The Flip Side: Accountability and Crisis Pregnancy Centers

The pro-choice movement recently became aware of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, and they’ve gone to town on them. What surprises me most about pro-choicers’ reactions is not that they have imitated pro-lifers by going undercover to expose abuses, nor that they have succeeded in uncovering some horrific abuses, but that they totally fail to grasp the reasoning behind CPCs.

A crisis pregnancy center is designed to address the fact that women who are actually in “crisis” pregnancies generally don’t see keeping the baby or even carrying the baby to term to be viable options, and the resources offered by CPCs are supposed to give these women a more viable choice. In such cases, abortion clinics offer an easy out, but CPCs try to actually give women another option when they think abortion is the only one. It is precisely because abortion so often seems like the only way out that CPCs exist in the first place: even if CPCs don’t offer abortions or abortion referrals, they are in at least one sense more meaningfully “pro-choice” than the abortion mill down the street.

As baffled as I am by the sheer uncomprehending outrage with which abortion advocates regard the fundamental mission of CPCs, they have made some valid criticisms in their accusations against at least some CPCs with respect to incorrect factual claims (be they deliberate lies or simply misinformation passed naively along), humiliation, emotional blackmail, or threatening to call child services when a woman decides to keep her child instead of giving the child up for adoption.

So what I am I suggesting here? I am suggesting that if pro-lifers don’t want pro-abortion politicians to use public outrage against horrific abuses perpetrated by certain CPCs as a way to shut down all CPCs, then it’s on us to look into our local CPCs, to understand their mission and arguments and to hold them accountable to charity and truth, not just trust in their good intentions. A failure of either empathy or honesty could not only cause great harm to the individual women CPCs are trying to help, but the stories could in the long run scare women away from CPCs and toward a rather more regrettable option.

As far as I can tell, the Women’s Care Center is very good, and it may be easy for people like me who have never seen a CPC other than a Women’s Care Center to assume that every crisis pregnancy center is just as good, but it apparently just ain’t so. If we don’t want Planned Parenthood or NARAL shaping laws that place too many restrictions on CPCs in the name of cleaning up the messes left by rogue CPCs, we should probably clean them up ourselves, both in the laws and on the streets.

It may be the case that the sort of political doomsday scenario I’m predicting never actually materializes, but even if we are not held accountable for our failures by our political opponents, I rather doubt that we will escape accountability to Someone Whose judgment matters quite a bit more.


The Abortion-as-Healthcare Paradox

In recent months, there has been massive opposition to legislation designed to force abortion clinics to meet reasonable health and safety standards; a look into the more distant past reveals that there have long been concerns about individuals who work at hospitals and religious hospitals in general being forced to provide abortions against their consciences.

On one hand, abortions rights activists refuse to hold abortion clinics up to hospital standards, but on the other, they want hospitals everywhere to provide abortions. There’s some sort of cognitive dissonance going on here. Do pro-choicers want hospital-quality abortions or not?

It seems to me that the opposition to the pro-life legislation is reflexive rather than premeditated: the way they see it, pro-life folks are pushing it, so it must be bad. The very fact that pro-lifers came up with it makes them suspicious that the bills are not designed to make abortion safer, but primarily to restrict abortion access.

If that’s really what they’re concerned about, I’m wondering why we got a Wendy Davis filibuster instead of a Wendy Davis bill raising health and safety standards for abortion clinics. That is, if pro-choice politicians don’t want pro-lifers to ride a wave of public opinion against horrific conditions in abortion clinics, maybe they should take some legislative steps to clean up their own side’s messes. If bills written by pro-life activists restrict abortion too much, let’s see the other side’s alternative (given the way in which the Obamacare debate developed, I think this is a fair argument).

With respect to the “safe, legal, rare” slogan, abortion rights advocates are currently batting one for three, and I can’t understand why they are so intent on doing so at this juncture. If birth control is healthcare, then let’s hold birth control providers up to basic medical standards.

The Dean’s List

I recently criticized the advice which John McGreevy, the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame, gave to undergraduates about making good use of their remaining time in college to “connect your coursework with the many other experiences and opportunities available to you as a student.”

