August 20, 2012 (HLIAmerica.org) – News about the current president concerning his anti-life and anti-marriage policies is most troubling—especially for Catholics. In the interest of getting a respite from consistently bleak and negative news about a president, I want to turn back the pages of history to a most positive event that took place involving a former American president.
Upon the death of Hans Urs von Balthasar, considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, a vacancy opened in the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. According to its policy, new members are chosen only to replace a member who has passed away. In the year 1989, the Academy chose Ronald Reagan to replace von Balthasar, who died the previous year and just two days before Pope John Paul II was to make him a cardinal.
As is customary, Reagan delivered a eulogy to his predecessor. The former U. S. president acknowledged how he and the man he was honoring came from strikingly “different worlds.” “Father von Balthasar,” he reminded his audience, “was a man of thought and reflection in a world of movement and activity.” Reagan was an inhabitant of that that active world: “At the peak of my life, I was surrounded by the noise of crowds and helicopters, by the push of television cameramen, and by the jangle of modern political realities.” Despite these broad differences, Reagan averred, “we both prayed to God so that we might better understand how we humans ought to live in this world.”
Reagan did not quote von Balthasar, though he expressed admiration for his great love of truth and commitment to freedom. He might have been well served, however, if he cited a brief passage from one of the great theologian’s many works, a book bearing the simple title, Prayer: “It [prayer] is like a rope-ladder thrown down to us in danger of drowning, so that we can climb into the ship; or, a carpet unrolled before us leading to the Father’s throne; a torch shining in the darkness of a silent and sullen world, in whose light we are not longer harassed by problems, but learn to live with them.” Von Balthasar had both an affection and aptitude for poetic expression.
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The former American president reiterated his strong opposition to totalitarianism, an opposition that he shared with von Balthasar. Reagan also shared this opposition with Pope John Paul II. They both believed that in the confrontation with communism, victory, not mere accommodation, was possible. Both were convinced that the power of truth to cut through lies could arouse people from their acquiescence to servitude.
Reagan and the Holy Father enjoyed a warm friendship that was deepened by the fact that within a relatively short period of time, they both survived assassination attempts. When Reagan was shot in Washington on March 30, 1981, John Paul sent him a telegram expressing his satisfaction over the president’s survival. Reagan reciprocated less than two months later on May 13, when the Holy Father was shot in St. Peter’s Square.
Reagan and von Balthasar, on the other hand, had never met. Therefore, it was appropriate for the former American president to imagine what he might say to the esteemed Swiss theologian if they did meet. For Reagan, it would be the very closing words he had for the distinguished members of his audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am more optimistic than ever in my life about peace and democracy in the world. These are the days of the triumph of freedom and knowledge.”
Returning to the present, we may well wonder whether Reagan would be as optimistic about peace and democracy in the world today as he was in 1989. The White House does not have as cordial a relationship with the Vatican as it had under Reagan’s terms of office. Freedom of religion is now hotly contested in America. The United States Constitution appears to be under attack by judicial activists.
At the very least, we can honor the legacy of such stalwarts as Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ronald Reagan and Blessed John Paul II. Their positive inspiration and leadership is sorely needed in our lives today.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of HLI America (HLI), an initiative of Human Life International. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He writes for HLI’s Truth and Charity Forum, where this article first appeared.