All Saints Day. All Souls’ Day. Wszystkich Świętych. El Día de los Muertos. This is the moment when in so many cultures the line between living and dead grows thin, when one world touches another. In Poland the cemeteries are currently thronging with people; crowds are gathering at the graves of their beloved dead, lighting candles in reverence and prayer. In Mexico, the celebration of Day of the Dead combines solemnity with comedy; people make beautiful altars in honour of the dead and dance dressed as skeletons during wild festivities. In my current city of Toronto, red poppies are beginning to appear lapels in preparation for Remembrance Day. Though focused on honouring those soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars of the twentieth century, many Canadians treat the eleventh of November as a time to honour all of those who have come before us.

As a Catholic born and raised in the United States of America, I am fascinated by the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. I come from a culture where death is a taboo topic, where the elderly and dying are hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes. In American culture, youth is usually seen as the best part of life; most people live in denial of ageing and death. Our Memorial Day in May holds none of the solemnity of Wszystkich Świętych in Poland or Remembrance Day in Canada – most of us treat it as simply the unofficial beginning of summer, a good chance to go to the park and enjoy a nice picnic. I am more than sympathetic to this attitude toward death; indeed, despite my religious faith I live in as much fear and denial of it as anyone. But, this time of year causes me to step back and reflect on my own impending mortality and the memory of my ancestors – not only distant ones, but my own grandparents (both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and I lost my grandmothers during my teenage years), aunts, uncles and cousins. Despite their absence, they live in my memories, and perhaps they still exist in another realm that briefly touches ours during these late-autumn days. Tonight, on this freezing November evening, I am thinking of my father’s mother, Emille, a stoic yet tender Polish-American woman whom I lovingly called Bacci.

If I search for Emille on the Internet, the only results I get are links to ancestry websites that mention her birth and death dates. This is hardly surprising, given that she was born in the era of horse drawn carriages and died when computers and the Internet were only beginning to really transform the world. Nevertheless, there is no Wikipedia page to describe her accomplishments; no biography has been written about her. And yet, for me, she is nothing less than remarkable. In addition to witnessing all of the major events of the twentieth century – from two world wars to the advent of space travel – my Bacci dared to live boldly and passionately, refusing to bend to societal expectations. Born into an upper middle class family with an aristocratic mentality, she studied pharmacy in the 1920’s – a time when few women dared to even imagine pursuing higher education. I must admit I chuckle whenever I pick up her old university yearbook and read the all-male editorial board’s commentary on their female colleague: “Watch out for that frigid stare if she doesn’t like you.” While I used to imagine my grandmother – who indeed had a stern, imperious demeanour – as being somewhat disagreeable, I now suspect that this posture was a survival technique, a means of commanding respect as one of three women daring to enter a male male-dominated class studying for a male-dominated profession.

Upon graduating, Emille didn’t go to work as a pharmacist – not at first. For some years she followed the path that was expected of her (though I suspect it was also the path that she wanted). She married my grandfather, had her children, and devoted herself to living as creatively as she could in the context she was given. She cooked, baked, canned, knitted and crocheted items that received prizes each year at the county fair; she painted, did calligraphy, read in four languages, built gingerbread houses at Christmas, wrote, collected antiques, and maintained a garden that bloomed from February through November. I am always amazed at the range of her abilities (after subsisting on my mother’s meals for the first eighteen years of my life and takeout for the next ten, I have only now begun to experience the joys of cooking; handicrafts and artistic ability are lost on me). However, what amazes me even more is that in the late 1950’s, thirty years after completing her Bachelor of Science degree, my Bacci went to work for the first time. As a pharmacist. Economic need drove her to it – her husband was dying of cancer and could no longer work himself; the family was in deep debt. And so, without making any fuss, she brushed up on what she had learned decades earlier, researched the latest developments in her field, and got to work.

