Thousands of people will gather this Friday in Washington DC to protest the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. By gathering in the National Mall, the March for Life ultimately seeks “to provide all Americans with a place to testify to the beauty of life and the dignity of each human person,” by “bring[ing] together pro-life leaders and groups to organize, unite and strategize around a common message, and to communicate this message to the government, the media and the nation in a way that is powerful and life affirming.”
Communication is a nuanced and complex human phenomenon. I wonder at times if “pro-lifers” understand the complexities of trying to communicate with other human beings. As a teacher, I know from my daily experiences that “message sent” does not necessarily imply “message receive.” In true communication, as Cardinal Ratzinger once put it, “man brings himself into the conversation.” I find this to be especially true as a religion teacher. Teaching my mostly uncatechized students “about” God is a waste of time (and at times a even comedy act for them) more than anything. Ratzinger understands my struggle when he writes that, “the testimony of God is inaudible where language is no more than a technique for imparting ‘something.’ God does not occur in logistic calculations.” The Truth is not a “thing” that I can show you in a box, in my “logistic” calculations, or by merely pointing you to a passage in the Bible or the Catechism.
It seems as if the March for Life is more of an exercise in logistics than a platform for communication and dialogue. But this is what has come to characterizes the mainstream pro-life movement as of recently. Passionate, starry-eyed pro-lifers will cite scripture/CCC passages from memory, and at some point will mount them onto signs with ultrasound pictures of pink formless humans, or even will post them on Instagram over photos of tiny baby feet (#LikeUandMe). And yet pro-choicers will continue to scoff at these gestures of “communication,” no matter how sincere and compassionate they may be. How is it that this message is being lost in the complexities of communication?
I’ll share two situations that might help to clarify what’s at stake in this dilemma, one hypothetical, the other, actual.
A 20 year-old woman in her junior year of college has been a regular on the club scene for several months now. Thanks to her older sister’s expired driver’s licence, she has been frequenting the “hottest” of bars in the Meatpacking district of Manhattan, and has developed a knack for luring attractive men from the bar into her dorm room. A fan of the drink, she often forgets to use protection before granting men entry into her body. One bright and sunny morning, she throws up after eating a vegan muffin while on the subway to her internship. After peeing on a pregnancy test stick, she runs back to the Duane Reade down the street to pick up a pack of Plan B. The vomiting continues for a week, and she reluctantly follows her roommate’s advice to see an OB/GYN. She panics as she hears the doctor’s words, and begins racking her mind for who the “lucky man” must have been. Unsure of who the father is, and afraid to tell her harshly conservative parents, she decides to take matters into her own hands. After evaluating all of the factors, she decides that her career and autonomy are of greater importance than the burden of carrying around a nagging, demanding, codependent creature, who would quickly eat up her bank account and soon enough would devour her potential future as an independent, professional woman.
The second situation involves a nun whose religious order is dedicated to defending the “sanctity of life.” Thoroughly acquainted with papal encyclicals like Humanae Vitae and with the Theology of the Body, she is “always ready to offer a defense” for her faith. Every conversation I have with her is bedazzled with quotes from John Paul II or another saint who was committed to “the cause.” She receives every guest into the convent with an overflowing sense of joy that smacks them in the face with a sense of their dignity. She treats her tasks, her cell, and even her breviary with the same sense of dignity and respect. In addition to taking in women in crisis pregnancies, her order offers retreats and conferences that promote pro-life apologetics. One day while dining with the sisters, she began telling me about a conference they were hosting about assisted suicide. She asked me for a compelling argument that would convince young millennials like myself to believe that euthanasia is an intrinsically evil act.
In front of those two situations, we must ask: what will make it possible for authentic communication to open up between these “opposing camps.” Why is it that this young woman decided to abort her child? Why doesn’t she understand the value of the life inside of her? More importantly, does she understand the value of her own life? Perhaps she needs to see a billboard with a fetus on it to be convinced that she shouldn’t have had an abortion. Or maybe it would have helped to have been read passages from the Catechism about the sanctity of life. I was baffled by this nun’s question. Why are you asking me for a way to convince young people that euthanasia and abortion are wrong? Perhaps I can persuade a handful of people with a fancy, coherent argument to agree with me on an ideological level. But when it comes to reality, when it comes to the mother in a crisis pregnancy, or the elderly person facing a painful disease, are my arguments going to be enough to show them the value of their life?
In an assembly he gave in Verona, Italy, Fr. Julian Carron emphasized that when proclaiming the truth in our current circumstances, we must first consider the pervasive sense of “nothingness” that characterizes many people’s orientation to life and reality in general:
We are immersed in this melting pot of cultures, religions, and diverging worldviews that we call “multiculturalism.” And so I ask myself, “Do all of those who meet us find in us something capable of attracting their humanity, of challenging their reason and their freedom?” In many, “a great nothingness” or “a deep emptiness” is what prevails. Today we see how true it is that there is no evidence except this nothingness, because nothing is enough to attract people, and so for many life degrades into violence. Each and every one of us in our society finds himself in front of this nothingness, and so every attempt at a response will have to verify if it is capable of overcoming this nothingness. All else is merely a distraction.
