The Place Where Abortion is Illegal

Ireland voted to nullify its constitutional amendment protecting the unborn. Most people see this as: Huge victory for modern liberal ways. Huge defeat for traditional Catholicism.

cathleen-kavenyProfessor Cathleen Kaveny wants to see it differently. She has written a brief essay in Commonweal magazine that 1. lays out some moral realities about as clearly as you can and then 2. neglects to face them with real love.

Kaveny thinks that Roe v. Wade framed the moral issue in the wrong way. The court based its decision on the idea that the unborn child is not a person, at least not in the eyes of the law. To summarize Part IX of Justice Blackmun’s opinion for the Court: The unborn are not “persons,” as the word is used in the US Constitution. If they were, then the case arguing a right to abortion would “collapse.”

Kaveny thinks focusing on the personhood of the unborn child warps the argument, like this:

Pro-life = Yes, the unborn child is a person with the right to life. Therefore, abortion is homicide.

Pro-choice = No, the unborn child is not a person. Therefore, the mother’s right to make decisions about her own body can include a decision to abort a pregnancy.

Kaveny wants to frame the issue differently. In my book, she makes an enormously helpful set of points. First, let’s all, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” concede the following:

1. Abortion involves taking the life of an individual human being.

2. That individual depends completely on the mother. Providing for a totally dependent unborn child imposes great burdens on the mother.


All the pro-lifers I know would agree: We don’t want any pro-life ‘allies’ who do not sympathize with the difficulties faced by pregnant women. Yes, the child has a right to life; no doubt. But that “right” has no meaning without the sacrifice of the mother. The real pro-life movement has no interest whatsoever in getting ‘in between’ the baby and the mother. As the old slogan has it: Love them both.

unbornCareful Catholic bio-ethical thinking long ago fully grasped this at its depths. Turning the “right to life” of the unborn child into some kind of absolute value leads you to an unpleasant place: Mother Nature Herself does not respect this right.

Many pregnancies end in miscarriage, a.k.a. spontaneous abortion. Many fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. That means countless human beings in the first stage of life who disappear into a dark oblivion, with only God and His angels ever having known that they existed.

Kaveny gets it wonderfully right here. The problem of procured abortion is not, ultimately, a metaphysical matter. We have to focus solely on the simple moral question. Can it be right to choose to have an abortion?

At this point in her essay, Kaveny leaves us with only a handful of dust. She suggests that the Church, without having a ready answer to the question above, should rather “accompany” our contemporaries who think the answer is Yes. We should take the risk of “having conversations.”

Now, I am confident in saying that most of us priests with some years of experience under our belts have had quite a few conversations. ‘Father, the child will be born with a handicap.’ ‘Father, I’m pregnant with my boyfriend’s baby, but I want to go to college.’ ‘Father, he ran away with the hygienist. But I’m pregnant with our fourth.’

Now, if we (priests and all Christian believers) don’t patiently listen, sympathize, and offer support and helpful proposals, we s**k. But, by the same token, no honest moral calculus exists which could include a proposal that aborting the baby might be the right thing to do.

Because the baby is, manifestly, a baby, and not a Volkswagen. And it is this mother’s baby. The mother’s life, and the baby’s, are already entwined in such a way that violence against the one is ipso facto violence against the other.

To countenance the idea that abortion could be the right thing to do–that would involve a failure of charity towards both baby and mother. Just like refusing to sympathize with the burdens faced by the mother would involve a failure of charity towards both of them.

Kaveny rightly points out that the law fears to tread into the territory where blameworthy homicide and justifiable withdrawal of life-support come so close that they almost touch each other.

But she misses the one absolutely certain thing, the principle that can and does lead in the direction of a resolution of all the problems involved in any pregnancy: Intentionally killing the baby is not the right thing to do.

We human beings cannot see into the future. We can only make decisions based on our best lights right now.

I have argued for most of my life that we do not need faith in order to know that abortion is wrong, since sonograms clearly show us that is is.

But, on the other hand, it is faith that protects us from the hubris that justifies abortion, based on uncertain predictions about the future. Every line of thinking that leads to the idea that abortion could be the right thing to do–all of them start with fear of the future. From that fear of the future comes the compulsive attempt to control it, through violence.

