Yesterday was the Feast Day of St. Patrick. As many may know, St. Patrick – also known as the Apostle to the Irish or the Enlightener of Ireland – was the first Catholic religious leader to spread the Gospel to Ireland. As we celebrate the life of this great saint, let us first mediate upon certain implications of his life and his significance for our time.
Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly you are called and chosen for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord! And anyone who exalts, honors and worships His Glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the deeds of old. For these new manifestations of virtue bear witness to one and the same Spirit Who still operates, and to God the Father Almighty, to His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom is splendor and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen. 
–The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
I think it is very fitting that yesterday, the second day of Lent, we celebrate the Feast Day of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. St. Perpetua was born in the late A.D. 2nd century to a rich family of Roman nobles from Carthage in North Africa. Perpetua came from a mixed family, with her mother being a Christian and her father a pagan. In the year A.D. 203, when Perpetua was still a young woman, she converted to the religion of her mother. Perpetua also converted to the Christian faith a slave owned by her family, Felicitas (better known in English as Felicity), as well as a group of others who knew her. Shortly thereafter, the Roman emperor Severus started a persecution of Christians, and it wasn’t long before the Christians in Perpetua’s community were subject to such persecution.
Perpetua was eventually arrested, and sentenced to death, refusing the entire time to reject her Christian faith. Her slave Felicity was arrested and sentenced to death with her. Felicity was pregnant, and gave birth in jail, but Felicity was sentenced to death shortly thereafter.
The acts of the martyrs – that is, texts that described the life and death of famous martyrs – were popular texts in the early Church. The story of the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were of particular influence in the early Church. The story of their martyrdom was frequently read during liturgies.  Their was a particular devotion to them in the Church of Rome, and they were some of the saints commemorated in the Canon of the Mass (the main Eucharistic prayers of the Roman Rite). 
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. As we spiritually prepare for Easter, let us look at two Scripture verses, one of which diagnoses the current state of the human condition, the other of which provides the solution.
The first is derived from Genesis 3:19, when God, after punishing mankind for the Fall, says, “For ye are dust, and to dust ye shall return.” The condition of mankind after the Fall is marked by a turn away from God. And this reality is used to address a wide variety of questions, including, “How can an entity as sinful as man be created by a morally perfect being such as God?” or “How can life-giving forces and forces that give way to destruction both be so fundamental to the human condition?” The Christian understanding has always been that the way things are, is not the way things should be or were intended to be. God created man in a state of grace, which is the source of life and union with God. Through sin, we fell from such a state. It is for this reason that in the creation story, as well as in post-Biblical theological contemplation, death is often associated with sin, at least symbolically, if not also metaphysically – just as death is a return to non-existence, likewise sin is a turning away from God, Who is the source of all being. Death, decay and the proclivity towards destruction were often seen as signs or expressions of the corruption brought about by sin.
The human condition is thus marked by the privation of God’s grace, and therefore a lack of receptivity to the presence of the all-good and life-giving God. The Season of Lent thus begins with a recognition that this is the current state of the human race. Yet, Scripture not only tells us what the problem is, but also shows us the way out. St. Paul writes, in Romans 6:8, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.” To understand this verse, we need to understand two things. Firstly, mankind was estranged from God. What better way for the estrangement between God and man to be overcome than for God to become man? God became a participant in the things of man, therefore making it possible for man to become a participant in the things of God.
There is a school of thought popular among some apologists, particularly in Evangelicalism and Calvinism. This school of thought, known as presuppositionalism, states that one cannot develop a rational worldview without presupposing the existence of God. One good example of presuppositionalism would be in a speech given by the Presbyterian minister and scholar of theology Greg Bahnsen. In that speech, he said that our fundamental presuppositions shape and shade our view of any given evidence, arguments or information we see in a debate. It is for this reason that a Christian – or anyone who believes in God – can look at the evidence for God’s existence and conclude that God exists. They already presuppose the existence of God, and thus are receptive to any evidence demonstrating His existence. Atheists and agnostics, on the other hand, presuppose that God does not exist, or that we can never know for sure that God exists, or that the existence of God is impossible. Because of this presupposition, they have a tendency to explain away any evidence for the existence of God as being either nothing more than an unexplained natural phenomena, a fraud, or as inconclusive. In order for arguments on God’s existence to move forward, we need to examine the underlying presuppositions of either side, and see which ones are the most sound, for is one’s underlying presuppositions are weak, so is the larger worldview built up around it. Bahnsen then goes on to demonstrate how presupposing the existence of God is a more rational starting point than atheism, particularly of a naturalist variety.
