement protests of what they view as hierarchal political oppression.
So what else is new? Prophets, whose business it is to tell people what they don't want to hear, have always been fomenters of conscience-pricking discomfort in the societies whose errant complacencies they disturbed.
In his latest encyclical, "The Gospel of Life," the Roman Catholic pontiff has not issued simply another narrowly focused objection to abortion, although abortion receives considerable attention. Rather, the doctrinal document encompasses a comprehensive instruction and attack on a pervasive psychology prevalent in the world that not only accepts but aggressively endorses the systematic destruction of human life.
"There exists in contemporary culture," John Paul wrote, "a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands. What really happens in this case is that the individual is overcome and crushed by a death deprived of any prospect of meaning or hope."
The pope is not a single-issue critic. The encyclical drives to the dark heart of so much human misery. Call it the consequences of original sin, call it generic evil, but John Paul lays bare certain perverse inclinations to ignore or reject a moral order higher than individual desire.
"How can we fail to consider the violence against life done to millions of human beings, especially children, who are forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes?" he wrote.
"And what of the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade, which spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood?
"What of the spreading of death caused by reckless tampering with the world's ecological balance, by the criminal spread of drugs, or by the promotion of certain kinds of sexual activity which, besides being morally unacceptable, also involve great risks to life?"
John Paul is appealing to that realm unique to human beings: conscience. He is appealing to a standard of conduct that finds its source beyond the limited dimension of human expediency, convenience and excuse in the face of difficult decisions.
Yet even while treating abortion and euthanasia he exhibits a generosity of understanding and compassion by recognizing that some choices, though their consequences are inherently evil, arise from "tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future." Those conditions, he said, may substantially mitigate the responsibility and culpability of those making the choices.
"But today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations," John Paul wrote. "It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social and political levels, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the above crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as rights."
When the pope refers to a "culture of death," he exposes an attitude that accepts the contingency of life -- contingent on a willful decision to kill a living human being. Once such an attitude becomes prevalent, the ethical precedent has been set, and the only question remaining for society is how much callousness and indifference to life will be tolerated.
Even those who, in good conscience, advocate abortion, euthanasia, suicide and fetal experimentation in the spirit of mercy misunderstand mercy. A truly merciful and compassionate society encourages all its members to nurture and support mothers of the unborn as well as the unborn themselves; to sustain its materially disadvantaged, infirm and mentally ill; to console and care for its elderly.
It values and protects all human life. It doesn't kill it under a misshapen notion of mercy for suffering that society itself is unwilling to ease by sharing the moral burden of common human integrity and decency.
Tommy Denton is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.