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What Does ‘Pro-Life’ Mean In This Crisis?

Bizarrely, Andrew Cuomo outflanks First Things editor on the sanctity of life
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I wrote last night about First Things editor Rusty Reno’s essay criticizing the lockdowns and social distancing requirements as a surrender to “death’s dominion,” but the more I think about it, the more it bothers me, and the more it strikes me as a bigger deal than I initially thought. Here’s a link to the Reno essay itself. Before you comment on any of this, you ought to read it in its entirely. In this comment, I’m not going to repeat what I said in last night’s entry — read that here — but I’ll sum it up here:

Reno bases his argument on an inarguable point, for Christians: that we are not to be afraid of death, and relatedly, that there are some things worth giving one’s life for. But he uses that truth to make a very bad argument that all the social distancing measures the authorities — including church authorities — are taking to reduce spread of the coronavirus amount to a cowardly surrender to “death’s dominion,” and are a sign of little faith. This is wrong (I said), first because it amounts to an abstract, intellectual piety that is disconnected from the realities of death by coronavirus, and second because it ignores the plain fact that this death-dealing infection is highly infectious, and is spread by close personal contact. When Reno faults priests who (at their bishop’s order) are not able to go visit the sick, he ignores the biological fact that a priest who is infected but doesn’t yet know it can spread the virus to the sick, and kill them. That is a fact that no amount of pious rationality can deny.

If a self-sacrificing priest was only taking his own life into his hands when he visited the sick, that might be a case of heroic sanctity. But the unavoidable reality is that he takes the lives of others into his hands — not only those he visits, but those who the visitors, if they become infected, will later see. Stopping this transmission is why governments are taking the extreme steps of risking total destruction of their own economies to lock everybody down.

Furthermore, there really are some things worth dying for, but going about one’s business as a man about town in Manhattan is not one of them. Nobody is asking Reno or anyone else to deny Christ; they’re just asking him to deny himself the pleasure of others’ company for a period, for the sake of saving lives.

Reno is a friend of mine, an intelligent man, and a good man. That’s why I take his column seriously. But it was on my mind this morning when I woke up, and so was this tweet:

When the Catholic editor of the leading conservative Christian magazine allows the fanatically pro-abortion Andrew Cuomo to outflank him on the issue of the sanctity of human life, well, we have a problem.

Damon Linker nails it hard:

In Reno’s view, “physical life” is merely one good among many. Indeed, to hold that life should take precedence over other goods, like “justice, beauty, and honor,” is, he claims, a form of “sentimentalism,” and nothing less than evidence of death’s, and Satan’s, expanding dominion over our culture and civilization. This would seem to clash rather violently with the premise of the pro-life position. After all, if physical life can be overridden by other considerations, then we’re no longer thinking about morality in terms that justify absolute (unconditional) strictures against terminating a pregnancy. Put somewhat differently, if justice, beauty, and honor can trump the protection of physical life, then why not the personal autonomy of the pregnant woman? It would seem that Reno has fatally undermined the foundation of his own absolute opposition to abortion.

Yet Reno anticipates this objection and implicitly addresses it head on by making a crucial distinction early on in the essay. The anti-abortion fight, he asserts, is a “battle against killing.” Imposing draconian public-health measures in order to protect our families, communities, and nation from a potentially fatal illness is, by contrast, “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”

Abortion is about killing. Public health is about dying. That difference is everything for Reno.

And I would say it’s a significant difference, for a similar reason that murder is not the same thing as negligent homicide. Intent is meaningful. But Linker goes on:

Ending a pregnancy is a great evil because it is the intentional taking of an innocent human life. But other forms of dying that happen by nature (a virus killing its victim is a natural process), like deaths that follow indirectly from social and economic structures that prevail in the United States, are matters of moral indifference. Yes, they’re unfortunate. It is fitting to mourn them. They require “triage,” as Reno repeatedly puts it. But that’s life. People get sick. They die. Bad things happen. Get used to it.