The two letters Dean McGreevy sent out are not significantly different in content; in fact, every piece of advice given to seniors is also given to underclassmen (the list of 5 ideas sent out to seniors is expanded to 10 in the junior/sophomore version), and every bit of it seems directed toward preparing for “life after Notre Dame.”

The problem does not lie in suggestion that we ought to be preparing for life after college (as odious as the thought may be), but in the image of the Notre Dame student and graduate that concerns me. There is one short paragraph that seems to encapsulate his perspective:

As an alumnus of the College of Arts and Letters Class of 1986, I know firsthand how the opportunities for our graduates have expanded—in professional and graduate schools, service, and the paid labor force—over the past 25 years. The trick is to take advantage of them.

Dean McGreevy seems to believe that every Arts and Letters student ought to be trying to take advantage of the professional opportunities which are now available. He envisions Notre Dame graduates in corporate boardrooms and in university faculties across the nation, and wants Arts and Letters students to feel empowered to pursue these high-powered careers. Notre Dame students, as McGreevy sees them, are culturally curious, socially conscious, and (perhaps most importantly) professionally ambitious, and making good use of available institutions and programs looks pretty good on any resume.

Even if we accept McGreevy’s apparent careerist focus as a good thing, his advice overlooks the fact that each of these talented and ambitious students is surrounded by other students who are talented in different ways and ambitious in different fields, and these students are constantly interacting with each other in trivial and non-trivial matters, and may well influence each other in whether and how they pursue these opportunities. McGreevy doesn’t seem to get any closer to the acknowledgment of this principle than in his invitation to consider writing a senior thesis; the thesis seems to be promoted primarily as a resume booster, but then McGreevy adds this: “Almost one-third of Arts and Letters seniors do a senior thesis. Shouldn’t you be one of them?”

That’s right: the closest McGreevy comes to acknowledging the role of fellow students in each individual’s educational experience is an invocation of peer pressure. All the cool Arts and Letters students are working on a senior thesis, so if you want to be cool, you should be working on a thesis, too!

By all this I do not mean to belittle the unique opportunities McGreevy describes; I have done several of the things he recommends, and I have found that visiting office hours and interacting with the various academic institutes and centers to be tremendously enriching. Nonetheless, emphasizing these opportunities at the expense of other readily available means of personal development and fulfillment will impoverish rather than enrich the University community. It is a good thing that Notre Dame graduates have a better chance than ever to rise to the tops of their professions; however, if the only worthwhile use of a degree from the University of Notre Dame is in climbing the corporate ladder, and the only alumni worth recognizing are those who are have done so particularly well (in so doing making it easier for future alumni to ascend to the same level), then Notre Dame has become an elite institution in the worst sense of the word.

The College’s focus on building careers for its graduates can be seen as an attempt to bring Catholic values into boardrooms across America, and this is a noble goal; I would hardly contend that America’s corporate culture is in need of less conscientious and ethical leaders. The problem comes when, in helping students pursue these positions of power, we neglect to teach them the lessons that we want them to teach to the rest of the world. In the attempt to make a Catholic education more appealing, we rob it of exactly that which makes it worthwhile.

Some of you may know that I am usually not particularly inclined to participate in conversations criticizing the Land o’ Lakes statement, but I think that the comparison is rather apt. In the Land o’ Lakes statement, numerous Catholic universities stated their commitment to standards of academic freedom and independence, believing that this would help them to gain prestige in the secular world and that this in turn would help present an even stronger witness to the truth of Catholicism. However, if this process leads the university to cease to be meaningfully Catholic, it is no longer able to achieve the goal it set out to accomplish. We could say that Dean McGreevy’s emphasis on career concerns is part of an attempt make an education in the humanities seem more worthwhile, but it is not the value of the humanities that I want to uphold through this post, but an even broader kind of education.

Again, it is good that Dean McGreevy wants Notre Dame students to reach positions of worldly power, and I understand that bolstering Notre Dame’s reputation for producing people capable of taking on these roles will in turn make it easier for succeeding generations, but if Notre Dame becomes a place that only wants to train societal elites, then its students must inevitably become more elitist. The College needs to be more ready to acknowledge the legitimate diversity of vocations: the stay-at-home mother or father is not wasting their education or potential, nor does a person who accepts a low-powered career in order to be able to focus more on the people around them steal an education from someone who may have made “better” use of it by climbing the corporate ladder.