Naturally I wish I could ask her how she did it. Was there no fear, no self-doubt behind that firm expression she always wore? How did she relearn everything, and how did she become informed of all the ways her field had changed in those thirty years? How did she keep her resilience in the face of so much adversity? During my Bacci’s long life, she had the misfortune of losing not only her husband, but three of her five children (one died in infancy, two in the prime of life) as well as her daughter-in-law; she coped with her husband’s alcoholism, endured economic hardships and the challenges of caring for him when his health failed in middle age, and eventually had to face her own ageing and death. And yet, with a fortitude as unassuming as it was strong, she moved through the phases of her life as deftly and gracefully as a trained dancer, always landing on her feet. She worked as a pharmacist for three decades, only retiring in her mid eighties when no longer physically capable of meeting the job’s demands. She continued pursuing her hobbies throughout her life, crocheting the beautiful tablecloth that now adorns my parents’ dining room table. During the second half of her life she travelled to over thirty countries on five continents, hiking in New Zealand, dealing with black market money changers in communist Poland and joining one of the first groups of foreign tourists to visit China after its revolution. She never tired of learning and experiencing as much as life would allow her – which, as she delightfully found out, was quite a lot.

However, what impresses me most about my grandmother is the strength she showed in the face of life’s challenges. Compared to her, I have led an easy life. As of this writing, I have yet to deal with serious financial hardship; I have yet to care for the dying; I have no children and certainly cannot imagine what it would be like to lose them. And yet, I feel like I’m always on the edge of some crisis, always about to stumble into an emotional abyss of loneliness, discouragement or fear. How did she keep her chin up like that? When she died in 1995 I had just turned twelve years old; I was much too young to appreciate the richness of her life and the strength of her character. Sometimes, I wish I could have her back, just for an afternoon or evening meal. I wish I could clasp her hand in mine, look into her big blue eyes, and ask her how she did it. She is one of the ones who made me; one quarter of my genetic material is hers, so surely there must be some of her in me. But at the present moment, as I stand at a crossroads and face a future filled with uncertainty, I don’t know where to find her.

A few years after my Bacci’s death, I attended a charismatic religious retreat intended specifically for youth. I remember it as an impactful and somewhat unnerving event, filled with music and song that put all of us participants into a trance-like state. Suddenly, her face flashed before me; I felt her gnarled hand on my shoulder, reaching out with tenderness and love. It wasn’t a hallucination, and I don’t believe it was her ghost. It was only a memory. But, it still startled me. I hadn’t really thought of her much during my teenage years, and then, all of a sudden, she appeared. “She’s watching over you,” my father said gently when I later told him about my experience. And, while I’m not sure if that is true that the dead watch over the living, I can’t help but imagine that somewhere, in some way she is aware of my life, just as I have become aware of hers.

“Do you think Bacci would approve of how I’ve lived during these years?” I recently asked my father, referring to my twenties, which were filled with travel and educational pursuits. “She’d love it,” he affirmed, and all I can say is that I hope that he’s right. And, now that I can sense challenges on the horizon, I also hope that I can draw strength from this connection that, though tenuous, somehow feels stronger as we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. One of the things I most love about my Catholic faith is the idea that the living and the dead form a community – we call it the communion of saints. Despite our individuality, despite the inevitable isolation that each of us must endure, we can trust that we are all on this human journey together, and we can also rely on one another for strength – not only our living friends and companions, but also the beloved ancestors who have walked this road before us.


Surprised by Joy

December 18, 2012

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob


  • Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1


Christians throughout the world are now celebrating the third week of Advent. Two days ago we celebrated “Gaudete Sunday” – the day of rejoicing. I’ll admit that, as I dragged my feet to Mass and skulked into the church halfway through the psalm, I didn’t feel in anything like a joyous mood.

I’ve spent the past several weeks (or perhaps months) in a slight malaise. Lately I feel I’ve been going through the motions of my own life – dragging myself to class or choir rehearsal, but letting my mind wander during every meeting ; gripping the handrail in the subway, my face buried in a book I’m only half-reading, and refusing to notice the people around me.

Meanwhile, the current and projected future state of our world does not provide much cause for rejoicing. I’ll admit that the horrific reality of the Newtown, CT shooting has not quite set in with me. Somehow, any news transmitted by mass media lately has a way of feeling less than real. But unfortunately, rape, murder, torture, cruelty in every form is all too real. I firmly believe that we are all capable of committing these horrific acts, and they are taking place everyday, all around the world.

Where are we to find light amid all this darkness? How can we rejoice even when the reality around us looks so bleak? A partial answer in this past Sunday’s liturgical readings and also from the priest’s homily. Gaudete Sunday – the day of rejoicing. But what does it mean to rejoice? Does it mean the same thing as to be happy?

