A few months ago, I stood in the back of church greeting worshipers after Mass. One woman—let’s call her Michelle—was squinting as if she intended to confront me, so I invited her to disclose her mind. She burst out, “How come you won’t preach about the movie Unplanned? Unplanned will really change people’s minds! I’m so tired of weak priests who pretend to be Catholic but never get around to preaching about abortion.”
As you, the reader, might guess, I am about to criticize Michelle. But before you join me in denouncing Michelle’s foolishly negative judgment, let me confess that I’ve often imitated her. I, too, have indignantly remonstrated against those who failed to see the righteousness of my cause. I, too, have lamented the weak tea served up by those who should be forcefully pro-life. So why do we prolifers snipe thus at each other? When I examine my own conscience, I discover a blend of puritanism, competitiveness, and—most disturbingly—a true hardness of heart akin to being pro-choice.
Prolifers are not immune to the puritanical spirit that has long afflicted humanity: We want the easy thrill of self-righteousness that comes from being a little purer, a little better than those around us. In the Human Life Review’s magnificent symposium, “Whole Life versus Pro-life,” I criticized the most puritanical version of “whole life”:
When whole-lifers stand aloof, however, distinguishing themselves as something outside or beyond the pro-life movement, they’re seeking more to defeat prolifers than to correct them . . . [P]osturing as whole-life is political treachery against prolifers. During the 2016 election cycle, Republican apologists embarrassed by candidate Donald Trump cleverly contrived an “anti-anti-Trump” stance, allowing them to align themselves with him without defending him. For whole-lifers to set themselves against prolifers is no better than to be anti-anti-abortion: It may sound clever, but it accomplishes no good.
And we prolifers can prosecute our internal disagreements in other destructive ways, such as Michelle’s denunciation of those who decline to promote Unplanned as “weak.” (Mind you, I’ve got nothing against the movie: I haven’t seen it, and for all I know it’s the best pro-life tool ever.) At the expense of the pro-life movement, we steal a moment’s gratification in the feeling that others have fallen short of our higher standards.
Beyond the Puritanism, there’s another competition: for glory, the credit due to those who play a greater role in winning a battle. In the United States, our legendary entrepreneurial vigor infects even our religions and moral philosophies, anywhere we want to be seen to be winners. I have written earlier that too often we prolifers don’t want merely to persuade others to share our cause; we want also to be perceived as victorious in a moral competition. It is not enough then for us to promote the pro-life movement by various means. Instead, we demand others follow our own personal sortie, as Michelle demanded of me concerning the movie.
But in the darkest corner of my soul I discover also a hardness of heart for people like Michelle. She was unappreciative of my homilies, she was unpleasant about it, and she’ll likely continue to be plaintive about me. I am inclined to be as ungrateful for Michelle as Michelle is ungrateful for me. But despite Michelle’s provocation, my hardness of heart is my own responsibility. And it differs in substance neither from the hardness of heart found among prochoicers who do not welcome new life into the world, nor from the hardness of heart among those who do not prioritize the care of endangered infants and their mothers. If I cannot find a way to welcome women like Michelle, who in the end burden me only lightly, how then can I expect a distressed mother to welcome a child who will burden her much more heavily?
Cathleen Cleaver Ruse writes for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Pope John Paul II has called the pro-life movement “one of the most positive aspects of American public life.” Yet we still struggle to create a society where there is no need for a pro-life movement, where there is room in the hearts of all people to welcome every member of the human family.
Some of that struggle endures because of these deficits in our integrity as prolifers: puritanism, competition, hardness of heart. Let us instead be grateful for each other as we would have all people be grateful for the gift of new life.