1st Mar 2011

Witness to God's Mercy

A doctor's peace

by Kathryn Jean Lopez 

The funeral Mass for Bernard Nathanson on Monday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan was a celebration and thanksgiving for mercy and love.

Nathanson was the infamous co-founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and director of the largest abortion clinic in the world who turned pro-life activist. Dr. Nathanson died last week at age 84.

Inescapable, too, as pro-life leaders and activists joined his family and friends, was an overwhelming sense of the work yet to do. His courage both nudges and inspires. If he could reverse himself so publicly and dramatically, working to undo his foundational work in our current culture of death, surely we can each do our part – whatever our role – in prayer and sacrifice, and labor. Speaking the truth with love. Living our lives as beacons of life and love and truth.

In his 1996 book The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind, Nathanson wrote:

As I look back across the twenty-five years separating me from that revolting extravaganza playing itself out on the bodies of pregnant women and their slaughtered babies, I am struck by the uncritical nature of the task we had set for ourselves, by the moral and spiritual vacuum at the core of this fantastic operation, by our unquestioned certainty of the high level of moral rectitude on which we operated. And yet, the thing was so obviously sordid. Why couldn’t we make the link between the ethical and the moral, between the shoddy practices and shabby practitioners, the evident greed and callous motives, between the crassness of the enterprise and those involved in it, between all these ethical indicators and the grotesque immorality of the act itself?

“St. Thomas teaches,” Nathanson continued, “that God has given it to us to apprehend Being under each of its four transcendental aspects: the Good, the True, the Beautiful, and the Oneness. The apprehension of each aspect helps us to uncover the others so that we can apprehend, for instance, the Truth by its Goodness, or the Good by its Beauty. Why could we not triangulate from the shoddy to the shameful?”

Nathanson saw the light, the Good that is God. But as we know from Philadelphia, as we know from Lila Rose’s videos, shoddy and shameful practices continue. And as we know from the unjust persecution of Phill Kline in Kansas, the only prosecutor who has thus far dared to bring charges against Planned Parenthood, shedding a light on the criminal behavior requires real courage and sacrifice. Which is why as Dr. Nathanson was laid to rest, we must rededicate ourselves.

In his funeral homily, Fr. Gerald E. Murray, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul, where Dr. Nathanson was a member, compared Dr. Nathanson’s journey to that of Whittaker Chambers, “another great witness against evil and in favor of the truth in the twentieth century.”

Chambers famously renounced his Communist past as a Soviet spy, shedding light on the conspiracy he was a part of, for which he was “vilified” and “suffered,” as Fr. Murray recalled. Still: “He stood firm. He spoke the truth.”

In the “Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children” in his book Witness, Chambers well captured “Dr. Nathanson’s courageous witness on behalf of innocent human beings menaced by abortion,” Fr. Murray noted: “A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something. A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.”

Having just read the account of former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson’s journey from the heart of the business of the abortion industry today, one cannot but pray that her message – of ultimately connecting the dots between that which doesn’t work and yet is proclaimed as if it’s biblical – is heard and echoed in the brave witness of others who feel called by truth to speak to our common humanity, in defense of the innocent, and in pursuit of a future where we no longer pretend that sex can ever be safe from emotion, commitment, consequences and new life. Rather, it is at the heart of life – that which is life-giving – our participation in creation. It’s actually not anti-sex or repressive to liberate ourselves from the last decades’ insistence that the fullness of life is anything less than this.

Life won’t always be bliss, of course. But putting everything in its place, and resting our burdens in God’s hand, allows the reality and promise of fulfillment in Him, now and for eternity. It’s something Nathanson knew. After quoting Chambers again, Fr. Murray wrapped up his homily reminding us:

Our life indeed is meant to be lived in intimate union with the crucified Lord. Golgotha, Calvary is indeed the place where we learn to be wise. The pain we experience, if united to Christ’s pain, is then understood to be a blessing that opens our hearts to the only Love that can take away that pain. That Love is Christ, and the gift of eternal life wipes away all pain and suffering. To live and to die in hopeful expectation of that redemption is God’s great gift to us fallen creatures here below. That gift was joyfully received by Dr. Nathanson in this very Cathedral 14 years ago.

The late John Cardinal O’Connor received Nathanson into the Church in 1996.

And so we prayed “that the fullness of joy, which is the blessed vision of God seen face to face, be given to his son and our brother, Bernard Nathanson.”

And that we may continue the work on the fruitful land Dr. Nathanson so faithfully tilled, assured of God’s mercy and love. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life. 

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)