Forty years ago this month, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down every law in the land protecting the right of any child simply to be born. All at once, amid the sound and fury of imploding statutes, the most dangerous place in America became a mother’s womb.
Since Roe v. Wade authorized an almost unrestricted right to abortion, the lives of millions of innocent human beings have ended before their time. And in the aftermath of the decision made on January 23, 1973, great and alarming numbers of our fellow citizens have come to terms with a culture of death. What this means is that millions of people in this country are more or less culpably indifferent to the human status of the unborn child, ethically untroubled therefore by the gaping hole their absence has left in the larger human community. Nor do their sensibilities appear to have been the least bit ruffled by the violence with which the abortion industry conducts its business. People are not disturbed by what they choose not to see.
But for those who will not acquiesce in the killing of defenseless children, who remain haunted by the faces of so many unseen babies, their lives suddenly snuffed out by those who should love and care for them, the struggle continues despite the impacted complacencies of all those who will not defend them. Yes, even despite the arrant institutionalization of a practice that, more and more, everyone, including those who both welcome and profit from it, acknowledge as the deliberate destruction of human life.
In other words, the Right to Life Movement simply will not go away. Galvanized by the words of the eighteenth century British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, it persists in the conviction that “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” It is really quite astonishing the extent to which pro-lifers have remained totally resistant to the Spirit of the Age. Why? Because they know it to be evil. And so, unwilling to give in to the counsels of despair, which everywhere argue the futility of all attempts to end the killing, they are resolved to redouble their efforts to stop it. Because—so they believe—the iniquity of abortion will only go away when enough good people cease to do nothing about it.
It should not require any great leap of imagination to produce a snapshot of a world where wickedness is in retreat because of a few good souls determined on making a difference. How vastly transformed the face of the last century, surely the most bloody on record, had only enough good people mobilized early on to oppose the evils of Hitler and Stalin! The ultimate hideousness of the campaign to exterminate European Jewry, for instance, could hardly have succeeded in the face of early and vigorous opposition from even a handful of brave and honorable men. Or put it this way: but for the silence of so many of their neighbors, families and friends, the genocidal mania of one moral idiot could so easily have been thwarted. Think of all that bitterness and hatred festering away in some fever swamp of private pathology; none of that larger megalomania left to engulf whole continents and peoples.
In the light of how things actually turned out, of course, how perfectly pathetic and irresolute were the politicians of that day. Not to mention those millions of morally insensate souls on whom they depended for their support. What happened to the soul of Christian Europe that kept it from upholding the ordinary decencies of the moral life?
Perhaps it had lost that “horrible moral squint,” of which a corrupt Cardinal Wolsey complained to Master More, when it became irritatingly clear to him that the latter would not bend to the King’s demands. “You’re a constant regret to me Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.”
And how do we see things? Have we too lost the squint? Is our level of moral heroism any higher? We like to think of ourselves as good and decent people, yet we allow an annual extermination of a million or more of our children, simply for want of an Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing their right to life. Absent that guarantee, they continue to be sacrificed on the altar of reproductive freedom. No other issue commands the moral high ground as this one does; for without the basic right of a child to be born, there can be no talk of any other right. No one is safe so long as that right has been jettisoned for the sake of either ideology or convenience. To paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, who, in the midst of a bloody Civil War well understood the urgency of the question: “If you can kill some people, then you can kill any people.”
Certainly there is no other issue on the table of comparable importance to the Catholic Church in this country than the need to restore reverence for human life, most especially in its smallest and most vulnerable state. It is, undeniably, the one teaching about which there can be no ambiguity as to where precisely the Church stands. She is entirely on the side of life. This is why the initiative taken by some bishops to withhold the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Unity, from those so-called Catholic politicians whose complicity with abortion breaks the bond of that unity, is both welcome and long overdue.
When professed Catholic politicians pass laws promoting the “abominable” practice of abortion (to use the language of the Second Vatican Council), they are not only dishonest in their exercise of bad faith regarding the truth about human life, that it possesses a dignity that they have cravenly refused to defend; but that, in addition, their egregious failure to champion the cause gives the gravest possible scandal to the faithful. Lay Catholics are surely entitled to feel secure in the maintenance of the Church’s right to pass on The Gospel of Life, to recall the title of Blessed John Paul II’s beautiful and prophetic encyclical letter, which he issued in 1995, exactly ten years before returning home to God.
“When the Church speaks,” wrote St. Catherine of Siena, who did not hesitate to catechize princes and popes regarding their duties before God, “it is Jesus himself whom we hear.” When Catholics in public office refuse to heed her voice, disdaining the sound of that voice even when it pronounces in the most apodictic way the truth of the moral law, then it is only fitting that certain consequences follow, chief of which is that they have disqualified themselves from fellowship with the People of God at the Altar of the Lord. They have broken faith, in fact, with the very One who has most clearly and intimately identified himself with the least and the lost, namely, his and our own brothers and sisters in the womb.
The birth of a child, someone once said, is God’s opinion that life should go on. What a terrible blight we loose upon the world when, by the choices we make, we tell God that we are no longer interested in life. That life should not go on. Then Thanatos becomes our god, and we are no better than the Phoenicians, for whom the worship of Death, of Moloch, exacted a most terrible price: the sacrifice of their own children. Without little ones, there can be no future. Is that why the Phoenicians are no longer with us?