November 2005By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.
Preaching Life: Being Much of My Autobiography. By James Morrow. Humanae Vitae House (U.K.). 445 pages. £20.
This is the story of one priest's struggle against the Culture of Death. Fr. James Morrow's Preaching Life is a compilation of documents, including a series of letters sent year by year to supporters, mostly in the British Isles. These letters contain searing commentaries on the Culture of Death and reveal clearly why the prolife movement has so far failed in Britain. They also provide a vivid account of two decades of marches, debates, prayer vigils, sit-ins, trials, and imprisonments. Born in 1934 in Paisley, Scotland, the eighth of 12 children, and ordained in 1958, Morrow gained international recognition as the founder of Humanae Vitae House, an institution which has been from the start utterly faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church, both on contraception and abortion. Genuine prolifers, he maintains, reject "all deliberate, direct abortion by whatever means, surgical or chemical," and do not merely try to curb abortion-on-demand.
Morrow sees our age as unique in human history: While sin has been around from the dawn of the human race, "the avalanche is something new and the legalization of sin (however invalid) equally new. The ruins and ashes of our countries are there for all to see." Despite all this, he thinks this is a "time of grace," because virtues that could not be practiced in Eden "are on offer in the wilderness."
These pages chronicle Britain's steady decline into "sophisticated barbarism." In 1985 Morrow grieved that the prolife movement had met with nothing but "dismal failure" and that surgical abortions were at an all-time high. In 1986 he lamented that each new set of figures for abortion was worse than the last, and that members of parliament differed only in the number of situations where they would condone abortion. In 1987 he deplored experimentation on human embryos, already "rife" in Britain's laboratories. Then, after Jim Gallagher launched the Rescue movement in Scotland in 1989, Morrow began to do rescues and to see in the "intense hostility" of the mass media a "confirmation" that rescuers comprised the "only army" still feared by the Culture of Death.
In 1990 he reported that Britain had sunk still "lower into the atheism of abortion." Worse still, even though three million babies had already been killed "by surgical means alone," the Church's voice had become the "merest whimper," even as the nation stood on the verge of "wholesale destructive experimentation on human beings at the embryonic stage." Where was the outrage at the Thatcher government for instituting "compulsory abortion of the handicapped"? The unborn handicapped were sought out for "extermination" by amniocentesis, while the newborn handicapped, if their parents rejected them, were sedated and starved. In this hour of moral catastrophe, Morrow envisioned the prolife movement as some "new and strange and terrible struggle for God and for man."
In 1994 he mourned that Christianity was "outlawed in these islands," since it had become a crime to love one's unborn neighbor as oneself. His dirge for Britain continued in 2002: "Abortion is as bad as ever," and "routine contraceptive (and almost all abortifacient) pills are being swallowed in sackfuls.... But Elijah the prophet was there before us. Elijah the prophet!" Indeed, in Morrow's letters we hear an echo of that ancient prophet's voice. Here is a modern Elijah telling of his long and fruitless struggle against the new despotic Jezebel -- the atheist State erecting itself against God.
Some might be tempted to see Fr. Morrow as quixotic, rather than prophetic. They might dismiss him as another Man of La Mancha offering the impossible dream. But is it really foolish to hope that we could end abortion by "a radical change of heart"? This would entail our living again by sound principles of sexuality: "Without the principles of chastity the baby is lost." Prolifers make the mistake of avoiding the topics of "sexual immorality and contraceptive practices," he warns, but these are actually the root of the demand for abortion. To stop the holocaust, we need first to stop the "purely secular sex education in schools, the consequent perversion of morals, the wreckage of marriage, [and] the atheism of contraception." The struggle is truly worthwhile, because it is a fight not only for Britain, but also "for the heart and soul of Europe."
