Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Together--for Life

Richard John Neuhaus

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Richard John Neuhaus offers a thoughtful reflection on the abortion struggle, the culture war, the good work of Christians and Jews in defending life, and the hope that inspires the championing life in a culture of death.

I should imagine that everybody here, without exception, has been to many, many such meetings; at least meetings that roughly fall under the umbrella of pro-life concern. And one of the most important things, I think, for all of us to remind ourselves of--and to be reminded of again and again--is that we're going to be at a lot more meetings, God willing. That there is no permanence, there is no end point to the great cause of life that brings us together. We are signed on for the duration and the duration is the entirety of the human drama, for the conflict between what John Paul II calls the culture of life and the culture of death is a permanent conflict. It is a conflict built into a wretchedly fallen and terribly ambiguous human condition.

And so those who have been recruited, who understand themselves by virtue of their very faith in God, their very having-been-chosen-by-God, the God of life--those who understand that, know that they are in this for the duration, and that everything that has been the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years has been the prelude, has been the laying of the foundation for the pro-life movement of the twenty-first century and of the twenty-second century, and of all the centuries, however many more there are to come.

That understanding is absolutely essential to the kind of commitment, the kind of devotion, the kind of self-surrender that has made the pro-life movement one of the most luminous illustrations of the human capacity for altruistic, genuinely other-regarding activities, indeed, not only in the American experiment, but in world history. Never before, I think it fair to say--ponder this--have so many people given so much over so long a period of time for a cause from which they have absolutely nothing to gain personally; and indeed in which they have, in many cases, lost--at least by any ordinary calculation of benefits--lost time, often friendships, or gained a great deal of opprobrium and misunderstanding on the part of others and, in many cases, have been jailed and arrested, and have paid deep fiscal penalties.

It is an inspiring thing to have been part of this first thirty years of this phase of what is called the pro-life movement. And we dare not be weary. We dare never give in to what sometimes seem to be the overwhelming indications that the cause is futile. We dare never give in to despair. We have not the right to despair. And finally, we have not the reason to despair.

It is a grand thing, it is among the grandest things in life, to know that your life has been claimed by a cause ever so much greater than yourself, ever so much greater than ourselves. In our American public life today, there's much talk about a culture war--sometimes in the plural, culture wars. It's a phrase that I've used, it's a phrase we've used in First Things from time to time, and people sometimes are critical of that. And they say, Oh, isn't that an alarmist kind of language, isn't that an inflammatory kind of language to use, to talk about wars?

Well, maybe. It's a contestation, if you prefer the word contestation. It's a conflict, certainly very, very deep. But it does have a warlike character to it. And if it is war, it's good to remember who it was that declared this war--who is waging a defensive war, and who an aggressive war. It was not our side that declared war. We were not the ones who decided on January 22, 1973 that all of a sudden everything that had been entrenched in the conscience and the habits and the mores and the laws of the people of this nation with respect to the dignity of human life and the rights bestowed upon that life--that all of that was now to be discarded. That in one, raw act of judicial power, which of course the Roe v. Wade decision was, every protection of the unborn, in all fifty states, would be completely wiped off the books.

Astonishing thing. It is important for us to remember that most of those who were on the side of what was then called liberalized abortion law, now called pro-choice, were as astonished as everyone else by Roe v. Wade. Nobody expected that the Court would simply abolish abortion law, would simply eliminate even the most minimal protections of unborn life.

That, of course, is not the only occasion upon which a war was declared that creates what today is called the culture war. There are many, many other points in the culture. Sometimes we simply refer perhaps too vaguely and too generally to the Sixties, but certainly under sundry revolutionary titles, all claiming to be great movements of liberation, was explicitly lodged and advanced and argued for in the name of warfare, a counterculture intended to overthrow, presumably, the oppressive, stifling, life-denying character indeed of Western Civilization itself and all its works and all its ways. It was to be an exorcism, if you will, of what was perceived to be a maliciously oppressive cultural order of which we are a part, with respect to sexuality--always weaving in and out and coming back to the question of sexuality--marriage and divorce and education policy and a host of things.

