I wonder sometimes if “pro-lifers” understand the complexities and nuances of human communication. As a teacher, I know from my daily experiences that “message sent” does not necessarily imply “message received.” 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 insufficient. 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.”
For many of its attendees, it seems as if the March for Life is more of an exercise in logistics than a platform for communicating truths. 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 formless humans, or even will post them on Instagram with kitschy hashtags (#LikeUandMe). And yet pro-choicers will continue to scoff at these gestures of “communication,” no matter how sincere and compassionate they may be.
So what does it take to “bring oneself into” a conversation as hotly debated as this one? I’ll give an example help to clarify what’s at stake here:
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.
Think about the desperation that this young girl is experiencing. In an assembly he gave in Verona, Italy, Fr. Julian Carron emphasized that when proclaiming the truth in our postmodern world, we have to consider that such moments of despair can easily give way to a pervasive sense of the “nothingness” of our existence:
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.
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?…The problem is that it’s not enough to repeat these words, not if we don’t understand what we mean by truth…If this isn’t clear, then we will continue repeating these words without ever introducing something capable of responding to the emptiness in society.
How have I experienced the dignity of my own life? Where, concretely, have I encountered God’s unconditional love? The truth cannot be reduced to a mere repetition of words, or the defense of certain ideals or values. We understand the truth best when we encounter it in our everyday experiences.
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 communicate our beliefs through a lived witness, it will be difficult for us to give any meaningful contribution to help our brothers and sisters in humanity in today’s situation.
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.” I know very well from experience. Communicating with my students requires me to be open about how what I’m teaching has to do with my own life, as well as to take an interest in their own lives. 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.
In the same way, 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.
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. If the pro-life cause is just expressed as an ideology, then it’s not much different from the pro-choice cause-it’s all just words.
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. The pro-lifers must be willing to accompany others in their “sea of nothingness.” This way, we can assure that message sent equals message received.
An aside…here are two pro-life groups that “put their money where their mouths are”:
Save the Storks is a non -profit that drives vans loaded with ultrasound machines to abortion clinics. From their website: Through our partnership with pregnancy centers, we provide the tools and resources they need to get closer to those who need their services. Our Stork Bus minimizes the distance between pro-life professionals and the women who most need them, and our various consulting packages help pregnancy centers understand how to better utilize their staff and resources to reach a greater number of women.
The Sisters of Life take in women who are in crisis pregnancies, and their very lifestyle is the epitome of what it means to witness to the value of life by the way they live…in my humble opinion.