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Beyond the sound and fury of the culture wars

The Palermo Annunciation by Antonello da Messina: the human face is the revelation of the person

On the feast of St Albert the Great, patron saint of scientists and teacher of Thomas Aquinas, a new initiative was launched by the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family – or rather by its research arm in the United States, the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research at The Catholic University of America. Called Humanum and located at, the new initiative takes the form of an online book review journal designed to target the heart of what Blessed John Paul II called “the culture of death” and nurture the seeds of a “culture of life”.

John Paul II founded his Institute at the Lateran University, with branches or “sessions” in every continent, because he knew that the distinctive anthropology or understanding of human nature that was his own unique contribution to the development of Catholic doctrine and tradition needed to be taught in an intellectually rigorous way, and as globally as possible. It contained the answer to many of the tensions of modern life – all of which have a common root in the true nature of the human person and his needs, which modernity has failed to grasp in its relentless drive to understand the world through an overly narrow conception of reason.

Who is Man? For John Paul II, there is nothing wrong with rationality, on the contrary, but the modern conception of reason is too narrow, stunted, and therefore not enough to explain man, whose heart is made for the Infinite. Faith and reason in the true sense are complementary. Faith challenges reason to expand and deepen its investigation of man. Thus, while human reason could not have concluded on its own that “God is love” (1 John 4:16) or that God wills man for himself, once we have read the riddle of man in this light, it should have no problem accepting the conclusion – that man finds himself through self-gift. This is, after all, a truth that makes sense of our experience.

As its name indicates, Humanum, which I have the privilege of editing from Oxford, is about “the human”: what makes us human, what keeps us human, and how to rescue our humanity when this is endangered. Our aim is to pick our way with discernment through the flood of publications (some good, some confused, some pernicious) that claim to tell us about ourselves, about family, marriage, love, children, health, and human life. It is therefore deliberately a work of critical reason, having a particular concern with issues that directly affect the poor and the vulnerable.

Each issue will have a main theme around which the reviews and articles cluster, and these issues will appear every three months. We begin with an issue on The Child, because this reveals the foundation of our perspective on humanity: the child is the purest revelation of man and his relationship to Being. Then, in a cycle of four issues under the heading of “Recovering Origins” we focus on adult children of divorce, artificial reproduction, same-sex unions, and delinquent fatherhood. In this way we begin by examining some of the most challenging developments in modern technological culture and their impact on human life and meaning. We are looking for recommendations of important books to review, and qualified reviewers who share an appreciation of Christian anthropology, which is the particular perspective we intend to bring to these issues.

Beyond the culture wars Pope Benedict, like his great predecessor, has been trying to encourage a “New Evangelisation” of societies such as our own that are perceived as increasingly secular and hostile to faith. But the New Evangelisation can hardly be said to have been a success so far. Sane and measured voices tend to be drowned in the sound and fury of the “culture wars” – the name often given, especially in America, to clashes between True Believers and New Atheists, and within the Catholic Church between liberals and conservatives.

The John Paul II Institute is sometimes wrongly identified with the “conservative” camp, but in reality things are much more complex.

For John Paul, the question was fundamentally a spiritual one: if we are called to holiness, we are called to this blessed state in and through our families and societies, not just in our interior life. And what is holiness, but the image and likeness of the Trinity in man? Thus he saw marriage and the family, including sexual relationships and eros, as part of a holistic vision of who we are and who we can become, for God and for each other. He was grounded in wide human experience and knew and respected the sciences, but saw how much more we can be if we do not limit our ambitions to whatever seems most comfortable and conformable in this world.

The lead article in The Child issue is by David L Schindler, probably the foremost exponent of John Paul’s theological vision in America. As he says, his goal is to reveal in this issue how our society’s malaise is revealed in its ambiguous treatment of children.

On the one hand, we provide medical care for children in excess of anything offered in earlier times. We provide a great variety of educational possibilities, as well as opportunities for development of artistic and athletic talents. We provide day-care facilities and professional services for children with special needs. On the other hand, we accept a right, or “entitlement,” to abortion as a way of dealing with pregnancies unwanted for any reason.

The reason for this ambiguity is that our culture sees human dignity in terms of the “adult power of self-conscious rationality and self-determining agency”, while it associates the dependence of the child mostly with a weakness expected to be outgrown over the course of time.

Thus cultural phenomena like experimental research on embryos at the first moments of their existence, or abortion of unborn Down’s Syndrome babies and other unborn babies whose parents live in broken circumstances, are understood by the culture on its most benign reading as efforts to protect the integrity of what the child, in its state of weakness and immaturity, is not able to choose for itself, through securing the infant’s right to be born in conditions that favour its normal growth into adult personhood.

But Christianity says something very different. For Christ, “As the child becomes an adult, he or she is meant to continue becoming a child. In a word, the child’s legitimate maturation into adulthood is a matter not so much of growing out of childhood as simultaneously, and indeed essentially, of growing ever more deeply into childhood, such that the face of adulthood itself bears a childlike character,” if it is to be worthy of the kingdom of heaven. The denial of this understanding of childhood as bearing the image of the Son and an indication of what it means to be holy – to receive consciously everything from God, including our own being, in gratitude and wonder – goes right to the corrupt heart of our society, so dominated by cynicism and by the veneration of material power.

Schindler demonstrates that Western societies (despite seeming in some ways “child-centred”) have become dominated by a “logic of childlessness”, which disposes them to anti-child practices such as contraception, abortion, and embryo experimentation, almost as directly as the religion of the ancient Carthaginians led to the throwing of children into the furnace of Moloch.

Even more profoundly, our civilisation is predisposed increasingly against contemplation, receptivity, and gratitude, and it despises weakness and humiliation while glorifying power and aggression.

This is the spiritual crisis of our time, which underlies the moral crisis, and which our first issue aimed to identify.

Stratford Caldecott is the Editor of Humanum, and works at Second Spring Oxford with his wife and children. He is the author most recently of All Things Made New: The Mysteries of the World in Christ (2011).