With hope and fear, the United States awaits an imminent ruling from the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Last month’s unprecedented leak of a draft ruling seemed to indicate that Roe v. Wade would be overturned, thereby removing a major impediment to expanding pro-life legislation in several states across the country. The leak has energized pro-choicers, who in an abundance of radio and TV appearances are demonstrating how little they’ve thought through the moral problems of abortion, and how poorly they understand the pro-life position. It seems clear to me that even if we prevail in Dobbs, if prolifers want political stability we must continue in our efforts to win over hearts and minds—not merely seats in Congress or on courts.
The Order of Teaching and the Order of Discovery
Prolifers might find there is wisdom in a distinction some theologians make between the “order of discovery” and the “order of teaching.” The order of discovery describes the process of learning and understanding the faith as it has been shaped through centuries-long attention to sacred texts and traditions of the Church; the slow sifting of interpretive nuggets from haphazard history and the caprice of its characters. The order of teaching describes the assembled nuggets, now systematically rearranged as a logically coherent whole (at least to the extent that our human intellect can achieve).
The distinction applies to the classical Christian doctrine of the Trinity (celebrated by many Christians on June 12, the credal feast of the Holy Trinity). Over the centuries, Christians have argued, sometimes even killed each other over the finer points of Trinitarian doctrine, now breezily summarized as our belief in three divine Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—co-eternal, but one Being and hence one God.
In the order of teaching, it’s tempting simply to recite this (or another credal formula) and then move on to other topics, as if to say, “We’ve already worked this out for you. Just trust us and you won’t have to think about it.” Christian faith and even theology can be learned quite efficiently this way, but not necessarily as effectively as they can be through the order of discovery. Because through the order of discovery, the faithful learn not only Trinitarian doctrine but also why the saints lovingly gave their lives for it. We comprehend its wonder and delight, its organic unity with other features of the faith.
From one angle, the history of Christianity is the order of discovery yielding to the order of teaching until the teaching no longer seems spiritually compelling, at which point the faithful need to rediscover the root and power and purpose of the teaching.
The Order of Discovery for the Pro-Life Cause
The law is a teacher, and can help open minds and hearts to our shared responsibility to organize our civilization around respect for human life. Even if they are not fully effective, laws restricting abortion can awaken us to the horror of withdrawing civil protection from an entire class of human beings. The order of teaching can help us pass a pro-life society on to the next generation.
But the order of teaching is not enough. Prolifers could be disappointed by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Or, on the other hand, spurred to exploit new opportunities for wise pro-life legislation that secures our gains. But either way, we’re still going to need to win over those who aren’t with us yet: adults who have open minds, and the young, whose minds are still forming. For this purpose, we need recourse to the order of discovery.
The order of discovery embraces all the hopes and joys that drive the pro-life movement: the wonder and delight of the human child, unborn or newborn; the humane sensitivity we feel in the presence of a woman carrying an unborn child; the healthy sense of how precious a gift is any human life, and how others’ lives enrich our own, transcending the too-often petty squabbling over our individual rights. The order of discovery also extends to our awareness of and appreciation for the pro-life networks we’ve been building for decades: pregnancy centers for aiding mothers in distress, childcare and adoption assistance, habits of advocacy for the unborn, and accumulated wisdom concerning public policy.
Jesus said, “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth . . . He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you” [John 16:13-14]. Jesus thus provides some of the raw data from which Christians, in the order of discovery, eventually discerned their teaching on the Holy Trinity. But Jesus thus also hints at the essential importance of the order of discovery itself, the process by which the Spirit guides Jesus’ followers to all truth.