Beyond Abortion: Gosnell and a New Dark Age

My sister delivered a healthy baby boy the day before yesterday. When I called to congratulate her, I asked to be spared from the details. When my wife gave birth to our second son, I was the one about pass out during the epidural.

This past November, when I saw the headlines about Savita, I tried to ignore it because I have no stomach for delivery room gore. When I did read the stories a day later, my response was angry and indignant. I was pissed. Pissed, but hopeful. I thought we could move ahead, somehow.

Newtown came and passed and the anniversary of the Iraq War (which I didn’t write about) and so on.

I avoided the Gosnell story, too, initially. The headlines seemed too fantastic to be the wholly true and the details I gleaned made my stomach turn. I tend to monitor stories like these from a distance to see if they stick. This one stuck, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. I’ve only been able to read two articles — from the Atlantic and Slate — on this gruesome crime, and I read them hastily, with a sense of disgust and despair. I also found this article from 2011 about Gosnell in the New York Times, which I scanned.

There has been some media coverage out there all along, it turns out, but it is the question of degree and quality — and volume — that is highly suspect. Salon seems to think that we just don’t read enough alternative media, which is true, but that doesn’t address the primary concern.

This event is different, but strangely related to Savita for me. What got me so worked up about Savita now has me depressed and despondent, senseless and void. Numb.

Let me be clear: cultural despair is not the same thing, I think (I hope?), as theological despair. Hope against hope.

Welcome to the dark ages. An age where darkness is not the result of widespread ignorance or circumstance or feudal folklore. No. This is a time of intentional darkness. The Enlightenment is over. The grand experiment of it all, the United States of America, has failed, miserably. We have nothing left but a futuristic fantasy that propels us into techno-economic nihilism.

We’ll forget Gosnell soon enough. Just as we forgot about the last person who told us that we’re headed for cultural suicide.

No one gives a shit.

The press that didn’t forget and buried the story, for whatever reason, is perhaps more laudable. At least they did the work. At least they remembered to forget. The rest seems fine with the forgetting whatever it needs to continue the business of distracting and forgetting and, slowly, killing memory and feeling.

Flesh without blood. No life.

There is utility in selective memory: the only reason to remember Gosnell will be to forget about what happened and, instead, advance the cause of the tribal interests we all have to play with at some point. As “Flight of the Concords” remind us, it’s all about the issues.

The issue here is not just abortion. I know many Catholics who scoff at the naive and impractical “whole cloth” approach to questions of life and human dignity, but without a holistic view of the matter, we miss the real scope of this particular atrocity. It is a spectacular ecology of perversity and filth. This an “issue” of race, poverty, abortion, women, infants, fatherhood, and even capital punishment (depending on the sentencing of Gosnell).

It is also a simple case of cold blooded murder. It doesn’t require as much nuance as other cases. It is closer kin to Newtown than Savita, in this regard.

If we wanted to remember, we’d have to do a lot of serious work. Blogging, grabbing headlines, and pushing topics on Twitter is easy. But the hard work is memory work. Without memory there is no healing or forgiveness or proper war and melancholy.

Nothing lingers anymore. We are beyond abortion, we are on our way to nowhere.

Freud was right: we are unconscious. But we sleep without dreaming, we only snore, droning on and on. Noise.

As I’ve said before, the culture wars are over. They are not resolved so much as they are too much work. Thinking in America has become a lost art. This is a post-Cartesian place.

Platitudes and melodrama don’t set a very good example, but that’s the point: I feel it too. I’m as lazy as you are.

Don’t take this as anything but a reminder that everything is lost and the details are too tedious to remember. We can’t keep track of news headlines, much less history and ancestry and the Divine.

We’ve transcended transcendence through a crude reversal, an inversion that has opened up the future to nothing.

I guess I’ll see you all in hell. Only God can save us now, I hope we forgot to kill him properly.



  • Petro

    Everything was lost with Adam and the apple. That’s the point of Genesis. It will not be regained temporally until He comes again. But it has been regained infinitely already. We must continue to order things according to this redemption—regardless of how difficult the work is—with the knowledge that the full redemption will come.

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  • Sandy

    Anderson Cooper 360 will lead with this story tonight.

  • Jasper

    “The press that didn’t forget and buried the story, for whatever reason, is perhaps more laudable. At least they did the work.”
    The press that you despise; Fox News, Glen Beck, Wash. Times, Rush, Pro-life sites, etc did not bury the story. Your pansy-ass friends on the left buried it, like NPR (taxpayer funded radio). Barack Obama voted 4 times in the IL legislator not to provide care for babies who survive abortions. Yes, you sat out the election, and you sit on the sidelines of a culture war. You have a poorly formed conscience, I wonder how it must be receiving communion in this state.

