In a wonderful new book entitled Thinking Aloud, David Holzer has transcribed a series of candid conversations with the late Talmudist and philosopher, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993). This remark struck me in particular:
Last Yom Kippur, I brought in the newspaper and read the headline before going to shul (synagogue) about Russia launching a satellite into space. Why should Russia have achieved this victory over America which, truly religious or not, at least tries to believe in God and enshrines religion as part of its cultural heritage? It was disturbing that the brutal Russian state should win the race over the Western world. It took a few hours to overcome this feeling of numen absens.
For me, this sensation — although I lacked the magnificent Latin phrase — was a familiar one, always in matters concerning abortion. There are powerful forces arrayed against the helpless, doctors in white coats, judges in black robes, and they have been winning, sometimes by skill, sometimes by ingenuity, sometimes by persistence, and sometimes by luck, since 1972. Debates are conducted, platforms written, laws and constitutional amendments proposed, referenda composed and justices nominated, but somehow the result is always the same: babies are being killed.
How can we possibly hope for redemption as a society if we are allowing the buds of life to be snipped in their incipiency? I have spent many broken hours pondering this with no prospect of amelioration.
Now we have a President whose claim to uniqueness, to historical moment, to passional poignance, is his partial rooting in a downtrodden race. He represents, or claims to, the aspirations of people who have been denied their due by those who ruled by might. He is suited by his heritage to hear the plea of the fallen and the beaten, the outsider, the underdog. So have we all been told, so have many of us been sold. Yet this man turns his ear to the plaintive cry of the child being wrenched from his womb, and he hears nothing to excite his compassion.
Summoned to Notre Dame to address the graduating body, our President waded right into the abortion debate by offering this courageous assessment: “the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”
This typical politician’s way out — I promise to respect you as I defeat you — is perhaps the best we can hope for on most matters. Say, on global warming we disagree, but we can decide to respect the good faith of the guys who think the cars and light bulbs are burning up the world. It may sound idiotic, it may lead to a destruction of our economy, it may upend civilization as we know it, but what the hey, we can be civilized about this. There must be some nicer way of telling someone you think he is an idiot.
But how can we be expected to apply this to abortion? The minute one accepts there are two points of view and people of good will can arrive at one or the other after fair deliberation, we are already debased as a culture. The point is simple and not open to debate: we cannot allow live human beings to be killed, babies with heartbeats and nerve endings and brain waves. The cradle of civilization is not meant to be a coffin.
We must respect the other side in this sensitive, finely wrought debate? We must appreciate the agonizing process of working out the subtle arguments? Sorry, Mister President, count me out. I do not respect people who kill babies, nor do I respect people who think the state — patron of brokerages, car dealerships, parking spaces and broadcast rights — has no business stopping people from such killing.
Here we arrive at the saddest truth of all. I expect this nation to be much poorer financially after Obama leaves, I expect it to be seriously diminished as a world power and I fear that it may never recover. None of that bothers me as much as the thought that a man can vote as a State Senator to kill babies who are born in botched abortions, and that such a man can be considered by his fellow citizens worthy of being their leader. That leaves me reeling, disoriented and unmoored. Back to the Latin, then, something you don’t hear much around Notre Dame anymore: numen absens.