The End of Pro-Life Politics
Have we as pro-life Catholics been wrong to invest the lion’s share of our time, talent and energy in the political battle against abortion over the past forty years? Or even if we have not been wrong the whole time, are we wrong now? Perhaps it is obvious that I believe the answer is yes. It ought to be clear by now that Western culture is insufficiently healthy to sustain a political solution to abortion. Therefore, it is counter-productive to pour our resources into the effort to achieve such a solution. We must use our resources far more wisely than that.
This question is forced upon us by the dramatic change in our social, cultural and political landscape over the past ten years or so, which has pushed problems every bit as important as abortion to the fore, for example the problems posed by the widespread breakdown of marriage and the family, the regularization of same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage, the triumph of a legal positivism utterly divorced from the natural law, our social dependence on a pagan bureaucratic State, the growing antipathy to Christianity, and the rapid erosion of religious liberty. What we have learned in recent years is that we are not, as we have long thought, on the verge of winning the battle for human life. Rather, we must recognize that our culture as a whole has slipped into such darkness and error that addressing the problem of the sanctity of human life politically has become effectively impossible.
The Way We Were
The priority of fighting abortion politically in the West was created primarily by two factors: First, of course, there is the enormity of the problem, the untold millions of lives that are at stake each and every year. Second, however, there is the fact that widespread abortion is a relatively recent development, so recent that many of us can still remember when, in our own countries, the floodgates were opened by specifically political decisions and acts. This fact of “recentness” and this context of “politics” has rather naturally led us to believe that the political fight against abortion was winnable in our social order as it currently exists—that we are only a few percentage points and one or two strategic moves away from reversing the tide. So conceived, the fight against abortion—which is the very core and primary reason for the existence of what we call the pro-life movement—has been shaped primarily in a political way, and there has long seemed to be a moral imperative among men and women of good will to devote their resources to fighting this particular battle first of all.
Yet as year after year has gone by with little or no appreciable change, clear signs of strategic uncertainty have emerged. For a long time, the pro-life movement has experienced frightful divisions between those who insist on all-or-nothing solutions and those who believe victory is possible only through little political steps. These and other tactical divisions have been so severe that each side has tended to demonize the other, which is a sure sign of both the frustration and what we might call the secret demoralization of the movement as a whole.
Moreover, those who have pursued pro-life objectives less politically have never succeeded in escaping the shadow of the larger ineffective political pro-life mainstream. Those who have emphasized educational efforts, for example, have often conceived of these efforts primarily as a means of changing votes. Meanwhile, those who have engaged in pregnancy center counseling—an area in which success is actually possible on a daily basis—have had to labor under a severe shortage of funds, because of the common insistence that the first pro-life responsibility is to fight abortion politically.
Meanwhile, those pro-lifers who have chosen to devote themselves primarily to other aspects of a larger mission—evangelization or cultural development, for example—have long complained privately that their initiatives were relegated to second-class status and tenth-class support. Yet they have also usually realized why this must be so, given the reigning perception of the importance of the political fight for life. But is it not clear by now that this reigning perception must change?
Full disclosure: In running CatholicCulture.org, which is of course thoroughly pro-life but devoted to a much deeper and broader task, I have had frequent occasions both to understand and to lament how much of the available resource pool is consistently absorbed by directly political pro-life initiatives, despite the remarkably small amount of good this enormous expenditure of resources has done.
When all is said and done, this political emphasis of the pro-life movement has built and sustained many pro-life organizations; it has provided quite a few jobs; it has created claims on the loyalties and purses of pro-life Christians; it has become a significant industry. And it has accomplished almost nothing.
Then and Now
The time has come to admit the obvious and, in consequence, to speak the unspeakable. Is it not clear now that the social order as we know it in the West is utterly incapable of sustaining successful pro-life politics? The evidence is overwhelming. First, there is again the remarkable lack of success over the past forty years despite the staggering resources expended in the cause. Second, in the United States at least, this lack of success seems to conflict with polls that repeatedly show a majority of voters to prefer restrictions on abortion—which proves that such voters do not regard abortion as significant enough to influence their votes. Third, as indicated at the outset, the number of other serious social and political challenges which have so rapidly emerged in recent years are clear signs that our mainstream culture has problems far deeper than a disagreement about how to handle the question of legal abortion.