If you read my review of Ross Douthat’s book about Pope Francis, you know that I deeply reject the distinction between “modern liberal” and “traditional Catholic.” But Kaveny’s essay actually leads us to a place where that distinction touches something real and stark.

Holding the faith of the Church means believing that God will provide. Abortion offers a false promise about controlling the future. In the Church of Christ, we must have the courage to say, in every case: God has a real future for you and your baby.


Fish Creek Canyon, Neuhaus, etc.

The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have. To me, it is the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful panorama nature has ever created.

Theodore Roosevelt


Cactus with some personality on the east slope of Superstition Mountain

The mighty hand of Providence can bring a man to Phoenix.

I passed through the Jubilee-Year holy door in the cathedral of SS. Simon and Jude, prayed for the pope’s intentions, and thought of you, dear reader.

Believe it or not, one of the main reasons for the trip: informal ecumenical dialogue with the Laestadian Lutherans.  (Devout Finnish followers of sola scriptura.)  We wound up dialoging on the surprising subject of: spacing births within marriage!

But first:  a view from the rugged Echo Canyon ascent of Camelback Mountain, looking north at Piestewa Peak, with part of northeast Phoenix in between:


…Now, we agree with our brothers the Laestadians on the Incarnation and the Trinity, of course.  We also agree that our doctrine regarding marriage and family must come from the New Testament.  And we agree that using artificial contraception offends God.

Pope Paul VI taught in Humanae Vitae that spacing births, by practicing periodic abstinence, does not violate divine law.  “Be fruitful and multiply,” to be sure.  But couples may agree, with a good reason, to refrain for a time.

A Laestadian preacher recently preached on I Corintians 7:1-6.  He offered guidance very much like Pope Paul’s.  Turns out:  The idea that couples have the prerogative to abstain periodically by mutual agreement proved quite controversial among the Laestadians.

I found myself thoroughly fascinated by this.  May God be glorified when brother Christians can share insights!

Meanwhile, I learned that the population of the world can be divided into those who have driven the Apache Trail east of Phoenix, and those who should.

But first: here’s Weaver’s Needle as seen from Fremont Saddle in the Superstition Wilderness:


(I have to hand it to these new-fangled smartphones.  They can take some nice pictures.)

Before I left Roanoke, an Iroquois friend told me to look for a feather during my hikes in Apache territory.  I have yet to find one.

But, in the depths of my silent solitude–the last hiker on Peralta trail before nightfall, with the company only of birds–I heard voices on the wind.  Could not make out the words.  But the meaning was clear:  encouragement.  Keep it up!  –Thank you.  I will try.

I also had the opportunity to ride the Phoenix Valley Metro in its entirety.  Very reminiscent of the Denver light rail.

On my way to a Colorado Rockies game in the summer of ’10, I had to laugh at the attitude being copped by the young Denver toughs getting on their “Metro,” as if they were cholos hopping a Bronx-bound D train.  Same thing happened here in Phoenix.

To an easterner with experience on the New York and Washington subways, these western mass-transit contraptions look like dinky monorails, fit for Disneyland.

Anyway:  the Apache Trail, which Teddy Roosevelt so eloquently elegized…


What glories God has made!

No offense to geologists and evolutionary biologists, but:  The idea that “billions of years of water and wind” have given us the spectacle of Horse Mesa, Four Peaks, and Buckhorn Mountain rising above the Salt-River dam that forms Apache Lake…?  That idea is considerably less intelligible than the idea that God made these things.  Just like the idea that billions of iterations of ‘survival of the fittest’ made the desert cardinals:  considerably less intelligible than the idea that God made them.

Here’s an old postcard:

Apache Trail postcard

(After all, no one has ever successfully measured the work of wind and water over the course of even a thousand years, or the work of ‘survival of the fittest’ over even a thousand generations.  Therefore, speculating about billions and gazillions of chippings away, or tiny evolutionary steps, has no more real precise intellectual content than simply affirming that God did these things.  Considerably less precise intellectual content, in fact.)

