Salt Lake City: The ninth World Congress of Families, which began here on Tuesday, has turned out to be a highly emotional experience for the 3000 or so international delegates present as speech after speech scored the recent US Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex union as valid in all American states, and called it a real danger to the future of the United States.
It is not law: it does not invite obedience but civil disobedience to the law, said Cathy Ruse, senior counsel of the Family Research Council in Washington, DC. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the ruling did not change the law on marriage, said Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage. Marriage remains unchanged as the union of one man one woman for life, Brown said; the ruling merely introduced a “lie” into law, he pointed out.
But the speaker who took the Congress by storm is a 32-year-old Christian evangelist named Nick Vujicic, who was born without both arms and limbs, but who said he was happy to offer everything he had to God. This gave me the opportunity to speak of the real meaning of the “gift of life.” What follows is my address.
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Casualties from the decline of faith
MY very first words will be to commend and thank our gracious hosts and their colleagues for the phenomenal job they have done in organizing this Congress—-for the very first time in the United States.
My assigned task is to talk to you about “Personal, Family and Cultural Casualties from the Decline of Faith.” I shall understand this simply to mean “the crisis of our faith, the crisis of our times.” Our personal lives are in trouble, the family life is in trouble, our culture and indeed our very civilization is in trouble because of this crisis.
How did it come about?
And how are we to end it? Our quest for an answer to this question did not begin, nor will it end, with the World Congress of Families. It is an open-ended quest, which this Congress, the World Meeting of Families that came to Philadelphia last month, the just-concluded Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome, and so many other Christian initiatives will have to weave together into something inclusive and seamless.
In one of the most damning statements ever made on this subject, the French existentialist Albert Camus (in his novel, The Fall) writes: “I often wonder what future historians will say about us. A single sentence will suffice to describe modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” He sees life without a purpose, life without faith. But the prediction has fallen short of the reality.
The modern individual no longer merely fornicates. The verb has virtually disappeared from the lexicon of our highly sexualized societies. Hardly is any distinction left between licit and illicit sex, between casual and covenanted sex; modern man seems to live only for the carnal pleasures of sex—sex without responsibility, sex without rules, sex without consequence. And the casualty has not been anything else but the family, civilization, man himself.
The attack on God
The global attack on human dignity, on the integrity of the human person and the family, is ultimately an attack on God. The war of religions is over, but the war on religion has hardly begun, and the target is no longer any individual religion in particular but God. He has become the arch enemy. Many things have been invoked to justify or explain it. Science is one; reason is another. Yet some of the most eminent men of science and learning have testified that there is no conflict between faith and science, between reason and faith.
For Max Planck, 1858-1947, father of quantum physics, “science and religion are not in contrast, but need each other to complete one another in the mind of the man who thinks seriously. Science is dedicated to the ‘stage’ of being, to the phenomenon, to the facts and figures, to the how, while religion on the other hand is consecrated to the foundation, to the ultimate sense of being, to the why.”
For Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002), the noted evolutionary biologist, “science and religion are ‘non-overlapping magisteriums’: they are autonomous paths with their own statutes, protocols, and methods. They are distinct but not totally separate because their object is the same, although they have different approaches.”
For Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, the language of science is no barrier to understanding the mind of God.
In a wonderful small book (The Encounter) Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi notes with great joy that upon the facade of his home in Kussnacht near Zurich, Carl Gustav Yung, (1875-1961), one of the founders of psychoanalysis, had inscribed the words “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.” Meaning, “both to those who turn to him and to those who ignore him, God will always be present.”
No more philosophy but philosophies
For its part, philosophy, as a primary agent of reason, has sought to remain an indestructible support of faith. The last two great Popes—St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—drew on the vast resources of Augustine, Aquinas and other Christian philosophers to advance the mutual purification of faith and reason. Not all the clarity and vigor of their catechesis, though, could hold back the steady dechristianisation of our Christian culture, and the world’s descent into paganism.
