Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Restating the Pro-Life Question: Readers Help

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 08, 2009

It’s time for another look at what readers have been saying in response to our series on how to make the pro-life movement more effective. We’ve received so many well-argued and even eloquent responses that it is impossible to highlight them all individually. In any case, it may be more valuable at this point to look at how the total group of respondents lines up with the different proposed improvements of the pro-life effort. After all, a good idea won’t work unless it is widely supported. My respondents fall into six main groups.

Rhetoric and Education

The smallest group comprises those who think one of the most important things the pro-life movement can do to be effective is to change its terminology, particularly its labeling. I believe everyone is aware of the importance anti-abortion activists attached to being called “pro-life” from the earliest years of the movement, and it was considered a significant victory when the media began more frequently to use the term “pro-life”. Some writers would now like to find a way to eliminate “pro-choice” as a description of those who are really pro-murder, and other terminology changes have also been proposed as a key to clarifying the issue in the public mind. In all, 7% of correspondents thought improved terminology could make a great difference.

At the next level up, three different points of view garnered the backing of 9% of the correspondents. Nine percent believe that the most important activity in the pro-life movement should be education; a different nine percent believe that the movement will not succeed unless and until bishops and priests speak with a united, militant voice; and another group of nine percent rank consolidation of the movement as its highest priority. I’ve already discussed the second and third concerns at some length, but the first—education—merits a few comments, especially since by lumping the “terminology advocates” in with these “educationists” (the two have much in common), the group swells to 16% of all respondents.

In the minds of these writers, education occupies a broad territory. They are well aware that control of formal schooling would require a battle very similar in scope to the battle to end abortion, and so they are not primarily proposing formal education. Rather, they see much to be gained by concentrating the funds and energies of the pro-life movement on various advertising and media initiatives to form public opinion in favor of life. Such efforts would include portraying abortion as an undesirable choice, instilling greater knowledge of the humanity of the unborn child, and promoting a family-based lifestyle. Many in this group also mentioned the importance of targeting these messages primarily to young people.

Politics and Spirituality

The next group—the second largest in this pool of correspondence at 23%—consists of those who believe that a more aggressive and better-managed political effort will bear the most fruit. None of these correspondents would discount the spiritual life, but many of them calculate that we are more likely to make history with a determined political minority than we are to purify and solidify the faith and spirituality of a large majority of Catholics or Christians in general (in which case, of course, politics would take care of itself). However, it has to be noted that the political prescriptions of this group vary hugely, encompassing everything from highly-targeted mass demonstrations to developing a political program based on Constitutional law. This highlights a fundamental problem of the pro-life political effort, namely a widespread lack of agreement about exactly what tactics are most likely to work.

Finally we come to the largest single group, the 36% who firmly believe that there can be no solution to abortion until Catholics (and Christians in general) begin to take their faith more seriously in every way. In an earlier blog entry I noted the significant opinion that a contraceptive culture cannot effectively resist abortion. This point was made repeatedly, but the group as a whole made two larger points as well. First, they argued that only a deep and full commitment to Christian spirituality can bring about the conversion of heart necessary to transform the culture of death. Second, they recognize that the battle over abortion is very much a battle of powers and principalities, which we have no chance of winning unless we fervently ally ourselves with Christ in prayer.

The idea here is simply that a recognition of our own spiritual shallowness, a deep commitment to prayer, and a thorough reform of life across the board is the one thing necessary, and that nothing will change until the one thing necessary becomes a reality. This argument is theoretically deep and unassailably true, and so I have no quarrel with those who emphasize it—as long as they also see how deceptive and dangerous it can be. The problem with this unassailable spiritual truth is that agreeing with it doesn’t absolve us from doing what we can to stop the grave evils we encounter in the world. The reality is quite the opposite: My own ever-deepening conversion demands that I try by every means possible to lift others out of the grip of evil as well.

The Regression Trap

Unfortunately, what we might call the “spirituality” argument is capable of being used as an infinitely regressing excuse to do nothing: Abortion will not change until the contraceptive mentality disappears. The contraceptive mentality will not disappear until people become less materialistic. People will not become less materialistic until their faith is awakened. Their faith will not be awakened until we more effectively preach the Word of God. To effectively preach the Word of God we must first reform our own lives. We cannot reform ourselves until we truly recognize our own spiritual deficiencies. Such self-recognition can only follow a massive influx of Divine grace. And until all this happens, there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop abortion. Let’s look at this a little more closely.

One of the great blessings of the scourge of abortion is that it has shaken, and continues to shake, so many of us out of our spiritual apathy. I well remember saying to myself, back in the 1970’s, that at last the difference between a secular and a Christian society had become obvious. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, secular morality appeared to be very similar to Christian morality. The residual cultural morality left over from Christianity’s shaping of Western culture was still largely in place among people who no longer had any significant Faith commitment. It seemed, until abortion, that secularists and Christians instinctively reached the same moral conclusions. The pragmatic, sociological uniqueness of serious Christianity was difficult to discern.

But this veneer of morality was shattered from within by the sexual revolution and the abortion mania that followed. Those who were uncommitted to the Faith rapidly redefined their own moral code, and those who really were committed suddenly realized that an ungrounded cultural acceptance of Christian values was not capable of resisting the new morality. In fact, we learned that our values could not exist without a deep and vibrant Faith, a thorough spiritual commitment, and a dramatic personal understanding that (to put it clearly) if I care about any of this, then I have to change my life. In other words, we learned that Christian values cannot exist without Christianity. The process of personal transformation that followed upon this revelation is still going on.

But do you see the danger on both sides? If we say this interior conversion is not essential, we understand nothing. But if we say that interior conversion is both essential and sufficient—or rather if we believe that interior conversion does not entail exterior action—we fall into a sort of pietism or quietism. “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven,” says Jesus Christ, “but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). Certainly I want to extend a deep spirituality as far among my fellow Catholics and fellow citizens as possible, and if I want to do this effectively, I had better extend it to myself first of all. But once I have reformed myself—or at least once I have committed myself to deeper union with God—I find that I am called not only to pray and not only to preach, but to act; and not only to act spiritually, but to act as a layman in the social order. I am, after all, baptized. I am called to renew all things in Christ. This includes law and government.

Improving the Movement, Again

And so the one thing needful, the one thing that the largest group of our respondents rightly identified as the highest priority, can create a sound culture only if it brings us full circle. True, we must never forget that the need to improve spiritually is our deepest and most urgent need and, true, we are in this mess in large part because our culture has forgotten it. But in terms of action, this must be taken as a given. Some may be called only to prayer; others may be called to administer the sacraments, to preach, and to guide others spiritually; certainly these should not neglect the Word of God to wait on tables (Acts 6:2) or to engage in any other social activity. But we are not all thus called. In fact, the vast majority of us are called to active work in the world, including political work.

Therefore, to the degree that I am spiritually transformed, precisely to that degree do I realize I am also called to act. So let me rephrase the question. Given the necessary interior transformation of as many people as possible, and given that this transformation must begin with ourselves, how can we act most effectively to protect the lives of unborn children? In the years ahead, this is the only question, and posed in the only context, that can do the pro-life movement any good.


Discussion in order:

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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