Written by Hilary White (and first published in the Remnant Magazine)
“I spent a long time in the pro-life movement, and I met a lot of good people who have given their lives to the struggle against abortion. But among them, I have met very few who understood how their own acceptance of the new mores of the Sexual Revolution have affected them and the movement.” . . . Hilary White
In front of the entrances of many Italian churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica, visitors will find a sign that asks them to remember that the building they are entering is not a museum, not a tourist attraction, but a holy place.
At St. Peter’s the long, serpentine queue is punctuated along its length by signs showing stick figures wearing shorts, short skirts and sleeveless t-shirts covered with a big red slashed circle. Italian churches expect a base-line level of modesty and respect from visitors, even if they are expected to know nothing about the Faith for which they are built.
And the message gets through. By the time the long stream of tourists have made it around the edges of St. Peter’s Piazza to the metal detectors in the colonnade, the Vatican gendarmes rarely have to offer the women in tank-tops one of those rather horrible disposable shawl-things to go over their shoulders. Indeed, one of the most bustling street trades around the Vatican for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is in cheap silk shawls with which it is common to see American women rather shamefacedly and awkwardly draping themselves.
I say “shamefacedly” because until they have been confronted with the unacceptability of their attire for a church, it seems never to have occurred to them. The expression on the faces of some of the young American ladies when handed these cheap little cover-up things at the Basilica of Mary Major, can be priceless: “You want me to … to wear this?”
The disgust and angry contempt is only too evident when they come out the doors after their stroll around the Basilica and dump the offending object into the bin provided. It is clear that on some level at least they know they have just been rebuked by a whole country, by Italy, and by the Catholic Church: “Your ‘normal’ is too scandalous for this church. Clean up your act.” It is easy to imagine that the shock comes from the fact that this was the first time in their lives they’ve heard a word about it.
It’s a funny thing about Italy, but even when the culture has almost entirely forgotten its catechism lessons, the rule of modestly covering up inside churches remains deeply engrained. In the town where I live in Umbria, the church on the piazza is very famous and attracts huge crowds of visitors throughout the year. Tour groups troop into the ancient marble church on rotation, often chattering out loud during the monks’ Offices, oblivious to the stern looks they get. The Italian habit of treating the Basilica of San Benedetto, and the chanting of the Divine Office, as some kind of Disneyfied theme park ride, marching up to the altar rail to gawk and snap photos, is one that the monks themselves mostly take in stride, however much it may annoy the rest of us.
But in the year I have lived here, I have yet to see any of these worthy ladies in the state of scandalous undress that appears to be the norm for tourists from Anglo nations. All through this ferociously hot summer they have swarmed in, loud and disruptive as ever but not one with bared shoulders, shorts or skirts above the knee.
Most of the tourists are middle aged, of the generation that mostly abandoned any similitude of practice of or adherence to the Catholic religion, but none of them would dream of entering a church, even in the sweltering Italian summer, without carrying a scarf in her bag to toss over her shoulders. Hanging about the church steps after Mass one day, one of the monks remarked, “We don’t really worry about that much with the Italians. They still know.”
In fact, it’s a funny thing about Italy as a whole, that the sexual revolution has mainly failed to produce the kind of moral chaos that has so characterized the life of the Anglo, Germanic and other western nations. Why this might be is anyone’s guess, but Italy has a comparatively low rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and consequently a comparatively low rate of abortion. The rate had risen from about 6.5% in 1990 to about 17% by 2007, which seems like a lot until you see that in Germany for the same period the numbers were 15.1% to 32%. Britain’s percentage of unwed motherhood rose from 11.5% in 1980 to 43.7 by 2006.
This is not to say that things are peachy in Italy. Far from it. The Italian birth rate is unsustainable and marriage has all but dropped off the radar for most young people, even though they mostly come from intact families. Whatever is wrong with Italian society, however, the general western frenzy of all-in promiscuity is, in the main, absent here.
While it may be true that Italian priests don’t often preach against sexual promiscuity or the evils of the Sexual Revolution, the absence of the topic seems to be predicated on the assumption that the congregation already knows. The moral bar in Italy is still sitting at least at knee height, and there are always the nonnas watching.
With the general dissolution of the family, and often vast physical distances from the grandmothers, it seems that the moral bar in North American and British Catholic churches is so low we have actually dug a trench and buried it. When was the last time you, a Tradition-minded Catholic who probably attends at least a very conservative Novus Ordo parish, heard a priest condemn as evil, as sinful, as harmful, as morally abhorrent, sexual activity outside marriage? A few times perhaps? In traditionalist parishes perhaps at least a few times a year?
Now, how often have we heard our priests joining the general chorus of support for “single mothers, who have, thank God, received the support and care necessary to help her make a decision for life.” [Cue mandatory applause.] That is, we praise a woman as “courageous” and “countercultural” for not being willing to have her inconvenient child killed. That, ladies and gentlemen, is where the moral bar sits in the Church now: buried and long since out of sight.
I spent a long time in the pro-life movement, and I met a lot of good people who have given their lives to the struggle against abortion. But among them, I have met very, very few who understood how their own acceptance, whether reluctant or not, of the new mores of the Sexual Revolution have affected them and the movement: the standards of dress and behaviour, the resignation to an expectation of sexual activity before marriage, that is so ubiquitous in our Anglo countries that we hardly even notice it. Most pro-life people simply never stop to consider how the entire package is connected together to produce a culture in which abortion is more or less accepted along with teen sex.
