I submit that the fundamental problem with nearly the entire prolife movement in the United States is that it has become a heresy.
What is a heresy? Chesterton does a fine job of explaining:
Every great heretic had always exhibited three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church’s bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed “Psalms” or “Gospels”; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.
In short, a heresy is not so much a falsehood as a metastasized truth, a truth grown cancerous and monomaniacal and set loose to make war on all other truths. Heresy is the attempt to gain simplicity at the expense of reality.
So it is perfectly true that the Bible is the inspired word of God according to the Church. But what Protestantism did was weaponize that truth against a host of other truths also handed down by the apostles.
As I mentioned last week, the archetypal example of heresy in the history of the Church is the Arian heresy. Arianism (not to be confused with Aryanism or white supremacy) was the insistence that God the Father alone is God and the other two persons of the Trinity are not God but creatures. The power of the heresy came precisely from the fact that it exalted the greatest conceivable Good and Truth and weaponized it against other Goods and Truths the apostles handed down (namely the deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit). And, as heresy always does, it regarded every attempt to assert other equally good and true things as an attack on the one good and true thing it monomaniacally asserted. The Church’s faith in the deity of Jesus and the Spirit (dating back to the apostles themselves and asserted in the pages of the New Testament) was treated like hostility to the Father and all attempts to overcome such false either/or dichotomies were rejected by Arianism.
This fundamental fear and hostility to the Catholic both/and habit of mind is what characterizes heresies. And the dreadful thing about it is that the more critically important the metastasized truth is, the harder it is to persuade the zealot that placing it in the context of other truths is not a threat to his fave rave truth but simply sanity, balance, and health.
So: to recap the bleedin’ obvious to everybody but the MAGA “prolife” heretic, every Catholic who actually knows the Faith knows and affirms that the dignity of the unborn child, as of all human life, is a critically important aspect of the Church’s teaching (including me). It is a direct corollary of the fact that man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God. It is a direct corollary of the fact that, as the Church taught in Vatican II, man is the only creature on earth whom God has made for its own sake. As with all human life, the unborn derive their dignity not from what they do, but from what they are. Therefore they should be cherished and protected from the moment of conception. This the Church teaches and this I and all believing Catholics believe.
But here’s the thing: the Church’s teaching about the sanctity of human life does not end at birth. It extends to natural death and it encompasses far more than the mere right to be born. It addresses the right to live. This means that the unborn are in fact related to all the other forms of human life the Church’s teaching calls us to respect and cherish and their size, stage of development, medical conditions and prospects for the future have absolutely no more to do with their right to exist than yours or mine. But it also means that no other human being’s accidental qualities including race, gender, sexual orientation, financial status, religion, politics, disabilities, criminal record, location, or anything else takes away their right to life either.
Accordingly, the Catholic response to the broad front of sins, evils, and needs in the world is not monomaniac hyperfocus on one “non-negotiable” thing to the neglect of all others but Paul’s theology of the body of Christ:
For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Ro 12:4–8).
So the Church likewise takes a broad front approach to the evils of the world and different members of the body do different things. Some members of the body teach. Others heal. Others care for the poor. Others have charisms of giving, or running organizations, or writing–or protesting abortion. In the Catholic vision, these members work together:
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Co 12:15–21).
The trouble is this: The MAGA monomaniac “prolife” cult is precisely about the attempt of one member of the body–the prolife movement under 35 years of GOP brainwashing–to say to the rest of the body: “I don’t need you”. And the paradoxical effect of heresy is that it tends to mutate into its opposite by weaponizing the unborn against all those forms of human life the GOP seeks to rob, harm, injure, and kill.
That is why the received wisdom of conservative Qatholics is now that the Seamless Garment (essentially the Catholic both/and approach) is contemptible liberalism that all Real Catholics[TM] should despise while Catholic Vote can publish a call to simply be anti-abortion, not prolife without controversy, since concern for anybody but the unborn will “dilute and fracture the brand”.
It is why conservative Qatholics could consistently declare in the ramp-up to our stupid war in Iraq that “Abortion is a non-negotiable issue but war is a prudential judgment” and ignore two popes and all the bishops of the world to plunge into a war that met not one single criterion of Just War teaching.
It’s why they consistently argue that “There is no point in talking about [denial of health care/refugee children being kidnapped/cutting food to hungry children/voter suppression/racism/denial of a living wage/gun violence/insert beloved GOP evil here] if there is no right to life.” What that argument really means is simply, “We cannot and must not try to do anything to check evils conservatives love until all abortion everywhere is eliminated.” That’s not moral logic. That’s a hostage situation.