According to the priest celebrating last Sunday’s Mass, happiness and joy are two very different things. The former has to do with our circumstances. As he explained it, happiness is something often very fleeting that comes to us from outside – often from having our needs and desires met. Joy, on the other hand, is internal. It lies deep within us, perhaps buried at times, perhaps intangible when we find ourselves face to face with adversity. And yet, for Christians, this joy is nothing passive. It is a light that shines through every darkness, giving us the courage to keep walking in the night.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very happy person, and my current profession (if I dare call it that) as a graduate student in the humanities is not the most conducive to happiness (parasitical and privileged as we lovers of learning may be, we inhabit a social space that tends to cultivate and validate the “Woe is me” attitude). But even before I became a PhD student, my moods tended toward the lugubrious, and I’ve often envied my more ebullient friends and acquaintances who, no matter what injustices or difficulties they encounter, never stop smiling.

And yet…I can also say that while I’ve never been particularly happy, I am very familiar with the kind of joy that is celebrated on Gaudete Sunday. It’s not the magical, radiant, festive joy of Christmas. It is much more subdued, a moment of rose amid a season of penitential purple. It’s not the joy of fulfilled desire, but that of eager, patient waiting for a fulfillment that we hope will come.

Just as I’m not a particularly happy person, I’m also not a patient person – especially in this age of instant communication and instant gratification. And yet, the joy we celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is very familiar to me. It was there when, as a teenager, I struggled at finding myself in the middle of my parents’ marital conflicts, and it helped me to give my mother the support she needed during what was a very difficult time. It was there in my last year of college, as I panicked at the prospect of having truly to take charge of my own life and decisions for the first time. It was there during my first job as a high school teacher, in which I found myself unable to overcome my inexperience and anxiety while dealing with some very unruly kids.

“Sometimes you’re happy,” a deeply spiritual Evangelical Christian friend said to me during that time. “Sometimes you’re unhappy. But God is always present.” I initially balked at what seemed like his trivialization of my misery, but as time went by I started to understand. Even when I most dreaded the morning commute to my job, even when I came home in the evening only to collapse on my bed in exhaustion, there were still moments in the day when something – an encouraging word from a colleague or an engaged class discussion – would fill me with the joy that comes in the midst of struggle.

As of this writing, I have not yet read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy. And yet, I find the title intriguing. Joy is indeed something that tends to take me by surprise. I was shocked when last night, while reading about a small nonprofit organization’s efforts to save endangered languages in New York City, I experienced a feeling I hadn’t known in quite a long time: excitement. It was a sudden stirring, a sudden bubbling up of a feeling that, though not always felt, is nonetheless present, an underground river rushing below the surface of everyday life.

We are not living in happy times. Violence continues to plague the world; many people are suffering due to the global economic crisis; inequality is increasing; environmental and technological upheavals loom ahead. As for the personal level…I have no doubt that the kinds of personal problems I’ve described in this post are trivial when compared with the ones that you have experienced. However, I am convinced that the joy that Catholic Christians celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is not specific to Christians or indeed to any religious people alone. Surely you can to relate to a moment when, in a time of great personal struggle, you also found yourself surprised by joy.

We are not the first humans to live in uncertain times. To rejoice – to follow that light still flickering within us, no matter how dark the road – has rarely been easy, at least not for the vast majority of human beings. And yet, we are still called to remember this river that sustains us, this nourishment from within that no one can take from us.


In the Company of Saints

November 19, 2011

“I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White

When I try to imagine the Roman Catholic Church from an outsider’s perspective (which can be hard to do, given that I was born and raised in it), I suspect that a lot of its traditions appear strange and even creepy. From the painful image of Christ crucified to the consumption of his flesh and blood during the Eucharist,  so many Catholic customs are tinged with the grotesque.  Excepting these rituals, I would suspect that one of the oddest concepts for most non-Catholics to grasp is that of sainthood.

Most readers of this blog will probably have at least a vague idea of what a saint is.  Patrick, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila – all of them real, historical figures who, through their extraordinary actions, have been granted an official honor by the Church, allowing for the cathedrals  under their name to be built and prayer cards bearing their image to be printed. Fine, you might say, but the next obvious question is, so what? Why do supposedly monotheistic Catholic Christians need to honor these people? Isn’t it enough just to pray to God?

