To coincide with the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015 the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization published a reflection on the Works of Mercy, both Corporal and Spiritual. This brief work offered a historical and theological perspective on the Works of Mercy, and also gave the reader some practical insights on bringing each Work into the daily lives of the faithful.
In the chapter on the Spiritual Works of Mercy, the first three Works are grouped together thematically as those relating to vigilance or watchfulness. As helpful as this is, there is a moral difference between someone who acts while in a state of ignorance or doubtfulness and one who acts with the knowledge that what is being done is wrong. The first two people have committed an act against the Logos, or the Will of God, yet are more or less free from guilt, while the latter has committed a sin for which she or he must take most, if not all, of the blame. The Church has always made this distinction, as will our discussion of these three first Spiritual Works of Mercy.
When we think of the adage ‘knowledge is power’ we realize the relationship between our Christian responsibility to Counsel the Doubtful and to Instruct the Ignorant. The Greek word for power is dynamis, and it is used throughout Sacred Scripture to describe the power of God active in the world. In no place is this more apparent than in the Fourth Gospel when St. John uses the term to describe the miracles of Jesus as the manifestation of this divine dynamis. The 20th Century peasant-philosopher and co-founder of the Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin, wrote of this in one of his earliest “Easy Essays” when he spoke of the need for the Church to be willing to “blow the dynamite” of the Gospel and once again become the dominant social force in the world.
This thought reverberated in my brain as I watched a video of a speaker who spends her life bringing the power of knowledge to those who might be doubtful of or ignorant of important information and the logical conclusions that follow from that important information. This would seem like a tremendous service, except that her topic is that of abortion – an area of discussion where many people feel that some information, as well as the logical conclusions pertaining to that information, must be willfully ignored.
In her talk “Abortion: From Controversy to Civility” Canadian pro-life speaker and activist Stephanie Gray gives the type of witness that would make any open-minded person of good will smile. Her approach is to engage by asking questions and telling stories, often using those stories as creative “arguments” on behalf of the unborn. I put the word arguments in quotes because her approach is in no way argumentative – she is truly a person who has brought civility to this most controversial of topics.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of her talk is its context. She was not speaking at a Catholic parish or school, nor was she giving an address at a pro-life rally or being interviewed on EWTN. She was speaking as a part of the series “Talks at Google,” which is the internet and computer giant’s version of TED Talks. Talks at Google are meant to help inform and enlighten the Google employees in the audience as well as any worldwide viewers through Google-owned YouTube. This was not a Catholic audience, by any means, but it was eminently respectful of her talk and the question-and-answer period elicited none of the tension that often comes with giving the microphone to whoever wants to speak their mind.
The talk itself is helpful to those on both sides of this incredible divide because she neither ducks the difficult cases nor sets up easily defeated straw-men. Her use of stories, analogies and the hard logic of documents like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights created and ratified by the United Nations in 1948 replaces the us-vs-them approach with one of dialogue between us and them – an approach whose goal is to dissolve the ‘them’ and leave only the ‘us’.
Ms. Gray has done a great service to all of those who have heard her, whether or not she has drawn them to her vision of care for the most vulnerable among us. She has found a way to engage others in a civil discussion on a topic that is usually cluttered with a lot of disturbingly gruesome photos and obscenely blasphemous shouting. Anyone who wants to see how to put into practice the first two Spiritual Works of Mercy – Counsel the Doubtful and Instruct the Ignorant – would do well to watch and learn from the words of this truly merciful woman in “Abortion: From Controversy to Civility”. Her talk’s easy to find – just Google it.