It’s why the MAGA “prolife” movement can torque itself into the demographic most passionately enthusiastic about fighting the Church to kill the four out of one hundred innocent prisoners on death row so they can unnecessarily kill the guilty.
And it is why that same demographic, having spent years screaming about “death panels” a decade ago in order to keep poor people from having health care, now passionately defends an Administration pushing to use a “herd immunity” approach to Pandemic that essentially means abandoning hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans to death because the Most Prolife President Ever is bored with the Pandemic.
Note the contrast to Paul’s approach to the differing ministries and gifts of the Body of Christ. The Dominican mouth does not say to the contemplative Franciscan eye, “Stop gazing on creation and get over here and start preaching!” The Sister of Mercy does not say to the Sister of Providence, “Unless you are ministering to the dying you are a fake Catholic and your hospitals just dilute and fracture the brand!” A Jesuit teacher does not say to a parish school teacher, “Your work is just a distraction from mine!”
But for 35 years, conservatives in the MAGA movement have been taught that any and every movement toward the dignity of human life that gets in the way of GOP and now Trumpian aims is the opposite of being “prolife” and is an attack on the “prolife” movement. And so the bulk of so-called “prolife” energy has gone to defending, not the unborn, but pussy-grabbing, mocking POWs, mocking the disabled, murdering refugees by thirst in the desert and persecuting those who give them water, kidnapping children, Obama birther idiocy, an immense gun violence rate, handing troops over to Russia-paid bounty hunters, torture, unjust war, the death penalty, COVID conspiracy theories, Nazis as very fine people, a burgeoning police state and every single one of the 20,000 lies Trump has poured forth in a ceaseless torrent for the past 3 1/2 years. All to save the one monomaniac illusion that Real Soon Now Trump will magick Roe away–even as he gives more money to Planned Parenthood than any President in history.
The result of this heretical thinking has been absolutely catastrophic for an authentic prolife witness and for the witness of the Church in the United States, especially since the advent of Trump and the conservative Qhristian embrace of him body and soul. As conservatism has become increasingly Manichaean in its outlook, it has chosen to lie to itself that its critics are enemies and its enemies are godless babykilling monsters–including its prolife critics.
Convinced that “liberals”–including prolife Catholics who obey Pope Francis–are, in every conceivable way, the enemies of all goodness, light, decency, and humanity, the MAGA cult has enthroned as their folk heroes people like this awful priest, Fr. James Altman.
It does not matter that MAGA zealots like Fr. Altman are in direct disobedience to the Church:
What matters is the Manichaean need to see oneself as one of the Children of Light and every critic as a Child of Darkness. And nobody, not even the Pope, can stand in the way of that monomaniac denunciation if, as Francis does, he teaches the full Catholic truth that the unborn are related to, not the opposite of, all the rest of the least of these.
“Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned.”
Predictably, MAGA “prolife” heretics immediately denounced this perfectly Catholic teaching and, as is their custom, abandoned their defense of the unborn in order to attack refugees and the Pope defending them. As ever, the monomania of the heretics perceived any attempt to acknowledge truths other than their one obsessive truth as an attack and they responded, predictably, by devoting their time and energy to attacking the rest of the body for doing their work in their sphere.
And yet, the Pope is right and the heretics are–to all Normals outside their suffocating ideological Bubble–obviously wrong, just as they were wrong about unjust war, wrong about torture, wrong about COVID conspiracy theories, wrong to give money to con men like Steve Bannon, wrong to abandon hundreds of thousands to death by COVID, wrong to march under the banner of the swastika at Charlottesville, wrong to deny people a living wage, wrong about birther garbage, wrong to fight for 40,000 gun deaths a year, wrong to accuse the parents of Sandy Hook of being part of an anti-gun conspiracy, wrong to defend Trump for mocking the disabled–wrong about so much so many times for so long that only a fool would trust their judgment about anything.
So why trust their judgment over the Church’s teaching about how to bear witness to the dignity of human life?
Of which more next time.
I really liked the ”Manichaean need” remark 🙂
There are quite a few in the clergy who now routinely exhange ”you don’t agree with me” for ”your immortal soul is in danger of hellfire”. This either means they think speaking of the soul is just another metaphor, or that they possess at least one attribute of the Almighty, which, in the absence of all other attributes , makes them *very* special indeed.