What some of you may not know is that not all saints receive titles of honor from the institution of the Church – indeed, most do not. A saint is simply a witness to the power of God’s glory and goodness, an ordinary person who, in the course of what might otherwise be an uneventful life, does extraordinary things. As Catholics, we believe that we are all called to be saints. I would argue that human history has abounded with non-Catholic and indeed nonreligious saints as well. In every time and place, people have dared to go against the current, raising their voices against injustice and leading lives of holiness that inspire us all.

As for the ecclesiastically recognized saints…we Catholics admire them as models to follow. And, while we certainly believe in praying directly to God, there are many advantages to praying to the saints as well. For us the divine is both transcendent (standing above and beyond the physical world) and immanent (deeply, intimately embedded within it). Hence the Trinity: God the Father, who created the world and holds it in existence, is transcendent; God the Son, who was born a human, ministered to the outcasts of society and died a common criminal, is the supreme example of immanence. God the Spirit, perhaps the most perplexing of the three divine persons, is something of a mediator between these two planes of reality, a reminder that even though Christ has long left this world, his presence is still here among us.

The Trinity is undoubtedly one of the strangest concepts to arise within the last two thousand years of human thought, and its full meaning, history and theological implications lie far beyond the scope of this blog. However, what my brief explanation seeks to show is that, when faced with something as sublimely crazy as the Triune God, who wouldn’t want to pray to a saint?

The Christian God is indeed the gentle Jesus who cured lepers and befriended sinners, but he is also the angry Jesus who attacked the high priests and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He is the loving Father who led his people out of slavery in Egypt, but also the violent whirlwind who refused to offer Job any explanation for his suffering. God is in many ways a personification of the ineffable, the mysterious, the contradiction that evades all resolution, the truth that reveals itself in brief moments only to veil itself again. We approach this God with love and trust, but also with reverent fear. And sometimes, when faced with all this mystery, we need the guidance of someone who can make the divine just a little more tangible, who can serve as a bridge between this world and the next. For this the saints are just great.

This past weekend, I attended a retreat organized by the University of Toronto Newman Centre based on the theme of sainthood. I was hesitant to participate as lately I’ve been swamped with work (hence the decline in frequency of posts to this blog), but as the bus twisted its way out of Toronto and slowly headed toward Orangeville, ON, I knew I’d made the right decision. I spent the next forty-eight hours wandering the grounds of the Mount Alverno Retreat Centre, following a path through the woods marked by the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage to the centre of a labyrinth (modeled on the famous one at Chartres Cathedral),  and discussing life,  faith and sainthood with twenty-five passionate  Catholics from all over the world.

The retreat’s leader, Father Mike Machacek, delivered talks on three different saints of the Church: St. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century founder of the Franciscan religious order; St. Therese of Lisieux, the nineteenth century “Little Flower” whose “little way” to Christ continues to inspire Catholics everywhere, and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an ordinary twentieth-century woman who, at a crucial moment of her life, did an extraordinary thing. The basic message? There is no single definition of a good and ethical life, and each one of us must forge our own path toward the truth. But while our roads may be different, the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.

The story of St. Francis (1182-1226) is undoubtedly familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics alike: the son of a well-to-do cloth merchant, something of a playboy in his youth who, in a way reminiscent of the Buddha, underwent a dramatic spiritual conversion. While fighting in the war between Assisi and the neighboring city-state of Perugia, Francis was captured and taken prisoner. During a year spent in a dungeon (during which he contracted malaria) he heard a voice calling him to a different sort of life. Using his inheritance to rebuild the Church of San Damiano, Francis ultimately broke off contact with his father (who was very disappointed with his life choices), led the life of a poor beggar, and went on to found the Franciscan Order of priests, sisters and lay people, dedicated to leading lives of simplicity and helping the poor.

St. Francis is one of the most famous Catholic saints, and undoubtedly one of the most challenging. “Preach the gospel always,” he is often quoted as saying. “When necessary, use words.” Although this quotation probably was not uttered by Francis himself, it certainly captures the spirit of the Franciscan life: to lead by example, to live simply, offering up all possessions and worldly attachments for the greater good. And in more recent history, many people – religious and nonreligious alike – have answered this call. Groups like the Fifty Percent Club – whose members vow to give half of their income or more to charity for at least three years – certainly embody the Franciscan spirit. And a very close friend of mine has recently expressed his own desire to lead his life in this humbly generous way.