    Jesus did not care for intellectual snobs, His apostles were ‘blue collar workers’ , except for Judas of course, that traitor.

    • Steve

      If you actually read the stuff that he writes, you would realize that he isn’t left or right. And furthermore, the reason why him -and others- don’t cling to a side of the 2012 election or the so-called “culture wars” is because they realize that neither side is really the “good guy”, and that neither the left or the right is actually compatible with Catholic theology.

      And he can’t receive communion? Are you fucking serious? For not voting in an election? For having a dim view of the direction our culture is going in? That’s a mortal sin, and he’s not fit to receive communion? Well, shit, I didn’t know until now that you were so gifted that you could actually judge people’s souls. Must be a pretty cool superpower. Tell me, did you receive this ability in a science experiment gone horribly wrong, or were you born with it and then sent to a school for specially talented children?

  • Art Uvaas

    Don’t despair, Sam. Those of us who do care have to teach others and fight, the good fight.
    Paraphrasing the late John A. Hardon, S.J., the “contraceptive,” selfish society has led to
    profound sinfulness. Doctor Gosnell is an agent of sin. His contemporaries who perform
    surgical death-in utero-are just as culpable and despicable.
    Finally, the de-christianed, unbalanced addiction to consumerism has led–as you say–to
    “techno-economic nihilism.” Quite so.
    It is time for Catholic-Christians to seek THE TRUTH; TO RECEIVE HIM IN EUCHARIST;
    TO IMITATE HIM THROUGH SELF-LESS CHARITY. That’s our only way out of hell, Sam.
    Art Uvaas
    Riverside, California

  • Carlos

    Most of the Popes in the past two centuries, in their wisdom, have warned us of an imminent collapse of society if we continued moving away from God. Slowly but surely we have managed to do that precisely. We have been entering an authentic dark age, like a slow moving herd, driven by a faux hubris.
    T.S. Eliot sums it up very well:
    “The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
    The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
    O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
    O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
    O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
    The endless cycle of idea and action,
    Endless invention, endless experiment,
    Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
    Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
    Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
    All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
    But nearness to death no nearer to God.
    Where is the Life we have lost in living?
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
    The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
    Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

  • a.s.

    I am neither Catholic nor Christian, and have no wish to be offensive, but the author says:

    Only God can save us now,

    Surely, this has always been true? Without God, on any accounting, we are entirely lost. That applies to everyone, from Adam on down. Any reading of history leads to the conclusion, which I have no ability to escape that, deprived of the mercy of God, we are nothing, are capable of nothing, and that nothing can save us. This particular trial is further evidence, but I need it as much as further evidence that I am writing in English, that I am typing on a keyboard, and that I am posting a comment. It wasn’t exactly a close call before.

  • Japer

    “And furthermore, the reason why him -and others- don’t cling to a side of the 2012 election or the so-called “culture wars” is because they realize that neither side is really the “good guy”

    Hey Steve, you stupid fool. The R party isn’t perfect but they are a hell of a lot more pro-life than your Demoncrats. I bet you vote ‘not-present’ as well, how courageous. I think it’s better that you pansies sit it out anyways, let the men handle it. I bet Judas was your favorite apostle, always trying to make nice with the enemy. You lousy wimps are disgusting.

    • srocha

      Dear Jasper,

      The idea that Steve (at least in this thread) or I are somehow wedded to the Left or the Democratic party is not only very poorly reasoned, it also shows your blindness to what is important and worthwhile about this discussion. I hope you’ll keep reading and responding so that we might be able to understand each other better.


    • Theodore Seeber

      The R party isn’t perfect but they are a hell of a lot more pro-life than your Demoncrats. Yep, one side kills the child in the womb, and the other starves out the only truly pro-life program that the federal government has, killing the children before they are 5 from starvation.The only way I can call the R party pro-life is to either limit life to the time before birth, or compare them to the Democrats.

  • Japer

    Thank you Sam. I’m sorry if I came across harsh. I’m no fan of the users in R party. But for God’s sake, they at least vote for pro-life legislation. John McCain is at the forefront of immigration reform. How can any good faith Catholic think the D and the R are the same is beyond me.

