In a rural stretch of East Africa, where I lived for two years, I once observed the fate of a flock of sheep without their shepherd. It was market day, and whoever was tending them had wandered off, distracted by the abundant produce temptingly spread across the blankets of a hundred women. The forty-or-so sheep had started to cross the dirt road leading to the market, perhaps hoping to find a puddle of water or a tuft of grass. But as they carelessly filed across, a truck approached. The driver—late, no doubt, bringing his wares to the market—anxiously blared his horn to frighten them out of the way. The sheep were indeed frightened, and immediately adopted their one and only defense: They huddled tightly together exactly where they were—right in the center of the narrow road, decisively blocking the truck’s way.
It often seems to me that we—prolifers, pro-choicers, too—are like frightened sheep that huddle on the road blocking traffic, when it would be more effective simply to walk around the truck.
The Reformations of the 16th century dealt a mortal wound to ancient Christendom, and the French Revolution showed us what kind of secular government could replace it. World War I killed off the ancient order for good, as secular philosophies—Marxism, Darwinism, Nazism—made their bid to rule the world. But even as the worst of these were turned aside, the faithful often responded to fear and tumult by “huddling” for protection in imprudent places.
In post-war America, for example, many of us have huddled in an exaggerated commitment to individual liberty. Given the ravages of the first half of the 20th century, this is understandable—but still not especially wise. Many of us have rejected the “certainties” of religious tradition as if these were the equivalent of communism and fascism. In Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled—with certainty—that when life begins could not be established and therefore inferred that abortion must remain a matter of individual choice.
Roe v. Wade was obviously bad law and bad philosophy. It has now been set aside as law, but not as philosophy! Some well-intentioned prolifers blare their horns, attempting to clear the way for the protection of children, but the American people huddle again: They fear the loss of a refuge in personal choice, while pro-choicers stand in defiance against a more humane order.
Jesus describes his people as “like sheep without a shepherd.” His remedy for the abandoned flock, however, is not to overpower or kill or forcibly set aside the sheep. Instead, he provides shepherds to care for them—to lead them in a happier and healthier manner than they could manage by themselves.
Shepherds often baffle their flocks. They make them move on from the pasture before all the grass is chewed down to the roots, before all the water is befouled. Shepherds sometimes restrain the sheep from following their instinct: Even though the green grass and fresh water are plainly visible in the valley below, the shepherds take the flock by an indirect route, rather than walk them off the cliff.
The pro-life movement needs good shepherds modeled after the Good Shepherd: Women and men who know when it’s opportune to move people out of their comfort zone—and how to initiate a move without losing them. I think of the prophetic voice of St. Paul VI who, five years before Roe, warned in the encyclical Humanae vitae that thoughtless contraception would lead to the culture of abortion and broken sexuality we now experience. I think of the late Pope Benedict XVI, whose careful distinctions left room for a savvier, more holistic political approach than the fiercest prolifers would seem willing to tolerate. I think of Pope Francis, who has spent ten years encouraging prolifers to assume a posture embracing the joy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and urging pro-choicers to reject the “throwaway culture” that abortion fuels.
The notion of shepherd can seem offensive to modern egalitarians and libertarians; anachronistic in an era of secular governments in which the electorate is supposed to be sufficiently mature to choose its own way. But I hope that as sheep learn to trust their shepherd, so also will decent people learn to trust the best of the pro-life movement: Those who can set aside their own political advantage or sense of self-righteousness, and instead clearly work and speak for the good of all, born and unborn. This is the government of God, the “kingdom of heaven,” and it is ever at hand for those who are willing to be shepherded—and to shepherd.