Despite worldwide adoration and attention focused on Pope John Paul II and his successor, and now the Vatican’s decision to expedite John Paul’s possible canonization, few have asked an obvious question: What does the Catholic Church stand for today? If one examines this question closely, the answer does not give cause for celebration.
Consider the Church’s recent teachings in regard to the major areas of modern life: rational thought, productive work, and sex.
The Scientific Revolution, begun in the 16th century, demonstrated to man that reason, systematically employed, could unlock the world’s mysteries. From the orbits of the planets to the trajectory of a cannonball, from the atomic nature of matter to the origins of life, from the power of electricity to the causes of disease — everything was open to human understanding. By showing man that his mind, properly used, possesses an unlimited power to grasp the universe, the great scientists taught us a profound self-confidence.
In opposition, John Paul II argues in the encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) for a return to the notion that reason is “limited” and should be the handmaiden of faith. “There exists a knowledge which is peculiar to faith,” he writes, “surpassing the knowledge proper to human reason.” What should you do when the conclusions of reason conflict with the dictates of “faith” — when, say, “faith” declares that you are born with sin but reason teaches you that your moral stature can only be a matter of the choices you make? You must abandon the idea that you — your rational mind — can comprehend the matter. You must bow your head, drop to your knees, and blindly submit to religious authority.
The Scientific Revolution ushered in the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Armed with the power of scientific knowledge and protected from the machinations of king and pope by the principle of individual rights, the producers appeared. With the freedom to think and to profit from the results of their thinking, individual inventors and innovators transformed every area of human life. Businessmen flourished and created wealth on a heretofore undreamed of scale. The West, and especially America, became the envy of the world. Each of us learned to stand proudly erect, master of the requirements of human survival.
Pope Paul VI’s 20th-century encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), however, is a manifesto against capitalism. “Individual initiative alone and the interplay of competition,” he says, “will not ensure satisfactory development.” Instead, the individual thinker and producer must be shackled to the group, forced to abandon the profit motive and minister to the needs of others. Quoting St. Ambrose, Paul writes, “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.” This is communism’s vision (from each according to his ability, to each according to his need), only with different authorities in charge. The result therefore must be the same as wherever communism was tried: back-breaking poverty. Why does the Church advocate that which it supposedly opposes? In destroying the great producers and chaining everyone together, you lose control over your own life — and lose the self-esteem that comes from such control.
Now consider the consequences in the realm of sex. By holding reason as an absolute and productive work as the meaning of life, an individual man or woman reaches a state of earthly success, joy, happiness. He or she will seek to express this profound state with a worthy partner — hence the widespread appearance of romantic love in the freer, capitalist nations. In the appropriate circumstances, sex becomes a celebration of your efficacy and love of life.
In Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) Pope Paul VI reiterated the Church’s opposition to contraception. Observe the effects of such a doctrine on sexual pleasure: it introduces fear of an endless stream of unwanted children into the sex act and promotes sexual frustration. Sex is stripped of its status as an end in itself, a celebration of life on earth, and is instead turned into a wearisome duty to procreate.
The Church’s teachings on reason, production, and sex are designed to make men feel impotent, insignificant, and unworthy and incapable of celebrating their own lives. Its recent teachings stand united against a single evil — the sin of pride. Why? Because only broken men will submit to the authority of the Church in the hope that it will save them from their misery — the helpless misery promoted by the Church’s own doctrines.
If success on earth is one’s goal, one needs a philosophy that advocates reason as the only means to knowledge, that affirms each individual’s right to his own life and property, and that upholds happiness as an end in itself. But for such a philosophy one must turn from the Church’s teachings to their 20th-century antipode: the works of Ayn Rand.