The Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who authored The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, won the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. Through his writings, he had made the world aware of the dehumanizing and repressive measures of the former Soviet Union. He himself had spent eight years in prisons and forced labor camps under the Communist state. In 1974, the Soviet Union deported him. After a brief residence in Germany and then in Switzerland, he eventually settled in the United States.
In America, Solzhenitsyn was greatly admired for his outspoken criticism of the oppression of the Soviet regime. On June 8, 1978, four years after he had been expelled from the Soviet Union, he was invited to deliver the Commencement Address at Harvard University. Everyone was excited. This was to be his first public statement since his arrival in the United States. Expectations were high.
As Solzhenitsyn rose to the podium for his address, students and professors, visitors and the media, anxiously anticipated his rebuke of Communism for its lack of freedom, its disregard of individual rights and its exaltation of the state over the individual. As his opening words in Russian were being translated into English, his listeners began to applaud. But, then his audience fell silent. His listeners realized that, instead of denouncing Communism, he was rebuking the West for its loss of values.
Solzhenitsyn acknowledged that our country, unlike the Soviet Union, had been founded to guarantee liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, he shocked his audience when he went on, not to extol, but to excoriate our society. He spoke of the great technological and social progress of recent decades. He saw this progress as creating the possibility for every citizen to accumulate material goods, money and leisure and to enjoy these possessions with an almost unlimited amount of freedom.
But Solzhenitsyn was quick to recognize that there has been a downside to such prosperity. The more individuals have to enjoy, the less likely they are inclined to renounce their pleasure and their enjoyment for the common good. Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn was disappointed with our legal system that has chosen to canonize liberty at any cost, individual rights over the common good. He saw this as dangerous and he was right!
This unrestrained insistence on individual rights over obligation to the common good has only worsened since his stinging rebuke of 1978. In 1992, three justices of the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey made a dramatic statement upholding the right of a woman to abort her child. The justices said that "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, of the mystery of life."
This is the most asocial, amoral and atheistic definition ever issued by the high court. There is no room for others. It is only what I want, what I understand, what I say is right. There is no room, not only for others, but no room for the Other. In such a view of liberty, God has no place. His law is of no concern for the individual. Individual rights trump God's law.
But laws that guarantee unlimited liberty are not the way to create a good and just society. Solzhenitsyn summarized this by saying:
"I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either."
At the conclusion of his remarks, Solzhenitsyn announced that the world had reached a "major watershed in history." Indeed, we have! Our society's wholesale surrender to liberal secularism and its renunciation of Christian values is paving the way for our demise.
In the Catholic worldview, all the technical and scientific knowledge that we gain is seen within a wider context. And what is that context? It is this: the world is wider than us. The unrestrained pursuit of our own comfort and pleasure is not the goal of life. We are not to be so wrapped up in the exercise of our legal rights that we no longer uphold our moral obligations to one another. We are not to be so interested in what life has to offer us that we forget the other.
God does exist. He cares intensely for each of us. In Christ, he calls us to be his children and to love one another, as he loves us. The singular mandate to love others as God loves us is the way to true freedom and to a just and peaceful society. It is, most especially, the way to God himself. Herein, is the great gift of Catholicism to the common good.
Reprinted with permission from The Beacon, official newspaper for the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.