The driving on Rt. 88 is not for the faint-of-heart.  Plus, for 20+ miles, there’s no pavement.  Makes you reflect that many an Apache passed this way and meditated on himself as a quintessence of dust.  But: make the drive anyway!

Okay, speaking of church controversies…

According to Kathleen Kaveny, right-wing Catholics hate Pope Francis for “sowing division” in the Church.  (Long-time readers here will remember how much we have admired Kaveny’s work in the past.)

neuhausWrong, she says.  It’s not Pope Francis’ fault.  The real villain, truly guilty of dividing God’s Church, is–RIP–Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things magazine.  Fr. Neuhaus, Kaveny maintains, gave us a distorted “neo-conservative” version of St. John Paul II.

To try to make this odd point, Kaveny proposes arguments with which Fr. Neuhaus not only would agree, but which he would himself make more precisely and beautifully than Kaveny makes them.  Fr. Neuhaus no doubt would laugh out loud at the idea that Commonweal has posthumously named him as some weird kind of antipope.

R.R. Reno has written a response to Kaveny.  I relate, since I spent the whole latter part of the 90’s reading First Things with nearly desperate enthusiasm.

Reno says that Fr. Neuhaus made First Things not a politically conservative magazine, but a theologically post-liberal magazine.  Meaning:  Our age is not the age of definitive discovery.  Tradition holds wisdom, often hidden below the surface.  Instead of doubting the Fathers, let’s doubt the findings of 19th-and 20th-century theology instead.

Amen to all that.  Nothing particularly “divisive” about it, nor retrograde.  St. John Paul II, who suffered through Nazism and communism, loved living through the 20th century anyway.  JP II embraced everything that Vatican II embraced.  But the saint pope never thought that now, this age, offers us the one-and-only opportunity for understanding stuff.

Also, re: politics, Neuhaus, and my personal journey through the 90’s…  When you embrace the pro-life movement, especially at a young age, you look first and foremost for a way to vote pro-life.

You don’t look for ways to make pro-Roe v. Wade candidates seem palatable on other grounds.  Nor do you patiently wait while supposedly pro-life conservatives babble on about non-issues ad nauseam, while the innocent and defenseless unborn still have no legal protection.  And you wind up having a hard time knowing for whom to vote.  But Roe v. Wade for/against has to decide it.

Anyway, Kaveny’s fundamental point seems to be that we Catholics must be loyal, above all, to each other.

Have pro-life bishops unfairly anathematized Catholic Democrats?  Maybe.  But, if they have, that particular right-wing conspiracy doesn’t seem to have done much damage to the Democratic party.

Cam Newton PanthersCatholic tribal loyalty:  Yes.  But mindless tribal loyalty:  No.

The tribe that looked mindless to me and most of my seminary mates in the late 90’s, was, in fact, the Democrats of the northeast, post Roe v. Wade.  Unfair anathematizations?  Our generation experienced those from our Boston-Democrat professors on a weekly basis.  First Things came to us then as a balm in Gilead.


A day arrived when Neuhaus and Co. did not make sense.  Early 2003.

The aforementioned saint-pope sent a Cardinal to the White House.  The Holy See begged, pled, tried everything to talk W. out of it.  All sound reasoning from Catholic principles prohibited our starting a war with Saddam Hussein.  But First Things rationalized it.

Politics sucks.  No one can judge rightly every time, in this vale.  Fr. Neuhaus strove to penetrate as close to the truth as his amazing mind allowed.  He does not deserve Kaveny’s odd broadside attack.

That said, we will all face plenty of purgatory time for our culpable lapses in judgment.  W. made a bad decision.  First Things struck up some music for the bandwagon.  Fr. Neuhaus sided with the wrong tribe that time.  I, for one, had to go looking for balm in Gilead somewhere else.

(But a kind reader here has ordered your humble servant a First Things subscription, and I am grateful!)

…In the Valley of the Sun, everyone’s rooting for the Broncos.  Not because they like them.  But because of being bitter over the Cardinals’ stinging defeat at the hands of Cam and the Panthers.

This particular pilgrim, however, will be rooting for the Carolina boys.

