The Right Side of History
I have always loved history.
From the time I was a little boy, stopping at the historical entries in Art Linkletter’s Children’s Encyclopedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I have been fascinated with the past and often wondered what my response to the crises of various ages would have been. I pondered what I would have done in the chaos of the Salem witch trials, the movement for revolution in the 1770s, or the paranoia of the Red Scares of the late teens and early ’50s.
Fun exercises for a nerdy kid.
As my interest in theological matters heightened, the moral implications of decisions in moments of crisis became clearer. My focus turned, among other places, to the abolition movement in the years before the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
I wondered if I would have been among those few whites in antebellum America who, knowing that slavery is wrong, stood on behalf of enslaved people. I asked myself if I would have had the courage to leverage my advantages as a white, middle-class, relatively well-educated man in service to and with my oppressed sisters and brothers in the American South during Freedom Summer.
After all, in doing so, I would have gone against the climate of the cultures in which I would be living. I would have been labeled a fanatic. I would have faced arguments, accepted by most of my peers, as to why things like slavery and segregation were “necessary evils” but why we needed to keep them in place. After all, some argued, an end to slavery would have destroyed the Southern economy, and there were plenty of northern merchants who would be ruined--causing a rupture in the Northern economy as well. An end to Jim Crow would have torn the social fabric of the South. And I would have been bombarded with the fruit of decades of propaganda that would have told me that persons of color were--at least legally--only ⅗ of a person and unable to care for themselves.
Pondering what I would do, I concluded that I would have risked life and freedom on behalf of my Black sisters and brothers. Even bombarded with the propaganda, deep in my heart, I--like every other white Christian--would have known that people are people and that they deserved my respect and my voice and my protection because even the most clever propaganda and the highest law in the land can’t deprive people of their humanity. And while proponents of slavery and Jim Crow claimed to have had points, do any of us think that those difficulties justified the enslavement of people or stripping others of their basic rights and dignity? As a culture we found a way--imperfectly, to be sure--to overcome some of those problems and help better promote in this instance what St John Paul II called a “Culture of Life.”
I wanted to be on what would later be called the “right side of history.” I wanted to be on the side of the angels, on the side of what was good and noble--even if what was good and noble came at a price. I wanted to help change the course of history for the better. Of course I could take the moral, courageous high ground on those issues and convince myself I was a heroic champion of justice because from the safety of my dorm-room sofa I was miles and decades removed from those events. I was never really called on to put myself out there: to stand with those on the margins of society, to potentially go against the views of family and friends.
But I can’t hide anymore. Today, like the rest of us, I have been called to summon the courage to stand with one group of those who have been marginalized in our society: unborn children. And I’ve come to see that being on the “right side of history” still comes at a cost.
On November 7, Ohioans will be asked to vote on a proposal to amend, that is, change, our constitution to bring back and expand abortion practice in our state. As expected, this has proven to be decidedly divisive, even among Catholics. Of course, venom and name-calling have no place in civil discourse: good people can--and do--disagree on important issues, and we need to listen to each other. Moreover, any Christian who treats someone who felt she was pressured into or had no other recourse than abortion with anything other than compassion is unworthy of the name. But even the most sincere person can be mistaken, and even coerced acts can still have tragic effects. This is our moment in history to defend the defenseless and to stand for the rights of our tiniest sisters and brothers.
That is, after all, what this issue is about whether unborn children have a right to life or not. Proponents of the measure play on our fears that mothers who miscarry will not receive help, birth control will not be made available to people, and individuals will be denied fertility care. Those tend to be the focus of the ads that I’ve seen. But if those are the concerns that are the ones worth focusing on in the ads, why doesn’t the proposed amendment limit itself to those issues? Why bury the lede? Could it be a cynical attempt to make those who would otherwise vote “no” on the issue feel like doing so would deprive mothers who’ve miscarried basic medical care--medical care even Catholic hospitals have always already provided?
Asking we Catholics and “all people of goodwill” to vote against the measure, the Catholic bishops of Ohio, in their February 2023 statement said:
Our Holy Father Pope Francis reminds us that “Our defense of the innocent unborn … needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development” (Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 101). (Catholic Conference of Ohio Statement, February 28, 2023)
It’s not always easy in the moment to know what the “right side of history” is, but one thing is sure: history--or, more correctly, the Author of history--never sides with those who deny the life and dignity of people. Not in the long run, anyway.
Implicitly reminding us that the Church is not merely “anti-abortion” but fully “pro-life,” the bishops further emphasized that:
[o]ur commitment to protecting and promoting life included providing resources and accompanying women during and after pregnancy through our numerous social service agencies, schools, and parishes. (ibid.)
It is a position the North American Jesuits made when, in the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe vs. Wade last June, they “welcomed” the Supreme Court’s decision as a “critical step toward the legal protection of unborn children” and emphasized that.
We also affirm our belief that building what Saint John Paul II called a “culture of life” requires a stronger social safety net than our country has today. To be truly pro-life, we must support all women, expectant parents, and their children by advocating for policies like universal health care, paid parental leave, and a more equitable distribution of our country’s abundant resources. (“Society of Jesus Welcomes the Overturning of Roe v. Wade, June 22, 2022)
The group Feminists for Life, as part of their Women Deserve Better campaign, has declared that “abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women.” There are no easy answers to the problems that make people feel their only recourse is abortion. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking there are. But in 50 years of legalized abortion, those issues haven’t been solved. Sadly, as a society, we haven’t really tried. Certainly, we can agree that whatever the solutions are, killing the innocent shouldn’t be one of them. And as difficult as it is to hear--and it is difficult to write--that is what we are talking about here. We need to stand with those who can’t stand for themselves. We need to stand with mothers in crisis pregnancies. And we need to defend unborn children.
I fear that when the history of the first quarter of the 21st century is written, historians will characterize us as a people whose first impulse when confronted with difficulty was to turn to violence: tomahawk missiles on foreign shores, syringes of potassium chloride in prison cells, AR15s in school hallways…and abortion. But I trust that when the history of the second quarter of this century is written, it will speak of a people acting with justice and, dare I hope, love. As the Jesuits remind us, defending our children takes more than defeating this proposal. What we do in standing for life in these next few weeks will not make the dream of a culture of life happen right away. But it would be a start. Then, when that story of this next era of our country is written, we can proudly say that not only were we on the right side of history…
…we changed it.
A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.
While Saint Ignatius High School does not publicly endorse or oppose political candidates or state/national ballot issues, Jim Brennan's reflection is offered in the spirit of education and spiritual formation.