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December 2017

The practice of religion is serious stuff. After all, we’re not just living out the string here on earth. We’re making a commitment to our eternity—in one place or another. That’s no laughing matter. But thank God, one of His great gifts is the ability to laugh at ourselves as we muddle on our way. Without it, we all would have crashed and burned long ago.

John R. Powers’ 1973 novel, The Last Catholic in America, helped us to heartily laugh at ourselves. Eddie Ryan grew up in mythical St. Bastion’s parish on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950-60s. In the day, Catholics identified themselves not by their towns but by their parishes. “Where you from? . . . I’m from St. (Fill-In-The-Name),” was standard talk. In funny, sad, and poignant ways, Eddie brings back those days. As Eddie remembers it, pain and guilt were big parts of the Catholic experience. In one hilarious chapter, a young Eddie makes up stuff in Confession so he’d have something to say. Catholic boomers can relate.

Around the time of Powers’ book, Catholics were hearing more and more the message: “you’re too guilty about everything. Relax, have some fun.” There was even a rock song about how “Catholic girls start much too late.” As the sexual revolution took hold, the focus of many Catholics noticeably changed. It was no longer on sin. It was on personal fulfillment and gratification—on “me” and “my thing.” Catholics stopped making regular Saturday visits to the Confessional. The numbers are still way down. That’s not because we’ve learned to live sinless lives. It’s because, in big and small ways, we no longer see our conduct as sinful.

The unwillingness to objectively define our conduct is evident in how the culture seeks to de-stigmatize legal abortion. Recently, several religious leaders in Texas gathered to bless an abortion clinic and its staff and patients. “Hallelujah!”—God be praised—flowed from their mouths. Sure doesn’t seem like the right word for a place that kills for money. A well-known actress is planning to star as a late-term abortion activist. A writer in Minnesota says that “only religious zealots” accept the pro-life view. At a Catholic college, a college Democrats club held a “sex week” slamming Church teachings on abortion; participants were encouraged to hold signs saying “shameless.” The goal of all is to remove from our hearts the stigma of abortion.

This past October our parish displayed on the front lawn 3-4,000 white crosses, signifying the number of unborn babies killed by abortion each day in our country. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the display. Generally speaking, it is well received. But not unanimously so.  The major complaint is that it casts shame on women who have experienced an abortion. It’s a serious complaint. But it loses sight of another of God’s great gifts: regret. And it loses sight of His even greater gift: conscience.

God has endowed each of us with a conscience. Deep within our hearts, God has planted His law, the universal moral law governing the natural order of all things and our relationships with others. He gives it to all people, regardless of faith. For people of faith, it is engrained through the Scriptures. Our conscience is where that moral law resides. It is where we make moral judgments about concrete things that we plan to do or have already done. If we have chosen virtuously, our conscience will tell us. If we have chosen sinfully, our conscience will tell that, too. It tells us so through the blessing of regret, guilt, and shame.

Blessing? To understand, imagine a world in which we do not feel guilt or shame over our actions. What if we could lie to each other without feeling bad? What if we could cheat on our neighbors, or our workmates, or our spouses, without any regret? What if we could kill others at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, without remorse? In a world without guilt or shame, we would quickly become human predators. It not only would be ugly, it would be downright scary. For predators need their prey, and because there is always someone stronger, everyone becomes prey. Our consciences help guard against it.

Conscience isn’t indestructible, and the culture of death knows it. That’s why with increasing frequency the culture calls women to celebrate their abortions and escape the stigma that, for millennia, has come with it. The culture of death’s strategy is to advance abortion by killing consciences. The thought is that if women and men can be conditioned to feel no remorse about killing an innocent unborn baby, they will more readily agree to it. But the problem for them will be that consciences don’t die easily, for conscience deals with the unchangeable law of God, not the fleeting laws of man. So women and men get caught in a conflict. They hear the voice of God in their hearts and the clamor of a culture that puts abortionists’ profits and a politicians’ power ahead of human decency. What they don’t hear is us.

We are called to proclaim the truth about the evil of abortion, not because it shames others, but because it can help them find a way out. If seeing a bunch of crosses on a lawn makes people think twice about our national tragedy, if it makes them steer a different course, then that’s a good thing. A very good thing. Proclaiming the truth can also help those who have made the wrong decision get back on track. This is where regret, remorse, guilt, and yes, shame, can be such huge blessings. They can motivate us to seek God’s forgiveness. So we are also called to proclaim that there is light for those who have known abortion’s darkness, hope for those held in its cruel clutches of despair. If we fail to invite those hurting to know God’s forgiveness, then shame on us, because forgiveness may be His greatest gift of all.

It is why He sent His Son. He came not to shame but to save. He came not as a man but as a baby and before that as an unborn. He came through a virgin who embraced God’s plan and a husband who trusted in it. Their lives were not without pain. But they knew no shame.

Merry Christmas!


Paul Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.

© Paul V. Esposito 2017. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us at and on Facebook.

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