There is much debate on the validity of this method of apologetics. But, I believe that presuppositionalism points out an important truth: namely, that all people have presuppositions which they begin with, and the entirety of ones worldview is shaped by these underlying presuppositions. Conversion experiences, and even the mere act of changing ones mind on an issue, often includes changing ones fundamental presuppositions.
We see this in the abortion debate. Abortion seems to be on display a lot recently. On January 18, the March for Life took place in Washington, D.C. A few days later, on January 22, America commemorated the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. On that same day, New York state further expanded upon abortion rights. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into effect the Reproductive Health Act. Although the state of New York legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade , according to previous New York law, abortion was only allowable for the first two months of pregnancy. Yet, the new law states:
A healthcare practitioner licensed, certified or authorized under Title 8 of the education law, acting within his or her lawful scope of practice, may perform an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s reasonable and good professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health. (Bill A-21 [Reproductive Health Act], §2599-BB, 1) 
What this means is that any medical professional with the competency and legal permission to perform an abortion may perform an abortion if someone asks for it in any of the three situations: (1)The mother is within two months (24 weeks) of pregnancy; (2)The child is not viable (incapable of surviving outside the womb); or (3)The pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life. It is thus theoretically possible for an abortion to be procured up until the moment of birth.
Not only was this something that was publicly celebrated by many activists and politicians in New York – including Governor Cuomo himself – but Governor Cuomo is not satisfied with the Bill itself. Earlier this month, Cuomo said during a speech at Barnard College that he hopes to make the rights enshrined in this law a permanent part of New York law by adding an amendment to the New York state constitution allowing for abortion. 
Proponents of the Pro-Life movement may feel the initial desire to respond with shock and moral condemnation. This is 100% called for. Yet, vague moralizing will not move the conversation forward. To connect this debate to the larger point raised at the beginning of the post: all ideologies are based on a certain set of presumptions, and the strength of a worldview or ideology is based on the strength of the presuppositions, or how well you can apply them to this situation. In the Bill itself and in the immediate aftermath of its passing, the underlying presuppositions were on full display.
In the beginning of the Bill, when describing the legislative intent, the text says that “comprehensive reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, is a fundamental component of a woman’s health, privacy, and equality.” It repeats this again when introducing the actual content of the Bill itself: “The legislature finds that comprehensive reproductive health care is a fundamental component of every individual’s health, privacy and equality. Therefore, it is the policy of the State that: … [the text of the law is then described]”  Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, during a series of speeches given in celebration of the passing of the Bill, said, “We’re saying here in New York, women’s lives matter. We’re saying here in New York, women’s decisions matter.” 
For many Pro-Choice advocates, the push for abortion is a matter of “health, privacy and equality.” Many Pro-Choicers want to avoid undo government regulation on one of the most intimate and private affairs for women as individuals, and, in many cases, for married couples as well. It is a matter of health as well. It is safe to assume here that Pro-Choicers are thinking not of a woman waking up one day and choosing to get an abortion because it is inconvenient to be pregnant. They are thinking of the “hard cases” – instances where pregnancy is somehow connected to, either directly or indirectly, some sort of medical complications on the part of the mother. In these instances, the mother has the right to protect her health. Since reproduction is unique to women, and pregnancy and childbirth is a delicate process that could easily go awry, reproductive health is a fundamental part of women’s health. The right to deal with such a fundamental part of her health, and the right to be free from undue government regulation, is important to establishing women’s equality to men in society, since the intimate parts of men’s lives, and the right of men to deal with health issues unique to them, is something that society accepts and preserved.
Why is it that, as Steward-Cousins says, the mother’s life and the mother’s choice takes precedent over their unborn child? The reason why is explicitly stated in the text of the Bill itself: in order to justify abortion, the definition of homicide is changed. The definition of homicide, according to New York state law, was any intentional action or inaction that resulted in the death of another person. New York state law, up until a few days ago, recognized an unborn child who is past the second month of development as being apart of the list of those who could be potentially subject to homicide. Therefore, first-degree abortion was placed in the same category as murder, first and second-degree manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide as one of the actions that fell under the definition of “homicide.” The definition of homicide was changed in the most recent law so that abortion was no longer considered a part of the definition of homicide. This was because the definition of “personhood” was changed in order to preclude unborn children from the definition of personhood. This is because homicide can only be considered homicide if it is against another person. This bill redefined personhood as such: “‘Person,’ when referring to the victim of a homicide, means a human being who has been born and is alive.”