Coming at the IoM Like Ray Rice

Our laser weapon of religious-freedom clarification, Cathleen Kaveny, has made some more awesome distinctions and points. This time she considers a judge hearing the potential Religious-Freedom-Restoration-Act case that we would hypothetically mount. Click through the link to savor her insights.

scales_of_justiceTwo things that strike me:

1. Seems to me that the judge could reasonably ask of us plaintiffs: “Okay, now: about this burden on you. Taking for granted that using artificial contraception is evil…Under the disputed law, when the evil deed is done, who exactly will be doing it? Will you have to do something evil?”

To which question we do not have a compelling answer. If we say we would formally co-operate by paying into a healthcare plan with bad provisions, a sympathetic interlocutor could respond: But couldn’t you put your conscience at ease? By your own teaching regarding just compensation, you assert that everyone deserves the provision of healthcare. The healthcare delivery system will simply be following the law. You publicly disagree with the law. You clearly teach that artificial contraception and abortion are immoral. Therefore, your conscience can be clear. If others act immorally, they will answer for it. Not you.

(And I, for one, firmly believe that any judge has a right to question any religious-freedom claimant in this manner. True religion is not irrational. The Free-Exercise Clause should be understood to protect only that religious practice that can be defended on reasonable grounds.)

2. Regarding the government making its case:

The fact of the matter is that, while there may be plenty of big-time problems with the Obama administration, doing due diligence in drafting the Affordable-Care-Act regulations is not one of them.

Ray RiceIn coming up with the regulations, the administration did what any reasonable governing body would do. They consulted experts and accepted the assertions of the spokespeople of mainstream medicine. The “medical community” of the U.S. does in fact say that artificial contraception is good medicine and important medicine.

Here, my friends, is where I believe we meet the heart of the problem. The nearly universal presumption of medical practice holds that artificial contraception counts as medicine.

Now, in fact, artificial contraception does not count as medicine. But to make this point, we have to build from the ground up, starting with:

to facilitate sexual libertinism ≠ to heal

To the contrary:

to facilitate sexual libertinism = to wound

This is the point-of-view of a (now middle-aged) man who was born at the hour of history when the bad bell tolled. I grew up with condoms being shoved in my face.

To me, the whole business looks like a racket for getting people to do things that are truly bad for us. I am pretty sure that a special furnace in hell burns for everyone who peddles condoms and birth-control pills. Its fires are fed by the pain of every young heart broken by someone’s unchaste act.

hellTrue health means a mature spiritual life and the self-control that goes with it. It means chastity, love, and hope for the future, with trust in God. Health means church on Sunday and a lot of people who love you and will help you through any difficulty.

The whole rationale for Roe v. Wade, namely that abortion has to be legal because otherwise it will happen dangerously in the shadows–this rationale fails for one reason. There is a safety net for every pregnant woman, and it is the love of Christ, Who does not condemn but rather rejoices in all life. And the love of His Church. If every woman who thought she needed an abortion walked into a Catholic parish church and started asking for help, there would be no abortions.

Hence, my position on the HHS-mandate business is:

We do not belong on the sidelines whining to the referees about our poor, little religious freedom.

We belong in the game. We need to run down the throat of the defense like Ray Rice.

The idea that sex on-demand is a key to health is simply false. Chastity is a key to health. This can be demonstrated by careful argument, including the all-important citation of many statistics.

We can attack the Obama administration, if we want to. But, in this particular case, we need to attack the false medical consensus.

Abortion sucks. Contraception sucks. Doctors who give out artificial contraceptives suck twice. Doctors who perform abortions…well, God help us. I’m sorry I brought that one up.

The HHS controversy is not a religious-freedom problem for American Catholics. It is an evangelical mandate for American Catholics.

What are you and I going to do about the real problem? All the people who crush human life, anywhere from the zygote stage on–they’re all going to hell. Unless we do something to help them.

Two Attempts to Clarify Some Things

If you have grown tired of reading about the “hot-button” controversies, skip this one. Ignatius Reilly probably could have written what follows, but I take full credit for it.

Continue reading “Two Attempts to Clarify Some Things”