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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Human Dignity versus the Tyranny of Secularism

Human Dignity versus the Tyranny of Secularism

Augustine Institute Graduation Address, May 11, 2019

Graduates, Dr. Tim Gray, Faculty, Your Grace, friends and family:

I hope these experiences might add to the formation you have received here, and encourage you as you take all you have received out into the world.

In 1999, at the United Nations, I founded the World Youth Alliance. It was a reaction of conscience during an international conference on population and development. A small group of young people were given the floor, and they claimed to speak on behalf of all three billion of the world’s youth. They demanded abortion as a human right, sexual rights for children, and a deletion of parents’ rights. At a conference on population and development, they had nothing to say about the needs of the world’s poor, such as clean water, sanitation, education, or housing.

I went back into the UN the next morning with day-glo pink flyers that said these youth do not represent all the world’s youth. I broke the rules and handed them out to everyone. This caused pandemonium; for two hours the negotiations were stalled. The world divided between the western states huddled around the Clinton US delegation, and the rest of the world, who came up to me and said ‘thank you’. Thank you for saying this, and thank you for being here today. They asked me to form a permanent youth presence at the UN, and to come to their countries to work with their young people.

The World Youth Alliance was born.

The next year we went back into the UN. This time it was for the international conference on women. Similar rights were demanded: abortion, gender, sexual rights. At three o’clock in the morning, when the most difficult negotiations take place, the United States proposed a very small, oral amendment. This amendment said: “human rights grant human dignity.”

This small amendment clarified many things. It reverses the human rights project. The modern human rights project, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is based on the statement that the dignity of the person is the basis and foundation for human rights. By reversing this, to say that States grant human dignity, the proposal aimed to place the definition of the person in the hands of the State.

This idea is not a new one. What the State can give, the State can rescind. Giving the State the power to decide who is a person and who is not, has been one of the foundational errors of the genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The amendment also confirmed that the central question of our time remains the question of the human person. If the peripheral outcomes are abortion, sexual rights for children, and the deletion of parents’ rights, the core question is our vision of the human person. The mission of the World Youth Alliance was confirmed: to defend the dignity of each human person.

Debates about gender, sexual education, abortion, and other questions relating to the human person, are debates about the human person. Is the human person an object that can be used and discarded? Are we individual, pleasure seeking automatons, with the freedom of choice to determine our own “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”[1] as the Supreme Court has suggested? Or are we persons endowed with intrinsic value and human dignity, the subject of rights, with the freedom to respect objective realities about the human person, and to pursue and know the transcendent and God?

The suffering of the 20th century gave us particular answers to these questions.

Viktor Frankl, the great Jewish writer and therapist, survived two concentration camps. He spoke of the prisoners who risked their lives to give a crust of bread to someone who needed it more. Or the guards, who risked their position to help the prisoners. This, he said, was freedom. But he also wrote of the men – prisoners and guards – who gave up this freedom, and chose to act like animals. Even when shackled and chained, he wrote, man is always free.

The heroes under Communist oppression agreed.

In 1956, Polish workers went on strike against the Polish Communist Workers Government. Instead of honoring the constitutional claims of workers’ rights, including the right to strike, the Polish Communist Government shot and killed their workers. Next door, in Hungary, students and workers rose in solidarity with the workers of Poland, and claimed their own Constitutional rights to freedom of expression. As they marched to the Parliament, they, too, were shot and killed by their Hungarian Communist State.

For almost four decades, heroes and martyrs withstood torture and gave their lives in the face of injustice, killings, and violations of conscience that were routinely practiced by Communist Governments with Constitutions claiming to protect these same rights.

These men and women reflected broad cultural resistance to Communist tyranny which grew over the decades of their oppression. Vaclav Havel captures this in his famous essay, The Power of the Powerless, when he writes about the green grocer. The green grocer is given a sign that says “Workers of the world, unite!” and told to place it in his shop window among the tomatoes, which he does. But one day he begins to think about that sign. Does he believe what it says? Does he want to keep it there?

A great crisis of conscience now begins. As the green grocer thinks about these questions, new questions emerge. If he removes the sign, he will go to jail. His store will be confiscated, his wife beaten, and his children denied further education and jobs. He will be pressured and blackmailed, perhaps tortured, and sent to the gulag or lose his life.

The greengrocer, having pondered these things, removes the sign from his store window. All around the Soviet Empire, similar actions take place. Men and women decide to liberate themselves, by refusing to go along with the State lie, and by choosing to live in the truth.

At Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, during daily mass homilies, the chaplain of the Solidarity Movement teaches the Polish workers to understand the lie of communism and to learn how to live in the truth. Behind the darkness of the Iron Curtain, he later wrote, thousands of lamps were being lit. These lamps formed a ‘forest of awakened consciences’, which would, in time, topple the totalitarian, communist Governments that had seized control of Central and Eastern Europe. The people chose to live in the truth, and the Truth set them free.

John Paul II grew up in this experience of suffering, and had his finger on the pulse of this question of our time. In Centesimus Annus, his letter to the world at the collapse of Communism, he wrote that communism collapsed not for its economic or political failures, but because it was based on a lie about the human person. His role was central in the collapse of the Communist empire, as it was in ensuring that the UN and global community were not able to establish a global right to abortion.

Our challenges today are different, but they are still rooted in this central question of the human person. We, too, need the courage in our own time to live in the truth. At the World Youth Alliance, just like the greengrocer, we first began by understanding and resisting language and policy proposals that violated the truth about the dignity of each human person. We knew what we opposed; but what did we want? Language reveals reality; and policies require programs to implement.

Instead of gender ideology, we built a curriculum based on anthropological reality. Instead of contraception and abortion, our women’s health program offers diagnosis and treatment. By beginning with the reality and needs of the human person, clashes of ideology gave way to completely new pathways, allowing us to build a new direction in policy in contested and politicized educational and women’s health debates.

Your study here has equipped you to live in the truth, and contribute to building the programs and communities that will provide a concrete response to the challenges around us.

Your work here has been both intellectual and spiritual. To knowing the truth is added the interior difficulty of living the truth. By approaching your studies through the light of the Gospel, you know that the Truth is concrete and can be known. Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Vatican II reminds us that Christ reveals man to himself.

The truth is real, concrete and knowable, when we encounter it in the person of God made man. We know it through our senses and through our body. Veritatis Splendor teaches us: Corpore et animus unus: the body and soul are one. And in the Theology of the Body, John Paul II tells us that the language of the body is self-gift.

This reality – Truth Incarnate – is the heart of the new evangelization.

It comes to us through our senses, revealed through other persons, and ultimately through the person of Jesus himself.

It comes through us to other people in the same way. Person to person through self-gift. Life giving truth, lived out first in our own lives. This is why living in the truth could bring down Communism. It is why a forest of awakened consciences was able to change the world. And it is why, as John Paul II reminded us, the crisis of every society is ultimately a crisis of saints. Saints change the world because they bring Reality – God – to us.

The rivers of blood of the 20th century demonstrated the cost of rejecting the truth about the human person and God. Abuse of language led to the abuse of power. Truth and reality were replaced by force and ideology.

We risk experiencing this again today. Our culture is weakened by fear and uncertainty; we choose relativism over reality. Once again, at the core of our conflict, is the question of the human person. Who are we? What are we made for?

We know the answer to these questions. We are made for the truth. The truth about the human person, and the truth about God. “There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value, and even surpass the preservation of physical life”, Pope Benedict reminds us. “There is martyrdom.”[2]

As in the past, those who change and heal the culture will be those who have the courage to live in the truth, whatever the cost. It is their personal lives, usually made credible through suffering, that open hearts and inspire others. It is their witness to the truth that challenges oppression and changes hearts and minds.

Your study at the Augustine Institute has helped to shape your mind and inform your conscience. You are witnesses to the culture and the world. Moments will undoubtedly arise requiring you to sacrifice in order to live in the truth.

When those moments come, remember the great company you keep.

It is the company of the greengrocer, of the powerless, of those who choose, whatever the cost, to live in the truth.

It is the company of those who form part of that forest of awakened consciences that continues to grow, and that brings light to our own time.

It is the company of the saints. It is the company of martyrs.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5).

Thank you.

[1] Quote from court decision Planned Parenthood V. Casey (1992)

[2] Pope Benedict XVI essay: ‘The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse’. Translation from Catholic News Agency.

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