Sunday, September 13, 2009

Abortion & the Problem of the Human Will

I was all set the other day to post an excellent article by Dinesh D'Souza posted on the Sept. 9 Christianity Today website, when a news story appeared on Friday morning that made his words seem all the more timely. Mr. D’Souza’s article, "Sex, Lies, and Abortion," addressed the question of why, despite all the time and effort expended by pro-lifers in the past several decades attempting to educate people about the devastating effects of abortion on every person involved--the mother, the child, and those closest to them, not to mention the overall effect on society at large--we seem to be losing rather than gaining ground.

The story in question was, of course, the
tragic news out of Michigan that James Poullion, a pro-life activist in the township of Owasso was fatally shot at point blank range while sitting in his customary spot on the sidewalk holding a poster to demonstrate against abortion. Photos taken at the scene showed Mr. Poullion's portable oxygen tank. At this writing police are still attempting to determine exactly what drove the suspect, Harlan James Drake, to kill Mr. Poullion and also Michael Fuoss, the owner of a gravel pit business in the area. A police spokesman said that Drake appears to have held a grudge against both of them, noting that the suspect, "was offended by the manner of Mr. Pouillon's message." The Lansing State Journal reported this morning that Mr. Drake has been hospitalized, apparently having attempted suicide while in custody.

Coming as it does on the heels of the cold-blooded murder last May of George Tiller, the notorious late-term abortionist from Witchita, Kansas, the so-called "culture war" over the dignity of human life feels more like a real war these days.

Expressions of outrage from the powers-that-be are noticeably scarce this time around, unlike what we saw in the wake of Dr. Tiller's murder. I'm not inclined to hold my breath, but we will see. The Washington Post buried the
story on p. A4 this morning with the headline, "Prosecutors: Gunman with grudge kills 2 in Mich."

Having pondered the question since yesterday, I have decided that Mr. D'Souza's article is perhaps even more timely than I thought. He is correct--a lack of knowledge is not the central problem. Women seeking abortion know intuitively that the unborn fetus is a human being; and anyone with a trace of intellectual integrity can see where all of the scientific evidence points. The pro-choice position just doesn't wash, because it does not stand up in isolation from the actual thing that is being chosen. It did not stand up to scrutiny when the choice in question was human chattel slavery, and it does not stand up now with regard to the abortion issue. 

If Mr. Drake "was offended by the manner of Mr. Pouillon's message," that was probably at least in part because he didn't like being confronted with the truth of abortion. Mr. Poullion often displayed graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, so his tactics may have been irritating, but he certainly did nothing to deserve this.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that people will do what they want to do. It is the problem of setting the human will in opposition to God. In particular, the pro-life position has failed to prevail, in Mr. D'Souza's words, "because abortion is the debris of the sexual revolution."
We have seen a great shift in the sexual mores of Americans in the past half-century. Today a widespread social understanding persists that if there is going to be sex outside marriage, there will be a considerable number of unwanted pregnancies. Abortion is viewed as a necessary clean-up solution to this social reality.
Indeed, Mr. D'Souza is not the only one who has picked up on the rather obvious connection between our contraceptive culture and the hardening of the pro-choice position. See for example, Mary Eberstadt's extraordinary essay in the Aug./Sept. 2008 First Things, "The Vindication of Humanae Vitae." And for a real eye-opener, see the papal encyclical she was referring to, Humanae vitae. I wrote about it in July of 2008, the 40th anniversary of it's publication by Pope Paul VI.

D'Souza concludes the article by pointing out that any attempt to move the pro-life position forward will not succeed without an understanding of the entrenched sexual libertinism of our opponents.
If you're going to make an omelet, the Marxist revolutionaries used to say, you have to be ready to break some eggs. And if you're going to have a sexual revolution, you have to be ready to clean up the debris. After 35 years, the debris has become a mountain, and as a society, we are still adding bodies to the heap. No one in the pro-choice camp, of course, wants to admit any of this. It's not only politically embarrassing, it's also painful to one's self-image to acknowledge a willingness to sustain permissive sexual values by killing the unborn.This analysis might help to explain why otherwise compassionate people fight so tenaciously against the most helpless and vulnerable of all living creatures, unborn persons.
If I'm on the right track, pro-life arguments are not likely to succeed by simply continuing to stress the humanity of the fetus. The opposition already knows this, as probably do most women who have an abortion. Rather, the pro-life movement must take into account the larger cultural context of the sexual revolution that invisibly but surely sustains the triumphant advocates of abortion.
It won't be easy, but somehow the case against abortion must include a case against sexual libertinism. It is time to return to the drawing board.
This is why I find Mr. D’Souza’s words so timely, even encouraging, because looking squarely at the underlying problem will help us know how to talk about it and, more importantly, how to pray about it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Duc in altum

The gospel reading for last Thursday, Sept. 3, was from the 5th chapter of John, in which Jesus urges Simon (Peter) and his fellow fishermen to "put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch." Somewhat against his better judgment, Peter obeys, and the end result is, of course, a net so full of fish that he and his fellows cannot lift it into the boat without aid. They are so astonished and humbled by their own unworthiness that Peter is prompted to say, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Jesus responds with, "Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men."

The phrase,
duc in altum (put out into the deep) is one that presents a perpetual challenge to me, and whenever I fail to meet that challenge it is usually because of ordinary rank fear. No wonder the phrase, "Fear not," or "Be not afraid," or some variation thereof, appears so very often in Scripture, including this passage. We are fearful creatures, and of course our Creator knows that. So it is no wonder this admonition appears so often in accounts of heavenly visitations or challenges to go where God leads--the Annunciation, for example (Luke 1), or Joshua's speech to the Children of Israel just before they enter the Promised Land (Jos. 1). Indeed, "Be not afraid" became a trademark phrase of the late Holy Father John Paul II.

Few people meet this challenge with the kind of physical and spiritual courage embodied by Father Vincent Capodanno, so this Gospel reading was especially appropriate for a Mass in his honor last Thursday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Also known as "The Grunt Padre"--the title of a biography of him by Fr. Daniel L. Mode--he was a Navy/Marine Corps chaplain in Vietnam known for refusing the relative safety of the command post and choosing instead to serve his flock on the battlefield. He died on Sept. 4, 1967, ministering to the wounded and dying men of a company of Marines battling a much larger force of North Vietnamese.

He was awarded posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart, in addition to two Bronze Stars and various other military honors. The cause for his canonization was opened in 2004, and in 2006 he was declared a "Servant of God," the first step toward that end, by the Archbishop for the Military Services. His official Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Chaplain of the 3d Battalion, in connection with operations against enemy forces. In response to reports that the 2d Platoon of M Company was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic-weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid. Instead, he directed the corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant Marines. Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire. By his heroic conduct on the battlefield, and his inspiring example, Lt. Capodanno upheld the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the cause of freedom.
In his homily, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Armed Services noted the timeliness of the Gospel reading, pointing out Fr. Capodanno's willingness to "put out into the deep" throughout his life, and especially from the time he answered God's call to the priesthood to his death. He was truly a "fisher of men," too. Read the testimonials on the official website
dedicated to his canonization from the men who served with him--Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Clearly his example helped deepen (and in some cases, awaken) the faith of many of them.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)