Proof of the selectivity of the “pro-life MAGA” Catholics – William Barr is to be honored at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast – https://www.ncregister.com/news/attorney-general-william-barr-to-be-honored-at-virtual-catholic-prayer-breakfast
Stripping any meaning from the words Catholic, prayer and honor.
“If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? ”
Indeed. Cherry-picking between the two – presuming to test all things, and to hold fast to what is good – would be as silly as inconsistent as, for example, saying “I will heed my mother only when she is sober, not when she is drunk.”
This was why Chesterton rejected everything about Judaism. He wasn’t being anti-Semitic – just intellectually consistent. How can someone appeal to the canonicity of Exodus or Proverbs when the same priests who authenticated those sacred scrolls, declared Jesus a false messiah?
But yeah, completely agree with Mark about MAGA and Trump. – Although I think slightly more of the historical blame there needs to go to right-wing Catholics during the John Paul era insisting that abortion was THE primary, non-negotiable, first-order moral question behind which all other issues had to queue. After all, Mother Teresa herself had said that a society is judged by how it protects its unborn children, and who can argue with Mother Teresa? (I’m an anti-choice bigot and even I think it’s extreme to rank Ceausescu’s Romania ahead of Jimmy Carter’s America based on abortion bans alone). Unfortunately, right-wing Protestants in the era of Neuhausian ecumenism learned rather too well from their new Catholic co-belligerents, which is why “But judges!” answers every complaint about jailing refugee children.
Catholic moral theology seems to be more vulnerable to single-issue litmus tests than the Protestant version (such as it is). Prots tend to avoid strict rules, except of course for harmless fun like drinking/ gambling/ dancing, and instead focus on case-by-case intuitions, ie famously “What would Jesus do?’ (Needless to say “Declare himself to be God incarnate, flog money-changers, forgive adulterers’ sins, and return to earth, millenia after his birth, wielding a fiery sword, to purge the unrighteous” are not options on this pop-up menu).
Catholicism famously zeroes in on “let us not do evil in order that good may come” and construes this, not as an answer to the question “if grace is so wonderful, why not keep sinning so God can forgive our sins?” (had St Paul been a Catholic or even a proto-Catholic, the answer would have been different and much shorter – “Because God will cancel your salvation and you’ll go to hell, or at least purgatory. – Next question?”) but as an answer to Jeremy Bentham’s grand utilitarian calculus. Rather than allowing lesser evils to justify greater ones, the Catholic teaching, condensed greatly, is that you must never actively and intentionally do something evil, even for a good result. (You can passively abstain, and/or actively do something that risks an evil you foresee but don’t like, and “greater good” does come into these equations via the proportionality principle – but those are quite distinct in the Catholic schema).
As a result, it is very easy to confuse “I’m voting for this politician because they support abortion” (because supporting abortion can never be redeemed, whatever the greater good) with “I’m voting for this politician despite their support for abortion, because of the greater good”. It is a weakness of moral theories that depend on intentions to distinguish otherwise identical external actions: as historians have noted, the Double Effect doctrine originated as a way for mediaeval confessors to offer some comfort to the tender of conscience, but it has become a method of judging different legal rules.
A thought-experiment here.
Suppose the US GOP base were not, as it currently is, what, 80%? anti-abortion (either out of moral conviction, or because announcing “I’m 100% Pro-Life” declares one’s tribal affiliation and triggers the libs), but more evenly split, close to 50-50 – ie, more like the Conservative Party in Britain where the religious right is much weaker (eg, a Matthew Parris or John Bercow for every Andrea Leadsom or Nadine Dorries).
[* Yes, I know, the two biggest anti-choice zealots there are women. One used to be a nurse. But I saw an actress play “Aunt Lydia” on a TV show so I can totally dismiss that coincidence.]
So, imagine the US Republicans had an even balance between pro- and anti-abortion views in its ranks, but was just as right-wing on other policies, eg race (no, that’s not fantasy: https://abc.net.au/news/2019-07-07/potter-county-residents-decry-the-neo-nazi-next-door/11243672 – read down) so that Trump still had to soothe the amour-propre of offended rich and shouldabeen-rich white people to win the GOP nomination. But he could go with whichever GOP faction – the Christian Right anti-abortion wing, or the eugenicist/ Odinist/ “stop BIPOC women popping out babies to get welfare’ wing – as he saw fit.
Hands up anyone here, anyone at all, who thinks that Trump, freed from the electoral imperative of winning base support, would identify himself as a “pro-lifer” on abortion?