And so war was declared and war followed. And it will continue to look very much like a war. It is our responsibility not only for strategic or tactical reasons, but very importantly for moral reasons, to make sure that it doesn't become warfare in the sense of violence and bloodshed. It is our responsibility to advance our arguments in this great contestation with civility and with persuasiveness, knowing that sound reason and the deepest convictions engendered by Judeo/Christian moral tradition both strongly support the cause of life which will ultimately prevail.

Professor Bernard Dobranski, Dean of Ave Maria Law School, noted the motto of Ave Maria, Fides et Ratio, faith and reason. And these two are seldom so powerfully conjoined as in the pro-life cause. We are constantly in the process of saying to those who claim that we would impose our values, and even worse impose our religion upon others: No, our response is: Let us reason, let us come reason together about what is the foundation of human life.

Let us come reason together about what are--as everybody should understand--moral questions about how we order our life together. The Dean said that all of law is moral, all of politics is moral, ultimately.

What is politics? I think the best shorthand definition of politics that anybody's ever proposed is Aristotle's. And Aristotle said politics is free persons deliberating the question how ought we to order our life together. Free persons deliberating the question how ought we to order our life together. And the "ought" of that definition is clearly a moral term.

Every political question of consequence is a moral question. What is fair? What is just? What serves the common good? Fairness, justice, good: these are all moral terms. We are the ones who are prepared to enter into the dialogue, if you will: the ongoing conversation, within the bounds of civility, as to how we ought to order our life together, including the question who belongs to the we--the most elementary of all political questions. Who belongs to the we? Who is entitled to our respect? Who is entitled to protection?

This conversation, this argument, in unwarlike ways, in civil ways, in persuasive ways, will prevail incrementally, piece by piece, sometimes moving, it seems, more backward than forward. But we're accustomed to that; we should be. We know that we've signed on for the duration, we know that the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death is nothing less than the story of humankind. Humankind trying to find a better way, a more just way, a more humane way of ordering our life together, and of protecting all those who belong to the we.

Our goal...I think in the last few years it's been a very encouraging thing that across the spectrum of those concerned in various ways with the cause of life, there is an agreement on how we formulate our goal. What is it, that goal? The goal is every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. I'm glad to say that, during the 2000 presidential campaign and since, President Bush has consistently reiterated that as the goal. When asked, "What do you mean when you say you're pro-life?"--I mean that we must work as a society for a time in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life.

Now we all know that we will never get to that time. There will always be abortions just as there will always be other forms of homicide, and there will always be robberies, and there will always be child abuse. We know that because we are unblinkingly realistic about the nature of the human condition and of our lives within it. But we also know what is that realistic goal that step by step, with wisdom, with courage, with unfailing commitment, we are working toward.

It is a great question of what it is that keeps you going. Each of us, I think--Jews and Christians, those of us who by the grace of God have been called to the community of the God of Israel, whether as Christians or Jews--it is for us to know that finally this is His cause before it's our cause. That He is the Maker of heaven and earth and the Author of life. And that every human life is inestimable, invaluable (that is to say no price can be put upon it), a meeting between the finite and the infinite. That every human life is destined from eternity and called to eternity, with God, from God.

And if one believes that, it is not whistling in the dark, or simply trying to keep up spirits or wearing a bright yellow smiley button to say that the cause of life will prevail. John Paul II, as you know, frequently speaks about the beginning of the third millennium as a springtime--a springtime of Christian unity, a springtime of Jewish/Christian understanding; a springtime of world evangelization, a springtime of the renewal of human culture.

And people sometimes ask, well, how can someone like Karol Wojtyla who became John Paul II say that, someone who has lived through the twentieth century, the bloodiest and most horrendous of all centuries in human history--lived through everything that would seem to contradict such a disposition, such an anticipation of a springtime? I mean he lived through Nazism, he lived through communism, he saw the slaughter and the horror. And people ask, how can he be so optimistic about the human project, about the future? And the answer, of course, is that he's not optimistic at all. Nor does he call us to be optimistic. Optimism is not a virtue--it's simply a matter of seeing what you want to see, and not seeing what you don't want to see.

