06 November 2008

An Elementary Mistake

It is bewildering to me the faith that people have in political solutions to moral problems. A wise gal told me recently that as she's grown older, she's come to regard the political process as more of a thermometer than a thermostat. That is, the outcomes of elections have more to do with where people stand than where this country is headed. Though at times this thought produces in me the desire to throw up my hands in disgust and be done with politics, there is a kernel of truth there. The real work is done in the hearts of people and not on the campaign trail or at the convention.

I wrote my bachelor's thesis on War and Peace, and some of Tolstoy's ideas about the true causes of the movement of history strike me as relevant. Tolstoy is convinced that the conventional explanations for major events (the march of Napoleon's army into Moscow, in particular) completely ignore the true causes of those events. He insists that attributing the private acts of bravery, cowardice, cruelty, and heroism of tens of thousands of men to the wishes of one person (say, Napoleon) is preposterous, and such historians merely put in the hands of one man what they refuse to put in the hands of God.

Contrasted with this is the Russian general Kutuzov, who sleeps through meetings and has little to no military strategy in mind. His finger is on the pulse of what Tolstoy refers to as the spirit of the army. The ebb and flood of his men’s spirits are what he acts upon, not the limited tactical perspectives he and his staff are capable of observing. And it is this wisdom—this experiential tasting—that gives the Russian army the power to repel the advance of the vastly more powerful French.

It is this wisdom that leads Tolstoy to conclude that historical events are manifestations of the will and character of individuals and nothing else. He declares,

The battle of Austerlitz was the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French; all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm.

Mutatis mutandis, would it be much of a stretch to substitute “the 2008 election” for Austerlitz? I think not. We’ve seen where the American people stand, and honestly, I’ve seen more “outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm” over The One than I have seen over anybody in the public square in a long time.

The question on most people I know and love is, “What does this mean for our hard-won advances in the pro-life movement?” Conscious that what I'm about to say may sound incredibly callous and ignorant, I think very little is going to change in the grand scheme (just as very little has changed over the last 30-odd years). Whether or not Obama makes good on his promises to liberalize abortion to unheard-of levels, it will affect the numbers of abortions by only a small percentage of an annual toll in in the seven-digit range. On the other hand, this or that pundit opines about the effect Obama’s economic and welfare policies will have on the factors most influential on women getting abortions. Quite frankly, I find these ideas ludicrous. The implication that having more money in the bank or a better job or more food stamps are what determine a woman’s choice to keep or kill her baby is an insult to women. How do you put a dollar sign on that choice? How much money is at stake here, exactly? Do these pundits believe that there are women who think “if only I had $1,000 more in income per year, I would keep this child!” And if they do, perhaps they imagine we could persuade them to accept less?

Of course, precisely the same is true of the legal solution. Making a law forbidding abortions will certainly save untold lives, but there’s one catch—changing the law requires elected officials who are convicted about this cause. Elected officials are, as we know, elected by citizens, each of whom is subject to their own proper “passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm.” What leads us to believe that we can ever change a law without bringing about a conversion in the hearts of the citizenry?

Hence the "highblown" rhetoric for which the pro-life movement is often criticized. Yes, yes, to simply bandy words about doesn't help people in real situations who feel as if there really is no option but to get an abortion. The fact that in our country the moral is equivalent to the legal doesn't help; see Solzhenitsyn's 1978 address to the graduating class at Harvard. But what few people are aware of is the fact that the people with the moral rhetoric are usually also the ones getting their hands dirty out on the streets in the largely volunteer-run crisis pregnancy centers. It is highly unfortunate that this effort receives less publicity than it should; these people are too busy doing real work, instead of raising money to promote widespread recognition of their good deeds.

Recently, I've been in touch with a couple of these centers in Chicago and I am simply overwhelmed with the unseen efforts of huge numbers of volunteers. One of them, The Women’s Center of Chicago, has a budget of $1.5 million per year. That amount is what they fundraise through private donations from the citizens of this local area. If I had not gotten involved directly with praying at the nearby abortion clinic and raising money for them through our firewood sales here on campus, I would never have known about the place, or the innumerable hidden sacrifices and acts of heroic generosity that occur on a daily basis.

This is what the political landscape boils down to for me: people vote their convictions, and convictions are formed not by headlines or catchy slogans but the desire for happiness and justice. To seek political solutions to moral problems—which are ultimately spiritual problems—is foolishness.

I, for my part, am ready to spend my life in the service of the God who speaks to the heart of every human being on this planet, calling each into the fullness of their humanity. I believe God speaks uniquely through the Scriptures and nourishes us in the sacraments, and that these are directed most pointedly to forming the heart and mind. I am confident that my life can be spent in no better way than to help the people I encounter to be receptive to that invitation to conversion.

And I am confident that for me, the priesthood is the way in which God has willed from all eternity for me to fulfill this mission.

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