On the morning of the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s infamous Roev.Wade ruling, I felt a chill. And it wasn’t brought on by the appropriate bitterly cold weather that particular January morning. After Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, some 500 or so New Yorkers walked through the streets of midtown Manhattan, in front of God, man, and Grand Central Station, praying the Rosary. Our prayers were for life and love and mercy. Our prayers were not in judgment of others but that we may do better, that women and men may see better options than abortion, that the hurt may be healed, that God may forgive us for letting anyone think she is alone and has no choice but the death of her child.
The chill was brought on by the knowledge that some of the commuters streaming into Grand Central knew the pain of abortion all too well. By the certainty that someone, on her morning commute, was thinking that was her only option. By the sharing in a community’s pain and guilt and sorrow.
We tend to live our lives masked in a veil of the imperial self. We pretend that we live alone. But as alone as we might sometimes feel, we make decisions that affect others. We need one another.
We do realize this, on some level. We’re decades into a welfare state premised on the idea that the government is our safety net. But the government cannot be a brother. The government cannot be a mother and a father. Where love thrives is in a flourishing civil society. That is where we flourish. Where our dreams are. Where we get the support that allows us to believe they can be fulfilled.
Our problems today run so deep. Now is the time to take a few steps back. Not to turn back the clock. But to reflect. To talk about some of the most contentious issues now that we are past the frenzy of a presidential election campaign.
Our problems won’t all be solved through legislative action. And legislative action, while it may sometimes be crucial, can’t be maximized without a fuller context. Congress may vote to defund Planned Parenthood, but we can’t assume that the political message that vote sends will cause the culture to change — that people will suddenly remember the poisonous eugenics upon which that organization was founded, that we will celebrate and protect human dignity, live chastely, and see adoption as a brilliant and generous option. A congressional vote is not a magic wand. There are so many steps that need to precede and follow it.
In a new book, Fill These Hearts, author Christopher West works on helping us with the backstory of our lives, a starting point for changing the terms of our debates and untangling our confusions. “Consider,” he writes, “the idea that our bodies tell a story that reveals, as we learn how to read it, the very meaning of existence and the path to the ultimate satisfaction of our deepest desire.”
“To call God ‘Father’ with a sincere heart is to recognize him as the ultimate origin of every good gift and to rest in his benevolent providence, trusting unflinchingly — despite life’s many sorrows and sufferings — that God does indeed have a perfect plan for our satisfaction. To call God ‘Father’ is to believe wholeheartedly that, in due time, he will provide precisely that for which we ache.” West quotes Psalm 145: “You give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”
West makes the point that our bodies and our souls are not separate things, and that our very physical design speaks to our creation and destination. “In the biblical understanding, there exists a profound unity between that which is physical and that which is spiritual. This means that our bodies are not mere shells in which our true ‘spiritual selves’ live. We are a profound unity of body and soul, matter and spirit. In a very real way, we are our bodies.”
West writes as a Christian, but perceiving a person as an integrated whole does not depend on being a Christian, or a believer of any sort. Nor does understanding that men and women are different and complementary, and that that is a good thing. However, we can no longer take for granted that everyone understands that, let alone accepts, embraces, even celebrates it. Not when our federal health-care policy treats a woman’s fertility as a disease, a condition that she is expected to medicate away in order to achieve freedom and equality. Not when we are sending women into combat.
The world-famous former mayor of New York Ed Koch, who died just last week, was good friends with John Cardinal O’Connor. In 1989 they collaborated on a book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, in which Mayor Koch wrote: “The future of our nation depends on our ability to inculcate a strong sense of morality in our young people. That moral sense should be based on philosophical, ethical and religious teachings, which are the underpinnings of conscience. The way to oppose abortion is by challenging the conscience of those who advocate it. If the battle cannot be won at the level of conscience, it cannot be won.”
But what is conscience? What is right and wrong, and who are we and why are we? If we do not agree that there are answers to these questions — even if we don’t agree on what those answers are — we will never have a constructive debate about abortion, whether in terms of policy or of culture. That is the foundational work we need to return to. No election campaign is ever going to be better without it. Our culture is never going to be renewed without it. No lives are going to be truly redeemed without it. We won’t start making sense again without it. The dark bitter cold of winter will be warmed by the renewal that comes with embracing life, living life lovingly, supporting life, letting someone know she is not alone.