It is no longer satisfactory—in fact I would say it is disingenuous—to stress (for example, in response to the Obama juggernaut) that we simply need to go back to the trenches and mobilize more people and more resources in the same political effort next time around. Twenty-five years ago this seemed to make sense. Ten years ago people were reluctant to suggest that it did not. Today, anybody who thinks this is a reasonable response to the problems we face either has his head in the sand or possesses a vested interest in the economic viability of one or more of the many pro-life organizations which—almost certainly through no great fault of their own—simply cannot succeed.
Remember the humorous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If we are to make any progress at all, we must face the reality that the state of our culture makes effective political solutions impossible, except in a few tiny and inevitably temporary ways. Yes, we have a grave obligation to be pro-life in our thinking and to favor a culture of life in everything we do. But we have no grave obligation to make political change a high practical priority, not when a realistic assessment shows that the likelihood of positive political change ranges, at our current moment in history, somewhere between extraordinarily unlikely and impossible. Western culture cannot now sustain it.
An Analogy from the Ancient World
I think it very likely that had the circumstances in which we first experienced widespread abortion been different, we would have responded to it with a different sort of urgency, an urgency that was primarily non-political. Suppose, for example, that pro-life Christians were a small and relatively inconsequential part of a culture which had been essentially pagan for hundreds of years. Suppose further that abortion and infanticide were accepted aspects of this culture. In such a case, Christians would of course live differently. Unlike pagans, they would not murder their children. They would prize family life. They would try to grow spiritually and pass on their Faith. They would evangelize their neighbors. They would excel in charitable works.
But the one thing they would not do is throw all their energies into politics in order to change the laws. They would know that, at their current moment in history, this was simply not possible. And they would not feel guilty about refraining from such frenetic and useless political activity. If someone in their community claimed that by their political apathy they made themselves morally guilty for the deaths of countless children, they would not be convinced, nor would they suddenly empty their pockets for whatever political initiative was being proposed. And they would never anoint “the lesser evil” as a political messiah. Rather, they would know that the time was not right, that the culture could not sustain such an initiative, and that the recognition of this reality did not constitute a case for their own complicity with evil.
This was actually the situation, of course, as Christianity developed in the Roman Empire. It took hundreds of years for the expansion of the Faith and the rise of a more Christian culture to make political change possible, and hundreds more years to develop a reasonably Christian political order. The case is even more obvious with slavery, the history of which is clearer to us, and which we know was endemic in those times. Christians quickly refused to own slaves, and the spread of Christianity gradually militated against slavery, but Christians waited a very long time to put their energies into a political movement to end slavery, which in many periods was clearly impossible. As important as it is to be ready for political action when it can bear fruit, and as difficult as it is to recognize an opportune moment when it arrives, our fathers in the Faith saw no reason to emphasize politics when politics could not serve God’s will. Nor did they regard themselves as guilty for “permitting” slavery within the culture as a whole.
Recognizing and Responding to Reality
I would suggest that the reality before us in the “Christian” West is far more like the reality of pagan Rome than we have heretofore thought. Christianity has long been in dramatic decline in the West, and a great many moral attitudes we took for granted publicly even fifty or a hundred years ago were no longer even then rooted in any sort of significant Christian belief or commitment. Instead, public and outward cultural morality were largely a shell—often a mere hypocrisy—a vestigial growth left over from a distant Christian past. These outward morals, often enshrined in law, no longer had any significant basis in the spiritual and moral understanding of the people as a whole.
