“Fanatic.” “Hysterical.” “Overly sentimental.” Have you heard these or similar accusations lately?
Opponents frequently paint prolifers as emotionally carried away, even disturbed: An often cynically employed tactic for side-stepping rational debate over the moral “merits” of killing pre-born children and other vulnerable humans. It is an ad hominem attack against not only the character of the prolifer, but also against spiritually and deeply felt personhood itself.
Yet this hostility to the pro-life position is also the censure of any kind of moral reasoning informed by emotions. Love is supposedly a chemical imbalance, holding no water in debates that call upon such austere, secular notions as justice, fairness, empathy . . . and ruthless efficiency. Beauty and truth are even more suspect, declared inconstant pseudo-realities founded on individuality, or on culturally or historically relative feelings. (Never mind that insisting on any relativist attitude toward truth is the very height of contradiction; Plato showed us more than two millennia ago that, if truth is relative, the very theory that truth is relative must also be relative and unreliable. Pro-death attitudes are, of course, not fully reasoned but built upon loosely coherent ideologies.)
It is not only our adversaries, however, who either explicitly or implicitly condemn pro-life activists for being emotional. There are those on the religious front who want us to stick to scriptural quotes and sober theology in representing the truths of divine revelation when evangelizing. There are those on the professional and scientific front who want us to dispassionately define our terminology for life and death, embryo or zygote, and various medical procedures, and—if we can’t nail it down—cease use of such eternally contested words as “person.” Even the philosophers have suppressed their own emotional elegance; a quick review of the analytic treatment of the concept of love itself will drive anyone to the poets for more satisfactory testimonies.
We ourselves are frequently anxious to back up our heart-wrenching images of aborted children with sterile statistics or timelines showing when the brain or heart begin to form. It hardly seems enough to reveal that our own hearts cry out for such children from the moment they are conceived, if not earlier in the case of a hopeful couple looking to start a family. It doesn’t seem enough to express the incomparable loss and sorrow we feel whenever a particularly vulnerable person who is ill, elderly, or depressed is “mercifully” dispatched in euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, rather than truly loved and cared for in their suffering. More often than not, our tears are shed in solitude or repressed and held painfully deep inside our souls; it seems to be an entirely private affair, not appropriate for sharing in rational discourse. However, the role of emotion in pro-life attitudes and evangelization is crucial. Where would we be if we did not feel so deeply for the most vulnerable human beings and their plight at the hands of an often cruel, selfish, and utilitarian world? Who would we be if we did not feel joy in recognizing the dignity of human life?
In this essay, I will review the observations of the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, found primarily in his book The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity, about the boundless need we all have for a rich emotional experience, and about the reasons certain forces in our society try to squash (or squeeze the “life” out of) such affectivity (von Hildebrand uses the term “affective” to refer to the full range of basic emotions and deeper feelings at a person’s core).1 Von Hildebrand provides an especially thorough defense of emotionality—a unique center of the person that he calls “the heart”—that is helpful for thinking about the role of emotions in the pro-life movement.
Heart and Soul
The late von Hildebrand (1889-1997) continues to be a leading light in the philosophical tradition called phenomenology as well as Christian moral scholarship. He saw our ethical life as being oriented to values—moral, aesthetic (oriented to beauty), intellectual (oriented to truth), etc.—which have a real presence and an independent capacity to motivate us regardless of our individual perspectives and desires; only values are truly important in themselves.2 As such, they are messages or reflections of God.3 You may note that this is very different from the traditional approach to ethics which suggests we perceive the highest moral principles—usually stated in the form of commands—and deduce practically relevant moral guidance from them.
