The Scent of a Soul

Published June 7, 2022

First Things

Creighton Abrams, easily the best U.S. commanding general in Vietnam during the war, had a simple principle for dealing with cranks and nasty critics: “Never wrestle with pigs; the pigs love it, and you get dirty.” It’s sound advice, if sometimes hard to follow, given the toxic nature of today’s public discourse. But persons are never “pigs.” Even thoroughly bad people have an ember of human dignity buried somewhere in their lives, and treating individual persons with contempt violates a basic sense of decency. 

On the other hand, words, behaviors, and collective efforts—things like corporations, lobbies, or political parties; or, say, publications—can and sometimes do qualify as unquestionably piggish.  

More on that in a moment. But first, a story.

The late, great J. P. McFadden at National Review magazine was my first real boss back in the 1970s. Jim was a remarkable man of integrity: husband, father, and after the Roe decision in 1973, a lion in the pro-life movement and founder of the Human Life Review. I asked him once why he worked against abortion so diligently. And he answered me this way: We’re all sinners; we’re all going to die; we’re all going to be judged; and we all need a healthy fear of the Lord. But when we are judged, he said, if we’ve fought for the unborn and the disabled, at least we’ll have plenty of witnesses for the defense.

It’s a sentimental image, perhaps even childish; but it felt vivid and true to me, especially since I had a young wife at home expecting our first child. I’ve never forgotten it. So much so that decades later, I shared it with a friend, who borrowed it for a text he published. That text and its imagery—as predictably as the sun coming up and as toxically as acid rain—drew a shower of derisive snark from one of the prominent writers at the National Catholic Reporter. I’ve never forgotten that, either. Nor will I. In its needless malice, it captured the discomfort of many on the Catholic left when it comes to the issue of abortion and its refusal to go away.  

Abortion creates a lot of aerodynamic drag for anyone trying to keep pace with the bullet train to a sunnier future. Church teaching on the dignity of unborn life culls the progressive herd; it separates out those who take the word “Catholic” seriously, motivating some, embarrassing others. Abortion is not like other issues. It doesn’t play nice with other priorities because it always kills a developing life. It’s foundational. It can’t be discreetly smothered by a bundle of other important concerns.

But back to my story.  

Along with his other virtues, Jim McFadden was a brilliant, eccentric, sometimes bafflingly difficult leader—but also a profoundly good one. Jim led me to the work of Graham Greene, C. S. Lewis, Chesterton, Péguy, Solzhenitsyn, and Tolkien. I owe him a debt of gratitude that I can never repay, but it’s a debt I’m grateful to have. He helped shape the course of my family’s life. He put us on a path to 49 years in pro-life work. We’ve welcomed and loved a son with Down syndrome and three grandchildren with disabilities. And we’re blessed with an adopted son whose own daughter—now 16 years old—has severe mental and physical challenges, but is nonetheless precious in his eyes and in ours.

Whenever I read vindictive nonsense about the pro-life movement in articles like the ones here and here, I think of our son and his daughter. There’s nothing Republican or right-wing or unresponsive to the needs of women about changing a crippled daughter’s adult diaper at 6 a.m.—and doing it faithfully, with love. Every day. This is what the word “pro-life” means. And I mention it not because my family’s experience is unique, but because it’s not. There are hundreds of thousands of other such stories, and many others that are far more demanding, among the families that animate today’s pro-life witness and public policy thinking. 

The efforts of such people, spanning half a century in the face of relentless hatred and media disdain, toppled a Roe regime that had destroyed more than 60 million developing human lives and left emotional scars on countless women. The many good people who helped make that victory possible deserve our respect and thanks, not mean-spirited criticism, pious posturing, and moral ambivalence. Any religious publication—the National Catholic Reporter is hardly alone—that traffics in such effluence has a diseased spirit. And such a spirit warrants the kind of anger Jesus himself showed in Mark 3:5.  

It’s very true that we all have obligations of Christian service beyond the unborn child. It’s very true that people in the pro-life movement need to avoid being suckered into foolish and corrupting alliances. And it’s also very true that, before criticizing others, the Catholic left might profitably examine its own long record of carnal relations with the Democratic Party—starting with JFK, and hitting a full throttle of passion after Mario Cuomo’s flaccid 1984 remarks on abortion and the duties of public office at Notre Dame. To put it another way: It’s right and fitting for the pot to call the kettle black, as long as the pot fesses up to its own generous coating of dirt. We have leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden for a reason. 

The Catholic guerrilla war over morally acceptable abortion policy has gone back and forth for my entire 44-year career. And like all intra-family conflicts, the tone is often ugly and piggish. But if the struggle can’t be avoided, the tone surely can. It’s funny what the mind remembers at moments like this. Toward the end of the HBO series Rome, a dying enemy whispers something barely audible to Octavian, the calculating and ambitious soon-to-be Augustus Caesar. What she says is simply this: “You have a soul that stinks.” Speaking only for myself, I’d like to avoid that particular cologne. I wish others felt the same.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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