Beyond abortion: Responding to the deeper crisis
The day of the March for Life in Washington, DC always prompts reflection. While the grave evil of abortion is an important civilizational rallying point, the recognition that abortion is wrong does not begin to exhaust the moral crisis of our time. Our civilization was once rooted in an understanding, through both natural law and Divine Revelation, of the fundamental givenness of all that is, including our own nature, our own being. But to receive graciously requires humility. So now we find ourselves in rebellion against that givenness.
Another way to express this is that we prefer to repeat the Devil’s classic non serviam, “I will not serve”. With just a touch of philosophy, we might translate non serviam like this: “To avoid serving, I will prefer nothingness to being.”
So much has contributed to this self-defeating attitude that it is difficult to know where to begin. Why, we might ask ourselves, have the discoveries of modern science led so many to the unwarranted and incredibly stupid conclusion that there is no God, placing all hope instead in our own manipulation of human life? This can only be explained by the lure of nothingness, that is, the lure of the pleasure of sins which would otherwise be forbidden for the sound reason that they diminish the good, and therefore diminish being itself.
Of course, we do not see this. We always believe we prefer something. But each time we choose what is evil, what goes against the fundamental order of our own given nature, we prefer nothingness to being.
Liberation of sexual urges
As a practical matter, we can identify the rather prosaic and pragmatic root of our contemporary situation in sexual libertinism. Because of our sexual passions, we resist, first, the connection between our sexual powers and new life; second, the network of family responsibilities, on which society rests; and, third, the restriction of distorted sexual impulses which have no connection to either new life or family responsibilities. Abortion is but one facet of this angry denial of the givenness of our nature; and we must recognize that even abortion is a symptom of a much deeper and far more damaging problem. As most pro-lifers know, opposition to abortion—while important in its own right and a critical concrete rallying point—cannot address our deeper problems unless the discussion opens out into the larger evil of this preference for nothing over something, of this rebellion against our own being, our own givenness.
That the sexual issues are most symptomatic of the disease today is evident in that our culture rebels far more broadly against sexual constraints than it does against even death itself. For example, the number of people preoccupied with things like cryogenics is, in comparison, vanishingly small. In fact, death is increasingly viewed as a liberation from that personal unhappiness, that despair, that attends our rebellion against our very selves. But our refusal to accept ourselves as something “given” is ultimately rooted in pride. What chafes most is that we should have any limits at all, and especially the limit of recognizing that everything we are comes from Someone Else. We refuse to accept our lives as gifts, because we refuse to recognize that we are in debt to Anyone.
Culture for the cowardly
Paradoxically, this leads most people into a slavish cultural conformity. Few of us have much courage, and even fewer have it when they fail to recognize any source of moral truth or moral authority. Recently I listened to a podcast in which the broadcasting team was discussing the questions raised by the decision of Vice President Pence’s wife, Karen, to teach at a school in which everyone takes a pledge to uphold Christian sexual morality, including that marriage is between a man and a woman. (This is simply the morality inscribed by the natural law in our human nature.) To a person, the discussants concluded that it was acceptable for Pence to teach at such a school as long as she did not advocate any change in moral teaching for all schools. After all, they opined, “the law” says that gay marriage is indeed marriage.
This is a fine illustration of the tendency of our weak human nature to constantly take the “moral temperature” of the “rest of the room” and almost instinctively adjust our own temperature to the norm. Unlike physical temperature, where the norm in any given place may be highly uncomfortable, the norm for moral temperature is always the sweet spot. This has been the practice of most people from time immemorial, because most people receive clearer signals from their culture than they do from anywhere else, and most people do not have the courage to tune out those signals in favor of anything else.
All who would be fashionable today speak of walking to the beat of a different drummer, but few do. We have gone from wayward desire through rebellion against our givenness to instant conformity to a debased culture which is incapable of distinguishing lust from love. The pattern of our dissent from being, in other words, is now culturally enshrined and culturally protected.
On to the Gospel
Pope Francis has spoken more truly than he ever imagined when he said that we Catholics must go out to the peripheries. As people begin to despair in the midst of a culture without given meaning, they are rejected and cast aside. And it is just these souls, gripped by a defeat in which euphoria has given way to sadness, who are most ready to examine afresh what it means to be a person.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of a Godless culture is this: Wayward souls, like water, seek their own level. But unlike water, when people tire, they sink. In moral terms, they sink when pleasure ceases to satisfy, putting them in danger of drowning in their own despair. But when people realize they are sinking, they learn more quickly to recognize a lifeline, if they see one.
If they see one. Catholics need to make an ever stronger effort to go beyond opposition to moral scourges like abortion so as to preach the gospel—and to help the Church herself to get beyond cultural conformity through conformity to Christ.
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Posted by: FrHughM -
Feb. 12, 2019 9:08 AM ET USA
"have the discoveries of modern science led so many to the unwarranted and incredibly stupid conclusion that there is no God ... ?" Yes, but it's not that stupid if the old view of causation and hylomorphism falls and is not replaced.Cf. https://www.faith.org.uk/article/september-october-2006-the-catholic-view-of-matter-towards-a-new-synthesis
Posted by: jplaunder1846 -
Jan. 19, 2019 5:49 AM ET USA
Very true words Dr Jeff and there is no doubt that the moral decay and vacuum that our Western society has descended to is threatening the very stability of civil society.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jan. 19, 2019 2:05 AM ET USA
As you point out, the peripheries are in the midst of modern culture; the peripheries being moral relativism. Until about 5 years ago moral certitude was a fundamental mark of Catholicism. But then pride got in the way: Who am I to judge? Too proud to call moral evil moral evil. But even worse came what appears to be a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: "...come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking" (AL 303). We have seen the peripheries, and they are among us.
Posted by: mm7073 -
Jan. 18, 2019 5:16 PM ET USA
You are right. Stopping abortion will not cure our ills. The real battle was lost was over Easy Divorce in the 60's. If all the pro-life efforts over the last 40+ years had been put into demanding that marriage be legally permanent and indissoluble, abortion would be gone in disgust. But the pro-life machine doesn't want to hear that because their own churches are compromised by divorce, contraception, promiscuity and homosexuality, and the movement would tear itself apart in doctrinal discord.