… The implications of this outlook for public policy and self-government more broadly are quite astonishing. Imagine a busy suburban intersection where a car accidentally plows into and kills several children walking to a nearby school. Should the governing township respond by hiring a crossing guard or building a bridge over the thoroughfare to prevent the wrenching event from being repeated? By Reno’s logic, the answer is no. Life is unfair. The world is unjust. Children sometimes die. That’s why we have the Eucharist and the rosary — to console us while we await the return of our Lord Jesus Christ and ward off the temptations of Lucifer.

Linker points out that Reno, in his column, praises Americans of a century ago, who went about their lives despite the Spanish flu. Those, Reno says, were brave Americans. Well, it turns out that this isn’t quite true; Alan Jacobs points out that St. Louis followed social distancing restrictions, while Philadelphia was late to do so. Result: many more people died in Philly. But, says Linker, even if it were true that those Americans who went about their lives without social distancing were somehow moral exemplars, the fact it that their actions caused a lot more people to die than would have otherwise. Linker:

So much for love of neighbor. So much for the common good. So much for sacrificing a little individual liberty for something bigger and nobler than ourselves.

Read the whole thing. And read it in light of this Andrew Cuomo tweet:

I have been saying on Twitter this week that I believe the Democrats would be wise to find a way to ease Joe Biden out of the presidential race, and nominate Cuomo. This would be a terrible thing for religious and social conservatives. As I said, Cuomo is a hardcore progressive, spiter of social and religious conservatives, and personally ruthless. He has also been quite good in this crisis. As with Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, he might be an SOB, but an SOB is what we needed at that time. If Cuomo does get the nomination, expect him to run hard on the points he’s made in those tweets. And what will the regular pro-life conservative Christians have to say about it? Where did they stand on the sanctity of life when the lives at risk weren’t the unborn? When they expected impoverished pregnant women to bear the sacrifice of raising a child, because life is sacred, but they weren’t willing to bear the sacrifice of not being able to walk freely down the street to get a latte? It’s a bad, bad look.

I try to be tolerant of intellectuals who say unpopular things, because we need them, especially in a time when everyone else is rushing to take the other side. This is a lesson I learned in the Iraq War experience. This magazine you’re now reading, The American Conservative, was a pariah on the right-wing mainstream, because its founders had the temerity to oppose the coming war, which all right-thinking conservatives supported. I recall wincing at David Frum’s labeling of them as “unpatriotic conservatives,” but I would be revising history if I didn’t admit that my views were much, much closer to Frum’s than to Pat Buchanan’s. As we now know, Frum (and I) were wrong, and Buchanan was right. Always, always, always listen to the outsider. He won’t always be right, and he may often be wrong, but you should make room for what he has to say.

That said, as I reflect on Reno’s essay, I think about the hazard intellectuals face in abstracting themselves from real life. One of the things I’ve written that most embarrasses me was a piece for NRO, leading up to the Iraq War, in which I quoted, with approval, the line from Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — “Sweet and fitting it is to die for your country.” I thought I was sounding noble and courageous. I fact, I was a 35-year-old soft-bellied scribbler sitting at his desk in midtown Manhattan, working himself into a patriotic spasm. A reader whose name I have forgotten e-mailed me a caustic rebuke, telling me that I had no idea what it was like to die in war. He was 100 percent right. I have never forgotten that.

A couple of years ago, First Things published an essay by a Dominican priest defending Pope Pius IX’s seizing of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child who had been secretly baptized by the family’s Catholic housekeeper. The priest wrote:

Pope Pius IX, who had been elected in 1846, was not deterred by the negative reactions. In fact, he repeatedly replied to those who, in the face of the public brouhaha, urged him to return the Mortara child, “Non possumus”—that is, “We cannot.” Piety, not stubbornness, explains this response. Those involved in the removal of Edgardo Mortara were certainly conscious of the human pathos, but the human element was not the only one to be considered. Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing. Today’s Code of Canon Lawcan. 868 §2, still affirms that “an infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.”