Hope is a very, very different thing. Hope is looking into the heart of darkness and seeing at the heart of darkness that there is reason for hope. Because for Christians looking at the Cross, as we've just done during the Easter period, at the heart of darkness and Christian understanding is God Himself in Jesus Christ. And the last word belongs not to darkness, but to love, to the resurrected life, to the vindication of hope.

So we know what the goal is: every unborn child, every old person considered expendable, all the radically disabled physically, mentally, everyone protected in law, welcomed in life. We work for that, relentlessly, the culture of life versus the culture of death. It is one of the greatest encouragements of recent years, for which the organizers of this conference can accept the due thanks of all of us, that there has been a growing convergence between significant sectors of the Jewish community and of the dominantly Christian pro-life cause of the last thirty, forty years; important for many, many different reasons. Not so much because it adds numbers or adds clout, but because it bears more powerful, more credible witness to what we mean when we speak together about the God of life, and renew, by such speech and by such witness and by such work, what society once meant by human beings created and endowed with inalienable rights.

It is among the contributions of this great cause to renew the constituting convictions of the American democratic experiment, which are very, very much under assault on many different fronts.

I remember years ago where my own personal involvement in the pro-life cause really began, long before Roe v. Wade, when it was then called the movement for the liberalization of abortion law here in New York and California and Hawaii. In the Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, in St. John the Evangelist Church of which I was pastor, I read an article in Harper's magazine by Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist at Princeton (where does Princeton get these kinds of leaders?). And this article was about what makes a life worth living. And he ran through, as you might imagine, a number of criteria of what constituted a life worth living. Obviously physical health, being in a solid, secure family situation, having economic security and prospects of an educational and career future. I think there were ten or eleven criteria, measures of a life worth living. And I recall it was an Advent Sunday in 1964--I realize I don't look that old--and I was standing at the altar at St. John the Evangelist looking out at the three or four hundred people there attending the liturgy. And I realized, looking over all these black faces of people--almost all very poor--that in Ashley Montagu's judgment not one of them had a life worth living. Not one. Not one could meet more than two or three of the criteria, in his view, necessary to a life worth living.

And this--I have to say it--hit me...Kaboom! A great evil is afoot here--What is this man saying? And people who say these things and think this way--what are they saying? They're saying, of course, what anybody should recall if they're at all literate about the history of which we are a part; they're saying that there are very, very large numbers of people living lives that are not worthy of life. And anybody who has any literacy with regard to the times in which we live will recognize that phrase, and where it was used before. Lebensunwertes Leben. Life that is not worthy of life. Which, of course, was the centerpiece of the genocidal, unspeakable practice of the Nazi regime: That we presume to decide which lives, indeed, are worthy of life and have any claim upon our attention. In short, we decide who belongs to the we. And we exclude those with whom we do not want to deliberate how we ought to order our lives together.

It's an astonishing thing: I know that it's very controversial and precisely because it is controversial it is necessary to touch on the ways in which there are parallels and non-parallels between that unspeakable horror of the Holocaust and today's culture of death. When my dear, dear friend John Cardinal O'Connor first came to New York, he spoke very straightforwardly about the parallels of the Holocaust. And it caused a great deal of controversy, and many in the Jewish community (but not only in the Jewish community) said, well, you have to be very careful in making that analogy. And they were right. And Cardinal O'Connor took that very much to heart and was from there on very, very careful indeed.

