Ethics & Public Policy Center

Sr. Deirdre Byrne’s Gift of Witness

Published in Catholic Herald (UK) on September 6, 2020

It’s not very often in politics that we get to hear from someone as heroic as Sister Deirdre Byrne, a religious sister, a missionary, a medical doctor, and a military veteran, who addressed the nation during the Republican National Convention.

Though Sr. Deirdre since has been reduced to a political totem, especially by those who despise President Trump, her lengthy career deserves plenty of attention. She was on active duty in Afghanistan as part of the Army Medical Corps and later served as a reservist before becoming a colonel.

As a 2019 column in the National Catholic Register notes, Sr. Deirdre has done it all: “She served for 13 months in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. As a missionary surgeon, she devoted herself to helping the sick in Kenya, Haiti, Sudan and Iraq. . . . When Cardinal James Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, had open-heart surgery in 1996, it was Deirdre who cared for him during his post-op period. . . . she delivered medical care to Mother Teresa during the missionary’s five-day visit to Washington, D.C.”

After the planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001, she spent two days delivering supplies to firefighters at Ground Zero. She continued serving in the military until she professed her final vows in the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary about a decade ago.

When asked to give her best advice to readers of the Register, Sr. Deirdre quoted what Mother Teresa had once told her: “Keep your eyes on the Cross.”

Today, she balances her responsibilities to her religious community with her ongoing work as a surgeon, offering free or low-cost outpatient care to the poor and needy. Sr. Deirdre also uses her medical expertise to help pregnant women, especially those who have taken chemical-abortion drugs but regret their choice and want to stop the abortion process and save their child’s life.

At the RNC, Sr. Deirdre focused her remarks on the sanctity of unborn human life.

“As Christians, we first met Jesus as a stirring embryo in the womb of an unwed mother and saw him born nine months later in the poverty of the cave,” she said. “It is no coincidence that Jesus stood up for what was just and was ultimately crucified because what he said was not politically correct or fashionable. As followers of Christ, we are called to stand up for life against the politically correct or fashionable of today.”

Many observers, including faithful Catholics, have deplored Sr Byrne’s decision to endorse Donald Trump. Some have powerful, principled objections to that endorsement. Nevertheless, the attacks on her character and good faith are appalling and ought to be condemned.

Though it was delivered at the RNC, her speech offered more than partisan politics. We ought to be grateful for her unequivocal defense of human life and her condemnation of elective abortion. “What are we saying when we go into a womb and snuff out an innocent, powerless, voiceless life?” she added. “As a physician, I can say without hesitation: Life begins at conception. While what I have to say may be difficult for some to hear, I am saying it because I am not just pro-life; I am pro-eternal life. I want all of us to end up in heaven together someday.”

It was this last comment that really made her speech worthy of praise. It is valuable, of course, for public figures to articulate the pro-life case and champion policies that protect unborn children. In light of the last several months of sickness, violence, and upheaval, Sr. Deirdre’s emphasis on eternity is particularly significant.

As we have excised God more and more from the public square, our society has become increasingly bereft of any notion of eternity and thus of the purpose of human existence. We are left in a culture that rejects the inherent dignity of every human being and replaces it with the false justice of identity politics, that abjures the notion of sin as repressive but condemns the sin of privilege and withholds forgiveness.

We fear death as the ultimate evil, revere the body though we no longer believe it was made out of love in the image and likeness of God, and insist that we can conquer through science and refashion gender and remake ourselves as gods.

In this miserable landscape, we should give thanks for the witness of a religious sister who exemplifies the Christian call to self-sacrifice and reminds us that we must care for the least among us and live each day with our eyes on paradise.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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