Today’s Readings: Wis. 2:12, 17-20; Ps. 54:3-4, 5, 6 &8; Jas. 3:16-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37
When I read today’s gospel selection, I knew it would inspire preachers everywhere in this country to sermonize about abortion. After all, the reading has Jesus embracing a child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
That scene will lead preachers to say that Jesus loved children. We all love them, they’ll add, and go on to argue that the children most in danger today are the unborn. So homilists will conclude or imply, we should vote for pro-lifers who claim to care about the unborn, and will pass laws to eliminate abortion. It follows then that we should not support those who identify themselves as “pro-choice,” since they care less about the children so close to Jesus’ heart.
Of course, the preachers in question have the best of intentions. And concern for the unborn is well and good. No doubt abortion represents a horrendous choice. It’s painful for everyone. Virtually no one favors abortion.
However in today’s gospel, Jesus wasn’t embracing a fetus, but a real child of the kind our culture shows little concern about once they’re outside the womb. Even pro-life politicians want to cut back on programs that would help such children. That, I think, is the issue today’s gospel should be made to address. But before getting to that, and since our preachers will inevitably bring it up, let’s talk about abortion like adults.
As adults we have to admit two facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves. No, the question is not about eliminating abortion, but of reducing the number of abortions – of lessening the perceived “need” for abortion.
The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?
In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened 80 days after the mother’s egg was fertilized. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.
Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. But even within the Catholic community, prominent moral theologians beg to differ. Some, for instance, would argue their case by directing attention to the way the medical profession determines the moment of death. When the brain stops emitting brain waves, “brain death” occurs. Personal life has stopped though bodily life may continue. Plugs may then be pulled even if the patient continues to breathe with artificial assistance. If that is so, these moralists reason, no personal life exists before a fetus’ brain begins sending off detectable brain waves. That occurs only several weeks into the pregnancy.
Other people of faith have traditionally identified the beginning of specifically personal life with the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.
[By the way, no Protestant churches took an official position on the abortion question before the 1979. It was then that the Moral Majority decided to adopt abortion as the trump issue of the Republican Party. The idea was to gain partisan allegiance by tapping into racial resentment among whites, especially in the South who saw “big government” as unfairly favoring African-Americans. Accordingly, the issue of abortion was presented as another example of “big government” in a political climate where overt racism was no longer socially or politically acceptable. “Pro-life” became an acceptable substitute for anti-Black.]
Given those differences among people whose religious traditions will not be going away any time soon, the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 probably goes about as far in restricting abortions as any law in a pluralistic U.S. can go. (Yes, Roe v. Wade does not simply legalize abortions; it restricts them significantly.) The controversial Supreme Court decision specifies that during the first trimester the mother may decide about the termination of her pregnancy without consultation. During the second trimester, she must confer with her physician. And during the final three months of pregnancy, the state recognizes its need to protect the unborn; it can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.
But aside from all that, it still must be admitted that the numbers of abortions in the United States and in the world remain unacceptably high. The question remains how to reduce those levels. Ironically, passing laws does not seem to help. For instance, abortion has been completely outlawed in many Latin American countries. Yet those very countries lead the world in numbers of abortions performed each year. But where abortion has been legalized, as in the Netherlands and Belgium, abortion levels are the lowest in the world.
Government-sponsored social programs explain the difference. These involve provision of thorough sex education in public schools, free contraceptives, pre and post-natal care for expectant mothers, family leave arrangements and affordable child care for working parents, subsidized food grants, and a host of other child-centered programs of the very type “pro-life” politicians would like to abolish. However, all of the programs just mentioned provide a welcoming atmosphere for children and reduce the perceived “need” for abortion.
Where would Jesus stand on all of this? We don’t know. He said not a word about abortion. But in today’s gospel he says more than a word about children. He embraces a child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Once again, in doing that Jesus is not embracing a fetus, but an actual living child about whose human status there can be no debate. Moreover, the child in question was probably of the type many opponents of abortion have little use for or sympathy with. After all today’s gospel scene takes place in Capernaum, the urban center that Jesus adopted as his home town after he was thrown out of Nazareth.
Remember that Jesus spent his time among the poor who represented his own origins. So the child Jesus embraces was probably a smelly street kid with matted hair and a dirty face. He or she was probably not unlike the street kids found in any city today – the ones hooked on sniffing glue and who have learned to sell their bodies to dirty old men from way across town, and often from across the world.
I make all this supposition because the reason Jesus embraces the child in today’s gospel is to present his disciples with a living example of “the lowest of the low” – God’s chosen people. In Jesus’ world, all children were at the bottom of the pecking order whose rabbinical description ended with “idiots, deaf-mutes and the young.” And among the young, street children without father or mother would indeed represent scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Embracing children like the one Jesus held doesn’t mean legally restricting abortions beyond Roe v. Wade. Neither does it mean “tough love,” nor forcing impoverished mothers to bring their children to term and then telling them “You’re on your own.” Rather, embracing poor children – truly being pro-life – means creating a welcoming atmosphere that receives children as we would receive the Jesus who identifies with them in today’s gospel. Yes, it suggests supporting those “Big Government” programs that work so well elsewhere.
Remember all of that when you hear your pastor’s sermon on abortion this Sunday.