Thus, we cannot assume that anyone will automatically understand what we are talking about when we are “proclaiming the truth.” It’s as if we are speaking a different language that has been made foreign to contemporary ears by the noise of the raging waves of nihilism. Thus, before proclaiming the truth, we must first look at ourselves:
The first battle takes place inside of us. If we have lost the fascination of the truth, after having experienced it, what can we offer to others? Do we really think that, if the fascination no longer shines in us and through us, we can respond to the situation described by doing something else?…This question tells us that we constantly need to deepen our awareness of the relationship between truth, reason, and freedom. The problem is that it’s not enough to repeat these words, not if we don’t understand what we mean by truth…The same words can be reduced in a thousand ways. If this isn’t clear, then we will continue repeating these words without ever introducing something capable of responding to the emptiness in society.
What does this “truth” have to do with my life? How has it captivated me? Where have I seen it impact my life in a concrete way? Because of the language barrier that separates us from those on the other side of the ideological divide, we must always refer to the common language of experience if we truly desire to communicate anything authentic and valuable.
By becoming man, taking on flesh, Christ chose the method for communicating truth: stripping Himself of any power beyond the sheer splendor of the truth, He was a witness to us, unarmed, of the fascinating power of truth. This means that if we don’t connect our belonging with a witness, it will be difficult for us to give any meaningful contribution to help our brothers and sisters in humanity in today’s situation. This fascinating power of what is true, this splendor of truth, however, is not something that I generate…Often, we think this is not enough and so look for a shortcut to impatiently impose the truth, which only generates confusion in everyone. The historical circumstances in which we live give us an extraordinary opportunity to more deeply understand the truth that fascinated us. It’s not enough to repeat that truth has become flesh if this hasn’t sunken into our very bones, affecting the way we face all of reality, and if we don’t accept that the only way to communicate truth is called “witness.”
The truth cannot be reduced to a mere repetition of words, or the defense of certain ideals or values. The truth, in its fullness, is a person. Thus it is in encountering the truth in our everyday experiences that we best understand it. Where have we seen that life, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, convenient or inconvenient, is valuable and worth living? What has allowed us to continue living in circumstances that are overwhelmingly dull or hopeless? The fact that this nun understands the answers to these questions in such a concrete and disarming way, far surpassing my understanding, is what confused me when she asked me to suggest a better mode of “defense.” Her very life is a witness to that truth she is seeking to defend. She experiences the “sanctity of life” daily, in the way she organizes the kitchen, in the way she greets me when I enter the convent, and especially in the way she cleans up the poopy diapers of the baby whose mother decided to carry to term (thanks in part to these sisters). While pro-lifers and pro-choicers continue talking past each other with their arguments and opposing ideals, we must refer to the common language of experience if we are to offer a convincing and comprehensible “defense.”
Pope Paul VI once quipped that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” That young girl is not likely to listen to someone “teaching” her about the value of her baby’s life, especially in the thick of the drama that she’s facing. Rather, she might be more convinced by encountering someone who witnesses to the value of human life through the way they live, and who is willing to accompany her through the circumstances she is facing rather than talking “at her” about them. I know very well that young people have little interest listening to teachers. Communication with my students begins by sharing my existence with them, being open about how the content I teach has to do with my own life in concrete and specific ways, and by taking an interest in their own experiences. This living witness is what provokes their curiosity and sparks their fascination. The truth, when communicated as a set of concepts or ideals, is boring and uninteresting to them because it appears unrelated to their everyday experiences. Only in the context of a relationship with a living witness does the fullness of the truth take flesh.
Thus when promoting the sanctity of life is reduced to a dialectic, a mere carrying of signs or shouting of ideals, it ends up communicating a message that contradicts itself. This message is received as something lifeless, dead, and incapable of illuminating my own existence. The difference between the pro-life and pro-choice messages are merely ideological in nature. At the end of the day, they both consist of mere words. Words themselves have little impact in my daily life. If my message is true, then it can only be communicated through my witness. Thus, as much as the presence of people at the March to Life can serve as a witness in itself, it is important to recognize that this gesture alone will not suffice. A march by itself-an argument, “words”-will not meet the needs of people today who face the eternal nothingness that takes over our daily experiences. The pro-life cause will only survive if its proponents are willing to become witnesses and companions. Only in accompanying others in the “sea of nothingness” and showing them the value of their own lives through the way we live and the way we look at them can the sanctity of life be communicated in a way that will assure that the message is “received.”