George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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St. John Paul II and Jérôme Lejeune: Two lives at the service of life

In the years since the deaths of these two great souls who dedicated their lives to the service to life, the threats to human dignity and the sanctity of life that Jérôme Lejeune and John Paul II strove so mightily to resist have intensified.


Note: The following remarks were made at the II International Bioethics Conference, in Rome, on May 18, 2024.

Many of the participants in this conference are experts in the life and thought of a great man of science and a great man of faith, the Venerable Jérôme Lejeune; I am not. But as the biographer of Pope St. John Paul II, I do know something about that exemplary disciple and powerful thinker, and I know that this great saint had the highest regard for Jérôme Lejeune. As John Paul put it in a letter to Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, on the day after Dr. Lejeune was called home to the Lord, Dr. Lejeune had a “charism:” a gift of God that empowered him to “employ his profound knowledge of life and its secrets for the true good of man and of humanity, and only for that purpose.”

Jérôme Lejeune, John Paul continued, had become “one of the ardent defenders of life, especially of the life of preborn children.” And in doing so, he was willing “to become a ‘sign of contradiction, regardless of the pressures exerted by a permissive society or of the ostracism he underwent.” Thus, in Jérôme Lejeune, the world met “a man for whom the defense of life became an apostolate.” The charism Dr. Lejeune had been given had been lived in evangelical service to Christ and to Christ’s little ones.

The interactions of John Paul II and Jérôme Lejeune, marked as they were by deep mutual respect that became a form of spiritual friendship, are familiar to all of you, I’m sure.

We know of John Paul’s gratitude for Dr. Lejeune’s work on and for the Pontifical Academy for Life, of which Lejeune was the founding president.

We know of John Paul’s gratitude for Dr. Lejeune’s stalwart work in defense of the unborn, to which he brought a singular authority, given his accomplishments as one of the world’s foremost life-scientists.

We know of their discussion over lunch on May 13, 1981, during which they discussed the threats to the family that John Paul II tried to address through the creation of the Pontifical Council for the Family, linking the defense of the family to the defense of life at all stages and in all conditions.

We know that John Paul asked Dr. Lejeune to lead the Holy See‘s delegation that went to Moscow after the death of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov: a great international defender of life representing the pope at the funeral of the man who, as leader of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, had embodied the callousness of communism toward the sanctity of life – and who may well have stood at the head of the causal chain that led to another event on May 13, 1981.

We know of John Paul’s gratitude for the services Dr. Lejeune was able to render, even amidst his scientific work and in his last illness, to the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

And we remember John Paul’s visit to Dr. Lejeune’s grave, one friend thanking God for the graces that had abounded in the life of another, commending that friend to the divine mercy – and then singing the “Salve, Regina” with the Lejeune family.

To know all this, however edifying, is to remain somewhat on the surface of things. And it is important to dig deeper in order to grasp the essence of these two men and their relationship. In this regard I am reminded of a conversation I had in the late 1990s with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I knew that the cardinal, unlike the nasty caricature of him that was ubiquitous in the world press, had a fine sense of humor. So I began our conversation that day by teasing him about a photo I had seen of him, taken in the late 1960s, in which he was wearing a very wide necktie, rather than his clerical collar. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith laughed and said, “You see, it is like the Holy Father taught in Fides et Ratio: we must go from phenomenon to foundation!”

So let us follow the prescription of John Paul II in Fides et Ratio and move from “phenomenon” to foundation,” reflecting on the intellectual roots of the passion that John Paul II brought to the causes of life – a passion he found mirrored in the work and witness of his friend, Jérôme Lejeune.

That reflection may begin in a graduate course in philosophy taught by the future pope at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1956-57.

During his years on the Lublin faculty, Karol Wojtyla would lead an annual examination-in-depth of a particular philosopher or philosophers, in a seminar he led for graduate students. In that seminar in 1956-57, Wojtyła and his more advanced students made a close reading of the philosophies of David Hume and Jeremy Bentham, under the general rubric of an examination of “Norm and Happiness.” The net effect of Hume’s principled skepticism about the capacity of human beings to know the truth of anything with certainty, Wojtyła concluded, was to drive a thick wedge between morality and reality, such that the moral life inevitably drifted off into a fog of radical subjectivity. And the result of that drift, in Bentham, was utilitarianism: utility, not dignity, would be the measure of man and the measure of the good.

Here, indeed, was a prescient philosophy professor.

Professor Wojtyła and his students, in a small Catholic university in an obscure part of Poland, were looking more than thirty years into the post-communist future – a future no one else seemed capable of imagining, given the choking cultural smog of communist life. And in doing so, they were beginning to scout the intellectual terrain of the next struggle in the defense of human dignity and the sanctity of life: the struggle to defend intellectually, and to embody in both culture and law, the inalienable dignity and infinite value of every human life from conception until natural death. Even amidst the communist plague, Wojtyła and his students, in “the only place between Berlin and Seoul where philosophy was free” (as one of the future pope’s faculty colleagues described their university), were reading British philosophers relatively unknown in Poland, and analyzing the threat to the human future that would be posed if their thought were to be embodied in culture, society, politics, and economics.