For me, however, the story of St. Francis is extremely challenging. While I strongly desire to live according to the Christian values and virtues with which I was raised, I must admit that I have many other desires which conflict with these. I like wine. I like the opera. I like trips to Poland and England and Uruguay. Hence the E.B. White quotation at the top of this post. I see myself as the hero of a nineteenth century novel, treating my own life as an artistic creation while yearning to make my own unique mark on my environment. Ultimately, while my conscience urges me to save the world, my heart remains bent on savoring it.

And so, I’m afraid I can’t call myself a Franciscan in any sense. However, as the retreat continued, I realized that there may still be a way to save my soul. Looking through the variety of personalities, abilities and life histories of the saints, we see that in Catholicism there is more than one way to lead an ethical life.

It is often remarked that a sad saint is a sorry saint. Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) was neither. As a young woman in Magenta, Italy, she enjoyed living life to the fullest. After studying medicine, she dreamed of working as a Catholic foreign lay missionary, but unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition. Instead, she worked as a doctor, got married and had three children, and enjoyed many of pleasures of life – skiing, painting, dressing up, and travelling.

Just before giving birth to her fourth child, Gianna learned that she had a serious fibroma in her uterous and threatened her life. She was given three options: abortion, hysterectomy, or removal of the fibroma only. Interestingly, the second option would not have been considered morally wrong by the Church – even if it inadvertently led to the death of the baby. In this case, as in many others, Catholic ethics focus on purity of intention rather than desireability of consequence.

For Gianna, however, the consequence was what really mattered. She opted to risk her life for her child. One week after her youngest daughter was born, Gianna herself died.

Gianna’s life was not extraordinary. She did not save the world; she did not even bring any sort of goodness into it in the utilitarian sense. What makes her a saint is the consistent ethic by which she led her life, and the courage she exhibited in her final moments. “Gianna spent her whole life preparing for this final decision,” Father Mike told us. “And it’s the same way with us…We are all called to holiness, no matter what our status in life.”

The last saint discussed on this retreat could in some ways be seen as a synthesis of Francis and Gianna, displaying certain attributes of each. However, her path toward goodness was distinctly her own. The life of Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower,” 1873-1897) was brief, simple, and in its own way very extraordinary. Raised in an ardently religious family (all four of her sisters grew up to become nuns), Therese was determined to join the Carmelite Order already as a teenager. When the convent refused her, saying that she was too young, she accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to Rome and asked none other than the Pope himself to let her enter. With his blessing, she ultimately received the order’s permission and entered the convent in 1888 at the age of fifteen.

For the next nine years she led a quiet life among the sisters, enduring the austerity of Carmelite life despite her ill health, overseeing the novices (newcomers to the convent), and writing her now-famous autobiography, The Story of a Soul. This simple saint, so unremarkable by many standards, has been honored all over the world to this day, and the nun who never traveled beyond the confines of her Carmelite convent is now the patron of Catholic missionaries.

For me, Therese is similar to Saint Francis in that she renounced worldly desires in favor of a purely religious life; however, she is similar to St. Gianna in that her attention was focused primarily internally on her relationship with God. In many ways Therese’s life seems less remarkable than Gianna’s – a simply life in the convent, cut short when she died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. And yet, her “little way” to Christ – which consists of loving God like a little child and seeing his goodness amid the trials and irritations of everyday life – has inspired Catholics all over the world.

What does it mean to live a good life? As long as humans have existed, we have offered so many answers to this question, and in my opinion, no answer has been completely satisfactory. But for me, the lesson which these saints offer is that goodness, beauty and truth – however we might choose to define them – can still be found by those who seek them.

One of my favorite concepts in Catholicism is that of the communion of saints – the idea that we are all part of a great spiritual network that includes the living and the dead, joined together in the mystical Body of Christ.  As I boarded the bus back to Toronto, I reflected on just how fortunate I am to be part of this community which, though created by humans, is guided by the love of the divine. And now, as I struggle to make the transition from wandering meditatively among falling leaves to the more laborious tasks of preparing for exams and marking papers, I must remember Gianna’s joy, Therese’s perseverence and Francis’ commitment. Life’s journey is not easy, but thankfully I find myself surrounded by companions. And, as Father Mike said, the roads may be different, but the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.