Of course, a radical change of heart would involve "an awful lot of humility" in a lot of people -- "Those who sought the abortions, those who pressed for them, those who did them, the politicians of course who attempted to legitimize them, the taxpayers who paid for them, the silent majority who ignored them, the 'influentials' who decided that an occasional cheep was forthright and courageous, the authorities who stood up for lesser rights and neglected the right to life, the educationalists who left out the crucial message, the leaders who stubbornly pursued the unsound political course and refused to question their own infallibility, the infiltrators who successfully undermined and vilified genuine pro-lifers and their work, the lip-servers who said abortion was wrong and then walked past on the other side, and all those voluntarily caught up in the atheism of contraception, abortifacients, promiscuity." Is it quixotic to envisage these people someday telling God "they are sorry"?
Is it foolish to hope that prolifers, too, will have a radical change of heart? Fr. Morrow thinks that Catholics in particular need to shrug off their defeatism, walk "in hundreds of thousands" to the abortion centers nearest their parishes, and quietly refuse to leave. Should they do so, the police would then have to stand by and let the centers close. If one center were closed, then all of them would be: "When enough people in the community say 'No!' then abortion will cease." At that point, magistrates, judges, and legislators will be obliged to reform the law. Elsewhere, Morrow states that "it is within the capacity of the Catholic Church to stop abortion in the Western World in a matter of weeks, not years," provided that Catholics awake from their lethargy and act.
According to Fr. Morrow, Catholics cannot wash their hands of the slaughter of the unborn: "no community can regard itself as free of complicity in this holocaust." Many of them have the idea that abortion is only a sin on a par with other sins that need repenting; they fail to see that it is a matter of babies having to be saved from "a terrible violent death." He offers a stinging "examination of conscience" to Catholics, one that should be posted in every parish church. He invites us to ask ourselves these questions -- are we not "culpable in failing to acknowledge the magnitude of the injustice" and in regarding "the most terrible injustice of all history" as just another social problem? Are we not "culpable in failing to participate actively" in the prolife struggle, in rejecting "in advance that legal protection is possible," and in thinking it is "enough" that the Catholic Church condemns abortion, even though this condemnation has not proven "enough to save lives"? Are we not culpable in giving too little money to the prolife cause, in voting for pro-abortion candidates, and in having abortions, most often by using "abortifacients under the name of contraceptives"?
If the whole Culture of Death is to be "overturned in a day," we must prepare for the event and say "exactly" what kind of world we want to follow. It would be tragic, Fr. Morrow warns, if people awoke to their errors and imagined that all they needed was "a world where babies can be murdered any time before 18 weeks provided they are given anesthetics before they are murdered." We must fight not only a "rearguard action" to stop things from getting worse, but also take "the battle to our opponents" and say, "this is the kind of world we want and we will not rest till we get it."
Over the years Fr. Morrow received encouragement and assistance from a faithful band of around 1,000 priests, nuns, and laity in Britain. Among these was David Alton, a member of the British Parliament, who spoke out in 1992 in favor of the Rescue movement -- "the first person prominent in public life after (retired) Professor Elizabeth Anscombe of Cambridge to come out in our support." John Finnis of Oxford also defended Rescue and later represented Morrow and other rescuers at their trials.
What is surprising, however, is that the Catholic bishops in Britain frowned on Fr. Morrow and his work. This is even more surprising after 1990, when Cardinal Gagnon -- who was appointed by the Pope "to campaign against abortion" -- wrote that rescues offered a "sane and holy resistance" to a legal system that had become the "accomplice of crime" and that they were actually a "sign" given to a "materialistic and atheistic age." In 1994 Morrow noted that he had never received "a proper ecclesiastical appointment to fight for unborn children," and while he had faculties from his bishop to say Mass and administer the Sacraments, his prolife work was "merely tolerated." By then, many American bishops had joined in rescues at abortion centers, but not a single bishop had done so in Britain. Why? Were they putting good manners or respect for man-made laws above the lives of babies? Or was it something else?
