Tuesday, October 3, 2017
I was pleased to be asked to write a piece for Notre Dame Magazine on my sense of the "life issues" in our current moment. It wanders around a bit, and covers a lot of ground, but here it is. A bit:
The proposal, the claim, and the truth that grounds the comprehensive and integrated pro-life position is that every person matters and no one matters more than anyone else. This was the message of Pope Francis’ Installation Mass homily, and it is at the heart of the Catholic Church’s social and moral teaching. A human being is a human person, and to be a human person is to have great, inestimable worth. This is true when we are very small and vulnerable, when we are old and sick, when our life seems all potential and when it seems at its very end, when we are strong, beautiful and creative, and when we are weak, ugly and venal. Our ultimate, transcendent worth does not depend on what we accomplish, on what we are capable of doing, on what we can produce or contribute, on how much we are wanted, or on how much we cost. No one is worth less and no one is worthless.
Politico’s Timothy Alberta has called economist and think-tanker Arthur Brooks “the most interesting man in Washington.” At a recent forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Brooks was reflecting on the unedifying state of public culture and conversation in America, and he proposed that the problem with our politics is not disagreement, division, polarization or even anger. In a free society, strong disagreements about at least some things that matter are, this side of Heaven, inevitable. For Brooks, what is striking is not simply the “Big Sort” into red and blue enclaves or our increasingly tribal divisions that infect everything down to debates about the regulation of large sugary sodas. Our real problem, he suggested, is “contempt,” which he defined as the “conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” Who can deny that “contempt” is pervasive and ubiquitous? Indeed, in many contexts it seems to be the currency of our discourse. Anger can be resolved, but contempt, Brooks warned, leads to permanent estrangement.
Brooks is on to something. During the campaign — recall the Access Hollywood tape or his imitation of Serge Kovaleski — and since his election, President Trump has not hesitated to mock, insult and degrade — to express “contempt.” On “the other side,” one of the turning points in the election was Clinton’s expression of dismissive disdain for those in the “basket of deplorables” to which she consigned so many of those who resisted the appeal of her candidacy. No one could spend much time at the rallies or following the Twitter feeds of either of the two candidates and their surrogates, fans and followers and not be struck by the vicious, deep contempt with which the two camps regarded each other. It was contempt, not “heritage” or “history,” that inspired and informed the marchers’ chants in Charlottesville.
Now, Brooks was not speaking directly to abortion or to the “life issues.” Still, his assessment is helpful. The pro-life position is not merely a package of negative prohibitions but is a thoroughgoing response to the call and challenge to solidarity and mercy. To stand in solidarity — in community — with other persons is to embrace these other persons’ dignity, value, worth and destiny, and to truly — despite differences in ability, strength, beauty, talent, advantages and prospects — regard and treat them as equally bearing the image of God. What could be more contrary to solidarity than, as Brooks says, the estrangement that contempt produces? “Life” isn’t really “winning” — it cannot, really — if the political community and conversation are saturated with contempt.
Pope Francis has forcefully condemned abortion as a symptom of and contributor to what he calls our “throwaway culture.” It is an arresting and illuminating image, and it resonates with Brooks’ diagnosis and definition of contempt. What is it, after all, that we throw away? We throw away what we think is worthless, that which we can no longer bother fixing, saving, nurturing, protecting, repairing, treasuring or loving. It is, the pope has said, “precisely the weakest and most fragile human beings — the unborn, the poorest, the sick and elderly, the seriously handicapped, et al. — who are in danger of being thrown away.” But not only are there no “worthless” people, there are, as C.S. Lewis remarked in his sermon The Weight of Glory, “no ordinary people.” Those “we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit” — those we mock on Twitter, those at whom we direct contempt, those we “throw away” — are “immortals” and “everlasting splendours.”