Where I live in North Carolina, October’s designation as the Right to Life month evokes parades, exhibitions, prayer sessions, emails, announcements, and much more. Quotes from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops are given prominence in bulletins with a concentration on the preeminence of the need to address the issue of abortion. Thus, the right to life is systematically narrowed in the minds and hearts of parishioners to one, overriding concern: the life of the unborn.
Quotes from Pope Francis are often cited. Taken out of context at times, they serve to uphold the solely focused argument. One message references paragraph 213 of Evangelii Gaudium:
Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.
Since this is an election year, the fervor is especially heightened. The pope’s statement, taken out of context, becomes ammunition in a tribal war. If ever it was, this would no longer be a matter for discussion or discernment. It is a cause célèbre. One is either “pro” or “anti,” for or against. No other choices are available. Winning or losing is at stake.
As we approach November, voting looms large. Tension ostensibly rises. Right to life, pro-life, becomes anti-abortion. A bumper sticker message is born. It looms large in the hearts and minds of Christians. No one dares engage in any conversation that might hint of possible modification, moderation, or mercy. Justice is rendered harshly. There is no room for compassion. Silence reigns while a bumper-sticker mentality speaks loudly and persistently. Is there an alternate path to take? Might there be a way to honor life without entombing it?
I am reminded of an article by Marti Leimbach about a broken piano and a then 29-year-old pianist, Keith Jarrett. Noted for his eccentric stagecraft and improvisations, Jarrett played with such physicality that the pianos he used were often broken in the process. For this reason, he always demanded a Bösendorfer piano, one known for its durability. “The piano he has been given for the concert is a Bösendorfer,” Leimbach writes, “but it is puny, ancient, totally unsuitable. Jarrett taps a few keys and finds it is not only the wrong size, incapable of producing enough volume for a concert performance, but also completely out of tune. The black keys don’t all work. The high notes are tinny; the bass notes barely sound and the pedals stick.”
One can imagine the resulting chaos. The guest performer establishes an ultimatum: appropriate instrument or no concert. Everyone scrambles to make it happen. The teenage girl who had thus far successfully organized this solo, sell-out event, is charged with finding a suitable piano. Despite her best efforts, it is not possible. Acknowledging her anguish, Jarrett decides to “make do” with the piano at hand. The concert ends up being a rousing success, and the recording goes on to sell 3.5 million copies worldwide.
“What happened with this piano was that I was forced to play in what was—at the time—a new way,” Jarrett later explained. “Somehow I felt I had to bring out whatever qualities this instrument had. And that was it. My sense was, ‘I have to do this. I’m doing it. I don’t care what the piano sounds like. I’m doing it.’ And I did.” In Leimbach’s view, Jarrett “does what he has to do, not because he thinks it will be good, but because he feels he has no choice. He sweated out what must have been an excruciating hour, and he triumphed.”
The musical instrument to be considered today is life itself. Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin was an advocate of a “consistent ethic of life,” arguing in the years following Roe v. Wade “that human life always is valuable and it must be respected consistently from conception to natural death.” In his critique of the political limitations of Cardinal Bernardin’s ethic of life, political theorist Steven P. Millies writes:
We need moral principles like a consistent ethic to guide us in politics. Yet moral theology is different from politics, and politics is not a philosophy classroom. Abstract principles only go so far in concrete situations. The consistent ethic embraces many complex issues in a slow-moving political system where Catholics do not have the last word. We cannot apply the consistent ethic without surveying the circumstances of the moment and asking, “How can I best defend human life today in the light of the possibilities that exist before me right now, reading the signs of the times we are in?” The prudent response to today’s situation can be different from the prudent response to tomorrow’s. The moral principle does not change. The moral possibilities of the moment do.
We need to play the music of life on the less than perfect, out-of-tune instrument of life we have. We need to play as well as we can with the agony of the music. When we commit to this act, we will understand the truth of what Millies emphatically states:
Simply saying there is no issue more important than abortion is not adequate. We have to probe more deeply, think more concretely. It does not diminish abortion’s importance to say 11 presidential elections since Roe have not resolved it, a 12th is unlikely to do better, and there are other issues that also claim our moral attention where we may have greater success in 2020. On the other hand, a voter might believe that this election somehow will end abortions and that also is a judgment in line with a consistent ethic. But in both cases, a consistent ethic of life always comes down to how a believer applies it. It depends on prudential judgments made by an informed conscience that values human life highest of all.
So, we end where we began. The right to life is more than a bumper sticker message. It is a matter of profound discernment regarding the content of life, our engagement with it, and our commitment to it. Only then will we clearly and deeply hear the option, the holy choice, offered in the Book of Deuteronomy: “I place before you life and death. Choose life!” Hearing wholeheartedly, we will be empowered to choose life in all its profundity, and our final note will move heart and soul with goodness.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives (a trilogy of scriptural meditations), lead volunteer chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.