Thus, for Pro-Choicers, the right to privacy and bodily autonomy are inviolable rights. The reason why these rights could be used in certain circumstances to justify abortion is because the unborn child is not a person, or only a quasi-person at best, without any rights. Therefore, the mother’s rights take precedent over the fetus’s right to live, which is non-existent.
This is the underlying set of presuppositions found in Pro-Choice ideology. It is evident, both from this law and from the general cultural ethos it was born out of, that the Pro-Choice movement is gaining traction quickly on a legal or political front. If Catholics, and Pro-Lifers in general, hope to stop this trend, one path to take is to demonstrate these presuppositions to be shaky. If one can demonstrate that these underlying assumptions about when life begins, about the nature of the human person, about the nature of how rights and personal bodily autonomy play a role in interpersonal relations, are not sound, then one can demonstrate that the whole ideology built up around this is unsound. This is not the only thing we need to do in order to bring about conversions, but this will play a role in convincing those who have thought through their Pro-Choice ideology.
The opposite is also true. To convince the vast majority of Pro-Lifers, Pro-Choicers must prove the invalidity of the following assumptions (which Pro-Lifers must defend in order to demonstrate the validity of their ideology): 1)Life beings at conception, and therefore a fetus is a person; 2)All persons have equal rights; 3)Women do have the right to bodily autonomy, a right to privacy, a right to chose when and with whom to have children, but since all persons have equal rights, one person does not have the right to exert their rights at the expense of another person. It is from this that Pro-Lifers conclude that abortion is never allowable or allowable only in extreme circumstances.
Debating these points, challenging Pro-Choicers on these fundamental concepts, is the main way to counteract the spread of the demonic ideology which threatens the lives of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
- “New York Dems Flex Muscles, Pass Reproductive Health Act.” Published on the website of CBS New York, January 22, 2019. Accessed on: https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2019/01/22/reproductive-health-act-new-york-legislature-gov-andrew-cuomo-roe-v-wade/?fbclid=iwar2izklszfudxp1gs7r68iybhypywbta4f9eu_xxeux0qla0pzdswhhjobg
- Bill A-21 (“The Reproductive Health Act”), passed by the Legislature of the State of New York, January 22, 2019. Accessed on: https://legislation.nysenate.gov/pdf/bills/2019/A21
- “Cuomo Pushing To Add Abortion Rights To NY Constitution.” Published on the website of CBS New York, January 7, 2019. Accessed on: https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2019/01/07/cuomo-pushing-to-add-abortion-rights-to-ny-constitution/
- Caitlin O’Kane, “New York passes law allowing abortions if mother’s health is at risk.” Published on the website of CBS News, January 24, 2019. Accessed on https://www.cbsnews.com/news/new-york-passes-abortion-bill-late-term-if-mothers-health-is-at-risk-today-2019-01-23/
In the readings for this week – the Second Sunday in Ordinary Times – one overarching theme is that of repentance. In the first reading – taken from Isaiah 62 – the prophet Isiah begins by saying,
For Zion’s sake I shall not remain silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I shall not remain quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch. Nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory… (Isaiah 62:1-2)
This makes sense if we look at it in light of the previous chapter. The prophets often responded to periods of social and political corruption, decline in religious devotion, and other similar ills plaguing Ancient Israelite society. They saw the plights afflicting the People of Israel as a sign of God’s punishment. Yet contained within these fire-and-brimstone messages was the proclamation that God’s covenant with His people is never negated. Our fall into sin has everything to do with us turning away from or abandoning God, and nothing to do with God abandoning or turning away from us. In the previous chapter – chapter sixty-one – the Prophet Isaiah writes that he has been”anointed” by the Lord and that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon him,” that he may “bring good news to the afflicted…bind up the brokenhearted…proclaim liberty to captives, [and] release to prisoners.” (Isiah 61:1) The Prophet Isaiah asserts that God has sent him to “announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God,” which will serve to “comfort all who mourn; to place on those who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes, to give them the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” (Isaiah 61:2-3)
God’s judgment is real, but so is his mercy. The prophet Isaiah is thus proclaiming that if Israel repents of their sin, God will liberate them from all the forces that weakened or threatened to destroy them as a nation and end their suffering. How does this apply to us Catholics today? For those who repent of their sins – which necessarily includes recognizing the depravity of our sin and feeling sorrow for it – God will liberate us from the spiritual bondage of sin and the sorrow that results from it. By “sorrow” one can understand the negative effects of our sin, which the grace of God empowers us to overcome, or sorrow for our sins, which, since it leads to repentance and the acceptance of God’s mercy, gives way to joy.