For von Hildebrand, our responses to the values that beckon to us are crucial exercises in forming appropriate attitudes and actions, including suitable emotions (depending on the particular value and the context) such as reverence, joy, or anger. “The heart” is the deep center of emotional life in the person, and it is uniquely essential to human life alongside a person’s intellect and will. For a properly ordered life, a person must rightly engage their heart, intellect, and will in a coordinated and cooperative manner (69). Already, you might see how this approach is useful to the prolifer who is uncertain about the validity of an emotional basis for his or her convictions. If the heart with its deep feelings is a powerfully important “center” of the person—the most important center according to von Hildebrand—we must engage it in our responses to values ranging from true justice to mercy as well as the ontological (grounded in Being itself) value of human life. A fully personal response to the dignity of human life, to its truth and beauty, is largely emotional. We could not adequately or sincerely respond to such a value without experience of the appropriate emotions.
For von Hildebrand, true feeling and affectivity is not some shallow sentimentality: “The real antithesis to sentimentality is neither a neutral indifference which excludes feeling, nor the cramped virility of the man who believes every feeling to be a concession to weakness and effeminacy. The real antithesis to sentimentality is the genuine feeling of a noble and deep heart” (32).
Love is, of course, the ultimate and most authentically personal feeling. Von Hildebrand takes Aristotle to task for handing down a legacy of thought—still prominent today—that simultaneously declares our human purpose to be oriented to happiness, yet defines human reason, which guides us in finding that happiness, as entirely comprising intellectual capacities and our self-propelled will. Emotions are considered merely animal features. Such a theory fails to account for the reality of love. “Can anyone doubt that the deepest source of earthly happiness is the authentic, deep mutual love between persons, be it conjugal love or friendship?” (33). We might also note that even Thomas Aquinas, who was heavily Aristotelian in his philosophy, found it necessary to re-interpret Aristotle’s happiness as a final end in true friendship with God—the essence of the virtue of charity.4
There is also a more supernatural affectivity, both in its expression of the spiritual nature of the human person and in its dependence on God’s grace for its enjoyment. Christianity is centered around supernatural love and its natural variant. It is the heart, not the intellect or will, that responds to divine love with the appropriate emotion of joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Von Hildebrand even declares that Scripture, particularly the sorrows and elation of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, would be meaningless to us if we did not listen to our hearts (35). A truly affective experience is not a simple bodily feeling. All feelings may have such a bodily presence, but such feelings of the human person are not equivalent to the feelings of all animals, for “everything is radically different by being inserted into the mysteriously deep world of the person, and by being lived and experienced by this one identical self” (39). Psychological feelings are not fully affective experiences because they are at some level caused by the body, and because they are not consciously directed to an object that we want to know or experience. According to von Hildebrand, we are instead motivated by the calls of values to rise above a life dominated by psychological feelings. He calls extremely intense psychological feelings “passions,” and such passionate intensity can overwhelm our reasoning and exercise of free will. The intensity can be momentary, but it can also be “a habitual enslavement by certain violent urges,” such as when we are engrossed in ambition or resentment (48).
The nobility of truly affective responses to values comes from the spiritual majesty of human persons. Through our spiritual feelings, we achieve a kind of transcendence by which we rise above our desires and animal existence. It is important to recognize that such spiritual feelings are responses to particular values:
The fact that our heart conforms to the value, that the important in itself is able to move us, brings about a union with the object which goes even further than in knowledge. For in love the totality of the person is drawn more thoroughly into the union established with the object than in knowledge. We must not forget, moreover, that the type of union proper to knowledge is necessarily incorporated in love (52).
What von Hildebrand is saying here is that the positive values (e.g. kindness, beauty, or courage) found in another person or object motivate us. We heed the call of the values that we see in the other person, and our love is the feeling we experience as we are pulled closer to the other in some kind of real union with them. It is not just a matter of getting close and seeing the other person as they are, but truly joining them in a mutual relationship.
As prolifers, it is our loving unions with others that sustain our work—emotional union with the victims we champion, empathetic union with women and others who strain to cope with enormously difficult situations, solidarity in friendship with those who share our cause, and even union in the struggle for conversion of those who carry anti-life attitudes. Should we feel less and instead think more, or act more, in our striving for a culture of life? On the contrary, if emotions are excluded from the experience, it would limit our fully personal engagement. Even in our thinking and willing, we find that it is the strength of our hearts that carries us forward with reason, fortitude, courage, and hope.