But at one point, all of us--Christians and Jews and whoever understands what's at stake here--have to understand that there is this crucial commonality. There is this lethal point of logic shared by these two dreadful phenomena: that we put ourselves in the position of deciding that certain peoples, by virtue of their race, their religion, their culture, their size, their disability, their language, name it--are lebensunwertes Leben. And that is the lethal logic that motors the madness of killing, whether it be partial-birth abortion, whether it be euthanasia, whether it be the willingness to destroy life in order to create the perfect baby, or to clone those who are considered the superior types of our species.Whatever mechanism and whatever cause and technological manipulation is being advanced in the tide of the culture of death has always at its center the lethal logic of lebensunwertes Leben. We're up against something very ominous, where evil is indeed afoot. The things that I've mentioned--partial-birth abortion has already been mentioned, other developments, eugenics, cloning, genetic engineering--and it is an ominous thing that in the last three years it has become respectable again to use the word eugenics.

Eugenics basically means good births, of course, but much more than that, it means the programmatic effort to redesign the humanum, create a superior, better kind of human being and, of course the flip side of that is to reduce or eliminate inferior types of human beings. Eugenics was an elite cause, and a liberal cause and a progressive cause beginning in the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. And then, of course, with the Second World War and with Hitler and the Holocaust, the idea of eugenics was totally discredited. The word was verboten, taboo. Nobody used the word "eugenics."

But now in the last two or three years, keep your eyes open, look at the books that are being published, read the leading opinion journals, it's becoming respectable again to talk about eugenics. And the people who talk about it say, well, of course there was that unfortunate episode, that unpleasantness back there around the middle of the century in Germany. But that really was an aberration and now we have to get back on track with the great cause of designing a better humanity. Dealing with human beings essentially as things, as products which are to please our consumer tastes. And if they don't, like any other consumer product, they simply can be rejected or eliminated or tossed out. That's a very, very ominous thing.

But I did not come here to discourage or to depress. It's very important, crucially important for us to remember, in this great contest between the culture of life and the culture of death and the form that it takes in what's called the culture wars of our society, how much we have to be thankful for.

If you recall, back in the late sixties and then in 1973, when the Roe v. Wade decision came down, the New York Times said--and all of the rest of the media echoed the proposition--that the abortion question had at last been settled. That was the word that was used; the Supreme Court had settled the abortion question. And here we are, almost thirty years later, and it's the most unsettled question in American life.

And that in itself is reason for hope. It's reason for hope that all the brightest and the best and their institutions in our society, almost without exception, in 1973 said that this question is over. Don't talk about it any more; don't argue about it any more. It is settled. All of the major universities and the voices from the Academy, the philanthropic world, the prestige media-- go across the board, the powerful--those who control the commanding heights of culture were unanimous that this question was settled.

There was only one major institution in American life that dissented, and that was the Catholic Church, the bishops of the Catholic Church. Not as powerfully, not as articulately, not with the determination or the skill that they ought to have had. But they said, No way, wait a minute. This can't be right. This is a very, very dangerous thing.

We are counting up reasons for hope, reasons to encourage us. Now look where we are. Today we have the Evangelical Protestants, of all varieties, solidly committed to the pro-life cause. At the time of Roe v. Wade and still five years after Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest single Protestant association in the country, with more than fifteen million members, was passing resolutions in favor of legalized abortion. It was the great work of Francis Schaeffer and a handful of others that turned around the whole of that almost one-third of the American public that is Evangelical Protestantism.

And the Jewish: how very, very important this is. For a long time now some of us have been involved in the Christian/Jewish dialogue. (Again, I'm much older than I look.) And going back, I remember at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri Rabbi Saul Bernard, who, thank God, is still with us. He was then the Interreligious Director of the Anti-Defamation League and would go around almost like an itinerant evangelist to Protestant seminary and Catholic, with this message about a strange phenomenon called the Christian/Jewish dialogue. And he first embroiled me in that. And I've never been able to get out of it, nor wanted to get out of it ever since.

Along the way it was by the grace of God my great good fortune to become a friend of someone for whom I thank God every day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was perhaps the most influential and admired Jewish theologian of this century, at least in America. Heschel did not live long enough, or it did not come together in quite the right way, for his ever to be entirely as clear as I thought he ought to have been on the question of abortion and the related questions of lebensunwertes Leben. But Heschel did understand what was involved. Heschel said that just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy. And he spoke and wrote magnificently about the pathos of God suffering with His wounded creation. Heschel had another line which is never to be forgotten, I hope. With regard to Jewish/Christian dialogue he said interfaith dialogue begins with faith.