Again, the pursuit of increased professional opportunity is not a problem in itself, but only when it results in the marginalization of other vocations. It is not only the world-historical individuals who have value, and they more than anyone who need to recognize that fact. The ambitious Notre Dame graduate ought not only bring to their high-powered job an appreciation for foreign languages and cultures or a vaguely-defined concern for the poor, but a very real connection with and appreciation for those who are in and not merely from different walks of life, and there are few experiences better-suited to fostering this kind of respect than meeting these individuals as peers in a University that is catholic as well as Catholic.

A Theology of Attraction

To love another person is to see the face of God.

-Victor Hugo

In the postscript to an earlier post, I alluded to an idea which a friend of mine has discussed in more detail: attraction to (understood as the desire for and capacity to enjoy the company of) any given individual can and often does change over time based on one’s perception of that individual.

My goal in this post is to add my quasi-theological reflections to his philosophical analysis. Chris has suggested that attraction to any given individual “may be a positive means for friendship, community, service, charity, and sanctity,” and therefore ought to be considered a good in itself.

In the context of theology, the suggestion that a thing is good is the suggestion that it has something to do with God; that is, if we experience something as good, it is in some sense an experience of God’s Love, and therefore sacramental in the broadest sense: the good that we experience is a concrete sign of God’s invisible Grace.

Attraction to any given individual allows us to see God’s Grace at work in and through that individual, not only in their physical appearance, but in their thoughts and their choices– in other words, their intellect and free will. To be attracted to another person not (as the saying goes) as a piece of meat but as a whole person is to be attracted to precisely those qualities in which the Divine Image (c.f. Genesis 1:26-27 and paragraph 1704-1705 of the Catechism) is most clearly present. Furthermore, to perceive these qualities as compelling and attractive is to catch a glimpse- however fleeting- of how God sees them (which is to say, as they truly are).

Here we return to the idea that attraction is not consistent: although we may for a time be swayed in our actions and attitudes toward that individual, the perception does not last. However, if what we perceive through attraction is indeed the Divine Image as uniquely manifested in that individual, then the fault lies with our perception and not with the Divine Image: the qualities that God loves in the individual are there regardless of whether we can clearly perceive them, and in that sense, every attraction we experience is, if only indirectly, a reminder of the intrinsic dignity of each human person. Or, as Blessed Cardinal Newman put it, “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.” As we learn to love our friends, in whom the divine image is more frequently perceptible, we learn to love those in whom we cannot as readily perceive God’s Grace at work.

This may be good enough in the context of friends whom we know well, but in the throes of infatuation, we do not perceive and therefore are not attracted to the other as they truly are, but rather, are in love with an entirely imaginary person that just happens to have the same name and physical appearance as someone we know. It seems impossible to assert that a picture that is entirely the product of one’s imagination is in fact a glimpse of the person as God sees them. This is true.

However, this does not mean that infatuation is in itself worthless. The content of the imagination is not quite the same thing as the impulse that inspired the imagination in the first place. Insofar as infatuation is characterized by a desire for communion with the beloved and a desire for the good of the beloved, it is an imitation of the divine eros, and if only through the characteristic passion of infatuation, we gain a deeper understanding of divine love. That is, although an infatuated person does not perceive precisely what God perceives, they perceive the other person in the same way.

Another way of explaining it: the parents who would call their own baby ugly are unusual, not because every baby possesses perfect physical proportions, but because it is natural for parents to develop a strong emotional attachment to their own infant.

I’ll not pretend to have done justice to the interplay of divine eros and agape as we find it laid out in Deus Caritas Est, but I would like to think that I have made at least some contribution to Chris’ argument that attractions ought to be understood as goods in themselves. I would also like to note that a definition of attraction that includes friendship, infatuation, and parenthood is very broad, and therefore cannot be brought to bear directly on marriage or marriage-minded dating; however, defining attractions as goods does open some doors for further analysis

Why Dating is Dead

The entire article is worth thinking about, but I’m going to use a paragraph from the third section as my springboard for this blog post:

A friend shared an experience she had as a freshman at a well-known and well-respected Christian college. She and a few classmates were excited to be invited to a breakfast with the college president. She was surprised when the president suddenly asked the gathering of students, “So, what’s wrong with the dating scene here? Are you all just wimps, or what?” She thought he really wanted to know—until he called them all wimps. She went through college believing dating was reserved for “pretty girls who attracted handsome men who would escort them out of their dorm and down the aisle.” She realizes now this “marriage hunt” mentality put a lot of pressure on young adults who were serious students and hadn’t completely figured themselves out yet.