    • srocha

      No harm done. Although next time you allude to someone sharing company with Judas Iscariot, you may want to consider the way it comes across, if indeed you’re not intending to sound harsh. Could you show me where in this post I equivocated between the two political parties? I don’t recall remarking about either one of them.


    • Theodore Seeber

      By looking at Paul Ryan’s budget for WIC, is how.

  • Broken Whole

    As I’ve said before, the culture wars are over. They are not resolved so much as they are too much work. Thinking in America has become a lost art. This is a post-Cartesian place.

    Well said. What depresses me most about the current state of political discourse in the US is not the positions taken by any side but the general breakdown of any thoughtful, engaged dialogue that moves beyond the repetition of either side’s own well-worn, fits-on-a-bumpersticker line. It’s not thinking that matters but “positions,” not history (or as you say, “memory work”) but present distractions, not actual emotional response but “outrage.” I think you’re right that the only way to grapple with the Gosnell horror is to try and see it without all the meditations and distortions of our respective “tribes,” and who knows if we’re even capable of that kind of vision anymore.

  • arty

    Philip Rieff argued that culture exists in order to translate sacred order into social order, and that what is unique, nay unprecedented, about our era (meaning western culture since Nietzsche and Freud), is its rejection of the very concept of the sacred to begin with. He once observed, then, that “where nothing is sacred, there is nothing,” which is essentially what you were getting at in your post’s penultimate sentence. All this might sound like irrelevant or superfluous chin-wagging philosophizing, but it isn’t, since it suggests that our outrage at events like the trial of the egregious Gosnell ought to be mixed with a heavy dose of resignation and “I-told-you-so”, even as the temporarily-because-they-got-caught “horrified” pro-abortion folks adopt theatrical poses of disgust. And why shouldn’t they? Where nothing is sacred, there will cultural theater, pretending to fill the vacuum of our nothing. Live in the reality of the sacred, Sam, and wait. To quote a film not otherwise notable for its philosophical depth (“Reign of Fire”), “Eden ain’t burning, it’s burnt.”

    • Petro

      Our era is not unprecedented. In all eras man commits the most horrible of acts, many times in the name of Christ. Man continues to do this today. We are in a transitional phase in human history. As with other transitional phases, there is some uncertainty and a great turning inward of man and society into self obsession. But, by its nature, self obsession rejects that nothing is sacred because the self is sacred.

      Rieff was over-obsessed with Freud. Decline of institutions came from the fact that the institutions had reached their extremes of exploitation by the slaughtering of millions in colonialism and world war. The Western culture that had created this was due for collapse. The arbitrators of culture and society brought about death on an unprecedented scale, then proceeded to push the world to the edge of extinction. One can see quite clearly why this culture, which arose in an hilariously-name Age of Enlightenment, was going to stumble.

      The idea that nothing is sacred today is false. What is now sacred is the individual. The decline of the institutions and the mobility of life in nearly all cultures has led to the individual being the central figure. This will continue until something else rises to take the place of the old order.

      For those who wish some return to what existed, it should be noted that the last four hundred years were hardly Christian nor holy. Just because Western societies with a nominally-Christian religious background directed the world did not make it better than today. If something rises from the ashes of that time and is less nominally-Christian, this characteristic will not necessarily make that culture any more evil.

      Christ does not promote a certain culture. Christ promotes love, because Christ is love. Our faith is not just a set of rules or a philosophy, it is a presence to be seized and to live in us. The world will never fully embrace this love until the final fulfillment of the promises of Christ. Christians in any age should work toward the ordering of the temporal world toward Christ. Just as Paul wrote to Timothy about avoiding the godless myths of his age, or St. Francis of Assisi worked to reform the Church in his age, we must continually work for renewal in every culture because, at the heart of every human culture, sits a rejection of love and a rejection of Christ.

      • arty

        Arguing that only the individual is sacred is equivalent to arguing that nothing is sacred. That was the whole point of Dostoevskii’s “all is permitted” thinking, in “Demons”, and it comes out pretty clearly in “Notes from Underground”, in a few scenes in “The Idiot”, and is there in nascent form in “Crime and Punishment,” too. Sure, Rieff was deeply engaged with Freud, but he discusses Nietzsche quite a bit, too, and Weber is central to Rieff”s work on charisma, and so Rieff doesn’t base his sense of cultural precipice as solely on Freud as I take your reply to suggest. Besides that, Rieff’s span of references beyond the three intellectuals I mentioned is, frankly, spectacular. I’m not suggesting that Rieff gets everything right, and I agree with you that one can’t succumb to the temptation to ahistorical bemoaning of Godlessness. What I am suggesting, is that Rieff correctly identified an historically unprecedented way of exercising our tendency to Godlessness, and that the varieties of secular response to the Gosnell case will illustrate that.

