Last year my pastoral role required me to take issue with one of our local pro-life organizations. Their leader had invited a notorious Catholic firebrand to speak, and I expressed my dissatisfaction with the choice. The leader retorted, “But he takes a strong pro-life position!” Whether the “strong” position was also the Catholic position seems to have escaped the leader’s consideration. To judge from the speaker’s example, “strong” meant uniformly condemning pro-choicers for their moral inferiority and universally praising prolifers for their moral superiority—without taking into account the ill effects such a stance can produce.
All prolifers could learn from Jesus, who takes a different approach to proclaiming the good news.
Biblical scholars speak of the “messianic secret,” that is, the large number of instances in the Gospels of Jesus asking people not to publicize that he is the Messiah, even though he accepts the title and demonstrates it in countless ways. Jesus imposes secrecy not because he doesn’t believe he’s the Messiah, but because his people conflate the title with their memory of King David as a triumphant warlord, and that’s not how Jesus understands his own messianic role. Premature use of the title “Messiah” would intensify the misunderstanding and hasten opposition from the Jewish priests as well as Roman occupiers—neither group wanted to hear about potential Jewish revolutionaries.
Last Sunday’s Gospel in the Roman Lectionary, Mark 1:40-45, is a typical example of the messianic secret. Jesus heals a leper and then, “warning him sternly, dismissed him immediately and said to him, ‘See that you tell no one anything.’” The now cured but defiant leper proceeded to “spread the report abroad,” making it impossible for Jesus to enter almost any town without attracting crowds of admirers, supplicants, investigators, and eventually prosecutors.
Jesus’ restrained communication contrasts sharply with Christians who pride themselves on their boldness in proclaiming the truth, no matter who is offended. While boldly proclaiming Jesus is indeed a virtue, and confronting powerful sinners boldly is virtuous under certain circumstances, I’m less impressed by those who, while addressing one group of people, condemn another group’s sins. They confuse boldness with demagoguery.
I’d like more prolifers to consider the consequences of their rhetoric. I think, for example, of a local priest with a reputation for injecting his preaching with long pro-life digressions—not only on Sundays, but at funerals, weddings—anytime he can. When I asked him about this habit, he told me he wants to persuade people to support the pro-life cause. When I asked him whether it had been effective, he retreated, saying it’s not really about persuasion, but about growing awareness. When I asked if this awareness leads to sympathy or antipathy, he protested that there are always a few people after Mass who praise him for speaking the truth. I’m sure that’s correct, but I suspect those people are not the people who needed to be persuaded.
Since Roe v. Wade was overturned and the question of abortion’s legalization returned to the states, prolifers from some states have promoted ever-sterner pro-life positions, without regard to the consequences. It is not hard to find some prolifers denouncing others for their softness, suggesting that a hardline position is always the better one. But if inflexibility means defeat at the ballot box, and the dissuasion of millions of voters, how then does it serve the pro-life cause? I can be fully committed to the protection of unborn life in law and in fact, and yet acknowledge the futility and failure in moving further or faster than the legislative and jurisprudential culture of the United States will tolerate.
It was technically correct to refer to Jesus as the Messiah, and he did not deny it, but he nevertheless imposed the messianic secret on others because he favored understanding over accuracy. He wanted people to know him, and to know God’s mission in his ministry, death, and resurrection. For that reason, he asked them to delay their proclamation of him as the Messiah. Prolifers can imitate Jesus in both our honesty about seeking legal protection for the unborn—and our restraint in how we choose to pursue it.