The requirement that all legitimately baptized children receive a Catholic education was not arbitrary. Since baptism causes birth into new life in Christ, children require instruction about this form of new life. Furthermore, although the Italian Risorgimento had begun, the diplomatic world in 1858 still recognized Pius IX as both pope and prince in Bologna. While the pontiff displayed his human feelings by making Edgardo his ward, Pio Nono nonetheless felt duty-bound to uphold the civil law. This law was not unreasonable, moreover. Even today, the Code of Canon Lawcan. 794 §1, assigns to the Church the task of educating Catholics.

The essayist continued:

Prior to the arrival of the papal gendarme at his parents’ home, Edgardo Mortara was an anonymous Catholic. In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life.

You get the idea. “Being introduced into a regular Christian life” means “was kidnapped by agents of the Pope from his Jewish parents and raised as a Catholic.” From a Christian theological point of view, the validity of his baptism can’t be denied. But observe the stone-cold logic used here to justify stealing a boy from the bosom of his family! There was a lot of outrage that First Things published this essay (it was in the form of a book review), and Reno wrote a thoughtful response to critics, pointing out that his wife and children are Jewish, and that in publishing the essay from the priest (Fr. Romanus Cessario), he wanted to give voice to a writer whose views about what baptism requires challenged his own softer views. I find that respectable, but given the outrageousness of what Pius IX did, and how much it resonates through history, had I been Reno I would not have published a review that takes it as a given that what was done to that child and his family was an effect of kindly Providence.

Anyway, I bring it up here simply to say that what for intellectuals can be an interesting moral and theological problem can sound monstrous to the ears of ordinary people living in the world of flesh and blood. Come to think of it, I first met Damon Linker over lunch in Manhattan in the spring of 2002. I had been writing very critical things about the Catholic hierarchy over its response to the scandal, which blew up in Boston that January, and was spreading across the country. Father Richard John Neuhaus had been phoning me to scold me for the things I was saying publicly, telling me that as a Catholic, and indeed as a conservative Catholic, I had no business doing that. Linker, at the time an associate editor of First Things, was aware of this, and invited me to lunch to talk. Given his subsequent very public break with the magazine, I don’t think he would mind my telling this story.

Linker said that the editorial meetings at the magazine were hard for him to bear. He was the only one in the room who had young children, he said. He was listening to Father Neuhaus and the others discuss the scandal in an elevated, abstract way — the sort of thing you would expect from religious intellectuals. But Linker was a religious intellectual — he was Catholic at the time — and would go home at night to see his small child, and wonder if the fellow Catholics with whom he worked even saw them as real. He knew that I, as a father of a small boy, was struggling hard with the knowledge that it could have been my child, and if it had, the bishops would have rolled over my family too in an effort to defend the institution, its image, and their privilege.

Father Neuhaus and his team couldn’t see that. I saw it, and Damon Linker saw it, and it scandalized us. The people who were most real to Father Neuhaus were cardinals, bishops, priests, and theologians. Ideas were more real to him than people, at least in the matter of the scandal. To be fair, he eventually came around. He remains a man I greatly admire, despite his flaws. His is just a lesson in the blindness that can affect intellectuals. I want to emphasize that at the same time I was railing publicly against the bishops and privately against Neuhaus for not getting it, I was also publishing bullshit dulce et decorum pieces, gaudily displaying my own moral and intellectual blindness. For me, a writer at National Review in the year 2002, think-tank talking heads, Republican Party figures, and the ideas they espoused were much more real to me than the lives of soldiers who would be sent to the field to kill and die for those ideas, and those talking heads — to say nothing of the Iraqis. In this way, I was no better than Father Neuhaus.

