In Newsweek’s just-published commemorative issue on the life and death of John Paul II, George Will reflects on the souls of Terri Schiavo and John Paul II in conversation with the English writer, Ian McEwan, and his latest novel, Saturday, which Will describes as a “materialist’s manifesto.”

Will wonders what the pope would make of McEwan’s protaganist, Henry Perowne, who possesses “the sensibility of today’s post-Christian Europe”:

Perowne believes we are, in a sense, machines—matter and nothing more. He thinks as those people do who say, “I do not have a body, I am a body.” Perowne is a neurosurgeon.

With sharpened steel a neurosurgeon slices and splices and pares physical matter to palliate injuries to minds—to consciousness. Pharmacology also can do that. McEwan writes:

“A man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits, and what it can sustain—consciousness, no less. It isn’t an article of faith with him, he knows it for a quotidian fact, the mind is what the brain, mere matter, performs.”

Perowne, the voice of scientifically sophisticated secularism, and presumably of McEwan, almost lyrically, and rightly, exhorts us to appreciate the “wonder of the real.” One can, however, imagine a faint, droll smile flickering on the strong, intelligent face of John Paul II were he to have read those almost casually appended three words—“consciousness, no less.” He might think to himself: The materialist must not tarry, he must hurry on, because as Emerson said, when skating on thin ice, safety lies in speed.

This pope might have read Emerson, and it is easy to imagine him, before frailty conquered his body, keeping abreast of contemporary literature, including McEwan. Before he was John Paul II he was Karol Wojtyla, a skiing poet, playwright and philosopher. And a defining theme of his papacy was the compatibility of faith and science, the explainer of reality. The explainer, but only up to a point, so far.

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