Karol Wojtyła carried that concern – that human dignity and the sanctity of life would be in grave jeopardy if a utilitarian ethic, the by-product of metaphysical nihilism and epistemological skepticism, should win the day – to the Second Vatican Council and beyond. Thus in 1968, he wrote to another French friend, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, with whom he had collaborated in the preparation of the final draft text of what would become Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, about the intellectual work in which he was then engaged amidst his heavy schedule of pastoral activities:

I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out at that level. The evil of our time consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at time by atheistic ideologies, we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of ‘recapitulation’ of the inviolable mystery of the person.

Here, I suggest, we have arrived at the “foundation” of the “phenomenon” of “two lives in the service of life” – a foundation built on one great conviction, an insightful analysis, and two firm commitments:

First, the conviction that there are truths inscribed in the world and in us, truths that we can know by both philosophical and scientific reason in a searching process that can be facilitated by attending to divine revelation;

second, a clear reading of the signs of these times, in which humanity was putting itself in grave jeopardy by losing its grip on those truths, and most especially the truth that every human life is not merely an aggregate of biological materials but rather the life of a person, a spiritual being with an infinite value and an eternal destiny;

third, a firm commitment to defend the uniqueness of every human life, in whatever condition and at whatever stage of development;

and fourth, an equally firm commitment to mount that defense of life in terms that could be engaged by those who were losing their grip on the truths inscribed in nature and in us.

Dr. Lejeune would give voice to that fourth commitment in his remarkable testimony before a committee of the United States Senate on April 23, 1981. There, he described in accessible language the genetics of the beginning of human life ( “The chromosomes are the tablets of the law of life, and when they are collected in the new human being…they completely describe his personal constitution”). Then, he explained how every human person’s genetic constitution is unique and irreplicable. And finally, he drew the obvious scientific conclusion:

Accepting the fact that after fertilization a new human being has come to exist is no longer a question of taste or of opinion. The human nature of the human being, from conception until old age, is not a metaphysical hypothesis but, rather, an obvious fact of experience.

John Paul II drew the clear moral conclusions from that scientific fact when, in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, when he taught the general principle that the direct and deliberate taking of any innocent human life is always gravely immoral, and then applied that general principle to a principled rejection of abortion and euthanasia, under any and all circumstances. A just, rightly-ordered society, John Paul taught, will recognize both the scientific fact and the moral conclusion, and it will therefore provide legal protection for human life in all stages of life and in all life-circumstances, while concurrently providing compassionate care for those dealing with crisis pregnancies and those facing terminal illness.

Jérôme Lejeune and John Paul II understood that these are not truths accessible to Catholics only. The gift of faith is not required in order to grasp that human life begins at conception and that the dignity of that life is not diminished by weakness, disability, or terminal illness. The gift of faith is not required to understand that a just society will cherish innocent life in culture and protect innocent human life in law. And thus the Church can make the case for the right-to-life from conception until natural death on grounds that any morally serious person can grasp.

It seems painfully obvious that, in the years since the deaths of these two great souls who dedicated their lives to the service to life, the threats to human dignity and the sanctity of life that Jérôme Lejeune and John Paul II strove so mightily to resist have intensified, as you have discussed over these past two days.

That is why the ongoing work of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation is so important.

And that is why we must hope that the deconstruction of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and the Family, a painful process that can be observed over the past decade is halted, and then reversed, in the years ahead.

For decades, the Academy and the John Paul II Institute did creative, innovative work in developing a Catholic moral theology and pastoral practice capable of meeting the challenge of the 21st-century assaults on the dignity and sanctity of life – and did so in ways that called the various expressions of the culture of death to conversion: a conversion to the truths inscribed in the world and in the human condition by the Creator.

Yet now the Academy has published a book with the ironic title La Gioia della Vita, authored by theologians who can only be described honestly as dissenting from the authoritative teaching of Evangelium Vitae. That book not only weakens the Catholic case for a culture of life that rejects the grave crimes against life identified by Evangelium Vitae. It does so in terms of an anti-biblical and anti-metaphysical anthropology that would have been completely foreign, indeed abhorrent, to both Jérôme Lejeune and John Paul II.

And as the Pontifical Academy of Life betrays its founding president, Dr. Lejeune, by publishing and promoting such an ill-informed and poorly-argued book, so does the reconstituted John Paul II Institute, now largely bereft of students, betray the intention of the saint and scholar who founded it, and who called Catholic moral theology to a renewal that would not surrender to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, but rather convert it to right reason, true compassion, and the noble exercise of freedom.

We may hope and pray that Jérôme Lejeune’s heroic virtues will be officially recognized by the Church, so that he may join his friend, John Paul II, among the ranks of the beatified and canonized. Should that happen, it will be because the Church has been convinced that these two lives in service of life were lived by courageous men of faith and reason who knew that the truth sets us free in the deepest meaning of freedom – and that bearing witness to the ruth calls us to be, when necessary, signs of contradiction, like the Lord Jesus himself.

Thank you.

Published by Catholic World Report

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