Abortion long ago became a natural symbol for the loss of a spiritual center. Not divine law, but individual will is the measure, and rejecting the child within the body becomes its expression. Challenging Roe v. Wade is not a matter of standing in judgment against women, but of changing a culture of death.
We are here today at the beginning of the spring semester in part because of the importance of the date itself. The Roe v Wade decision on this day 47 years ago, January 22, 1973, was one of the worst legal decisions in the history of the United States. But the thought preparing the way for it was centuries in the making, and the decision characterized an emphasis on choice that continues to unfold.
The decision reflected the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but it also shaped American culture in the decades afterward, both for those who gradually, more or less unthinkingly, accepted its premises, and for those whose increasingly articulate opposition has characterized the stance of the Church. Certainly, resistance to Roe v. Wade went into the founding of Wyoming Catholic College. Dr. Robert Carlson wrote in the Philosophical Vision Statement that, “The occasion for founding Wyoming Catholic College is a crisis of disintegration we now face in Western culture, especially in education.” (PVS 7). He goes on to quote W.B. Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” in which Yeats writes that “the center cannot hold.”
Abortion long ago became for Catholics what Mary Douglas would call a “natural symbol” for this loss of the center. In almost all cultures (as in St. Paul’s description of the Church), the body provides the image of social order—the head, the right hand, the heart, the womb. In the case of abortion, the woman’s body becomes the object of self-ownership—my body—that symbolizes the most fundamental domain of the right of possession, and unwanted pregnancy becomes an invasion, an inconvenience, a source of shame. Not divine law, but individual will is the measure, and rejecting the child within the body becomes its expression. By an act of will, a choice, a woman overcomes what she considers the tyranny of her own fertility, which she experiences not as something given for which she is responsible, but purely as an imposition. To protect her will and reclaim her liberty, she aborts the child in her womb, the natural symbol of the future coming into being, not to mention the divine unfolding of creation.
The point is not to judge particular women, because those who have abortions usually do so out of desperation and very often under brutal male pressure; the stories our daughter Monica told us about the women she met when she worked at Aid for Women in Chicago are horrific. EWTN’s pro-life declaration, currently in circulation, ends with this statement: “I believe in mercy and compassion for all who have been impacted by the effects of abortion and for all who are confused and frightened in today’s culture of death.”
This is not a matter of standing in judgment, but of changing that culture of death. As the PVS suggests, higher education surely underlies the emphasis on individual will. In his famous 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn criticized “the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found its political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.”
Commenting on this speech, the PVS says that “If each person is the ‘center of all,’ as Solzhenitsyn said, then each decides for himself what is true. Hence the thought would not be measured by reality, but reality measured by thought. This is tantamount to measuring without a ruler. Voluntas replaces veritas—will replaces truth.” Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, already focused on the cause: “the University has no vision, no view of what a human being must know in order to be considered educated. Its general purpose is lost amid the incoherent variety of special purposes that have accreted within it.” Since Bloom wrote, specialization has increased and the very idea of an education outside business or the STEM tracks—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—has begun to seem meaningless in the culture at large.
Poetry has always been given a place of high honor at Wyoming Catholic College, largely because of the teaching of Dr. John Senior in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. Reacting to a mystique of analysis that over-intellectualized criticism, Senior emphasized poetry as experience, not so much as texts to be taken apart, but as order and beauty lived directly with the body and the emotions and the pieties in contact with the real world. Horsemanship and the outdoors are poetic in this integration of body and heart and understanding. Just this morning, a professor in Houston praised WCC on The Catholic Thing for this attention to nature.[*] The technology policy unfolds naturally from the understanding that unmediated presence to others always provides the way to genuine understanding.
John Senior influenced Wyoming Catholic College not only in this experiential mode of the curriculum, but also in the way that we memorize and recite poetry, so that it becomes bodily in the live voice and the present moment. But more than that, poetry—or broadly speaking, all of the imaginative literature that we read—becomes a mode of integration both in the curriculum and in engagement with the larger culture. Senior was certainly right to see that of the maladies of the modern world, the rejection of poetry has been central.
WCC is about difference of vision. The whole of the curriculum at WCC, in all its parts, provides the measure by which the student learns to know himself or herself. The poet and critic Allen Tate warns against what he calls the “angelic imagination,” which he describes as the attempt to seize upon essences by avoiding the proper work of rising through sense experience and symbolism and intellectual labor. He takes the idea from his godfather Jacques Maritain. In an essay on St. Thomas Aquinas, Maritain writes that after Descartes, “The history of modern philosophy shows us how the human intellect progressively affirmed its own independence with respect to God and with respect to being: that is to say, with respect to the supreme Object of every intelligence, and with respect to the connatural object of the intellect as such.” Philosophy and theology at WCC, rooted in Aristotle and Aquinas, make every student work through the texts and arguments to avoid this fundamental error.
But in every track, it’s possible to feel that the measure is always ultimately poetic, both in the sense that thought has to be experienced, and in the sense that Wordsworth means when he writes that “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.”
Ultimately, of course, the measure is Christ, who perfectly mirrors the Father, the Word made flesh, borne down by love into the everyday to teach and to suffer, to be known by faith. As Fr. Wojciech Giertych writes, to live in faith “means that human life may be measured by reference to that supreme criterion revealed by God—Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of the Father.” The center is not individual will but the love of God, and not God as unknowable in His radical otherness, not sealed away in the irrecoverable past, but God as one of us.
I conclude with a look inward and a look outward. Inwardly, as a community at WCC, understanding ourselves in the measure of Christ means something that might not at first appear to be the case: that what we are doing here at Wyoming Catholic College is central, not peripheral. We are not a small college out of the mainstream of the culture trying to hang on to a few outdated ideas, but instead a vital enterprise of renewal. Whenever real thought emerges in the classroom—or outside it, in conversation—something central happens, and it reminds me of a moment in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses when the boy Isaac McCaslin is out in the Big Woods of the Mississippi Delta for the first time, and the bear, Old Ben, passes his deer stand. Isaac never sees the bear, but the bear sees him. The woods go still; the birds stop singing, everything falls for a long moment into a watchful silence.
Something like that happens with real thought or real prayer. Just for a moment it’s what T.S. Eliot called the “still point of the turning world.” The thought may have been thought before, but not like this—not by this person, in this time, in this context. There’s an intersection of time and eternity; there’s a felt centrality to it, a newness, a gravity. We need to foster and protect this kind of experience in our community, to respect it and to make it possible anywhere, at any hour.
Outwardly, we need to understand and explain ourselves as both traditional and new—not as a new school, though we’re very young, but as a new kind of college. Just this morning, my junior Humanities section was reading the proem to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Milton claims that he is pursuing “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” No college has ever attempted to do quite what we are doing. Those of us who work and teach here feel the challenge of it all the time. You students surely feel our difference, too, especially when you go home or see friends who go elsewhere. This is a demanding, unique curriculum, and you are being shaped by it even as you are shaping from within your own nature the fullness of your response to it. I don’t think of this as an education that ends after four years, but as the beginning of a way of poetic engagement with the world—not cynically facile or proudly superior, but thoughtful and imaginative, open to what’s present in others, and attentive to the divine measure.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
[*] Randall Smith, “A New Paradigm for a Liberal Arts Education?,” The Catholic Thing, January 22, 2020.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.