Thus, when divorce, contraception, sterilization, abortion, pornography, homosexual behavior and other evils began to spread so rapidly during the twentieth century, it was not because we were losing by razor-thin margins the ability to restrain the political trickery of a few, but because the shell of propriety had fallen under its own weight, with virtually nothing at all to sustain it from within. Suddenly, almost overnight, we were thrown into the public position of our more distant forefathers, a position exactly like the private position which we so often failed to recognize in those days: The position of a relatively insignificant group of deeply committed Christians in the midst of an overwhelmingly pagan culture. And even where statistics suggested we ought to have more influence, this was a culture in which the organs of power, influence and fashion were already controlled almost exclusively by the dominant pagan element.
It is primarily the consequence of a long history of Western secularization that there is still so much Christian talk mixed in with the paganism of our larger culture. After all, for the culture to go so far wrong, a great many Christians over long generations had to give up the substance of their religious commitment while retaining only its deceptive shadow. Christian ideals had to be reinterpreted in a non-spiritual way before they could be abandoned wholesale. But we are now seeing—or at least we ought to be able to see—the tremendous tide of paganism which has risen all around us, the monumental power of it in our political and social and cultural institutions (and often, alas, even in many religious institutions)—a power and control which reduces the possibility of effective political action to something so close to zero as makes no difference at all.
Personally, I do not see this as cause for alarm, just as I do not see it as anything new. I think, rather, that we are just beginning to see our situation as it really is, after a generation and more of intense confusion over the signs of the times. This misreading of the signs has unfortunately caused us to waste enormous amounts of energy fighting not so much for Christ as for political outcomes which cannot be sustained without Christ. This does not mean that we must despair, though we are very likely in for a rough time. Nor does it mean, obviously, that we are absolved from voting morally. But it does mean that we ought to expend our greatest energies elsewhere, in widespread efforts to strengthen the Church, to develop our own Christian subculture complete with vibrant intermediary institutions, to evangelize our neighbors, and to offer practical service to any and all who, increasingly ill-served by a bureaucratic pagan State, may turn to us in their need.
This is, in fact, exactly what Christians had to do in the early centuries of the Church (and what they must never fail to do at any time, even when things happen to be going better politically). In other words, the answer to the disturbing question with which I opened this essay is clear. This is not the time to place the emphasis on politics, any more than it was time for politics when Karol Wojtyla was growing up in Poland. This is the time for Faith and family, evangelization and the formation of Christian culture.
This is not the time to waste immense resources and energies on political efforts which our larger Western culture cannot possibly sustain. It is rather a time to grow in Faith, evangelize those around us, and form vibrant local cultures which draw our neighbors into the light of Christ.
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Posted by: Barbnet -
Dec. 01, 2012 8:26 AM ET USA
HOW TO MIINIMIZE ABORTIONS: MAKE THEM LOOK. Back in the 1970s, a former neighbor was an obstetrics nurse. She was scheduled to do "abortion" rotation one or two days a month, until she was so traumatized she quit. She cited a "patient" who repeatedly delayed her abortions until the 6th month. Why? She liked the little vacation - she got to stay overnight, be waited on with free meals, etc. My RN friend enlightened her. After this woman's 4th abortion during late second tri-mester, the RN washed the baby off, placed it in a clean blanket in a stainless steel pan, walked to the patient's room, and said I want you to look. The patient screamed and screamed and said she "didn't know". The radical feminists have done their best to make sure reproductive age woman are not informed. One look at a small dead baby is a wake up call. MAKE THEM LOOK.
Posted by: jamesbell431857 -
Nov. 28, 2012 2:23 PM ET USA
I want to add that one of your earlier articles warned about the dangers of the young being overly disillusioned by political defeats and overly jubilant about political victories. As a young person, I took that to heart. I think that the despair over the political scene in the US you display here is evidence you did not take your own advice. Bernard of Clairvaux fought the dread of inevitable Islamic conquest in the lead-up to the Crusades. We must evangelize in all spheres including political.