Fr. Morrow wondered if the bishops of Britain were in "undeclared schism" with Rome regarding contraception and other Catholic teachings on sexual morality. He observed that in the past 28 years they had "undertaken very few initiatives for the protection of babies," but instead had "left the campaigning to non-denominational societies," even though they had on hand five million Catholics who were "necessarily committed by their faith to the rejection of abortion." In 1996, too, he charged that the Catholic Church in Britain had failed to "stand by her own teaching on contraception (the gateway to abortion)." Indeed, it was only on the eve of his death that Cardinal Hume made a public statement about the "disaster" of contraception; Fr. Morrow commented that he could not recall when an English bishop had raised this matter in a pastoral letter.
The Catholic press also frowned on Fr. Morrow: The Universe, owned by the English Catholic hierarchy, trotted out pro-abortion Diane Munday to lambaste him as "an arrogant fool" and "the type who would have approved of the burning of witches, and delighted in the work of the Spanish Inquisition." Then the press officer for the Archdiocese of Liverpool declared that Catholics should fight abortion only by "Parliamentary protest, pressure, and prayer," not by "direct action," and the press officer for the Scottish hierarchy blamed Fr. Morrow for "breaches of the peace." On BBC in 1989 the assistant secretary to the English Catholic hierarchy condemned rescues by saying, "Just because a law is unjust does not mean that you can ride rough-shod over it." Again in 1993 The Universe and the Scottish Catholic Observer printed attacks on him. Besides this, the Catholic bishops supported The Tablet by selling it from their cathedrals, even though this paper had been undermining Catholic teaching for a quarter of a century. In 1994 Fr. Morrow noted that there was still no "sound Catholic pro-life, pro-rescue weekly newspaper" in Britain.
To top it all, when he was imprisoned for a rescue in 1993, Fr. Morrow received a visit from a bishop who spoke to him like "one of Job's comforters." Afterwards, he sent a letter from prison to all the bishops of Britain, explaining that it was "elementary Christianity" to block peacefully the doors of an abortuary and "endure the violence with which abortionists and police retaliate." After all, no civil power could make the divine law "illegal," so the law justifying abortion was null and void. As for his making the prolife movement unpopular, he said, the secular media already hated all genuine prolifers.
The most striking instance of how the Catholic hierarchy in Britain discountenanced Fr. Morrow occurred in 1994, when the Papal Nuncio summoned him to London to scold him for his third imprisonment and spoke to him as if he had been "regularly guilty of unlawful activity." The Nuncio told him the correct way to fight abortion was "peaceful persuasion without direct action or interference" and that rescues were "imprudent." In reply, Fr. Morrow wrote the Nuncio that only one person had been involved in the shooting of an abortionist in Florida and that rescuers had "repeatedly rejected violence." As for a Christian being forbidden to use direct action against abortion, he answered: "It would be ludicrous to tell me that I must use peaceful persuasion to stop a rapist, flagrante delicto, when firmer means of intervention are possible. In legalizing abortion our governments have done something far worse than legalizing rape." The charge that a peaceful rescue was "imprudent" made it seem as if the killing of "hundreds of thousands of unborn children" were "less important than the status of the Christians who should be protecting them." Besides comparing abortion to rape, Fr. Morrow also compared it to shipwreck: If sailors were "floundering in the sea," it might well be that a change in shipping laws could prevent a future shipwreck like theirs, but meanwhile a lifeboat would be sent to assist them. The Rescue movement was the lifeboat sent to the mother and child.
During the interview, the Nuncio had pointed out that there were disagreements among Catholics about when human life began. In reply, Father Morrow declared that conception is "when I became me, and that is the only way to make sense of the Immaculate Conception. It was Mary's soul that was immaculate from the moment of her conception." The Nuncio had also used the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) and the Catholic Doctors Guild as models of how to fight abortion. Fr. Morrow replied that SPUC had brought on "the catastrophe of the Embryo Act" by conceding "the appalling principle that it is legitimate to fertilize a human being in vitro" and that the Catholic Doctors Guild allowed a Catholic doctor to endanger an unborn child by passing it and its mother to another doctor "who might possibly sign its death-warrant." He concluded in ringing terms: "Caesar has arrogated to himself the things that are God's. He has no authority to do so. Having usurped this authority he must be resisted."
