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"Turning the miraculous into machinery".

At the end of August, the Holy Father left his summer retreat to issue a declaration against practices such as embryo cloning and commercialization of organ transplants. "What is technically possible is not, for that reason alone, morally admissible," John Paul II told an audience of 2,000, comprising mainly scientists, researchers and bioethicists. His warning, of course, applies well beyond the specific topic of his address. Indeed, in the 20-minute speech, he pinpointed the key deformity that the 20th century has bequeathed the 21st century.

Driving the great and small horrors of the past 100 years--from the monstrosities of Auschwitz to the mindnumbing effects of network television--is the belief that mere ability to organize and act in a given way carries its own moral imprimatur.

Nike's '90s advertising slogan 'just do it' functions as both an epitaph for the age and a summary of the major superstition we will carry into the coming era. Again, His Holiness identified the roots of this error in the 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. There, he warned against acceding to "unilateral rationalism" that deifies the fruits of the intellect without regard to the true purpose of human existence. That purpose, in the memorable phrase of Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankel, is man's search for meaning. In John Paul II's words, such meaning must be "intimately united" with seeking God. As always, the Holy Father expresses optimism that minds are increasingly turning toward this search despite the obstacles of the age.

"(I)n the face of the modern world's development, there is an ever- n creasing number of people who askthemselves or who feel more keenly the most essential questions: What is man? What is the meaning of suffering, of evil, of death, which persist despite all progress?"

Not all those engaged in this questioning of progress act with honesty, much less nobility. Some, such as those decrying genetically modified foods or those who cried wolf over global warming, engage in the most ignoble fear-mongering. They do not seek answers but rather seek to impose agendas varying from environmentalist obscurantism to Nanny State dirigism.

Former federal Liberal Environment Minister Christine Stewart once told me directly, for example, that the Chretien government's signing of the so-called Kyoto Accord on reducing green house gas emissions was driven by the desire for international income redistribution and social justice, not science. She showed no hint of embarrassment at such an admission of trickery.

Beyond such political nefariousness are those whose opposition to the dogma of progress is simply an excuse for random acts of violence. Recent rampages by those purporting to oppose globalism would fit under this heading. There is legitimate cause for concern over the replacement of the local by the international; the nation state by ephemeral world bodies. But there is no reason in a riot, as those responsible for street battles in Seattle, Washington, Windsor and elsewhere know full well.

If neither the usual political suspects nor self-proclaimed social activists can be trusted to put progress to the test, then, who besides John Paul is deliberating on these matters in a way that is illuminating and truthful?

One of the finest writers and thinkers I've come across in this regard is the Kentucky poet, essayist, academic and farmer, Wendell Berry. In the title of his newest book, Berry makes the plain-spoken assertion that Life is a Miracle.

What is most compelling about the ensuing 150-page text, subtitled An Essay Against Modern Superstition, is that Berry is as committed to the recovery of life as he is in affirming the reality of the miraculous. Berry argues that the negation of life in our times is a function of the religification of science. His opposition is not to scientific inquiry, but to the historical process by which the search for meaning in God has been replaced by the insatiable pursuit of empirical answers. To unlock the miracles of the universe is to justify turning the miraculous into machinery. Machines, by their nature, are amoral. Morality has come to mean nothing more than efficient harnessing of the machinations of creation.

What has been lost, Berry argues powerfully, is the miracle of life itself. I want to look more deeply at his arguments in my next column.

Peter Stockland is Editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette.
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Author:Stockland, Peter
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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