LIFT Links: In Defense of Large Families and a Great Reflection for Parents

Blogger’s Note: In an effort to help friends find great Catholic content that supports them in the practice of their faith, periodically I’ll be sharing articles, websites, books, and other resources that may be of interest.

  • In Defense of Large Families. If you’ve had more than one or two children, you’ve probably already encountered someone asking incredulously, “Are all of them yours?” This article, “Your Mother Is Destroying the Earth,” authored by an Ivy League grad and sister of four, rebuts the idea that it’s any of their business at all — and links to some solid material about the dangers of declining birth rates. Worth a read, if only to laugh at the audacity of people who, on other issues, would demand the government stay out of private bedrooms and away from personal bodies.
  • They’re the King’s Kids. A fellow faith formation director from our previous parish, St. Michael in Remus, Michigan, shared this article from Fr. Barron’s Word on Fire blog: “Kreeft, Kids, and Cattle.” The post, by theology professor Tom Neal, is a great reminder that our job as parents is to “love the Hell out” of our kids and get them to Heaven. It’s easy to lose track of that in our day-to-day, hectic lives. Grades, sports, and college choices are important, but they don’t necessarily have eternal implications. “They’re the King’s kids. You’re His foster parents.”

Are We Scapegoating the Most Vulnerable Among Us?

This past month, the adults in our parish faith formation program discussed Lesson 4 from Fr. Barron’s Catholicism DVD series, “Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast: Mary, the Mother of God.” One of the consistent bits of feedback we heard when we started this video series last year is that sometimes Fr. Barron gets a little academic for the average lay audience — and as a result, the material and discussion questions sometimes miss the mark when it comes to generating discussion. In the case of the lesson on Mary, even the title warranted translation.

I watched most of the Mary video at least six times over the course of the past few weeks, and one part, in particular, stuck out to me as academic and not very applicable to the lives of most Catholics — until I thought about it in a new light.

When Fr. Barron discusses Our Lady of Guadalupe and the impact her appearance to St. Juan Diego made on Mexico, he references a two key facts:

  • The fact is that within 10 years, almost the entire nation converted to Christianity — nine million souls, or roughly 3,000 people a day, every day, for decade turned to Christ.
  • With that conversion, the culture changed fundamentally, and the practice of human sacrifice to appease the gods was eliminated completely.
Then Fr. Barron goes on a brief tangent, discussing philosopher Rene Girard’s cultural theory of the scapegoat mechanism. Briefly, Girard suggests that a dynamic underlies our cultural, social, and personal relationships that serves to restore order during periods of violence or social upheaval by assigning responsibility to a particular victim or victims. The victim is punished, cast out, or killed — and in doing this the society will find itself renewed and unified in common understanding and common purpose.

We see this idea in literature, like the gut-wrenching short story “The Lottery;” in our modern history of wars and genocides; and of course, laid bare in Christ’s crucifixion and in Caiaphas, “who counseled the Jews that it was better that one man should die rather than the people (John 18:14).” Even so, I struggled to relate this theory to our lives today, until I asked myself specifically, “Who do we sacrifice today, and what underlying tension are we trying to resolve?”

It seems to me that we today sacrifice the most vulnerable among us: the unborn, the disabled, the ill, and the dying. If that’s true, to what end do we sacrifice them? 

First, let me say that most people never decide to abort a child or to assist someone in ending their lives — nor would I suggest that those who do aren’t at the end of their ropes and genuinely desperate (though, from a Catholic standpoint, they are sadly misguided). But many of us — even many who consider themselves to be good Catholics — are willing to permit the sacrifice of the vulnerable, at least in some cases. 

Why? I would argue it’s so that we won’t have to suffer with with them.

Let’s face it: most Americans (myself included) have no concept of the way much of the rest of the world lives. Most of us have no stomach for suffering, poverty, or pain. So our society allows human sacrifice and calls it mercy. We do it for the “health of the mother,” or of society, or of the planet. We tell ourselves that we have limited resources, and it’s irresponsible to lavish them on one person, one family, or one nation (never mind that many larger families get by on less, not more, than their small-family peers). Like Caiaphas, we advocate a definite “smaller” evil to avoid an indefinite “bigger” evil. We end their suffering and ours, not by giving of ourselves or sacrificing our present to make a better shared future, but by sacrificing their future — their very lives — so that we may enjoy our present.