In 1995 the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae fully vindicated Fr. Morrow. In his newsletter, he invited his supporters to compare his earlier Programme for Life with the new encyclical and see that "the Holy Father could scarcely have written a better Encyclical for me if he had tried. He contradicts none of my principles, endorses most of them explicitly and some implicitly but very clearly." Even so, there was no immediate change in the mindset of the British hierarchy. In 1996 the bishops, in a document called The Common Good, criticized prolife politics (which Fr. Morrow was encouraging) as single-issue politics.
In 1997 Cardinal Winning came out against abortion, and then, in 1998, Cardinal Hume was "persuaded to give his blessing privately to some regular pavement counselors who got near enough to him to ask," but he admonished them by saying, "no violence." Fr. Morrow commented, "As far as we are concerned this admonition was quite superfluous. All the violence comes from the other side." Finally, in 2004, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales saw fit to issue a statement called "Cherishing Life," in which contraception was denounced as not only "preventing conception," but also "preventing those embryos that are occasionally conceived from implanting." It was very little and very late. Fr. Morrow thought the bishops also had a duty "to lead the battle," not delegate the work of protecting the unborn to other Christians or non-denominational societies. Moreover, in light of the dwindling numbers of priests, he said they should "lead their people to the abortuaries" and create an "apostolic spirit" that would inspire the young to commit their lives and future happiness to God as priests and religious.
Doing rescues in Italy, Fr. Morrow found the "same sophisticated atheism" as in Britain. People regarded the man-made law as absolute, however contrary to divine law. Catholic consciences were atrophied, and abortion was no longer a matter of dispute. Not one Italian joined in a rescue. At San Camillo hospital in Rome, "the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a hospital chapel," while babies were being killed "just underneath." And at St. John's Hospital in Rome -- named after Christ's Herald sanctified in his mother's womb -- abortions were performed five days a week just a hundred yards from St. John Lateran, the Pope's own cathedral and the head of all the churches in the world.
In his visits to America, however, Fr. Morrow found encouragement and inspiration. From 1987 he counted Fr. Paul Marx and Judie Brown as friends. He walked in a March for Life in D.C. When he was among American rescuers, he said he thought he was in "the company of the early Christians," adding, "There are enough early Christians there to convert a new Roman Empire." Elsewhere, he exclaimed: "It is no exaggeration to say that the Americans have put together more and better literature on the pro-life cause than all the other countries of the world put together. In America they really fight for the babies. The Americans will save their country. Sadly the same cannot be said for ourselves."
He was also welcomed in the U.S. by rescuing bishops and priests, while Cardinal O'Connor gave him "his encouragement, his admiration and his blessing." When this Cardinal founded the Sisters of Life in New York, Fr. Morrow remarked wistfully: "America would appear to be more fertile ground for such a development," and he wished that "British girls" could have "a vocation to this order." In 2002, in a letter to the British bishops, he pointed to Archbishop Chaput of Denver as a model of how bishops should carry on the prolife struggle with pastoral letters, sermons, prayers, and the media at their disposal.
What is heartening about Preaching Life is that, in the final analysis, this modern Elijah still has hope. True, he envisions our age as "engulfed" in a "sickening moral decadence," yet he also believes that we can restore the garden in this wilderness if we mobilize as Catholics throughout the world. After all, there are nearly a billion of us on the planet. It is not an impossible dream to hope that we will summon up "all the spiritual resources we inherit from Christ and his Church" and fully expose the "lie that to kill a baby is acceptable," whether by contraceptives, morning-after pills, or surgical abortions.
On Judgment Day, Fr. Morrow foresees Christ asking us: "Why did you not fight harder?... You knew this was the most terrible war in the history of the human family. You knew that a baby was a baby was a baby. Plenty of misguided people did not.... What were you doing when they were tearing the least of my brethren (and so Me also) to bits, and throwing us in the bin?" Searing words.