And what is happening here in this meeting, and what is happening more generally in our society as all of us give ourselves to this, and we pray our efforts succeed, is a meeting in faith. Obviously there are deep differences between Jews and Christians, and the deepest of differences, as St. Paul wrote in Romans, chapters nine through eleven, probably await the end time, the eschaton of the final coming of the kingdom of God and the Messianic age, ever to be sorted out and resolved.

But along the way we are together pilgrims in faith, and pilgrims of faith, seeking to do the will of the God of Israel Who is the Author of Life. And that has to be much more than strategic and tactical considerations, as important as they are; that has to be the center of what brings us together in this meeting and what, from this meeting, will, by the grace of God, build and build into an ever greater cooperation. So much has already been happening that is hopeful. The issue is not settled; it's the most unsettled in our life today. A few years ago the Boston Globe--which has a fiercely pro-abortion, anti-life editorial posture--wrote in an editorial after one of the numerous studies that have come out that some of us have been looking at for lo, these forty years, about the public attitudes on abortion--and the Boston Globe ruefully, regretfully said, we must face the fact (meaning those who suppport Roe v. Wade must face the fact) that seventy-five percent of the American people believe that abortion should not be legal for the reasons for which ninety-five percent of abortions are obtained. That's right.

It's a remarkable thing. And encouraging--the prestige media and the universities and the philanthropies and related institutions and persons who are perceived as controlling the commanding heights of culture do not have near the control that they think they do. Not near, thank God. The fact is that despite an almost unanimous and relentless campaign to have abortion accepted not simply as a purely private matter, and one that has to be entirely outside the scope of public purview or concern or control, but accepted as a positive good--they know that they have lost the argument publicly.

They hold on relentlessly with their fingertips, to whatever little edge they can get, partial-birth abortion--to even demand that infanticide (which surely this is) must be permitted. And why? Not because they are in love with infanticide; just out of simple human feeling, we must allow to our brothers and sisters on the other side that many of them find this as repugnant as do most feeling, thinking human beings. But they hold on to this because they dare not give an inch; because they believe that if even an inch is lost, their whole house of cards will come tumbling down.

And there is an element of truth to that. I think there is a strong element of truth to that. They know they have lost the argument.

We cannot be euphoric. We must always be terribly sober in estimating what the future holds. But I do believe that with this administration in Washington, we are at long last seeing a political expression of what for a long time has been a much deeper, moral, cultural turning in American life.

I always remind myself, and tell others, of Psalm 146. Psalm 146, as you know, says, Do not put your trust in princes, even when they're your princes and you're a bit more hopeful about them than you are about others. But I am hopeful that this administration has, in a way that is deeper than the political calculation, understood at least in part what is at stake. You remember we shouldn't be naive about this. And we know there are going to be disappointments. We know there are going to be tears. We know that. All of us are grownups. I recall President Reagan, when he would talk about negotiating arms control with the Soviet Union, would say, "trust but verify."

And so also with respect to this administration, or anybody else in the political arena who seems to be an ally, it should not only be "trust but verify," but also "trust and maintain the pressure," and that all of us must do in the political arena. We must do it together.

It is an encouraging thing again, the heroes in the Jewish community, and among them my dear friend Rabbi Marc Gellman, who you'll be hearing from later, who is sometimes described as being the only Reform pro-life rabbi in the country. And there is Nat Hentoff, who has just with breathtaking consistency and relentlessness acted upon the principles that made him such a hero of the left, and in some issues still a hero of the left, but who understood that he could not live with himself, he could not be Nat Hentoff except at the price of breaking ranks over this most elementary question of the status of the least among us.

Heschel used to say a society is measured morally not by how it treats people along the strength-lines in the society, but how it treats people along the fault-lines of the society. Nat Hentoff has understood that, and Chris Gersten and so many others.

