This week, the Word on Fire blog writers explore expressions of the Culture of Life that go beyond the political in order to demonstrate the necessary creativity of a culture-changing phenomenon. Father Steve Grunow introduces the week of posts with a short reflection upon culture and the pro-life movement at large.
A couple years ago the pro-life commitee from the parish at which I reside asked me to speak to their members about pro-life issues. I chose to speak on the meaning of the category offered to the Church by Blessed John Paul II: a culture of life. In the course of my presentation (part I, part II, and part III), I sought to parse out the meaning of the term. What is culture? What is life— and specifically human life? I did this in relation to what the Church, in her magisterial statements, has had to say about such things, as well as what representatives of the secular culture have offered as insights.
The pro-life movement is one of the most influential grass roots movements in the United States. It has grown, as many popular American movements have, from a matrix of local church and religious communities into a national cultural and political movement. There is, it seems, no central governing body. The movement is diverse and eclectic. The efforts of the movement's advocates are determined and focused, but often present themselves as ad hoc, seeking to engage the issues at both the micro and macro levels through different strategic approaches.
My sense is that if an informal survey of perceptions in regards to the pro-life movement was taken, most Americans would describe the pro-life movement as political. This would not surprise me. It has been my experience that Americans (this one included) have a tendency to think of all things as contained within the category of the political and will appeal to this category as the explanation of nearly everything. In this respect, the work of the pro-life movement, if it is reduced to the political, is viewed as primarily about rights and the legislative and judicial activisim needed to adjudicate these rights in relation to the law and structures of government.
A survey of websites for many pro-life advocacy groups whould show an emphasis on rights, law and politics. This ethos fits with the American ethos and also with the American emphasis that the way to change a culture is through politics, especially through legislation.
The Church calls for the baptized to be fully engaged in those political opportunities that will advance the pro-life cause, especially those iniatives that would protect innnocent human life from conception until natural death. The faithful should also see themselves as opponents of those moves by the state which would render the rights and protection of innocent life null and void.
But the reduction of the pro-life movement to the political and the legislative can also engender a false sense of security. Changing laws can change a society, but there is a deeper reality to any civilization than the political and the legislative—this deeper reality is culture. Think, for example, how laws were changed so that those that permitted or promoted racial discrimination were rejected as unconstitutional. These changes in law have resulted in significant changes in terms of the American experience. But attitudes influenced by the perception of race, even though no longer sanctioned by the force of law, continue to endure. In this respect (as the now legendary proponents of the civil rights movment knew), as hard as it is to change laws, it is harder to change culture. Politics and law are not in themselves culture. Culture is deeper and more primordial.
Blessed John Paul II called for the creation of a culture of life that would serve as an alternative to what he called a culture of death. He intended the Church to be this cultural alternative, and because he called for a culture of life (rather than just a politics of life), it seems to me that he meant that the Church's pro-life efforts are and have to be rooted in the deeper reality of culture. This doesn't mean that the political isn't important, or necessary, or even the priority. It does mean that the Church is doing more than changing politics or even cultural attitudes. It is setting out to be a culture of life.
How does one change culture? How does one build the Church into a culture of life? These are the pressing questions of the moment.
In the next few days, the Word on Fire blog is going to feature three different approaches to building the Church as a culture of life. The first, comes from writer Heather King. For Heather, the experience of abortion is not an abstraction, but a reality. She has written a memoir of her experience and her witness is not easy to hear or read. I think, however, it is important that we read and listen to what she has to say; her witness is a necessary foundation for what must constitute a culture of life.
Second, Matthew Lickona has developed a narrative and employed an unusual genre to tell the pro-life story from the perspective of a child who is himself a victim of abortion. His approach defies a lot of sensibilities, but it risks a creativity that is an essential element to culture. You cannot have a culture with the creation of art in both its higher and lower forms. Lickona employs both and creates a literary narrative that shocks, provokes, and demands that we think.
Finally, Rozann Carter went looking for where the immediate needs of those who are most vulnarable to a culture of death might be offered mercy and attended to with love. She will tell us what she found.
Of course there are many ways in which a culture of life can be called forth and revealed. Our attempt here is not to be comprehensive but to gesture towards signs of a culture of life that is not only in the making, but is already present and working.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.