This is a hazard faced by writers and other public intellectuals. And it should be said too that people who refuse to think hard about issues, who instead just go on feeling, are in danger of making foolish, immoral choices. Not being an intellectual does not make you right, or righteous. As Kierkegaard put it, the trouble with life is it has to be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards. This extraordinary moment in history is an apocalypse, in the literal sense — an unveiling of who we really are, deep down. We are at a moment when our president, our leaders, and, because this is a democracy, all of us, are faced with a terrifying choice: poverty or death. That is, do we accept the ruin of our economy for the sake of saving more lives, or do we accept the sacrifice of lives in the hope that our economy will not be destroyed, and our middle-class way of life obliterated?

Wendell Berry, in a 2008 essay called “Faustian Economics,” wrote:

The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as “higher animals.” But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals — which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself: “I am that I am.”


If we go back into our tradition, we are going to find a concern with religion, which at a minimum shatters the selfish context of the individual life, and thus forces a consideration of what human beings are and ought to be.

This concern persists at least as late as our Declaration of Independence, which holds as “self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” Thus among our political roots we have still our old preoccupation with our definition as humans, which in the Declaration is wisely assigned to our Creator; our rights and the rights of all humans are not granted by any human government but are innate, belonging to us by birth. This insistence comes not from the fear of death or even extinction but from the ancient fear that in order to survive we might become inhuman or monstrous.

And so our cultural tradition is in large part the record of our continuing effort to understand ourselves as beings specifically human: to say that, as humans, we must do certain things and we must not do certain things. We must have limits or we will cease to exist as humans; perhaps we will cease to exist, period. At times, for example, some of us humans have thought that human beings, properly so called, did not make war against civilian populations, or hold prisoners without a fair trial, or use torture for any reason.

We cannot have it all. We cannot save both lives and our economy. Nature, in the form of a deadly virus, forces this choice on us. We have to hope that our leaders will do their best to save lives and limit economic destruction, but when hard decisions have to be made — and they are having to be made daily by those in authority — we have to take risks on the side of life. As I wrote yesterday, quoting Flannery O’Connor, “You can’t be any poorer than dead.”

As I write this, I can hear my 16-year-old son, a singer, in his bedroom singing a fragment of an antiphon: “God is love, God is love, God is love.” He is so innocent of what is happening around him. Chances are that his parents will be poor for the next few years. Maybe always. His own prospects for making a living, and knowing economic stability, have been and are being dramatically reduced because of what is happening right now, beyond the boundaries of our quiet subdivision. But because of the economic sacrifices being forced on so many of us — people we know and love, and before long, us — he stands a better chance of surviving this crisis, and being around for many years to proclaim God’s love with the voice God has given him. And maybe his grandmother, bound like a prisoner to her house in the country these days, will be around to see him marry. What kind of price can you put on that?

My late father, who was born in 1934, used to tell my sister and me stories all the time about his Depression childhood. How his father was absent for much of his youth, because he had to be out on the road making whatever he could to send home to support his wife, his widowed mother, and his two sons. How the only way the family had meat many nights was if my dad and his older brother went into the woods and shot squirrels. Things like that that were scarcely imaginable to us kids, growing up in the relative prosperity of the 1970s. Daddy used to say, one way or another, “We were so poor, but we didn’t know how poor we were, because everybody around us was poor too. But we had each other, and that’s what mattered.” Ruthie and I heard that so many times that we treated it as a sentimental cliche. Daddy’s words sound different in my ears today, in the light of this present apocalypse.

The idea that we are meant to live without limits is a curse that manifests itself on both the left and the right, in different ways. In political terms, the next election will be fought on what’s being done right now, in this crisis. As regular readers know, I deeply and passionately reject the Sexual Revolution, and all its pomps and works, which include the belief that sexual freedom is a fundamental good, and that limits on sexual freedom are immoral. That has a lot to do with why I am against abortion, against most SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) laws, and favor strong protections for religious dissenters from the progressive program. The Democratic Party has become the party of defending the Sexual Revolution, which is ultimately a defense of a particular view of what it means to be human. I reject that view. That’s why I almost always reject Democratic candidates.