This really hit home for me during the recent Life Chain event. Scores of people stood along Hwy 19 between St. Michael and Albertville, holding signs and praying silently for an end to abortion — and for the courage and will to do what is necessary to bring about that peaceful end. It is an uncomfortable experience to stand, exposed and silent, for an hour, confronting one’s neighbors with the evil we permit to occur so that we may live comfortably — but even moreso, perhaps, for the passersby. One young man slowed his car in the lane nearest me, looked hard into my eyes, and pumped his thick middle finger at me — watching me over his shoulder as he passed, for emphasis. I prayed him over the hill and out of sight.

Why so much anger? Because the natural fruit of evil is guilt, suffering, and death. It’s easy to allow death in the abstract, but to be confronted with it, not in anger but in charity, hurts.

Blessed Mother, pray for us, that by your example we will say yes to God, whatever the cost, and that we may suffer well ourselves so that the vulnerable may be spared. Amen.

(Pro) Life, Without Religion, Part 2: A Little … Something

Inspired by recent ultrasounds of our tiny child resting peacefully in utero, last month I shared my response to a common abortion-rights argument: “It’s my body; it’s my choice.” In that post, I argued that, in no way could an embryo or fetus be considered the mother’s body, or even part of the mother’s body.

The question remains, then: what is it? A few possibilities come to mind: it may be a bit of foreign debris or tissue; it may be a tumor (benign or malignant); it may be nonhuman organism (like a parasite or symbiotic microorganism); or, it may be Homo sapiens – a human organism. I’ll address these possibilities one at a time:

  • Foreign debris or foreign tissue. If an embryo were nothing more than a bit of foreign matter that had somehow found its within the woman, it makes sense that her body would respond accordingly, targeting the embryo in the same way it might a sliver or a piece of shrapnel, either to eliminate it from the body or encapsulate and neutralize it. Of course, an embryo consists of living cells, so the body does not react to it as thought it were a simply a foreign object. If an embryo were living, foreign tissue, it makes sense that the woman’s immune system might react negatively to it, in the same way that it might reject a donor organ. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the woman’s body does the opposite, suppressing it’s own immune system and laboring to provide a protective, nurturing environment and nutrients to encourage growth and development of the embryo. It is true that in certain cases (e.g., an Rh-negative mother carrying an Rh-positive fetus), the woman’s immune system may react to presence of Rh-factor in the fetus’s blood, sometimes leading to death of the fetus – however, most of the population (approximately 85 percent, I believe) is Rh-positive, so such a reaction is certainly not the norm. Nor does it change the fact that the woman’s body continues to try to accomodate the fetus even as antibodies in her blood attack the fetus’s red blood cells.
  • Benign or malignant tumor. I’ve heard it more than once “It’s just a ball of cells.” Actually, I did a little reading for this post to help ensure I’m using the right terminology, and learned that tumors are more commonly defined as a neoplasm that has formed a “lump” – and a neoplasm is a new and abnormal growth or proliferation of cells not coordinated with the body’s healthy tissue. Is an embryo a neoplasm? It is certainly a new proliferation of cells, but typically (left to its own devices), its growth is in clockwork coordination with the healthy tissue around it; in fact, the surrounding, healthy tissues of the woman’s body (left to their own devices) change to become more accommodating to the new growth – again, encouraging growth and development. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop: “It’s not a tumah!
  • Parasite or other nonhuman organism. An embryo or fetus certainly derives nutrients and protection, and at some cost the woman in whose body it resides – but is it a parasite (like a tapeworm) or some other symbiotic nonhuman organism (like our gut flora and other bacteria that exist on or in our body and are beneficial or neutral to our health and well-being)? First, consider that non-human organisms (parasitic or otherwise) are not native to us nor do they spontaneously generate within us. Instead, they are acquired. Even our gut flora are acquired at birth and rapidly afterward, from our mothers and the environment. An embryo, on the other hand, is not something caught from another person or acquired from the environment which then colonizes the uterus. And while it takes the introduction of a male gamete to fertilize an egg and ultimately form an embryo, even sperm cells cannot be considered parasites or symbiotic organisms – they have a short-life span and cannot reproduce themselves or “colonize” the woman on their own; those that do not fertilize an egg ultimately die off and are eliminated.
  • Human organism. To review, start where you like: a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus. Clearly these are not non-living things; they are living cells that use nutrients and multiply. If it were merely foreign tissue or an infection, the woman’s body would work to destroy it – no abortion necessary. If it were a parasite or symbiotic organism, it would be acquired externally, not formed internally from two cells whose sole function is reproduction. Now, consider that when a sperm and egg unite and form a zygote, the result is genetically identifiable as human – 23 pairs of chromosomes is the norm, but even some variation in this number (as in the case of Down Syndrome), when permitted to develop, can result in a viable independent organism that we would recognize as human. Some will argue that a skin cell, or an eyelash, or a cancer cell might be alive and genetically human, but we kill those all the time; certainly that isn’t murder, is it?  Of course not. But as we’ve already established, an embryo clearly is not any part of the woman’s body (it’s not even a genetic match) nor is it a tumor (it is developing in coordination with the woman’s body and the result will be a viable, independent human organism). Without a doubt, an embryo is a living, human organism.
Even some abortion supporters make it this far. At this point, the arguments become much more philosophical: abortion supporters claim is that this human organism is not a human being – it is a genetically human living thing, but only a potential human being. This raises a fundamental question: What makes a human organism a human being? I’ll share how my pre-religious mind tackled that question in my next post on this topic.

