Vanity and the Gospel of Life
Christian objection to abortion encompasses more than individual sin. Many prolifers have noted that the legalization of abortion becomes an “easy way out,” not only for those with unwanted pregnancies, but for society as a whole. In washing our hands of responsibility for troubled mothers and inconveniently conceived children, we all participate in what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “social sin.” There are many biblical accounts of social sin, and I offer one here that supports these observations.
Truth through Antithesis
The Bible is full of antitheses. In one famous passage Moses sets before us “life and death, blessings and curses” (Deuteronomy 30). But there are many others: righteousness and wickedness, wisdom and folly, humility and pride, to name just a few. Each pairing illustrates, from a distinct angle, the godly versus the ungodly life.
My favorite biblical antithesis is futility and purpose. Found explicitly in Ecclesiastes, futility is typically indicated as “vanity” and purpose expressed in a variety of examples—especially the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor. Tradition ascribes authorship to King Solomon who, while embodying the fullness of human wisdom, was also infused with a special grace of God.
Futility atop Futility
Solomon the Wise begins with a booming denunciation: “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity!” He goes on to bemoan the pointlessness of things, not least of which is wisdom. This realization causes him even more suffering, because it leads him to perceive more clearly the futility of everything else. Solomon has achieved all the goods the world has to offer, and even so, he sees that by themselves they bring no lasting change and have no lasting purpose. People of lesser minds than his deceive themselves when they imagine they can do any higher good than appreciating the harvest they sow and the family they care for.
Abortion is the sacrament of those suffering the futility of self-deceit—a condition that tinges much of the world. Mothers and fathers vainly pretend they are not parents to the unborn child. Clinicians pretend they are delivering health by dealing death. The community pretends it is caring for the weak and vulnerable when in fact we look away as they are executed. We go home imagining that we will enjoy more comfortable lives, but it’s all futile, for in choosing abortion we are failing in the one purpose God has given us: to appreciate and tend to the fruits of his earth and especially to his people.
For life is the ultimate fruit, and tending to life is our purpose. So far as human wisdom can judge, what could be less pointless—or more meaningful—than to bring into existence a new life, an embodied and yet spiritual soul destined to live forever in relation to God and his people? By extension, what higher purpose is there than to care for the lives of those entrusted to us? What worldly pursuit could possibly outweigh it?
From this view, the pro-life movement is one of the great consolations of our time, a sometimes faint but always clear call to reject futility in favor of purpose. In the weeks since Roe v. Wade was overturned, I have been heartened to see prolifers redouble their efforts to extend the protection of law to the unborn as well as to increase aid to mothers in distress.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, prolifers are advocating for an amendment to the state constitution that would deny any right to abortion. Such an amendment could prevent courts from rescuing lawmakers from the hard work of legislative compromise necessary to increase protections for the unborn. It would also be likely to provide a strong foundation for enduring pro-life achievements and building a sense of social obligation to the unborn. Meanwhile, parishes and congregations around the state are renewing their determination to provide money and material aid to mothers and those who assist them.
Purpose and Success
In chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes—made famous by The Byrds’1965 hit song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—Solomon mopes about seemingly pointless undertakings of life: “A time to give birth and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot the plant,” and many more. He protests that we busy ourselves with these things without really getting any advantage from them. Worse, he observes in 3:11, while God has put eternity into our hearts—an intuition that all these efforts should have some cosmic or divine meaning—he has not given us the means to discern it.
Or rather, not yet, not for Solomon. For One greater than Solomon has since visited us, and shared with us a wisdom beyond human wisdom—the wisdom of the cross: Life given in love becomes a share in the divine life and lasts even beyond death, for all eternity. Thus futility is defeated and purpose not only revealed, but fulfilled. All those mothers who sacrifice to bring their children to birth, all those neighbors who give of themselves in order to aid them—they are achieving on our behalf the purpose given to us all.