‘We’ve been wandering in the desert for 40 years.” That was how Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston described the reality that brought over 14,000 to the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., for prayer and protest. Four decades of legal abortion has left all too many complacent in the face of confusion about fundamental words like “freedom” and “compassion” and “love.” But women deserve better. Those children who never see the light of day deserve better. Men deserve better than low expectations. We are better than this.
Are you, dear reader, sick of abortion? Sick of the poverty of the discourse? Sick of the hands of politics on the issue? Sick that it has put evil, tempting thoughts into your head? Sick of where it has left you? This moment is for you.
People are looking for something more. People are looking for an invitation to something better. Women aren’t looking for judgment. Many of them also are not happy with the expectations we have for them to manage their fertility away and pretend to be men with more wardrobe options in the workplace and on the social scene. Men want to be expected to be responsible agents who guard and protect and love. And no American wants to go through another election cycle talking about “legitimate rape.”
Cardinal O’Malley was the preacher at a Mass that began 24 hours of prayer and protest. Assessing the darkness of the situation, he pointed to an observer from across the Atlantic, my friend Austen Ivereigh. Austen is one of the co-founders of Catholic Voices, an apostolic work dedicated to shedding light, not heat, on these neuralgic issues like abortion and euthanasia and assisted suicide — all the issues where we seem to be getting nowhere good in our public discourse. In his book How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice, Austen writes: “Despite occasional rare victories, the pro-life movement has been consistently defeated in its attempts to awaken society to the value and dignity of unborn lives; Catholics often feel, therefore, powerless to alter what can seem like an inexorable slide into the dehumanization of the unborn. And it can often seem as if the prophetic voice pointing to the humanity of the silent unborn victim — whether the 12- or 20-week-old baby destroyed by suction methods, or the cluster of human cells in the Petri dish, a complete human being in its early stage — is simply ignored by a society as too disturbing. Placing an absolute value on autonomy (a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she chooses; the promise of cures for Parkinson’s), society is growing more, not less, deaf to cries on behalf of the voiceless victims.”
Again, what is freedom and what is choice? What is good — good for women, for children, for society? What is love and how does it fit into anything any more?
These are the kinds of questions that fill headlines and pop songs, but do we really give ourselves the moral nourishment any more to explore them? Or is morality simply seen as that which helps us justify what we’re doing, what we’re stuck doing?
Cardinal O’Malley did have a little good news to share about the victory in Massachusetts over a ballot initiative that would have legalized assisted suicide there. It was a broad coalition that defeated the initiative, and an op-ed piece in a local newspaper by Ted Kennedy’s widow played no small role in its defeat. Her message was the message we must reflect on every day on the issue of abortion as well as euthanasia: Life is a tremendous gift. We must love one another and do it every moment, until the dying breath. And what unexpected graces may flow if we do live in love for one another, mother and stranger, father and political opponent.
On the day of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that allows abortion throughout a pregnancy, New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan talked on his weekly radio show with a woman who would have aborted her son, Angelo Pio. Early in her pregnancy, she was stepping up to the plate, and the father was not. And then she learned the baby would have Down syndrome. Eliminating people with that syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21, is a major task for American medicine today. Upwards of 90 percent of children diagnosed with Down syndrome in their mother’s womb never see the light of day. But this woman found love and support in the Sisters of Life, a religious order that exists to build a culture of life and love in the most practical of ways. The sisters offer counseling and housing, and a community that continues long after the child is born.
If we’re going to do better than we have been, we’re going to have to start listening to one another and meeting people where they are and advancing together toward what is good and just. We use phrases like “social justice” and load them up with ideology that is neither social nor just. How about taking a few steps back? Being reflective even about our politics? Seeing what each one of us can do to help civil society flourish? It’s the only cure for the despondency and anger so many of us feel about our politics and our culture. It’s the only way out of the desert.