I was raised by an ardently pro-life mother, and her influence on me was significant. As a teenager I accompanied her to Respect Life meetings and prayer vigils at our church, held a sign stating “Abortion Kills Children” at the annual Life Chain (a street protest commemorating the passing of the 1973 US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States), and learned as much as I could about the issue. For a freshman bioethics project I researched all the grisly details of various abortion procedures, particularly intact dilation and extraction, and wrote an essay outlining all of the ethical problems I found there: primarily, that abortion involves inflicting excruciating pain on a defenseless human being.

One day, when I walked into the high school cafeteria, my pro-life button pinned to my collar, one of my more feisty classmates immediately rolled her eyes at me. “You’re pro-life? Really? Come on, Jeannine. What do you think you would do if you got pregnant?”

I stared at her, indignant. How could this little bitch even think – much less say – something like this about me? In all my fourteen years I’d barely talked to any boys, much less done anything else. I was a paragon of virtue. An example of perfect innocence. Needless to say, I was very, very sheltered for my fourteen years.

At that age I had no real awareness that not all fourteen-year-olds had the same kind of privilege. That in the world – in my country, perhaps even my own city – there were fourteen-year-olds forced into prostitution in order to survive. That a fourteen-year-old could get raped – by a stranger, by a relative, by a friend – and end up pregnant as a result. That the world was filled with all sorts of terror and trauma of which abortion was only one example.

Nowadays, I still believe the basic moral principles that guide the pro-life movement. The question of when human life begins – whether at conception, birth or perhaps some other stage in one’s personal development from childhood to maturity – is complex, and I don’t think that there is a simple answer. However, one fact that cannot be denied is that a fetus is a living being which after the first month of pregnancy has a beating heart and can feel pain, and as I understand it, inflicting the kind of pain that abortion induces on such a being is not morally justifiable.  Nevertheless, the arguments of the other side also resonate with a certain truth. My friend’s question comes back to me. If I were to find myself unexpectedly pregnant, even now, what would I do? I’d like to think that I would carry the baby to term and deliver him or her into life (even if I opted to give the child up for adoption afterwards). But still, I can’t say for certain what I would do until the situation happens. Who am I to judge someone else, especially if that someone has become pregnant in traumatic circumstances?  For people on the pro-choice side, the issue is not the morality of abortion itself. It is more about who gets to make moral decisions. The choice is left to the individual. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, that is her right and responsibility, and the consequences that come with it are hers to deal with. Members of the pro-life movement often refer to people of the pro-choice movement as “pro-abortion.” I doubt that anyone on the pro-choice side would state that abortion in itself is a good thing. And now we come to the main point of this post.

The debate over abortion – which continues to rage in the United States as well as many other countries – is one fuelled with harsh rhetoric, polarization, and exclusion; it’s a culture war in which each side seeks to strengthen its position by casting the opposition out as an absolute enemy. While pro-lifers frame pro-choicers as “pro-abortion,” pro-choicers frame pro-lifers as misogynistic and “anti-choice,” disrespecting an individual woman’s right to make a moral decision for herself. A closer look reveals that the two sides are essentially arguing about different issues: while one looks at the morality of the act itself, the other focuses on the question of who should have the authority to make this moral decision: the individual or the community? The issues are separate, but the abortion debate combines them into one. And this, to my understanding, is the main reason why this remains such a polarized issue. The two sides continue to argue and argue without admitting just what it is that they are arguing about.

A recent article on the Slacktiverse blog  explains this confusion in more depth by focusing on the differences between proclamation and policy – two different philosophical conceptions about the role of law. According to the author of this piece,

 The “proclamation” perspective holds that the purpose of the law is to announce or express the moral views of society, while the “policy” perspective holds that law should be used to change the material conditions of society, including through indirect means. The unacknowledged difference between these two perspectives leads to proposed laws being justified in terms that their opponents find literally incomprehensible, causing confused political discourse. Likewise, the under-examination of this distinction leads to thoughtless, unjustified radicalism on this question. Even a cursory exploration of these two sides of the law can help clarify numerous legislative debates, past and contemporary, while allowing citizens to more clearly understand their own views and values.