The college president’s attitude is not out of sync with what I’ve encountered from some well-meaning individuals who lament the death of a dating culture in modern universities. Some have been surprised by the fact that, between the pseudo-married couples on one hand and the hook-up culture on the other, there’s a large group of students who “opt out” of dating entirely for most of their college careers, and this “opting-out” is treated as a bad thing: if college students aren’t pursuing dating relationships, it is assumed that it’s either because students don’t know how wonderful romance can be or they’re (and this seems to be applied more often to men) “wimps.”

It is important to note first of all that the people I’m talking about don’t see dating as an end in itself, but as courtship- that is, a preliminary step for marriage. and I think that many of the people who are “opting out” realize on some level or another that romance finds its fulfillment in married life, and that because marriage (be it the companion or conjugal model) is not in their foreseeable future, neither is dating. Attempts to build a culture of healthy dating relationships have generally focused on the problems of the hook-up culture, but it seems (judging if only by the apparently low participation in the hook-up culture) that the problems of hook-ups speak for themselves to many members of my generation: what remains is to demonstrate the desirability and feasibility of dating relationships pursued in college.

The media narrative about college and hook-ups is neither factually accurate nor apparently particularly appealing to most undergraduates (exceptions notwithstanding); it is necessary to look to other reasons for students’ lack of interest in looking for serious dating relationships while in college. The reason that presents itself in the article just parenthetically cited is career concerns: students at prestigious universities are likely to be ambitious and driven: not only is their career their primary concern, but they realize how hard it will be to synchronize their plans and ambitions with someone with rather different professional ambitions. It’s easier to find a good job opening for one person than to find a career-advancing position for both husband and wife. Although a cultural preoccupation (perpetuated primarily by the media) with sex is probably a significant factor in the hook-up culture, the lack of a widespread healthy dating culture in college is more likely due to the demands placed on college students by the potential career tracks laid out for us.

The creation of a healthy dating culture, particularly in prestigious universities (as one Princeton alumna pointed out, the best dating pool some of us are ever likely to be in), is dependent on the likelihood of dating relationships formed in college lasting through graduate school, professional school, or whatever jobs we get after graduation. As things now stand, it’s generally a lot easier to navigate the professional world alone (despite the fact that the rest of life’s challenges are usually better met by a couple than a lone individual). The mainstream media’s disdain for virginity is insignificant compared to the professional culture’s demand for eunuchs. I know of a number of young couples who have taken on the challenges of combining the demands of married life with career concerns, but not every career path is equally compatible with married life.

This, then, is the sense in which the fight is not with Hollywood, but Wall Street- not with the media gatekeepers who shape our cultural perceptions, but with the corporations that set up career incentives and thereby shape the cultural reality.

At Notre Dame in particular, then, the battle to create a healthy dating culture or healthy relationships between men and women in general may have less to do with dorm parties and more to do with the Career Center. Take, for example, the letter sent out by Dean McGreevy of the College of Arts and Letters to rising seniors: each of the five pieces of advice he gives are aimed explicitly toward professional development or career concerns. His letter to rising juniors and sophomores is no better: in his advice to Arts and Letters students about how to make the most of their remaining time at Notre Dame, no mention is made of the impact students can have on each other, either in college or after graduation.

The importance of interpersonal relationships, I think, is the most important omission on the part of Dean McGreevy. Our peers are our friends and mentors, and making the most of our time at college means taking the time to build up friendships that will affect us for the rest of our lives. I’ve spent hours upon hours researching and writing papers that are read once and forever forgotten, but I’ve also had fifteen-minute conversations with friends that I still find myself contemplating from time to time.

The impact that my friends and classmates have had on me, though, is a subject for a different blog post with a less intriguing title: the fact remains that Notre Dame is a school full of people with similar values and intelligence levels: if there was less institutional emphasis on professional development and more on the importance of personal relationships formed in college, I think a more robust dating culture would form naturally. The fact that this would require a massive change in America’s professional culture is yet another story.


