By Rev. Alfred McBride, O.Praem.

My whole life is gone ! !

A thirty-one-year-old man, carrying a fresh rose wrapped in cellophane, met the pastor in the parish parking lot and asked, "Could you hear my confession, Father?" The priest accommodated the obviously troubled man and led him to the confessional. During the confession, as the priest sat but inches away and separated by a slim partition, the penitent, father of two young children, pressed a pistol against his own chest and pulled the trigger.

The stunned pastor ran for help. Amazingly, the man did not die. The bullet made three holes in his heart, nicked his lungs, and went out through his back. He will survive, albeit weakly. He had written a suicide note: "My whole life is gone. I never wanted to hurt any of you. I’m sorry. I can’t take it any longer."

His wife of seven years had recently packed her bags and left him. "I am just trying to understand why," he anguished. When interviewed, she said, "I just did not love him any more." He had treated her well and never laid a hand on her or their children. She did not visit him in the hospital. "I want nothing to do with this," she said. Her mother wept: "It’s just awful. No one should love this much." This is a true story.

Stop a moment and notice your reaction to this story. In terms of right and wrong, what goes through your mind? Did you want to blame someone? This story, minus the details of the confessional scene, has happened in many ways throughout the world and throughout history. At a basic human level, the reactions to it are likely to be very much the same in Tokyo; Omaha, Nebraska; Paris; Cairo, Egypt; and Moscow. Seemingly, senseless tragedies make us all ask, "Why?" We have a need to understand and evaluate. This similarity in our reactions is an example of the universality and unchangeableness of the natural moral law.

"’Where then are these rules written,’ St. Augustine wondered, ‘except in the book of that light which is called truth? From thence every just law is transcribed and transferred to the heart of the man who works justice ... by being ... impressed upon it, just as the image from the ring passes over to the wax.’" The pope raises this issue because some argue that history and culture cause changes in natural law. But the natural law does not change. Cultural development may help us apply the natural law more wisely and intelligently. Or it may reject the natural law and suffer negative consequences. China’s birth-regulation laws, coupled with a preference for male babies, has resulted in millions of male lonely hearts.

Nearly ten percent of the adult male population is unable to marry because of the small number of women available. As the old advertisement says to the sound of lightning and thunder, "It’s not right to fool with Mother Nature."

Many Chinese female babies are killed at birth. In India, the use of amniocentesis (an examination of the pre-born child) is used to identify the sex of the baby. In many cases, the female pre-born children are aborted. Groups for women’s rights have understandably and correctly protested this practice.

The rules of natural law continue to apply everywhere and at all times. Amnesty International defends the rights of unjustly treated political prisoners whether they are in advanced technological cultures or developing agrarian ones. Respect for parents, care for children, concerns for the elderly are universal values regardless of changes in history and culture. We do not change the natural law. We can acquire more intelligent and faith-inspired insights into its meaning and application.

"The negative prohibitions of natural law never change. Rape, torture, and exploitation of the poor are always wrong no matter what a culture says. The positive commands of natural law, love of God and neighbor, always apply and call for deeper ways to fulfill them. The commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit beneath which the commandment is broken" (No. 52).

At some level, deep within us, we recognize our community with all human beings and the moral bonds that tie us together. Differences in culture do not hide the fact that all people laugh, cry, marry, kiss their children, dance, and mourn. We grow in our appreciation of this natural law. We do not change it.

Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated. 1998 Our Sunday Visitor.