The author of the article suggests that both proclamation and policy are valid ways of thinking about the law and have their rightful place. He continues,

The “proclamation” model holds that the law represents an expression of moral values. Among the most lauded examples of the “proclamation” model of law was the USA’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation marked an official declaration of the Union’s position on slavery: unequivocally against. It was able to fulfill this goal without, in fact, freeing many slaves. Though it ultimately took several more years of military action and a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery in the USA as an institution, the Emancipation Proclamation is still understood as the key moment in the process of emancipation, because it articulated the Union’s moral stance against slavery so incontestably… Conversely, the “policy” model holds that the aim of the law is to change conditions as they actually apply; to address problems and improve the state. It is hard to find an independent, ideal example of legislative work of this form—as policy cannot be considered in isolation, and it does not tend to attract much notice. Thus, we can consider the example of a field rather than a particular law. Traffic law is a useful example for an initial approach. It involves a great number of small decisions which must be made, by the legislature or regulatory bodies. Few, if any, such decisions can be resolved by appeal to prior moral principle.

The author argues that each approach to law has its rightful place and that in some cases, such as in laws against perjury. However, he states that they come into conflict in some cases and cites abortion as an example:

 I personally encountered one such question when talking with a pro-life friend. (I myself am pro-choice.) I made the argument that legal abortion keeps the procedure safe while not actually increasing its frequency, and that, on the other hand, the pro-life movement fails to endorse policies that would actually decrease the incidence of abortion. He granted this claim, more or less, but held that it was still important to outlaw abortion as a statement of what is right and wrong. Policy-relevant information will not affect the legislative preferences of someone thinking in proclamation terms.

In general, this argument leads me to wonder if it might be possible to make some sort of compromise on the abortion issue – or at least achieve a greater level of understanding – by looking at the issue in terms of the proclamation/policy distinction. For people on the pro-choice side, I have to ask – would it really weaken their argument to admit that abortion is a painful procedure for both mother and child, that it is traumatic, and that it is  – for some people at least – morally questionable? I remember when the war in Iraq was about to begin in 2003. When Democrats began to state their opposition to the war on moral grounds, the standard Republican response was, “We’re not pro-war. No one wants there to be a war. We just see it as the only viable option in this case.”  Leavng the Iraq War and its moral implications aside for the moment, I will state that, in general, war and abortion are similar issues. Both involve loss of life, both are deemed inherently immoral by some, and both can’t be prevented by legislation (ever hear of the Kellogg-Briand Pact passed to outlaw war after World War I?)  By acknowledging the morally questionable nature of abortion and stating directly that they seek not to promote or actively encourage people to seek abortions, by making a statement about ethos as well as policy, people on the pro-choice side could potentially engage with a much less heated discussion with pro-lifers than what usually occurs.  

Meanwhile, people on the pro-life side might benefit from looking at the issue from a policy perspective. If we really want to bring about an end to abortion, is seeking to change the law necessarily the best approach? Won’t abortions continue to occur illegally (and dangerously)? Perhaps the better approach is to focus on policies that will lower the amount of unwanted pregnancies that occur as well as promoting the primary alternative to abortion: adoption. We can also seek to educate women about the options available to them and let them know that abortion isn’t the only option for someone who, for whatever reason, cannot or does not want to become a mother.  We can respect the individual’s right to make moral decisions while working – through various  peaceful, respectful means – to encourage them to make a good decision.

 Finally, for those of us who are religious – as many in the pro-life movement are – we can pray. Pray for healing for those women who have endured abortion, as well as for those who have endured rape, abuse and all sorts of traumas. Pray for healing in a world where the culture of death manifests in so many forms – capital punishment, war, poverty, discrimination against the elderly, disabled and all who are vulnerable in our society. In the world in which we live, it can be hard to believe that prayer still matters; it’s something I all too often forget. But it is through prayer that we can learn to become truly compassionate toward the people who need us most.

“But I worked so hard,” I said to my boss, whom I’ll call Mrs. Menendez. She stared at me firmly, her eyelids blinking from behind her thin, wire-rimmed glasses. “I worked twelve, fourteen hours a day…Sometimes I got up a three in the morning to correct papers,” I told her, all too aware that the pitch of my voice was increasing to a whine.

