Ultimately a life is a life, no matter expedient definitions
by Bishop Robert Vasa

A number of years ago I was introduced to a philosophy book which continues to be a source of challenging reading for me.It is not the kind of book that one picks up and reads leisurely over a weekend and then sets aside forever. It is one that needs to be read and reread, chewed on, digested, grappled with and implemented. The title is Healing the Culture by Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, now president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. The subtitle is "A commonsense philosophy of happiness, freedom and the life issues."

I suspect all of you who are regular readers of this column will come to the immediate conclusion that my reference to this work at this time is directly connected to Jan. 22, 1973. In that you would be entirely correct.

The book is about life, human life, not only the biological elements of that life, but especially the metaphysical elements.

Now I must confess that I never thought I would ever use the word metaphysical in any of my writings, but the introduction to Father Spitzer's book has given me the courage to do so. What is meant by the word "metaphysical"? Father Spitzer gives a very commonsense working definition: "Metaphysics seeks to understand the ground, indeed, the ultimate ground of reality."

It is an in-depth exploration of that upon which we stand and most often take for granted. It is an examination of that which is beyond the physical. It is a quest to understand what a thing, or a person, really is.

Father Spitzer uses the example of an acorn, and I think it is a very good example. A skilled artist can certainly produce a nearly perfect replica. This replica would look, weigh and feel like an acorn but clearly it would not be an acorn.

We understand that there is some innate and intangible quality of an acorn, a part of what might be termed its is-ness, that differentiates the real acorn from its artistic imitation. The artistic imitation acorn could be planted and watered, but it would never grow to be an oak tree; it would not ever even sprout! This is simply because it is not an acorn.

A real acorn by contrast possesses within itself, as a hidden and intangible part of its present reality, an internal and hidden life principle that if allowed to properly develop can grow to be an oak tree. As Father Spitzer notes: "There is not only a power to act within the acorn; there is also a power to direct development in a systematic, intelligible way toward a perfection that has not yet been realized. This power, and even the information necessary to direct it, must be real now in order for development to occur now."

Hopefully, we know the difference between a real acorn and the artistic representation of one. The more important question, with a most unfortunate answer, is whether we, or others in our culture know the difference between a real embryo (what or who, he or she really is) and the politically determined declaration of what or who he or she seems to be.

Again as Father Spitzer notes: "The seeming unreality of intrinsic dignity, personhood, and inalienable rights (now completely dependent upon our generous collective will) led to the declaration that the personhood of the embryo is an irrelevant question. Embryos and persons did not seem real outside of our collective declaration. Therefore, we needed to consult some experts to find out whether or not we should declare human embryos to be persons.

When the experts declared that personhood was a very confusing term (not having any real correlate) and subsequently decided that we should not declare human embryos to be persons (because it seemed to reflect our political will), we eradicated the reality of both personhood and embryo in one fell swoop."

The collective declaration, made for all of us by the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, is the equivalent of declaring that an acorn (a real acorn and not the fake artistic representation) is not already a participant in and a member of the oak family.

Such declarations, no matter how well intentioned, have no power to change the internal, intrinsic, metaphysical reality. A thing is what it is. A person is a person even if the Supreme Court says that he or she is not.

The problem with a culture that focuses on external appearance, what a thing appears or seems to be, is that we lose very quickly a reverence or respect for the true depth and beauty and dignity and mystery of the thing perceived. Father Spitzer uses the example from Time magazine of February of 1993 that proclaimed that even love was a "biological affair."

The claim was that love, apart from the wondrously challenging, freely chosen and given expression of care for another, was really simply a combination of evolutionary roots, brain imprints and biological secretions.

As Father Spitzer comments: "Hence, we were all relieved to learn that love is a chemical, because chemicals, after all, are visible, tangible, and even analyzable by various scientific instruments. Whew. We rescued the reality of love.

Unfortunately, we had to undervalue seriously what love is and its worth in order to restore it to reality." Such is the world or culture cut off from its true metaphysical moorings.

The Supreme Court justices made declarations on Jan. 22 but in doing so they changed nothing of the metaphysical realities. The acorn they declared not to be an acorn is still an acorn.

The right to privacy, which they declared to supercede a right to life of a pre-born, still stands as necessarily subservient to that child's right to life.

The value of the life of the pre-born child, which they declared to be somehow inferior, in reality, to the value of the life of the mother, still has a value, though not civilly recognized, equivalent to the value of the life of the mother.

Human life still begins when it begins irrespective of whether the Court accurately declares or recognizes when it begins or not -- it has its own reality.

There is a metaphysical reality in the midst of which we all live, and we can either be in contact with that metaphysical reality and try to live in accord with it, or we can choose to live in a quasi-fictitious, fantasy world of our own creating where things mean exactly and only what we declare them to mean and where things are exactly and only what we declare them to be.

In such a world, despite abundant declarations to the contrary, a real acorn would still grow and an artistic imitation acorn would not.

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