Although from ancient times to the Middle Ages, philosophy, in the words of Benedict XVI, provided men with a picture of the world in which faith could find a meaningful place to speak of God as the creator of all things, and as the spiritual and intelligent foundation of the universe, the corruption of philosophy celebrated everything that tramped the mystery of God as a profound human achievement.
For a while even the crude and vulgar mantra, “I have a right to my own body,” demanded the right to be treated as a serious philosophy. Thus, upon the death of St. John Paul II, his would-be successor would ring the loudest bells against the rising storm of moral relativism.
And that’s where we are now. That storm has swept across our planet with all the severity it could muster, strewing upon its path a debris of withered lives, shriveled families, shrunken cultures, and a woeful caricature of creation. But beyond this grievous ravaging of our faith, what ultimately threatens man, the natural family and human society are not simply those who deny God his authorship and control of the universe, but rather those who hate God for it.
They hate the fact that they have to reckon with a Transcendent Being unimaginably more immense and powerful than themselves. In a world that zealously protects everyone’s intellectual property right to their crudest inventions, God alone is denied his intellectual property rights to his own creation. This is increasingly evident in the noblest of nations where, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s time, religion was the first political institution.
We saw this first in Roe v. Wade, which gave American women a private right unknown to the other creatures, the right to destroy on demand the foetus inside their womb. We saw it again in Obergefell v. Hodges, when five Supreme Court justices proclaimed for the American people a human right that should make Sodom and Gomorrah flinch. It is the last word in trashing God’s handiwork, the last word in population control. For while divorce merely destroys what is otherwise permanent and indissoluble in marriage, contraception prevents the birth of children even in a fertile matrimonial bed, and abortion destroys the noblest fruit of conjugal love, same-sex union makes procreation completely unnecessary, impossible, irrelevant, useless. It breeds unbearable boredom, despair and discontent.
Bringing back God
How then do we bring back God where men and women have abolished his public existence? If we have booted Him out of our personal, family, social and political lives, where His presence is indispensable and irreplaceable, we will need, very seriously, to begin again. But how exactly do we begin again? This, I believe, is the real question. And it is a question for the human heart, more than it is a question for any particular creed or confession. It must be answered by what the heart knows and remembers best of man’s relationship with his Creator from the dawn of creation.
This requires, first of all, a deep understanding of the value of life in all its stages and conditions, as you put it in this Congress. But this is possible only if we have a deep understanding of the gift of life, as we received it from the Creator, as our brother Nick Vujicic from the Life Without Limbs Ministry testified beyond all eloquence in this conference.
This particular knowledge precedes all religions, and does not carry the stamp of any particular confession. It comes from what the heart knows and remembers best, not only of the past but also of the future. How often have we used the phrase “the gift of life” on birthday celebrations, but have we ever paused long enough to take in its full meaning? This is what I should like us to reflect on now.
The recipient as gift
In the ordinary act of gift-giving, we have the giver, the gift and the recipient. All three elements are given. But in the gift of life, the Giver willed the gift and the recipient together and at the same time, out of the void, before there ever was either. The recipient came alive precisely because the Giver willed the gift and used it to will his existence. The recipient became the gift, and the gift the recipient.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground. God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27).
There is no greater mystery than this, and no greater privilege for man than to be called thereafter to participate in the act of procreation. This should blow our minds forever. For God gave us memory not just so we might have roses in December, as James Barrie put it nearly a hundred years ago; God gave us memory so that we would never forget where we came from and where we are going.
Born without arms and limbs, our brother Nick built his life and his mission on the extraordinary premise that he was born to serve, not to be served, and that he will use everything he’s got to serve his Maker and others. He overflows with pure and boundless joy as though he had been gifted with the strongest arms and limbs. The least we can do is to imitate his witness, and seek forgiveness for having failed to know, serve and love God and our fellowmen with all our hearts and minds and strength.
Thank you so much for having me in this Congress, and thank you so much more for listening.