 I couldn’t believe that this was happening. It had been a difficult year, but I had gotten through it. It’s true that in the first semester I hadn’t been the most effective teacher. I’d like to think that most of the students in my tenth grade English literature class and twelfth grade communications class had learned the course material (at least, on those few occasions when I could get them to stop sending text messages to each other or throwing little pieces of paper at me) but certainly not all of them had learned. But the second semester was different. My students were actually reading. They were writing. They were learning. On certain days my classes were still a disaster, but on the whole I was in control. So now, after all the hard work I’d put in, after all I’d improved, I was receiving my end-of-year evaluation. My grade: a pathetic 63. For the students, 65 was the passing grade. If held to their standard, I was a failure.

 “We’re not measuring the effort; we’re measuring the result,” said Mrs. Menendez, continuing to stare at me squarely. I felt my own face flushing. According to her, all the work I’d done – all the time I’d spent preparing classes and planning activities and correcting assignments – all of it was for nothing. I left her office trembling, my eyes filled with water, and then went to teach the class I had the next period. Just to spite me, Mrs. Menendez (who had never so much as peeked into one of my classes other than the ten-minute official observation back in November) came walking by my classroom three times, a wry grin on her face. At the end of the day, there was nothing I could do but flee to the school chapel and cry.

 In the July/August 2011 issue of The Atlantic, the featured article is entitled “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids,” by psychologist, mother and author Lori Gottlieb. According to Gottlieb, since the 1980’s, North American children have been overly indulged by doting parents who are often more concerned about their own needs to see themselves as good parents than they are about their children’s welfare. As a society we fear failure or even the slightest amount of unhappiness, so we make sure that children are praised for doing the most basic household chores and given trophies from their sports coaches just for trying hard. They aren’t given any criticism; they’re shielded from the experience of failure so intensely that they never develop resilience, and this overly perfect childhood inevitably leaves them unprepared for the normal challenges of adulthood.

 Normally I wouldn’t think of myself as being part of that generation (despite having been born in the early ’80’s).  After all, I experienced plenty of failure and downright humiliation as a kid. I still remember the two years I spent on the middle school basketball team (two years spent mainly on the bench, and while I tried very hard indeed, I did not succeed, and I certainly didn’t receive any trophy or medal just for trying). Then there was the disappointment I felt when, after auditioning for The Sound of Music during my first week of high school (and having no doubts that I’d get in – I’d performed in every elementary musical, after all) I darted up to the cast list posted outside the principal’s office and found my name indisputably absent. Then there was my senior year of college when, in my first moment of true academic hubris, I decided to write my senior thesis on the Changing Definitions of Reason Through Time. My professors didn’t have the heart to tell me that that an undergraduate thesis was not the right venue for such a project, nor that the eminent Canadian Charles Taylor had already done what I dreamed of doing – only his effort resulted in a thousand page volume entitled Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. In all of those cases, as much as I strove to re-frame my failures as a “growth period” or a “learning experience,” I had no choice but to admit my defeat.

 And yet, I could not help but feel indignant at the review my boss had given me – upon completion of my first real job, no less! For ten months I had endured five separate groups of unruly teenagers – and if I was overindulged, I’d like to hear what Gottlieb would have to say about them. In a school where teachers come and go through a revolving door, I’d made the commitment to stick through to the end, and I’d done it. I’d been persistent, brave, and committed, and I’d truly loved my students. I’d lived according to the values I’d been raised with and still cherished, the virtues that I’d worked to cultivate through all the years of my own education. How could all that effort count as a failure?”

 “We’re not measuring the effort; we’re measuring the result,” she’d said. Her words were cold. Her words were cruel. Her words were very, very true. I still believe very strongly that one’s inner character and virtues are of utmost importance, especially in a profession such as teaching, where one sets oneself up as a leader and role model for students to follow. For me, teaching is an ethical issue if there ever was one, and a utilitarian model which focuses only on results (as opposed to the process of gaining those results) is not sufficient. However, I ultimately had to admit that my principal was correct on certain issues. In the end, a teacher’s character alone is not enough. In the end, the result is what really counts.