Posted by: Antonius86 -
Nov. 27, 2012 12:09 PM ET USA
Psalm 127 and the actual historical record that you mentioned are clear that faith supersedes politics! It's really all OK as long as we see it for what it is: a barbarian culture. We've beaten barbarians (and even heretical barbarians) before. Sanctity, a real Christian life as a fulfillment of what every human person deeply wants (even when they turn to sin) is our only hope. This life is only possible with Christ's contemporaneous presence in one's life. W/O Him, man is only an animal.
Posted by: jimpoc8837 -
Nov. 27, 2012 10:44 AM ET USA
2 Chronicles 7-12. God gives Soloman the solution for when things go off the cliff for the unfaithful Jews: "if my people who are called by my name will turn from their wicked ways, seek my face and pray, I will forgive and heal their land". We Christians have to repent, seek God and pray. The starting point should be turning from contraception, "remarriage" after divorce and keeping holy the sabbath.
Posted by: larry.roach3086 -
Nov. 26, 2012 6:50 PM ET USA
I think your desperation is unwarranted. The Church has not yet totally lost the culture war. Democrats bemoaned in much the same way after 2004. Would you have written this post a year or two ago? What could have changed so significantly in so short a time? I do agree there is danger of institutionalization. There are some who don't want abortion to go away. But political efforts do succeed - partial birth, late term limits, etc. It is not that "nothing" has been accomplished, as you say.
Posted by: Moreman -
Nov. 26, 2012 5:30 PM ET USA
Where would the gays be today if they had listened to advice like yours 15 years ago, when Western culture was insufficiently unhealthy to sustain a political solution to their desire for same-sex marriage and "gay rights"? Why should our side engage in unilateral disarmament? What makes you think the other side will let us retreat to a Catholic ghetto? As Alan Keyes noted, these people are imperialist; they will hunt you down, because their goal is to make you bow down and worship their gods.
Posted by: FredC -
Nov. 25, 2012 8:09 PM ET USA
Politicians heed the voices of their constituents. The pro-life effort should be aimed at the constituents, educating them. Ways are needed to disseminate both religious and natural-law arguments. That DNA tests show the fetus is human, distinct from mother and father, is a strong first step in a natural-law argument. It had a significant impact each time I presented it from the floor at political meetings -- without cost. Few want to admit they are willing to kill a human being.
Posted by: fwhermann3492 -
Nov. 23, 2012 3:16 PM ET USA
I'm with jamesbell below in that I don't think it should be an either/or but a both/and. We have had *great* success in keeping the judicial and legislative branches from drifting too far left. Please do not give up now. Also, Christians never did transform Western culture. The providential dream of a man named Constantine did. Were it not for that one dream, we might still be worshiping in catacombs. Let us work as though everything depends on us and pray as though everything depends on God.
Posted by: trevormartenson3069 -
Nov. 23, 2012 7:18 AM ET USA
An excellent article asking an even better question. But what about the abolition and civil rights movements? These causes seemed to gain mometum and succeed in a progressively secular culture, and have made a profound impact on how we view race. Althought spiritually motivated, Wilberforce and MLK focused their energies on the polictical arena despite the formidable odds.
Posted by: jamesbell431857 -
Nov. 21, 2012 11:17 AM ET USA
You are setting up a false dichotomy influenced by unwarranted despair. Of course, we also should support evangelization and catechesis. You should read Making Men Moral by R George. The law has tremendous teaching power. To ignore its power is to surrender souls to the Left. The young are increasingly pro-life. Our position on the Supreme Court is stronger. The US is not Europe. Have hope. LotR: "For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark tower had: dread and despair."
Posted by: djcastel7241 -
Nov. 21, 2012 10:12 AM ET USA
Thank you, Dr. M., for this much needed message. Misreading of the times results from a conservative myth that Western society was deeply Christian thru the mid-20th century. In fact, the entire foundation of today's counterculture can be found in sociological developments thru the 1950s. The hedonism lying beneath the superficial virtue of the time is described at length in "Culture Against Man" by Jules Henry, and the cold avarice of the ruling class in C. Wright Mills' "The Power Elite."
