Thursday, September 3, 2009
Mercy Is as Mercy Does
Yes, another post on single motherhood. This is the issue that just won't go away, at least for me, at least until I've finished this blog post.
When I came back to the Catholic Church in 2002, my return was not motivated by the shining example of faithful Catholics around me (admittedly, I didn't know that many). It was, rather, a vertical phenomenon. I had a personal, spiritual experience of Christ's forgiveness for the sin -- abortion -- that I thought could never be forgiven, in spite of the fact that I'd long since confessed and been absolved for it. I am a devotée of the Divine Mercy because I have known Christ's mercy most intimately in my own life, and I recognize that He is always pouring Himself out for us, and always challenging us to take up what He's poured out and to approach the suffering and the sin in our midst with a compassion modeled upon His own. Blessed Julian of Norwich wrote of how, at the beginning of her conversion, she "conceived a great desire, and prayed our Lord God he would grant me in the course of my life . . . the wound of compassion." I believe that compassion can only grow in us when we've come to recognize our own hopeless woundedness, and, moreover, that acting upon it requires us to incur and accept further wounds. Saint Faustina wrote in her Diary of receiving a vision in which she was given to understand that, when God looks at the world, he looks at it through the wounds of His Son. Thus, I believe, we are called upon to accept further wounds as we seek to alleviate the wounds of those around us.
This does not mean that we should descend to dangerous depths in the service of our brothers. It does mean, however, that when we condemn others' sinfulness, we are demonstrating both willful ignorance -- willful, that is, if we have read the Gospels and profess to follow them -- and extreme folly. I mean, Our Lord really couldn't have been much clearer when he said, "Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone."
Yet there is stone-casting aplenty on the Catholic interwebs, and the self-appointed moral scolds who profess our faith seem to take a perverse pride in their ability to detect and call out others' sinfulness. I can only ascribe their seeming indifference to the peril in which they place their own souls to a particular kind of blind spot. I've seen this blind spot up close many times since I started hanging around with conservative Catholics, most recently and hurtfully when a rather well-known Catholic writer and apologist who had been a very supportive friend (and a one-time suitor) misinterpreted something I had written about Barack Obama on this blog, and sent me a personal email in which he recited a litany of my past and present sins, giving prominent place to "the unspeakable crime that [I] committed against [my] own unborn child," which had happened long before he knew me, as well as accusing me of being in league with the devil. I cried about it every day for about two months, and sought the advice of a very trusted and holy priest to try and discern whether I was in fact abominably evil and had just conveniently chosen to overlook it. In the end, though, I had to conclude that this generally good man had been seized by a folly born of (self-) righeous anger, and had acted with dangerous precipitousness, and I started offering up prayers and sacrifices for him, notwithstanding the fact that I wouldn't be sorry if I never saw nor heard from him again.
This is why we have priests, I suppose: to help us to discern clearly, to bring us back from the brink of self-destruction, and to remind us that even the best of us frequently misinterpret the teachings of the Gospels, blinded as we are practically every minute of the day by our insane but innate urges toward pride and self-justification. Which brings me back to the point of this post. I have been reading the book pictured above, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by two sociologists, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, who teach respectively at the University of Pennsylvania and Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. The two lived among and studied hundreds of single mothers in impoverished white, black, and Hispanic neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and found that, contra the commonly accepted wisdom presently abroad in the culture, poor single mothers do not disdain marriage. In fact, they revere and idealize it. The reality of their lives, however, and of those of the men who seduce them (often when the women are in their teens) with the heart-stopping line "I want a baby by you," results far more often than not in the early rupture of their fragile relationships. When a man says "I want a baby by you," the clear implication to these women and girls, even when the experience of friends and kin has demonstrated otherwise, is that the man will stay: the baby will be a bond between them, an unassailable pledge, and the women who become pregnant hope that they may be married when the man has proven he can provide for his young family. Neither a marriage nor a steady job is usually forthcoming, however; the early promise of love and family happiness is often disrupted when men, confronted with the pregnancy they'd desired, deny paternity, use drugs and alcohol, abandon their girlfriends and even beat them viciously, sometimes with the intent of inducing an abortion. And yet, almost all the young women studied say that their children were their salvation, spurring them to become mature adult women with new purpose in lives that had formerly been devastatingly bleak, which can't be entirely a bad thing.
I wish that the Catholic commentators who kick these single mothers to the curb would read this book. Perhaps then they would understand that there are other parts of the picture besides a sexual behavior that offends their sense of morality. They might then redirect their (self-) righteous anger away from poor women whom they believe have been led away by the monstrous Pied Piper of Feminism to the land where they can have all the illicit sex they want and force "taxpayers" to support the babies that result. These commentators might then learn that the great majority of these poor single mothers work, and they might also turn their attention to the social conditions -- among them the disappearance of urban manufacturing jobs that used to keep at bay the burgeoning of a poor underclass -- that have led poor young girls in blighted and dangerous neighborhoods into early sexual behavior and unwed motherhood. And, oh yeah, they might remember that men are involved too, and that the singleness of the mothers in question is usually due to their abandonment by the fathers of their children. (Then again, it appears that the latest rant of the above-linked commentator is indeed an attempt to hold men accountable for their sexual behavior, although she doesn't extend her logic to consider their impoverished partners who become pregnant outside of marriage.)
At any rate, in the end, I can only agree with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that "[i]f we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."
The only antidote for our massive blind spots is to do as someone once suggested: "Dear friends, let us love one another." May God help us to follow this extraordinarily difficult and counterintuitive commandment.