        • Petro

          This is what I have a problem with:

          “an historically unprecedented way of exercising our tendency to Godlessness”

          What is your argument for the lack of precedence for exercising Godlessness? Is it the secular response to the Gosnell case alone? What makes that unprecedented?

          My point is that godlessness exists in every era. Perhaps we exercise it in a different way, but our godlessness is no better nor worse than the godlessness of other eras. We are implanted with godlessness. Cain murdered his own brother due to petty jealousy. Is there anything that we do that is better or worse than that on a daily basis? God came to earth and we killed him. There can’t possibly be much worse than that, yet we achieve this every day, and will continue to do so.

          I’m not denying that there are evils that need to be corrected today. There are; and there will be until the end of time. I am saying that this concept of unprecedented godlessness is a form of histrionics akin to the cultural theater that you mention in your first post.

          Rieff does not base his ideas solely on Freud. He uses that vast knowledge to which you allude to ruminate with an odd wistfulness for a time that never really existed. His culture in decline has little merit to be saved. He may not like what is coming up, but then it is part of his job to help direct it instead of, in essence, dropping out from it. His error is to see these days as some sort of final ending instead of the just the continuation of human history. His folly is to suggest that there was never previously this concept of the “psychological man.” That man has always existed. He will always exist. This is what Genesis tells us. Yet Rieff thinks that it takes Freud and others to point out to us what was already pointed out to us by God at the beginning of time.

          • arty

            “Godlessness” could be a matter of adhering to the wrong “Gods”. Say, sacrificing to Baal in Canaan. “Godlessness” could also be a matter of rejection of the existence/importance of sacred authority to begin with, and my argument, and what I take to be Rieff’s as well, is that the the latter sense of “Godless” is what has dominated Western culture since the late 19th and early 20th century. This, I take to be unprecedented, at least at the level of broadly held cultural assumptions, though no doubt admitting of individual exceptions. (No doubt the distant past has any number of Marquis’ de Sades). Where I think you and I are disagreeing is a variant of Solomon’s dictum that there is nothing new under the sun. I take you to be arguing that the type of Godlessness Rieff noted is nothing new. I’m not so sure though. To cite one example, I’ve always found compelling medieval historian Marc Bloch’s argument that your average resident of medieval europe could not have conceived of a state of affairs in which religious faith didn’t matter. Not that people behaved in a “Christian” manner all the time or at all, but that the questions faith raises don’t even matter. If Christianity is an historical faith, in the sense that God is progressively revealed and that we’re not just waiting around for the Second Coming in some sort of time warp, then I don’t see how we’re prevented from arguing that just as we can find new ways to be Godly, we can also find new ways to be Godless.
            I’m not arguing this as an excuse to engage in hand-washing histrionics. I’m arguing this as a way of suggesting that our age presents some historically unique challenges in trying to live as the Gospel would have us live. In various times and places, doing that has called for differing levels/types of involvement in the broader society and culture around us, and, to reference the exchange you and I had some time ago, it is my view that we are entering an era when to live the Christian witness will probably result in less engagement in the secular culture than we’ve been accustomed to in the past. I’ll admit that Jonah is my favorite OT character though, and that I’ve got to be careful to avoid the schadenfreudian (multi-language pun intended) desire to watch Nineveh burn, and so I’ll take the general thrust of your comments as a check on what could certainly be an overly pessimist attitude on my part.

  • srocha

    Schadenfreudian?! Seriously? That was a nice romp, you two. Thanks!


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  • Tommy

    Dr. Rocha, you are underestimating the supreme power and authority of Jesus and its practical manifestations in society through those who know him. He is the key, his Church is the sign, and we are the ones who are commissioned to bring this about by loving him, knowing him, and loving others as he has loved us. You’re forgetting the power sanctity and its renewing effect; and you seem to have zero expectation of Jesus actually coming again. No joyful hope for you, I guess.

    • srocha

      Dear Tommy,

      You missed a key passage:

      “Let me be clear: cultural despair is not the same thing, I think (I hope?), as theological despair. Hope against hope.”

      In other words, you should be careful not to equate my cultural despair with theological despair.


      • Tommy

        Thank you for clarifying this. I am hoping against hope with you.