(Pro) Life, Without Religion, Part 1: It’s My Body!

This morning Jodi and I saw the face of an angel — our angel, a tiny new Thorplet, just 11 ounces now at 18 weeks of development. Our baby pulled away from the attempts to examine his or her feet, just like all of our children, but otherwise kept uncooperatively still, making it difficult to get a good look at the tiny, chugging heart. When the sonographer was finally finished her thorough examination, she took the photo above: a tired wee child, hand above head, resting peacefully.

I’ve always loved ultrasounds. In part, it’s the geeky wannabe scientist in me, but mostly, it’s the wonder and sweet jealousy of seeing our tiny baby alive and safe inside the love of my life, and knowing that yeah, I can pee standing up, but I’ll never feel life moving within me. This was a level-2 ultrasound: given my bride’s so-called “advanced maternal age” (I wouldn’t begrudge her a right cross next time someone says that…not this time, but next time…) they offer it as a way of taking a closer look at how both the baby and the mother are progressing. We turned down all the other tests and genetic screening, but taking a closer look at our little one and Jodi, especially given the size of our babies, seemed like a good idea.

The photo above was the highlight of the hour or more we spent in a dimly lit room with the sonographer. It was worth the wait, but to be honest, I was more excited about these two images:

These show our baby at just eight weeks of development. We’re looking down on him or her from above, with an absolutely Thorpian head to the right, and a torso with four tiny limbs extending to the left and down in the lower image. This was a thrill, not only because we lost a little one last fall and were hoping for an “all systems go!” from our doctor, but because there on the screen was a tiny person, less than two centimeters long, with a beating heart and legs and arms that moved independently of any thought or command from Jodi or me. A child the size of my fingertip who, just before Christmas, we will be blessed to welcome and trusted to raise.

Some people say miracles are impossible; others believe they happen, but only rarely. I believe miracles happen daily, all across the world. I’ve got photographic proof.

As we drove home from the earlier ultrasound, I was reminded of an extended argument I had once, on a political blog in South Dakota, with a staunch and pseudonymed liberal who dismissed me and two of my friends as Bible-thumpers for being against abortion. I explained to him that, on the contrary, I studied physical anthropology and human evolution in college and was anti-abortion well before I became a practicing Catholic. I articulated to him a set of arguments against abortion, completely independent of religious belief or church doctrine, and asked, then begged, then dared and taunted, him to engage me on them. He would not.

What came back to me as we drove home was the first argument I offered to him. As I recall, he insisted, on behalf of women everywhere, that “It’s their body; it should be their choice.”

“Which part of their body is it?” I asked.

An abortion removes something from a woman’s body, without a doubt. If what is removed is her, or some part of her, then it should share both her gender and her genes, and she should be somehow physically diminished, something less than the whole and functional woman she was before the procedure. If she had her gallbladder removed, for instance, or a toe, a mortician or coroner might note such a thing upon her death.

A woman who has a “successful” abortion, however, emerges physically intact, but no longer pregnant. What is removed, though taken from within her, and attached to and dependent on her, is not her — not genetically, and not logically. (In my online arguments, I moved from what a fetus isn’t, step by step, to what it is, over several exchanges. In time, I think I’ll do the same here.)

This was made clear again to me when I saw our tiny infant, wriggling in amniotic bliss, at eight weeks of development. Jodi had no say in the flailing of those tiny arms and legs, and that tiny heart beat in part because of, but not for, her. No choice on her part, short of violence, could have stopped it.

And of course, it was made clear yet again today when we saw that beautiful profile at the top of this post. There’s a reason that the Knights of Columbus and other Catholic and pro-life organizations are investing in ultrasound machines for clinics and teaming with expecting mothers to show live ultrasounds of their babies to middle- and high-school students. There’s no better way to recognize the humanity of others than to see them face to face.