Why have we gone 50 years with abortion? Seriously, think about it. Why have these Christian nations – it is not often remembered that when abortion was legalised in Canada the country was about 50% Catholic – simply shrugged and accepted abortion as an unshakable social reality? Is it possible because the logic is too demanding? Has the realization dawned that the only way to stop abortion is to roll back all the other glorious gains of the entire social revolution of the 20th century?
One of the first things I observed in my working life in the pro-life movement was that the older generation, my mother’s age, wanted to cherry pick abortion, to separate it out from the rest of Modernia’s New Paradigm, and excise it carefully like a tumor that had just inexplicably grown from nowhere, preserving all the rest of Modernia intact and untouched. By the late 1990s many of these people who had started the pro-life movement in the 70s, behaved as though they were beaten. There was an aura of depressed and surly resignation among them. They knew that their work had not worked, and abortion rates simply continued to rise, with more and more legal concessions being made throughout the western world.
These were the same people who in the 60s and 70s had helped to usher in the New Paradigm in all its many facets. They were the young women who had abandoned children at home to take jobs. Who took advantage of the new No Fault Divorce laws and were working through their second or third “marriages”. They were the supporters of government day care benefits and “equal pay for equal work” and the whole roster of social upheaval that gave us the contemporary situation. For that generation, they entered the pro-life movement as a fight to get a single law repealed. Once this was accomplished, they figured they could all get back to enjoying the beneficent effects of Modernia. Abortion was just a weird anomaly in an otherwise glorious new world.
During a conversation I had with one of them in Prince Edward Island, one of the last places in the western world where abortion is still illegal, I had to explain that it was Feminism that had ushered in the abortion culture she was fighting. She looked at me dumbfounded, as though I had said the Care Bears were really abortionists. It had never in her decades of work crossed her mind that abortion was not a strange, disconnected legal aberration that had fallen on the world for no apparent reason. The notion that it was connected in any way with the “progression” and “modernization” of society, the “emancipation” of women and the advance of “equality,” sounded to her like sheer insanity. And this was someone who went to Mass every week, and always had.
While I was involved in the movement, I saw the explosion of what I have called the “Wailing Women” strategy, in which women who have had abortions stand in front of the microphones at marches and rallies and declare themselves to be the deeply wounded victims of abortion. This weepy strategy came out of the warm friendly non-confrontational end of the pro-life movement, the ones who were tired of being screamed at and called fascists by large bare-breasted women with rings in their tattooed noses.
The Wailing Women were proof that we’re the nice pro-lifers, interested in the needs of the woman and the deep, deep woundedness of her deeply felt feelings. We’re not those mean pro-lifers who are always talking about mean stuff like principles and laws. A manifestation, in other words, of Stockholm Syndrome; pro-lifers turning dhimmi before their feminist superiors.
During the reign of Pope John Paul II, while the pro-life movement – or at least the March for Life in Washington – was somewhat more socially acceptable in Catholic circles, the Wailing Women strategy flowed out of the pro-life movement and into the general life of the dioceses and parishes. They have indeed been a gift to the bishops, even more valuable in its way than Bernardin’s Seamless Garment. Not only can they weave together their (very mild) opposition to abortion with their (VERY LOUD) opposition to immigration restrictions and border controls, now they can do it while standing at the back of the stage at the March for Life and looking deeply, deeply concerned while the poor, poor women wail into the microphone.
And it was eagerly taken up by priests who also didn’t like to be shouted at and called fascists, though more usually by the other members of the diocesan councils. Women who have abortions are now victims, competing for a spot on the Church’s Victim Hierarchy ladder, and as such, could of course never be held accountable for their own actions or decisions. It was eagerly accepted as a nice spoonful of warm, friendly and deeply, deeply caring sugar, for the nasty, bitter medicine of being forced to be (very, very quietly) against abortion.
Since the Wailing Women have appeared we have seen nearly all of the pro-life work and propaganda of the mainstream Novusordoist Catholic Church consumed by this sweet, sticky pudding of a strategy. It’s all about the women, you see. The poor, poor, suffering women who were obviously forced into having abortions, naturally mostly by wicked socioeconomic pressure, that the bishops are only too eager to talk about. What they need is more opportunities! Which the government has to give them! (And no one has to talk about the bitter medicine ever again. Win!)
But what is the actual medicine? Is it even enough to talk about how abortion is a bad thing? When Pope Francis was first elected, and we Traddie reporters were sitting around the table in Roberto’s drinking our disbelief away, we started getting emails and text messages of the new pope’s previous assertions that abortion is a bad thing. See? Everything’s going to be fine! He’s pro-life, just like us! Squeee!
Mr. Michael Matt, present on the opposite side of the table, was heard to wryly express the misgivings of the rest of us: “I need a little more from a pope than that he thinks it’s bad to kill babies.” The world, to expand the point, needs a little more from the Church than the occasional reiteration that abortion is a bad thing.
Can we please talk about the way we really should be living our lives? Can we hear now and then that the Sexual Revolution has been a culture-destroying catastrophe that has led to millions of destroyed families, ruined lives and damned souls, and by now, billions of deaths.
Can we hear how we would all be happier if modesty were once again just the normal way of living, and not singled out in homilies like it was a peculiar cultural artifact of Fundamentalist Protestants and Amish people?
Can we have some attempt to give young people some idea of how to conduct their daily lives in sexual sanity, with reserve and self-respect and common sense?
Can we please dig up that bar? ■