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A tale of two cities: London and Madrid


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The great Catholic convert and journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, used to quote an ancient inscription as a summary of the meaning of life: "Here am I, Captain of a Legion of Rome, who served in the Libyan desert and learns and ponders this truth: there are in life but two things, love and power, and no man can have both." Muggeridge's autobiography, "Chronicles of Wasted Time"-- highly recommended for summer reading -- is an extended meditation on this contrast.

Saints are keen on bringing this contrast to our attention. We must choose between the City of God and the City of Man, St. Augustine urged. In our time, Blessed John Paul II distinguished the Culture of Life from the Culture of Death.

To hold that the crucial question as regards abortion is "Whose choice is it anyway?" is to align oneself with Power. The apotheosis of Power is to believe that precisely the dependence of the unborn child on the mother is the reason she can kill it. But to hold, in contrast, that the crucial question is "Is this a human being like me, the mother's child?" is to enter the kingdom of Love. Power thinks "fetus" and despises, love sees "offspring" (the meaning of the Latin word) and marvels. Power's modus operandi is first to obscure human dignity, then attack it; Love magnifies dignity when it is fragile and responds with even greater compassion.

The contrast is not meant to be an abstraction but embodied in actual communities. A family either embodies the Culture of Life or becomes aligned, perhaps against its intentions, with the Culture of Death. The teaching of John Paul II was that use of artificial contraceptives ineluctably transfers our loyalties from the one culture to the other. Similarly, a university as an institution tends to side with either Love or Power. Prestige is Power; devotion to truth is Love.

What about Western societies -- do they side with Love or Power? If you say that the state must necessarily be dedicated to Power, you negate the essential concept of Christendom, which is that authority is different from power, and that authority may indeed be exercised in the service of Love.

That this concept of Christendom has been largely discarded -- this I am willing to grant. When the countries in the European Union were drafting the preamble for their constitution, and stating what they thought to be the traditions which led to modern Europe, they mentioned classical sources and the Enlightenment, but they deliberately left out any mention of Christianity.

Yet then the pressing question becomes: Can there be an order of Love apart from Christianity? What would be the harvest of a Europe which actually rejected Christianity? Muggeridge said that the question has been answered already -- by Nazi Germany, and even more conspicuously by Communist states.

We may wish to pray that we will not need to have that question answered so obviously again. But an answer of sorts is provided anew by two gatherings of young people during these weeks. In England, home of the apostle of the New Atheism, Richard Dawkins -- where Christianity is commonly derided in public as a fairy tale and a load of nonsense (the ex-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism after leaving office, told the BBC in an interview that he refrained from saying anything about his religious views while in office "for fear of being labelled 'a nutter'") -- young people used social media to gather in the evenings in mobs to burn businesses and loot electronic goodies. One may guess that not many of the thugs went out to burn buildings on the way home from a Bible study or prayer meeting. Call the riots "mindless criminality" or "sheer thuggery" if you wish. I say that burning buildings is not entirely surprising behavior for anyone whose upbringing today has not been buffered by a genuinely Christian family or parish life.

But whereas, in London, businesses and neighborhoods burned with a fire which is the harvest of a culture which has forgotten God, in Madrid, millions of young people gather at World Youth Day (WYD) seeking rather the Fount of Life and Fire of Love. The young pilgrims look for inspiration from the great saints associated with Madrid, such as Sts. James, Ignatius of Loyola, and Josemaria Escriva. The week is crammed with activities of service to the poor, besides prayer and worship.

"In some parts of the world, particularly in the West, today's culture tends to exclude God, and to consider faith a purely private issue with no relevance for the life of society. Even though the set of values underpinning society comes from the Gospel -- values like the sense of the dignity of the person, of solidarity, of work and of the family -- we see a certain 'eclipse of God' taking place, a kind of amnesia," Pope Benedict wrote to young persons, in preparation for WYD. "As young people, you are entitled to receive from previous generations solid points of reference to help you to make choices and on which to build your lives: like a young plant which needs solid support until it can sink deep roots and become a sturdy tree capable of bearing fruit."

Pray for the spread of the order of Love through the conversion of many hearts, and a deep growth in the faith, of the young people meeting in Madrid.

Michael Pakaluk is chairman and professor of philosophy at Ave Maria University. He has recently edited a book of the letters and writings of Ruth Pakaluk, entitled "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God" (Ignatius Press).

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