All too often, we miss the little things.
Cradle Catholics in this country disproportionately aren’t. Some obscenely large portion of those raised Catholic in this country — presumably “raised Catholic” means “baptized Catholic,” because practice has fallen off so much even among nominally active Catholics I’m not sure there’s a meaningful way to aggregate the practicing ones — no longer self-identify as Catholic. Amazingly, however, some who were raised Catholic keep being Catholic, and somehow instill the Faith in their children.
It’s a funny thing, American Catholicism. Jody Bottum, in his own way one of the two or three greatest Catholic observers of his generation, wrote a deeply moving observation on the shallowness and brittleness of American Catholic culture and practice in the wake of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae . But with due respect to Jody, I think, as often happens to faithful men and women who spend too much time in New York City and Washington, D.C., that Jody came to believe that the terrible state of Catholic practice in those two archetypical sinkholes was indicative of how the rest of us live.
It’s not. Parishes consolidate (this is a nice term for “close”) in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, traditional homes of immigrant Catholicism, and open in the new homes of immigrant Catholicism, American immigrant and variously-legal immigrant alike. Every Sunday, three, four, and sometimes five Masses happen, packed during the holiday seasons, comfortably unpacked during the deepest doldrums of Ordinary Time, and ranging from sparse to packed depending on the Mass time on every other Sunday. For all of Jody’s correct observations that the urban, parish-centered life that defined American Catholicism before the Second Vatican Council is a fading memory, somehow, we struggle on.
That overlengthy stroll through bush and glen, past the broken towers and mills of yesterday, is a prelude to telling you how very much we lost when Bernard Nathanson died earlier this week. Rarely has a man done so much evil in this world; even more rarely has he spent his every waking moment since trying to atone for that evil. The abortion regime owes so much to him; the pro-life movement does, too.
Catholics like to joke that we instinctively believe that the Bible only has about two hundred pages, broken up with hymns and intercessory prayers. It’s a joke to make Protestants feel better about us, to confirm their old cutting remarks after they left Tradition and the Magisterium and adopted sola scriptura . Every Catholic home — by the unqualified term “Catholic” from this point on, let’s assume I mean people who attend Mass weekly and don’t think the Pope is trying to force a theocracy down their throats — has a family Bible, used to record births and baptisms and weddings and ordinations and consecrations and deaths; to clarify not-infrequent arguments over doctrine; and to cover for those days when we can’t make it to Mass because of weather, illness, or unfortunate oversleeping.
A lot of us have a second Bible, one without the Teaching, but which is almost as well-worn. It’s not the Catechism (my family has a copy, but the ending doesn’t have a twist, so it’s no fun to read after the first time through), and it’s not the hagiography of John F. Kennedy Catholics of a certain age would keep on the coffee table to remind themselves of their votes for a man who was neither a very good man nor a very good Catholic. (Nor a very good President.) Because seven men (including a nominal Catholic) decided that it would be a good thing to invent a right to kill babies in the womb, that second Bible all too often involves abortion somehow. And that book was almost always written by Dr. Nathanson.
In my house, it was a copy of Aborting America , given to us by my youngest sister’s godfather. It was a later edition, with a cover I can’t find any more, with a foreword by Nathanson that expanded, in terrible detail, on what followed, and how his thoughts had evolved over time. My father and mother both read it cover-to-cover, and after that, it just sat there for months. My younger siblings couldn’t care less about that sort of thing for years, but I had been into politics since I was four. (In my third grade class in a suburb on the outskirts of the People’s Republic of Austin, I was the only kid in the room to stump for Reagan over Mondale.)
And it sat there and mocked me, because I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I was a ten year-old kid, and I knew intellectually that horrible things happened to children at the hands of the very people who are most charged with protecting them; but I didn’t want to read this. I didn’t want a graphic reminder of how awful moms and dads and doctors could be. And I started to get angry, as if this book was literally mocking me. (Hey, I was a ten year-old kid into politics. You’ve gotta figure there were issues.) Why the Hell should I care about this stuff? Why was it forcing its way into my life? Why are all of these people making such a big fuss out of this when there are starving people and people dying from wars and disease?
It says something about the quality of modern thought that so many nominal Catholics today rationalize along the same lines as an angry ten year-old.
The neat thing about being a kid is that you can and usually do talk yourself into doing just about anything. So I got so damned angry, I finally picked the book up and read it. I know I’ll hate this. I’ll say so when I’m done. That’ll show that jerk whom I’ve never met and who doesn’t even know I’m reading this.
Kids cry, even boys, over small things. That was the first time I’d ever sobbed from the gut. Nathanson did not spare details. The enormity of what was happening — and how it had happened, how Americans had accepted glib lies and the destruction of their centuries-old prohibition on the murder of the most defenseless with barely a shrug — shook me to my core. For the first time in my life, I, a child of the Reagan Revolution and all of its simple love of America, a kid whose parents had kicked their rears to make his life as comfortable and sheltered as they could, truly thought that maybe America had some evil in her, or at least a fondness for the cads.
I tell you all of this not to tell you a story of how I came, multiple times, to a John-Brown-at-Harpers-Ferry conclusion in my adolescence or anything as boring, predictable, and ultimately futile as that. I tell you all of this so you’ll understand the incredible work Nathanson did, his whole life after seeing a baby in utero in ultrasound. I tell you this because in the obscenely brief obituaries for this man, who went from a founder of NARAL to a man whose work littered Catholic (and non-Catholic) living rooms and coffee tables and dinner discussions and motivations for decades, you’d never know that he touched the lives of millions. I want you to understand the lesson of a life lived passionately working for evil — by his own admission, willingly and gleefully lying in its service — and then spent desperately trying to atone, to do penance at every turn, to undo the terrible thing he’d done.
The lesson of that life is that words and deeds matter. That something as simple as a book can change, can activate, can drive. That a life spent trying to right a wrong is not in vain, and to the contrary, can make a difference. The Silent Scream changed the terms of the debate on abortion; it made ready the soil that cheap 3-D ultrasounds have seeded and in which the pro-life movement is reaping good harvests.
Votes win elections; boots on the ground win votes; but cultural shifts win both boots and votes. Two generations of the pro-life movement put boots on the ground in elections in no small part because a short, earnest, aging man put himself body and soul into righting an atrocity he’d helped create. That is activism of the highest order, and we are eternally indebted for it.
The Catholic Church, into which Nathanson was received over a decade ago, teaches that almost every sin is forgivable. (Let’s not have the debate about which sin is the unforgivable one; it’s fun, but maddening.) Putting to the side whether his conversion from a detached belief in the absence of God to a belief in a Triune God who suffered, died, and rose again for us all is sufficient to clear that stain from his soul — and based on what we understand from his friends and colleagues, he clearly never thought it was — I feel comfortable saying that if his penance was insufficient, we’re all damned.
God has taken you home, weary warrior. Requiem aeternam.