The “Professional Pro-Life” Pharisee

The “Professional Pro-Life” Pharisee January 31, 2010

To start with, we must remember that, in theory, the Pharisees were often in the right, but in practices, in actualizing their theology, they became absolutists who demanded purity of anyone but themselves. If we were to place Jesus within the first century Jewish theological debates, he had more in common with the Pharisees than anyone else. Indeed, he would often recognize their authority and that much of what they said was true (as far as what they said went). Nonetheless, he also found how they tried to apply their ideals to their society to be what was in grave error. There were three problems he found with them: they tried to create demands which were impossible to follow, they didn’t seek to follow their own rules themselves, and yet they liked to give the appearance they followed their own rules so as to receive the praises of others. Thus, we find in the Gospels, Jesus saying:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;  so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men (Matthew 23:2 – 6 RSV).

While theologically, they could be said to be orthodox, their practice could hardly be said to be following orthopraxis. They used the Law, meant to establish justice, as a means of abuse:

“‘But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Woe to you Pharisees! for you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places. Woe to you! for you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it'” (Luke 11:42-44 RSV).

While their desire for purity was honorable, and it produced many great insights, nonetheless, their focus was wrong; they were extremists, focusing on particular concerns, like the Law of Moses about the Sabbath, while ignoring the whole of the Law and its purpose. This lead them to create unrealistic absolutes; they used particular aspects of truth for the establishment of error. When questioned, they could and would point to the truth they have picked up on and use it to show they must be correct. Jesus, of course, was able to follow through with their application of the Law and show how absurd it was; God never intended such absolutes with his proclamation of the Law to Moses — it was meant to liberate, not enslave. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27 RSV).

Jesus saw them as hypocrites, and understood that what motivated them was a desire for praise among men. In one way, one can say they were hurting. They needed the affirmation of others to make their lives feel worthwhile. We all do, and as far as that goes, there is no problem. But when they used their authority to abuse others, making demands of them that they do not themselves follow, all the well putting on a show of holiness, Jesus rightfully reacted. He said they got the praise they sought after, their reward has indeed been granted. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2 RSV). But truly, they were dead; they had lost themselves to their absolutes and to their pursuit of worldly honors. Inside, the corruption ran deep; if people saw them for who they were and not as to what they appeared to be, one would have been disgusted:[1]

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matthew 23:27 -8 RSV).

Sadly, we have something similar going on with the “professional” pro-life movement. There is, to be sure, some good going on, and much of what they say, as far as it goes, is right. They even have some interesting insights, like these profiles  on GW Bush and Sarah Palin. Abortion and euthanasia are evils and must be rejected, and it is good to see how politicians deal with these evils. But there is more to being pro-life than just a denial of sin; it must be a positive, it must promote a life of virtue, for one to be pro all life and not just some life. The pro-life movement loses itself when it loses the fact that all life is holy and sacred, and all life needs to be given respect and encouraged by those who call themselves pro-life:.

Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15).

Today this proclamation is especially pressing because of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenceless. In addition to the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale.[2]

Instead, we have “professional” pro-lifers supportive of torture (like Judie Brown) or professional pro-lifers telling people that if they believe the issue other than abortion or euthanasia are life-issues, they are wicked (which is what Austin Ruse has said).

It is not right to disconnect abortion and euthanasia from the reason why they are wrong, away from the fact that all life deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. When such a disconnect happens, what we get is like what happened with the Pharisees of old: an incomplete truth being trumpeted above the fullness of truth, creating all kinds of burdens upon the helpless of society. Those facing the difficulties of homelessness, poverty, war, torture, and other such concerns which affect the dignity of the human person are tossed aside, so that the professional pro-lifer can appear to be holding on to the only important issue of the day — abortion. To them, nothing else matters. Of course, they can say how sorry they are to hear of such suffering; but then they turn their back on them and their needs, and tell them their problems do not matter as long as women are having abortions.

Pharisees of old focused on the sabbath; today’s Pharisees focus on abortion. Both impose demands on others which they don’t expect themselves to follow. Thus, while they tell us, “you can only vote for those who are against abortion, and those laws which work to eliminate abortion; you can’t compromise on abortion, it is non-negotiable,” they will tell us something different if a pro-choice Republican in Massachusetts can win a seat in congress. And they will also tell us that if one opposes universal health care on the grounds that it is “socialist,” you don’t have to worry about rejecting such health care provisions which come out of the senate that would otherwise improve the abortion situation in the United States. To them, rejecting socialism is actually a more fundamental concern than even abortion (though they will say right afterward that abortion is the only thing which matters). What do they do if people question them about this contradiction? Well, they just respond by saying “Don’t worry about me, I know what I’m doing; I’m a professional pro-lifer. I’ve got awards.” Indeed, they have the praise of men; they have their reward.

Now, for the rest of us, those who are concerned about life, all life, it is time to move on and look elsewhere for our guidance than the professional pro-life Pharisee.


[1] Let’s thank God we normally do not see ourselves as God sees us, because of course, we must recognize our own sin is just as deadly to us as the leaven of the Pharisees was to them, and we would also appear ugly and a horror to ourselves if our actual spiritual state was shown to us. We should not thank God we are not like the Pharisee; rather, we should humbly recognize how alike we are to them as well.

[2] Pope John Paul II, Gospel of Life. Vatican Translation. ¶3.

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