Abortion, the Death of the Soul, and Christian Strategy
In his famous interview with the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro in August, Pope Francis initiated what has become a spirited discussion about the image and the reality of the Catholic Church, and about the relationship between the Church’s mission to evangelize and her necessary opposition to the predominant moral evils of our age. The Pope suggested that the Church is too often viewed almost exclusively negatively, in terms of this moral opposition, and that a renewed emphasis on evangelization will be necessary for substantial progress to be made.
This message confused those in the pews who have heard very little about moral evils like abortion and contraception from their pastors. But the Pope was focusing on the image of the Church in the secular world, where her public opposition to abortion, contraception, sterilization, gay marriage, divorce (and so on) is the first thing that comes to mind. It is just here that, in spite of the faint-heartedness of too many Catholics, the Church is rightly seen as an enormous sign of contradiction.
The Pope’s concern, clearly, is that there must be another face of the Church—a consistent effort to present the full message of Christ, a message of hope and redemption that is not only preached but lived in daily service to others. It is this face which outsiders will find attractive, and which (if it were omnipresent) would dramatically alter the image most people have of the Church. Only when they are attracted to this face of Christ in the heart of the Church, will people begin to respond to His light and love through moral change. This is Pope Francis’ central message.
Still, some pro-life Catholics are extremely leery of any emphasis on living and preaching the Faith which reduces the priority given to pro-life work, and particularly to pro-life political action. In extreme cases, this anxiety has led a few to blame those who advocate a broader and more positive approach for the “death of babies”. I have received more than one email here at CatholicCulture.org sarcastically asserting that it is a shame that so many babies must die because of the Pope’s remarks.
There are several ways of responding to this concern. One is to emphasize that the Christian fight against abortion is not primarily an effort to save the individual lives of persons we know, but a strategic struggle against a grave moral evil which, once defeated, will reduce the incidence of murder enormously in the long run. As in any war, one cannot achieve every desirable outcome. One must develop and pursue the strategy which is most likely to bring victory in the end, recognizing that lives are going to be lost along the way, lives that simply cannot be saved. Thus, for example, if we conclude that the chances of restricting abortion significantly through political action are now extraordinarily slim, precisely because our society must first be transformed in more fundamental ways, then even from a pro-life strategic perspective, an emphasis on evangelization is perfectly justified.
But there is also another way of addressing this anxiety, and that is to insist that we Catholics recognize not only natural but supernatural evils. It is possible to become so focused on the natural horror of abortion that we lose sight of the even graver spiritual issues which it entails. Our Lord Himself instructed us: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). Even in pro-life work we need to keep this in mind.
The Adult is Exposed to the More Serious Danger
The Church has been left in considerable ignorance concerning “how salvation works” for those who cannot take advantage of her sacramental system. Nonetheless, she knows that those without personal sin cannot be consigned Hell, and so her theologians have long affirmed that infants who die unbaptized will enjoy happiness eternally to the full measure of their capacity. There is some question whether this capacity can be anything more than natural, that is, whether it entails only the happiness natural to the unregenerate human soul, or whether it entails the vision of God Himself. In any case, the Church’s emphasis is best summarized in this statement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. [#1261]
Note that the word “hope” here is intended theologically, not as a sort of worldly wish, but as a supernatural confidence in the love of Christ. But the case of the women who abort their children (and those who pressure them or collaborate with them) is very different. What of them? In addition to opening themselves to a life of deep psychological regret, they also open themselves to grave sin, a critical step in a life lived apart from God. Odd as it may sound to some of us, committing this sin and falling into a life of estrangement from God are both graver by far than suffering bodily death. It is, after all, the death of the soul that is paramount, as Our Lord says.
From this reality, the most important question arises: What approach is calculated to minimize the incidence of spiritual death? Or to put the matter positively, what must we do to help people to inherit eternal life (Mt 19:16; Mk 10:17; Lk 10:25;Lk 18:18)? In the temporal arena, I think it is hard to argue that an unrelenting emphasis on political action ought to be the preferred strategy. In the spiritual arena, it is equally hard to argue that a dominant emphasis on the evils to be avoided ought to be the preferred strategy. There is little reason to avoid evil without a vision of the Good, and especially without a relationship with the One who alone is Good (Mt 19:17; Mk 10:18; Lk 18:19).
Pope Francis, it seems, is calling us to recollect ourselves precisely as Catholics. Sometimes, just when we are convinced we have made the deepest and most vigorous of Catholic commitments, we find that we have not. Life does not end with the death of the body. Insofar as we act as if it does, none of our strategies can possibly work. Everything that matters most comes through a relationship—by which I mean an eternal union—with Jesus Christ.
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Posted by: John J Plick -
Oct. 24, 2013 5:21 PM ET USA
Pro-lifers would argue, “How would YOU like to be “drowned” in a saline solution, or have someone lay a hold of you & slice the back of your neck with a dagger?" Only a familiarity with the deaths of the Holy Martyrs, even the more modern ones, can give one the psychological foundation to deal with such objections. It may be difficult to expect the modern western Roman Catholic to accept the fact that even "spiritual innocence" could integrate such horrors without incurring irrevocable spiritual harm.
Posted by: John J Plick -
Oct. 23, 2013 8:11 PM ET USA
And how would you reach an “unborn” with the wondrous message of the Love of God… Why…, one would have to become “unborn” oneself, to become “one” with the one you wished to communicate with… But like “Nicodemus;” How to do this??? But the answer, Christ has already done it! “When the sound of your greeting rang in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy!” Such is the wonder of the “Luminous” Mysteries… A sharing in the total “immersion” of the Second Person in the humanity which He created.
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Oct. 23, 2013 7:06 PM ET USA
Excellent points all of them! Once more, I am reminded of the titanic 17th century struggle within the Church in France, the intellectual war between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. The latter were eventually victorious in that engagement and shaped the Church as we know it today....thank God! But the Jansenist temptation still remains. In my view, Francis, himself a Jesuit, wants to reassert the merciful approach of his 17th century brothers. He too finds crypto-Calvinist Jansenism unbearable.