We’ve heard it a million times in the last 20 years. “The Catholic Church does not believe in choice!” This refrain was particularly loud in the 90s when the Church led the successful fight against the mass abortion agenda (ignominiously spearheaded by the Clinton Administration) at the Cairo and Beijing Population Conferences. A cacophony of voices in the mainstream media wailed in ever-so-righteous indignation as Pope John Paul II used his considerable moral might to stop rich First Worlders from imposing a “Just Enough of Us White People; Way Too Many of You Brown and Yellow People” population plan which would have entailed bloodshed for Third World unborn on a staggering scale. As a result, uninformed Americans, inundated by media rhetoric, were more deeply instilled than ever with the impression that Right-Thinking People must struggle against a Church dogmatically opposed to the very idea of freedom. Thus did my liberal friends cluck their tongues and sigh, “Ever since the 60s, the Church has opposed choice.”
Now, with all due respect, a statement like that has all the historical depth of a teenager marveling that Paul McCartney was in a band before “Wings.” Yes, it is true that the Church has consistently opposed the killing of unborn children from the moment it began to be widely promoted as Progressive in the late 1960s. The Church had similar concerns in 60 AD. But it is nonsense to say the Church therefore opposes “choice.” Indeed, if we look a bit further back than the 1960s, we find that the principal complaint against the Church by far-thinking, truly intelligent, ever-so-progressive people at the turn of this century was slightly different than the current beef. For at that time, the enlightened opinion of all Right-Thinking People was that the Church was ridiculously, superstitiously and most unscientifically insistent upon the reality of…
Take Robert Blatchford, for instance. In his own day, Blatchford was a big noise in the English press. He ran a newspaper called the Clarion and used it as an organ to publish his views as a socialist. Blatchford (being a cutting edge guy) believed (like cutting edge people today) that the Church was hopelessly out of touch with reality and far behind the times. In particular, Blatchford was a materialist: he believed that human beings were products of physical forces, nothing more. There is no free mystical soul in man and woman which marks them off from the beasts. We’re just a little better at tool-making and such, but we are still entirely driven by physical forces, not supernatural powers. This being so, he believed (as did many materialists of the day) that human choice was pure illusion. According to them, people appear to “choose” things but in fact everything we do is determined by environment, heredity, circumstance and stress. “What,” they asked, “is ‘choice’ but a movement of molecules in the brain? Yet molecules have no soul, they simply jiggle around according to the set laws of physics. Therefore, neither do we have a soul and everything we do is simply the result of a long chain of physical causes too.” Thus, for Blatchford and other materialists, the solution to the world’s ills lay not in freely chosen repentance and a return to God, but in a more efficiently run economic and social system which would alter the causes of our behavior.
Blatchford (and armies of thinkers like him at the time) had one principal enemy whom they especially despised as the great foe of Progress and the coming Rosy Dawn of a humanity engineered into Peace and Plenty: the Church. For the principle champion against this slavish determinist view of man and woman was the Christian dogma of free will or choice.
The Church maintained staunchly then (as it always has and still does) that human beings do indeed have the capacity to choose and that this capacity is so sacred even God himself, (Who is, after all, it’s Creator), will not force us to choose against our will. If we choose to receive the grace of God and do good in cooperation with him, we shall do good. Our real choices will have real effects on the real world–even eternal effects. Likewise, if we choose to shut out the grace of God and do evil, we shall really and truly get what we have freely chosen. This free response to God is the source of both human virtue and human sin, according to the Church, and it is nonsense to deny the reality of it and treat human beings as unfree moldable commodities. So the Church warned repeatedly of the disastrous consequences such a contemptuous view of human beings would have.
The Church was, of course, laughed to scorn by the far-sighted, truly progressive chattering classes at the turn of the century. Ninety years later, with Stalinist purges, famines from forced collectivization of agriculture, Cultural Revolutions, Great Leaps Forward and sundry colossal nightmares in our past (with a body count in excess of 100 million shot, starved, beaten, gassed and cremated victims) the world has grudgingly come to acknowledge that–perhaps–the Church had something on the ball when it insisted that humans really are intended to be free by their Creator. It is beginning to dawn–even upon the Truly Enlightened–that the Church is right to insist that human beings must retain the power to choose, even if their choices do not fit into some scheme for a utopian society. Indeed, some people (contemplating the choices of people like Stalin vs. people like Mother Teresa) are even beginning to discover the enormous power which our decisions wield over our own destinies and the destinies of those around us.
Which brings us to a puzzle. For in surveying the so-called “pro-choice” propaganda, it is worth asking what so-called “pro-choice” people really want.
Quite simply, they want to have their cake and eat it. They demand a world in which, if they decide to keep the baby, it’s a baby, but if they decide to abort, it’s a lump of “fetal tissue.” They want a world in which any and every choice is good, merely because it was chosen and without any regard whatsoever as to what was chosen. In short, the entire so-called “pro-choice” enterprise seeks to assert that there is (or ought to be), no difference at all between our choices.
Now this is a far cry from the Christian exaltation of choice which asserts that our every decision is fraught with intense and eternal significance. In stark contrast to this dramatic and exciting view (which recognizes in each person an enormous capacity for power and a life of real consequence), the secular demand for “freedom of choice” is revealed for what it is: a demand for freedom from consequence. Paradoxically, those who chatter about the “power of choice” are hopelessly fuddled, for they in fact have no desire whatever for real power; because real power has real consequences. They demand that everything they do be right and nothing wrong. But to do so is, as G.K. Chesterton observed, like demanding everything be right and nothing left. It is to demand that choice not matter. And to demand that none of our choices matter is, in fact, to be anti-choice.
So, in reality, it is the Christian Church and by no means the so-called “pro-choice” movement that seriously believes in choice–choice with real consequences and choice springing from the awesome freedom God has given into the hand of man and woman. Such choice, so far from being devoid of consequence or meaning, has the power to heal or to kill, to bless or to curse, to save or to destroy. It opens out (whether we like it or not) on the unthinkable vistas of life and death. And that is why the Church warns the children of this age and prays for us that we not only choose, but choose life.