Intuition of the Dignity of Human Life
Von Hildebrand points out that, especially after World War I and with the rise of a culture dominated by scientific thinking, there has been a sustained attack on “subjectivity” in fields of knowledge and ethics (56). The idea is that a person cannot be “objective,” or focused solely on the facts, if they show any level of emotion in their perception, judgment, and reasoning. Von Hildebrand turns the tables on such an idea by insisting that focusing solely on facts is actually not often the way to understand an object, whether the object is a physical item, spiritual reality like a human person, experiential reality like resentment or intellectual contemplation, or moral value (61). After all, isn’t truly perceiving and understanding an object what “objectivity” is all about? We cannot understand an object without being fully absorbed in it, and this requires an emotional or otherwise felt response. We must, at least in some sense, love the object to really make the object the focus of our attention; Augustine taught such wisdom back in the fourth century. To simply know facts, on the other hand, is to have a shallow experience of the physical or scientifically lawful characteristics of a thing. “Facts” hardly get us anywhere in knowing significant realities like beauty, divine revelation and grace, personality, evil, etc.
The key lesson for all of us, then, is to avoid being a “subjectivist” who pays too much attention to their own feelings (this is not the same as authentic “subjectivity” in which we express our full selves with freedom and feeling) (62). When we as prolifers perceive and explore further understanding of human dignity, for example, we should allow that dignity to appear to us as it truly is, generating the appropriate feelings of reverence and joy, without distorting our understanding with individually relevant feelings like fanaticism, sentimentality, or depressive moods and resignation. As prolifers, we can and should communicate our experiences of human life and the dignity of real persons, in writing and speech, with all the emotional richness and force we can muster—not simply with reference to the feelings and desires arising out of our own selves, but even more so with fully absorbed attention to the lives of those whom we strive to defend. As von Hildebrand counsels:
To be neutral, or to remain noncommittal when an object and its value demand an affective response or the intervention of our will, is to be utterly unobjective. Therefore every anti-affective trend is in reality sheer subjectivism because, in responding to the cosmos, it yet fails to conform to the real features and meaning of the cosmos, to the beauty and depth of the created world and its natural mysteries. It is subjectivistic, above all, in failing to conform to the existence of God, who is infinite holiness, infinite beauty, and infinite goodness (62).
Only the person who truly feels for and about the object of their attention can claim to be fully awake, fully conscious.
Here, then, is a challenge to consider: Can we genuinely bring the experiences of fetal and embryonic persons, or of adults vulnerable to despair and discrimination, to the consciousness of others with lavishly emotional—but not shallowly sentimental—written accounts, videos, and other artwork? What values do we want to highlight? How are those values found in such persons, and how can we portray them in a way that communicates truth and beauty (or the profound ugliness of induced death)? Poetic accounts, even though they are not the same as affective responses to value, can also be quite powerful and legitimate. As von Hildebrand describes them, poetical feelings “have a mysterious, secret contact with the rhythm of the universe, and through them the human soul is attuned to this rhythm.”
Another challenge to consider is for each of us to engage with our pro-life convictions by exploring and more fully expressing our related emotions on a daily basis. “These affections of the higher level, then, are truly gifts—natural gifts of God which man cannot give himself by his own power. Coming as they do from the very depth of his person, they are in a specific way voices of his true self, voices of his full personal being.”
An emotionally sophisticated pro-life movement will be more centered, more energized, and more powerfully effective in communicating with others. We will be better persons for it.
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity (South Bend, In.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007). Page numbers cited are from e-book.
2. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ethics (Steubenville, Oh.: Hildebrand Press, 2020), 25-80.
3. Ibid., 140-141.
4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 23.
Christopher M. Reilly writes about philosophy, moral theology, and bioethics, holds related graduate degrees, and is a candidate for Doctor of Theology. He lives in the greater Washington, DC, region.