Posted by: CatherineNY -
Nov. 21, 2012 9:12 AM ET USA
I could not agree more. And now the bishops (or some of them) are making the same mistake with marriage that they did with abortion -- putting themselves in the hands of political consultants who make a good living by herding well-meaning Christians to the polls for the GOP, and this at a moment when we see parishes and Catholic schools closing all around us. Put the resources where they belong, not in the pockets of political operatives.
Posted by: jplaunder1846 -
Nov. 20, 2012 10:27 PM ET USA
Dr M understand where you are coming from. Just a little observation from a recent SE Asia trip. A Vietnamese friend of mine, a devout Buddhist, has over the past 12 months adopted two babies, the latest at 1 week old. She had become aware of 2 single mothers to be, who were contemplating abortion under family pressure, if not abortion, infanticide or baby abandonment. She offered to personally support them through the pregnancy and 3 months beyond and to adopt their babies. Hence two kids saved
Posted by: martin.kurlich4399 -
Nov. 20, 2012 10:08 PM ET USA
We'll never have a nation that's truly good with laws that are truly just, without truly good and just people. We don't need first to change our politics. We need first to repent, to change our hearts and minds. "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” - George Washington
Posted by: koinonia -
Nov. 20, 2012 9:37 PM ET USA
Take heed those who share the indelible mark of baptism. "Do you renounce Satan?" "Do you renounce his works and pomps?" Who says that? What are you talking about? This is American in 2012. Indeed it is, and France is France in 2012 as is Ireland, Spain and the other great ones. "This is the time for Faith and family, evangelization and the formation of Christian culture." Yes, indeed it is, and you had better darn well take heed.
Posted by: the.dymeks9646 -
Nov. 20, 2012 9:08 PM ET USA
Our faith in politics has always been a poor substitute for the real thing. It deceives us with the addictive lure of progress. Part of the problem is how we view politics in this modern age, not only in importance, but in substance. The light of Christ, not only allows sight, but it also provides warmth. We need a lot of both right now.
Posted by: jackist7902 -
Nov. 20, 2012 7:15 PM ET USA
Amen! I have been trying to make this point to older Catholics for some time now. At this juncture, we should not consider ourselves "conservatives" because the status quo is decidedly not Christian and not something to defend. We must learn to think like Christian radicals and look for opportunities to promote change. The alliance of social "conservatives" with other "conservatives" must end, and we should, as Christ did, align ourselves with the marginalized and oppressed.
Posted by: Justin8110 -
Nov. 20, 2012 4:30 PM ET USA
I guess I'm on the same page as you in this but I would take it a step further and say that just like we cannot currently win the pro life battle in this culture neither can electoral politics win our battles either. Honestly think about that one for a while.
Posted by: liberamedeus1309 -
Nov. 20, 2012 2:41 PM ET USA
Disagree. Abortion is a multi-front war. The political battle is critical to keeping it exposed. In Guam we passed a law attaching a penalty for not reporting abortions as per a previous law. Abortion reporting increased 1000 percent. This information was critical to educating the people that there is a problem. Most had no idea. We can't change the culture if we can't see the problem. In ancient Rome it wasn't the Christians who were getting the abortions. Today it IS the Christians who are.
Posted by: Saint Jimbob of the Apokalypse -
Nov. 20, 2012 2:24 PM ET USA
I sensed this over the last 6 years, and stopped giving money to the republican parties and national pro-life organizations, and focused on giving to local crisis pregnancy centers and our own St. Gianna's Women's Home, a Catholic effort to shelter women from domestic abuse and pressure to abort their children. It's time to rebuild the culture from the foundations, not fuss about the window treatments..
Posted by: AgnesDay -
Nov. 19, 2012 4:03 PM ET USA
I know that as Catholic laity, we are to bring our Catholicism into the political arena. However, I, like you, have seen the greatest work done with the smallest resources. I recall how the priests in an Illinois diocese (Peoria?) used the prayers of exorcism to very good avail over an abortuary. Lesson: God is our strength, and we need to rely on Him.