It is more difficult for our Jewish brothers and sisters than it is for us, especially for us Catholics and for Evangelical Protestants today. It is much, much more difficult; because so many countervailing, counter-cutting forces and memories are in play, sometimes painfully. But for most American Jews, outside of the most observant, Orthodox community, the great belief, the right belief has been that the more secular the society is, the safer it will be for the Jews. A Reform rabbi friend of mine some years ago said, when I hear the phrase Christian America, I see barbed wire. That's hyperbole, of course, but one has to understand what he intends to say.

At least in the twentieth century, especially following the Second World War, in the dominant Jewish communities, the dominant intellectual, cultural, organizational forces were committed to what I have described as the naked public square; public life excluding as much as possible religion and faith-based morality. The great Leo Pfeffer himself, a believing and observant Jew, won court case after court case basically arguing that democracy required the radical secularization of public life, the removal of any transcendent reference to the public belief.

What we see in our Jewish brothers and sisters represented here, and in many, many other places around the country, and I speak now to you who are Christians and Catholic first--what we see here are some courageous people, some thoughtful people who have come to recognize in various ways that the naked public square, a public life that is devoid of the transcendent, of religion and religiously-based morality, is a very dangerous place. It is a very dangerous place because where there is no transcendent inhibition against evil, there is no transcendent inhibition against the evil also of, for example, anti-Semitism. And where there is no transcendent aspiration to good that is given public expression in politics and in law, there is no transcendent inhibition of evil.

We are given the task of reviving, at many, many different levels working together, the high promise and the vitality of the American democratic experiment. We are the ones who are urging the renewal in all of this, who are urging that we come together and deliberate how we ought to order our life together, beginning with who belongs to the we. We are the ones who are prepared, if you will, to compromise with respect to this measure or this law or that law, fully knowing that what is uncompromisable is the goal of every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. That can never, never be compromised. But on the way to that goal, political and legal compromise is not morally compromising; indeed it is morally imperative. We are the ones who want to reason together. We are the ones who have that confidence in the mutually-reinforcing power of fides et ratio. Of faith and reason.

Well, I have gone on too long. Jews and Christians are the future not only of the pro-life movement in this country, but of reviving an understanding that the God of Israel, whom we all worship, is indeed at work and alive, providentially directing not only life in this century but of His entire creation.

Last year there was a mark of new maturity, very encouraging, positive and of historic importance in the Jewish/Christian dialogue with the issuing of a statement called Dabru Emet (Speak the Truth), on Jewish understandings of Christians and Christianity, published in the November issue of First Things and signed by over a hundred and seventy--now I understand well over two hundred--Jewish scholars. And among the things that this underscores is that we have an ultimate obligation for a moment that has never before happened in the history between Jews and Christians, and that in fact can only happen here in the United States.

Because it is only here that are there enough Jews, and enough Christians, mutually confident, mutually secure in their relationship to one another, to enter honestly into continuing conversation, and to continue an exploration of what the God of Israel intends for us and for the nation and the world of which we're a part. This is a new thing, this dialogue. What this meeting is about is one critically important facet of this new thing that God is doing, and that is moving the conversation from the theological and philosophical and historical and the sorting out of all the grievances and anxieties of a long, tortured history, to the question What shall we do now? What is it that we are obliged to do now?

And what we are obliged to do now is to bear witness together; and more than bearing witness, to effectively collaborate together in advancing the arguments along with many others, until finally they find effective political and legal expression, and, most important, find expression in the everyday habits and mores of the American people. To secure the conviction that there is no such thing as lebensunwertes Leben. To persuade our fellow citizens that every life is a juncture between the finite and infinite purpose, destined from eternity and called to eternity.

Whether we will prevail or how we will prevail, this cause will prevail, this truth will prevail, because it is the truth of the God of life.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is a Roman Catholic priest who has been a defender the defenseless for most of his life.

Reprinted from the Human Life Review website. Reprinted with permission.

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Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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