The Necessary Courage

April 5, 2010 09:00 AM

Special guest commentary by Tim Straney

It really is quite simple why I am pro-life. I believe the Catholic Church is a conduit of truth, and I know her teaching includes an uncompromising advocacy for the dignity of each human life. Therefore, because I have chosen to be a Roman Catholic and recognize that such a choice carries with it an obligation of fidelity to Church teaching, I am pro-life. This is the “legal” explanation for my dedication to the pro-life cause, and, while it suffices, it fails to explain my passion for it. For this, I return to my earlier years. Though time has blurred the facts, I will do my best to recall them. In any event, a precise recounting of the past is not as important as how I have come to perceive it.

It was just an ordinary day in the life of a high school student as I made my way through the cafeteria’s lunch line. Standing several persons in front of me was a classmate I’ll call Jill. Her height was a bit shy of average, she had a plain wardrobe with a figure to match, a pair of glasses that did nothing to enhance her appearance, a somewhat crippled walk and an IQ that did not compete with most of her classmates. In addition, Jill’s voice was not pleasing to the ear and lacked a sense of melody. If a goose could talk, it might sound a bit like Jill.

In those days, I didn’t see much of Jill. Perhaps because she was sequestered in special classes where her academic needs could be better met. I remember little else about her, but I do recall she was not vying to win the class popularity contest. For myself, I sensed she was like all of us, vulnerable and very much in need of support and friends, but less likely to find either. Nevertheless, I was reluctant to make overtures of friendship because, among other things, Jill seemed the type of girl who might cling to a friend once she found one. So, for my part, I stayed out of her way, talking myself into believing I was fulfilling my Christian duty to brotherhood simply because I refrained from giving her a hard time. But all of this was about to change and did, that day in the high school cafeteria: The day Jill would become indelibly etched into time and memory.

It happened as quickly as a California brush fire. Seemingly out of nowhere, an altercation broke out involving Jill and a male upperclassman built like a drill sergeant. Perhaps it was because she realized no one was about to come to her aid (Jill was slow, but even she knew this), that her voice bellowed with the only defense she could muster—a horrific screech, both pathetic and frightening. It seemed to work, and thank goodness it did, for Jill was quite right; I recall no one stepping up to defend her, certainly not myself ... even though a Christian defense would have been as easy as approaching with a smile, stepping between her and her adversary, placing an arm on Jill’s shoulder and distracting her with small talk about the lunch menu. But to my great shame, such a defense was well beyond reach. I was lacking in one important requirement: the necessary courage.

Though inexcusable, my deficiency was at least explainable. To begin, I feared repercussions with respect to my own precarious position in the class pecking order. After all, what would my personality profile look like if I threw all my chips behind someone whose place on the social totem pole was at ground level? Then there was fear of a more tangible and immediate sort—that of a broken and bloody nose. No, that day in the high school cafeteria was not one of my best. Even more disappointing, the magnitude of my failure was not immediately apparent. In fact, at first blush, my only reaction was a shameless sense of relief that I was not Jill. But, after living with myself for an hour or two, the conclusion was inescapable. I had failed miserably, opting for the safety of cowardice rather than accepting the risk inherent in defending the nearly defenseless.

Today, when I think of the battle pro-lifers face in defending life, I am reminded of Jill and our day together in the cafeteria. The situations are so similar. The victims marched to their destruction by the reigning culture of death are, for the most part, unpopular (even unwanted) and defenseless. Their demise is witnessed by legions who seem perfectly content to keep their mouths shut and watch the parade pass them by, simply relieved that the fate of those they witness has not yet become theirs.

If you are on the side of life and wish to defend it, but find yourself reluctant to do so for fear of losing your social standing or becoming the object of wrath, scorn or worse, then I very much understand how you feel. I experienced similar feelings on that day in the cafeteria, and I agree that your fears are not altogether without foundation. But I also understand how I felt when I discovered cowardice had prevented me from defending someone who was very limited in her own defense. My shame at this realization remains to this day, and prevents me from succumbing to recurring fears that routinely haunt me and tempt me to turn tail on the cause of defending human beings even more vulnerable than Jill.

I find it hard to believe it is not the natural instinct of every human being to feel as I do about the imperative to defend the defenseless. After all, is this not the same natural instinct that causes fathers and mothers to protect their children, especially during those fragile first stages of life when they are least capable of defending themselves? Yet I also understand the power of the world to deconstruct good instincts. Therefore, if something has happened to you and the world has deadened your senses, stop and consider this: Someday, the actions of those who now so confidently and presumptuously promote death as a solution to the current set of human problems, will be held in the same utter contempt as the actions of those who once arrogantly promoted slavery as a solution in their time. While the machinations of the soul can impede truth from being revealed, ultimately it emerges, grandly victorious. And when it does, it deposes those who denied it, uplifting those who rallied to its defense.

If it is not God’s will that one race should subjugate another, then it certainly is not His will that people should abandon courage and quietly preside over a world where defenseless and often innocent human beings are killed by those whose “right” to do so is granted by power, not truth. Rather, it most surely is the will of God, the Creator of all life and the Source of all truth, to elevate your spirit when you stand tall in Christian defense of the most marvelous of all His earthly creations, the human person, body and soul, from his biological beginning to natural death.

Timothy Straney is a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Youngstown, Ohio. He resides in Cantwell, Ohio.

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