On Behalf of Natural Hope

Recent discussions of the American bishops’ pastoral on peace and nuclear weapons have left unsaid what most bothers me about it. The document calls for a new order in the political world. Yet in the process of making its point the proposal presumes the current political initiatives bode an empty future. The rhetoric of a disastrous crisis counterpoised by a promise of Christian-based hope strikes me as false and disrespectful. The present political situation, the pastoral suggests, has brought us to the brink of no tomorrow. Who can believe that? What sort of person, in what situation, with what commitments? The collective episcopacy asserts it. It would serve the true believers among them well. For if true, such political and spiritual facts must bludgeon the faithful into docility.

Yet I cannot take the possibility of no tomorrow as the threat the draft would imply. Am I naive? Of course any man’s life is contingent. And all earthly life is fragile, for cosmic as well as for political reasons; nuclear weapons make the plight more evident. Even so I’m not at all moved by apocalyptic fears. And I resent religious leaders invoking fear of imminent apocalyptic disaster to marshal common opinion.

The reason, I know, once I get beyond my rather tentative opinions on history and theory of politics, is that I’ve a wife and children. From day to day I labor, work and act, as do most of my generation and those before me. My daily life is one of new beginnings and trust. I’ve started a household, a family; I initiate policies, practices, ways of thinking, however, modest, in my community. I’m sure that what I’ve started is hardly my own in the final analysis. Whether they last and are good is as much the result of how these upstarts of mine are received and nourished by other people. This life is not without trust and hope. Nothing supernatural here. But a basic requirement of civilized life.

The voice of the episcopacy gives no expression to this natural hope; it either ignores or is blind to this element in the actual dynamic of civil life. The hope the letter mentions is always scripture-based or Christ- centered, which is supernatural hope. But what does this grace perfect? The envisioned political landscape is bereft of natural hope: unless we turn to Christ’s message of peace the nuclear holocaust is our imminent fate. Poppycock.

What is the difference between the bishops and me? I’m lay and they are religious. I’m married with children; they are celibate. By vocation I am called to the temporal world in a way they are not. Trust and hope in spite of dangerous or fragile beginnings are among the first principles of my vocation. Yet I depend upon their celibate and religious life to call my hope to perfection, to moderate my temporal concerns with an eternal truth, and to ever remind me that my children, my works, my deeds are meant for the service of God. But they cannot do this if they have squeezed out of their view of reality the world of action. Otherwise they must seem like someone bringing the good news of fatherhood to a clan of eunuchs.

To do what I do, to have the lay vocation, there simply must be natural and reasonable promise of a future. Having the future is equivalent to trusting one’s own community, however faulty it may be. This is not a matter of wishful thinking on my part. Rather the very life of the laity gives proof to the reality of this realm whose boundaries are set by the people’s spirit of hopefulness. The apocalyptic crisis is false. At best it is an over-used religious metaphor.

I’m reminded of an interview I once read. A Negro woman who recently relocated in Boston from a southern town was talking about the pressure put on her by the civil authorities to stop having children. She was angry. “To me, having a baby inside me is the only time I’m really alive. I know I can make something, do something, no matter what color my skin is and what people call me. When the baby gets born I see him, and he’s full of life, or she is; and I think to myself that it doesn’t make any difference what happens later, at least now we’ve got a chance, or the baby does. You can see the little one grow and get larger and start doing things, and you feel there must be some hope, some chance that things will get better; because there it is, right before you, a real, live, growing baby. The children and their father feel it too, just like I do. They feel the baby is a good sign, or at least he’s some sign. If we didn’t have that, what would be the difference from death.” This woman has a wisdom an apocalyptic bishop would do well to steep himself in. She knows what’s at the heart of human life.

Possibly the rhetoric of the second draft of the pastoral will be changed. What specifically occasions my objection may well be eliminated. I doubt though that the cause will disappear so quickly. Such direct assault upon the integrity of the lay life as I find there seems deeply rooted in the manifest self-image of contemporary Catholicism. There’s no comfort in the fact that clerics are not the only Catholics who fail to appreciate the distinction between and the separate excellences of the lay and religious lives.

The Catholic Church depends on the solid leadership of the bishops. This is not a mere fact of organizational behavior, but a truth rooted in the Church’s sacred foundation. Without spiritual leadership the laity must languish and confusion rule. Only the bishops can ultimately restore life and peace. But they must do it by living their special witness to the eternal and by enabling the laity in their special work with the temporal. If it were understood what the religious and laity were about, the episcopacy’s rhetoric would not have sounded such apocalyptic strains. And we would have a document that is an honest source of encouragement for the principal agents of reform and improvement in the temporal order. Without betraying his calling to the Church’s leadership our bishop needs to be more encouraging and trusting. He may be a prophet. But he is also a leader. A sane and respectful balance must be struck.


  • William A. Frank

    William A. Frank, professor of philosophy, has taught at the University of Dallas since fall 1986. Among his special interests and competencies he counts the history of medieval philosophy, Duns Scotus, metaphysics, the philosophy of education, and contemporary Catholic philosophy.

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