Thoughts on a pro-life picket line

One of Dr. LeRoy Carhart’s “Clinics for Abortion & Reproductive Excellence” – named to yield the Orwellian acronym CARE – is located about a mile away from my parish in Bethesda, Maryland. Earlier this year, 40 Days for Life prayed daily outside Carhart’s abortuary, which specializes in late-term “terminations.” Parishioners from a number of local churches participated in the 40 Days program, hoping to save some innocent lives and to help women in crisis pregnancies find genuine care.  

Forty Days’ presence at the Carhart facility evidently did not sit well with some of the students at a nearby county-run high school. So a “pro-choice drive-by” of Carhart’s clinic was organized in mid-December: perhaps 15 cars, festooned with posters, circled the parking lot of the office complex in which Carhart conducts his abattoir. Participants in the drive-by may have been surprised that 40 Days for Life, on learning of the plans for this vehicular demonstration, invited pro-life people to conduct a rosary vigil on a sidewalk outside the parking lot, so that the “drive-by” couldn’t avoid people with a different point of view – people who were also marking the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, depicted as pregnant on St. Juan Diego’s miraculous tilma.  

My wife and I participated in the rosary vigil, along with friends from our parish, other Catholics, and a stalwart if small contingent of Democrats for Life whose presence may have shocked the Carhart supporters. It was an instructive hour, giving me the opportunity to ponder the placards and posters displayed by the drive-by people, their slogans, and the chants of a man and a woman holding up a large banner – “Reproductive Rights = Human Rights” – amidst our rosary-praying group. 

To begin with the last: it was striking that, while the 20 or so people in our group were relaxed and as cheerful as the circumstances permitted, the two banner holders were all angry, all the time. Both indulged in Che Guevara-style clenched fist salutes. Both kept hollering the inane slogan, “Keep your Bible off my body,” although it was not clear how that injunction applied to the male half of the team. (He later switched to “Keep your Bible off my Constitution,” a chant suggesting a sad ignorance of the reason-based natural law arguments against abortion.)

Then there was the content of that banner. Whatever else might be said about angry pro-abortion people (whose aggravations seem not to have been soothed by the prospect of the most radically pro-abortion administration in history), they don’t seem to have any sense of irony – or of Newspeak. For how can they claim to be defending “reproductive rights” when their entire enterprise is aimed at stopping reproduction, lethally? 

As for the student-participants in the drive-by, their behavior did not reassure me that my tax dollars were being well-spent on their education, and in a county that prides itself on the alleged excellence of its state schools. More than a few of them flipped the finger at us (and thus at the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe that one of our number carried). Others made a point of taking cellphone videos, perhaps imagining that their new friends in federal power would ship us off to Guantanamo come January 21. One car featured a crude, homemade poster declaring “Never Going Back!” and illustrated by the hoariest of “pro-choice” symbols: a coat hanger crossed out within a circle. Their high school, I surmised, did not acquaint its students with some relevant American history, i.e., Bernard Nathanson’s testimony that, in his days as a pre-Roe v. Wade pro-abortion activist, he and others exaggerated the number of “coat hanger” abortions by many orders of magnitude. 

There was no opportunity to engage the drive-by folks. One would have liked to ask the students if they were taught in sophomore biology that the product of human conception is a human being with a unique genetic identity. Or whether they had ever discussed in class that first principle of justice, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which tells us that innocent human life deserves legal protection in a just society. Or if they knew exactly what Dr. Carhart did in a late third-term abortion. 

Reason rarely persuades angry people, alas. In the tough years ahead for the culture of life, compassionate witness is going to be ever more important: especially the witness of caring for women in crisis pregnancies, too often abandoned by the men who created their crises. No woman in America has to have an abortion; humane, life-affirming alternatives are available. Pro-life people must make those alternatives more visible in 2021.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.