The world applauds, then turns back to business


PARIS -- The encounter of the pope with the United Nations last week provided an interesting application of principled thought to matters customarily discussed in U.N. forums with expedient or hypocritical rhetoric.

This pope's formation was as a philosopher, as was evident in his address to the General Assembly. Talk in international political discourse about human rights, freedom and human obligation usually has little connection to any rigorous structure of thought about the nature of man or the significance of human existence. Such matters are controversial, and it is far easier to coast on the superficial invocation of democracy and a good word for human rights, both intellectually unexamined.

"Universal moral law"

The pope argued that the evident general human wish to possess political freedoms, together with a social and economic position consistent with the dignity of a free human being, demonstrates that the claim to human rights is "rooted in the nature of the person" and reflects "the objective and inviolable demands of a universal moral law." These are not abstract points, he said, but "remind us that we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world."

This universal claim to human rights is evidence of a moral logic "which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples," providing a kind of "grammar" in which a discussion can take place among people "of intelligence and free will, immersed in a mystery which transcends [their] own being and endowed with the ability to reflect and the ability to choose."

This is not a description of the human situation which most elites in the West today would accept. The argument about the universality of human rights put forward in most American discussion rejects both the notion of universal moral law and the suggestion of transcendent mystery in human existence. It assumes the entirely material nature of man and the absence of any human destiny other than one which men and women create for themselves.

It therefore is vulnerable to the "utilitarianism" which the pope condemned in his address, the belief that men and women logically and properly search only for their individual advantage, and that the only rational basis for altruism is an argument that you will get on better yourself if you treat others decently. This has proved a pretty fragile basis for community.

Today's sentimental rationalization of utilitarianism is the currently influential economic doctrine which holds that the untrammeled pursuit of individual advantage in an unregulated marketplace will end by making a better world for all.

It is an expression of that naive belief in the inevitability of progress which the actual experience of the 20th century has rendered absurd. Ideas of automatic material and social progress, and indeed of the moral improvement of men and women themselves, which have dominated Western thought since the Enlightenment and since Darwin, still influence the popular and political debate -- despite two world wars, totalitarianism, the Holocaust and the evidence about human progress presented in Bosnia today.

The pope was right to conclude that the paradox of our own day, as the close of the millennium approaches, "is that man, who began the period we call 'modernity' with a self-conscious assertion of his 'coming to age' and 'autonomy,' approaches the end of the 20th century fearful of himself, fearful of what he might be capable of, fearful for the future." He has good reason to be afraid.

The pope's "charisma"

The press in New York made much of the pope as a "charismatic" personality -- "the most charismatic man on the planet" according to a New York Times story. This meant, presumably, that he comes over on television and draws crowds.

The dictionary definition of charisma is "a quality of extraordinary spiritual power attributed to a person or office capable of eliciting popular support in the direction of human affairs." People rightly sense in the pope a spiritual authority, and he himself undoubtedly wishes to influence human affairs by what he says.

But the fact would seem to be that he elicits no more than minority support or ephemeral sympathy for the policies he recommends and the outlook on human affairs he affirms. This is true in the United States, and in most of the rest of the advanced industrial world as well.

The specific moral demands he makes are mostly rejected, or are even considered embarrassing. This is most apparent in the tormented arena of sexual morals. His condemnations of abortion, promiscuity and contraception are generally unpopular -- indeed, are considered outrageous -- by many who make Western opinion and seem annoyed if not surprised that the pope is still a Catholic.

However, sex is not the domain of the U.N., and occupies a minor place even in the moral theology of the Catholic church. Political justice is the U.N.'s domain. And in this matter the pope's demand that no one exploit another for his own advantage, and that all practice a solidarity "which enables others to live out, in the actual circumstances of their economic and political lives, the creativity which is the distinguishing mark of a human person," meets a superficial applause masking general indifference. That his listeners can afford their indifference to this demand, as the millennium approaches, is another question.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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