The Repaganization of the West
May 1996By Benjamin D. Wiker
Benjamin D. Wiker is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.
In his recent encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II sees a profound "confusion between good and evil" resulting from the corruption of conscience which has taken place in our "culture of death." How has it come about that our consciences have become so darkened that evil appears good, and good evil? To begin to answer this we must look at the formation of our collective conscience historically.
Morality in the West over the last 2,000 years has been coming full circle, from pagan to Christian, and back to pagan again. As John Paul II points out, "From its first contacts with the Greco-Roman world, where abortion and infanticide were widely practiced, the first Christian community, by its teaching and practice, radically opposed the customs rampant in that society ." The same is true for the practice of contraception and euthanasia. Light was brought to the conscience of the Greco-Roman world by the centuries-long struggle of evangelization. Sadly, this great effort has been undone, and the present darkening of conscience is the result of the almost complete de-Christianization in the West.
In certain ways the pre-Christian pagan conscience of the Romans was noble, yet in others it was malformed and in need of healing. For example, there was no real distinction between contraception and abortion. A wide variety of "precautions" against conception were taken or applied both before and after intercourse: crocodile dung, acacia tips, dates mixed with honey, hot baths, giant fennel, myrrh, rue, Queen Anne's Lace, willow, pomegranate, and a host of other concoctions.
If such "remedies" failed there was always exposure, which meant the newborn baby would be left to die by starvation, or be picked up and sold into slavery. The Roman father, as part of his power as paterfamilias, had an inviolable right to lift up (tollere) the newborn child, thus declaring the child his, or not to lift the child up, and hence consigning him or (usually) her to exposure. Especially significant in this regard was the mandate, codified all the way back in the Twelve Tables (c. 450 B.C.), that one must expose all malformed infants.
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