I’ve often found myself annoyed at non-Catholic acquaintances who mock the idea of indulgences as corrupt or nonsensical, and when I was yelling typing angrily at one on this subject earlier today, I figured what I was saying writing wouldn’t be a terrible blog post.

The way you get an indulgence, if I’m understanding it correctly, goes like this:
1. Take a concrete step toward what we’ll call moral or spiritual enlightenment. For example, diligently following the events and speeches at World Youth Day means exposing yourself to some intense stuff that will hopefully be of some spiritual benefit (if you don’t think it could, that just means that you should be paying more attention).

Another example: 5 years ago, I visited Lourdes during the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. The indulgence associated with that visit was, if I recall correctly, attached to visiting several sites in the town that were associated with the apparitions. The hope was that this would help the pilgrims to contemplate what happened (and no, there were not, to my recollection, admission fees for any of the sites).

Even better example: the indulgence for the Year of Faith, which included studying the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. For anyone who engages sincerely in such study, this should prove rather helpful.

2. Make a good confession. This means repenting of all one’s mortal sins. Bam. You’re going to Heaven.

3. Receive the Eucharist. In worthily receiving the Eucharist, we make that act of communion with the body of Christ, that is, the Church, as well as with Christ Himself, and venial sins for which one has repented are in and through that act concretely forgiven.

Every time I’ve sincerely engaged in an activity associated with an indulgence, it has helped to lay bare some of the ways in which I’ve failed to live up to the Gospel- that is, it has helped to show me venial sins of which I have not repented: one would expect that exposing one’s unrepented-for venial sins would help one to repent for them, meaning that Purgatory, which cleanses us of the temporal punishment due to us primarily for venial sins for which we have not sufficiently repented, is no longer as necessary.

The Pope’s attachment of an indulgence to an activity does not make it spiritually enlightening, but rather, points out spiritually enlightening activities, usually at times when these activities may be of particular benefit with regard to helping one reform one’s life and habits.

The bottom line is that an indulgence is not a coupon for reduced time in purgatory; rather, engaging sincerely in an activity associated with an indulgence should help to rid us of exactly that which makes that time in purgatory so necessary.

Why Religious People Have Better Sex

If you can forgive me for looking past the part where the data cited is as old as I am, this little news story actually provides me with a useful prompt to talk about my suggestion in a previous post (it was a long time ago, I know) regarding the various “standards of excellence” involved in marriage: if marriage is to be regarded as a particularly worthwhile practice, the standards involved should prove in combination to be worth more than the sum of the parts.

But before I get to the point I want to make, I have to admit to one important assumption that the data itself gives me no strong reason to believe: I am assuming that the most religious segment of the population is also the least likely to practice contraception. Revolutionary assumption, I know, but it’s important for me to make the point I want to make.

The point in question is related to the so-called unitive and procreative elements of sex. My assertion is that, if the religious married couples in question had “better” sex, it may have had something to do with the way in which these elements in combination contribute more to the loving bond between spouses more than either child-rearing or sexual-emotional intimacy do on their own. The theory is that there are some added effects from combining both elements not only in the same lifestyle, but in the same act.

Here we wander into the (small-s) sacramentality of marriage, which I can use to justify the use of religious models in the defense of what I want to call a secular institution: religious interpretations of marriage deepen the meaning of the practice (and therefore the participants’ commitment to it) without substantially changing its shape. Secular marriage acknowledges that married love does not only refresh husband and wife for their shared life, but can result in an entirely new human life. Marriage may be regarded as sacramental in that sex, the intimate act of self-gift between husband and wife, is a participation in the perpetuation of creation.

Love gives life: the divine love that gave life to the universe is echoed in married love that is, like the Trinity, naturally and eternally open to welcoming new life into their community.

P.S. There is a further point to be made here with regard to Christian friendship: enjoying the company of my friends ought to ultimately make me better-suited to respond to the needs of those around me. Sharing in Christian love and fellowship with my friends, if I am doing it correctly, ought to open me up to sharing that love with even more people in both the long and short run. The more I love my neighbor whom I like (at that moment, at least), the easier it ought to become to love the neighbor whom I do not particularly like (again, if only at that moment).