But the view of limitlessness as a blessed state also manifests on the right, usually (but not exclusively) as economic policies and practices. It is by no means wrong that Donald Trump, or any president, would be concerned with the economic destruction the virus is wreaking across the country. Andrew Cuomo, and all governors, are also concerned with this. How could they not be? After all, in New York, the people who will be made poor by this shutdown are not just Republicans, but mostly Democrats, as the state is a Democratic stronghold. (Here in Louisiana, my friends who have lost their business are liberals; another friend who is on the verge of losing his business, is also a liberal.) Are we willing to accept severe limits to our own prosperity for the sake of saving more lives? That is a political question as well as a moral one, and it’s one that all of us have to answer, because it will touch all of us. I believe that the answer to that question will be the only real issue in the fall election.

What are pro-life conservative Christians saying about all this right now, in a time when nobody can say what the near-term future will hold, when our leaders — Democrats and Republicans both — have to make agonizing decisions based on limited information and moral principle? What does it mean to defend the sanctity of life under these conditions? What does it mean to defend humanity? Given the stakes, there are no easy answers, and liberals who feel the temptation to moral preening should imagine themselves having to explain their choice to families who have lost everything because of the shutdown. We’re not talking about Wall Street bigs here; we’re talking about the little guys — the millions and millions who will be economically devastated by this.

Still, I agree with Damon Linker — and I encourage all my fellow pro-life Christians to think hard about this:

Put somewhat differently, if justice, beauty, and honor can trump the protection of physical life, then why not the personal autonomy of the pregnant woman? It would seem that Reno has fatally undermined the foundation of his own absolute opposition to abortion.

Again, I find it astonishing, and a very bad sign for the future standing of intellectual Christian orthodoxy, that the basically godless left-wing governor of New York, an infamous exalter of abortion, has taken a firmer stand for the sanctity of human life than the editor of First Things magazine. Insofar as Rusty Reno’s stance is shared among leaders of the Christian Right, it’s not the kind of thing that will be forgotten, or easily overcome — especially when the death toll includes your own mother, your own neighbor, or your own child.

UPDATE: Look, I will not take guff from readers who say that I’m not taking the economic side of this crisis seriously. It’s not true at all. It scares the hell out of me to think about how I would support my family if I lost my job. It scares the hell out of me to think about what kind of society we will live in if there is general economic collapse. Reno did not write a column talking about the tradeoffs between economic suffering and deaths by virus. I folded the broader discussion about economic pain and virus response into this comment about Reno’s column, but keep in mind that Reno is writing about something adjacent, but not the same thing.

A reader just wrote to say it’s a false choice to say we have to choose between saving the economy and saving Grandma, because mass death is also economically devastating:

There is no way out of economic pain. We need to kill the virus. That’s the only option. And the fastest way to do that is 3 weeks of sheltering in place. That’s what India is going. 1.3 billion people! But not here. Here it’s all, “oh, I’ll personally be fine, so let’s get back to work.” Which is a mixture of ignorant denial and rank selfishness.

If you’re going to criticize my position, do it honestly. I’m not saying that the economy, and the pain from a collapsed economy, is meaningless. As I pointed out repeatedly in this piece, there are no good choices here, and no easy ones. But our leaders have to choose anyway — and, because this is a democracy, so do we.

UPDATE.2: Alan Jacobs is very good on the motte-and-bailey dance being done by some conservative Christians. He characterizes it like this:

A. We’re not going to practice any sissified “social distancing” — we’re followers of Jesus, and ours is not a spirit of fear. We’re not afraid to die! We know we’ll go to be with the Lord!

B. Okay, that’s fine for you, but what about all the people you might infect? What if they aren’t ready to die? What if they’re not even Christians? And anyway, should you be making that decision for them?

A. Ah, those people aren’t going to die. This thing is basically just the flu, and the whole panic has been whipped up by the media to discredit the President.

Read all his commentary on it.

UPDATE.3: Just putting this out there:

And this: