In The New Republic, Damon Linker, a former editor at First Things, claims Pope John Paul II's most lasting legacy “may very well prove to be his powerful and uncompromising defense of moral absolutism.” Where some might see this a strength, for Linker the Pope's defense of “moral absolutism” is profoundly troubling. Says Linker,
…there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms — even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself.
Linker's wispy ode to complicated and paradoxical morality is meaningless, except to signal that forthwith he will be mischaracterizing the Pope's view as hopelessly simplistic. Linker means merely that some issues are kind of difficult to think through, and if the late Holy Father ever thought otherwise, it's not apparent in any of his writings. After all, Pope John Paul II often acknowledged that “in many cases” even abortion is “practiced under the pressure of real-life difficulties.” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 13) The Pope was well-aware of and sensitive to the relationship of environment to moral choice. Indeed, part of the point of the Pope's language of cultures of life and death is to reveal how culture can obscure moral truth and leave people nearly hapless before moral complexity.
But Linker will have none of this nuance; he will neither see it in the Pope's writings nor embrace it himself. Just a paragraph before asserting that the Pope's absolutism “poisons and polarizes political debate,” Linker accuses him of regarding those who support stem cell research as being “immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty 'culture of death.'” Of course, the Pope never said any such thing, but what's a little poison among enemies, anyway? Pope John Paul II never used language remotely akin to Linker's, but the gander doesn't even care what the goose does anymore.
Rhetorical inflammation is not, however, the main problem with Linker's essay. Its main problem is its own simplicity. Linker moves back and forth between morality, politics, and the law as though they're equivalent. So, the Pope's moral absolutism troubles Linker because of its political and legal repercussions. He cites in depth the Terry Schiavo case — a “troubling, example of the Pope's influence on moral argument in the United States.” Evidence of the Pope's troubling influence on moral argument? The politcal and legal battles between supporter's of Schiavo's husband and parents! Pope John Paul II never reduced morality to the law or politics. Linker does. So, Linker again, writing about these legal and political battles:
We witnessed significant numbers of American citizens and their representatives in Washington refusing to settle for the imperfect justice of the rule of law and demanding an extra-legal means of bringing the nation into conformity with morality understood in the absolute, unambiguous terms defined by John Paul II. For these moral perfectionists, the lawful course of action — the slow, difficult, and possibly futile task of persuading Florida voters and their representatives to change the laws of their state so that a similar situation would not arise in the future — was simply unacceptable.
Most of this passage is just nonsense; everything hinges on the phrase “extra-legal means,” because “significant numbers of American citizens and their representatives refusing to settle for the imperfect justice of the law” sounds a lot like healthy democratic process; the kind of process that pushes imperfect justice toward less imperfect justice.
People refusing to settle for imperfect justice animates all social reforms, and beneath the refusal to settle for imperfect justice sparkles justice perfectly conceived. Are there different conceptions of justice? Of course; again, not something of which the Pope was unaware. In his writings the Pope was reminding Americans (among others) that there is a higher law than the Constitution; that following legal processes is not the same as behaving morally.
But surely Linker knows this. Our country's history abounds in heroic appeals to this higher law. Think for instance of William H. Seward's outrage at the Compromise of 1850. The issue is never really moral absolutism itself, but the brand of it. Ultimately, Linker rejects the Pope's conception of justice. Linker doesn't really oppose moral absolutism, of course; he opposes the Pope's moral absolutism.
Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.