The decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade offers great encouragement. The justices in the majority detailed technical reasons to support their ruling, reasons arising from their theory of constitutional interpretation. But Justice Alito, author of the majority opinion, often adverts to the moral reality of abortion: It involves the taking of an innocent life. His majority opinion does not require the laws of our country to respect the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. That matter will be decided by state legislatures. But the Dobbs decision removes the scandal of Roe, a misbegotten judgment that found a right of privacy (and, later in Casey, a “liberty interest”) that could not function without a systematic denial of the sanctity of life.
After Dobbs, we move to a new political, moral, and even spiritual situation. Roe was part of a decades-long usurpation of the democratic process. After World War II, liberal elites were imbued with confidence in social progress, and they were frustrated by the cultural immobility of the American public. Earl Warren was a California Republican with progressive commitments, a not uncommon species in mid-century American politics. His appointment as chief justice inaugurated a period of judicial activism that had bipartisan support among the Great and the Good.
In the signal instance of civil rights for black Americans, the activism was justified. (And yet not all agreed with the methods. Hannah Arendt famously criticized Brown v. Board of Education as a suspect venture in social engineering.) But the activism did not stop there. Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s drove religion out of the public schools. By the end of the decade, women’s rights and then gay rights became elite concerns. Today, it’s transgender rights.
From Griswold (which struck down limitations on the sale of birth control) through Roe to Obergefell, a strategy of judicial activism, amplified by aggressive and creative implementation by the administrative state, was pursued to overcome popular opposition. As Darel Paul shows in his close study of the history of gay liberation (From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage), elites embraced the sexual revolution far more enthusiastically than did the general public. The powerful were not about to make concessions, and activist organizations, law school legal clinics, and media allies used the courts to “bring the public along.”
The judiciary serves as the natural power base for elites. Matters of law turn on minute and complex arguments that draw upon detailed and extensive legal traditions, documents, and precedents. Only a highly trained and specialized class of people is competent to engage in judicial debates—exactly the class of people allied with elites in other domains of life. Therefore, those at the top of society, insofar as they control the judicial branch, have a natural wish to translate matters of political debate, which is open to democratic influence, into questions of legality, which fall under the purview of experts.
The advantage of turning political controversies into judicial concerns involves more than the control of outcomes. A progressive minority secured an open-ended right to abortion when Roe was decided in 1973. This outcome provided them with an important political advantage during the ensuing decades, for ownership of the legal status quo confers the presumption of legitimacy. In the aftermath of Roe, pro-life activists had to raise the issue of abortion explicitly. This opened them to charges of “extremism.” Proponents of the right to abortion could describe their political opponents as “divisive” and blame them for political polarization.
The controlling opinion for Casey, which upheld Roe, not so subtly implied that those who continued to oppose the abortion license were bad citizens who undermine our constitutional system. Meanwhile, those who supported abortion could speak of “our settled constitutional law,” employ euphemisms such as “women’s health,” and otherwise avoid bringing the ugly reality of abortion to the attention of voters.
Now the terrain has shifted. One sees the consequences of the loss of control over the legal status quo in the minority opinion in Dobbs. Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor speak of abortion as a “backstop.” By their reasoning, Roe secures an indispensable right, one that is necessary for safeguarding the full and equal participation of women in contemporary American society. It’s a striking claim: Women can thrive only if they have the right to take lives. Affirming this claim in such an explicit way is surely painful for anyone concerned about the well-being of women in modern society. What kind of ideal of justice for women (or any other class of citizens) requires a death-dealing “backstop”?
Other voices are less temperate than those of the dissenting justices. In recent years, defenders of the abortion license have shifted from Bill Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” to “shout your abortion” and other slogans meant to portray the taking of innocent life as a positive good. Now that the decision has been handed down, not a few are throwing temper tantrums in public.
And legislative measures have been extreme. In 2019, the New York legislature codified the Roe regime, which in practice means that abortion is permitted until the time of birth. New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently allocated $35 million to provide special assistance to abortion providers, and there is a proposal to subsidize women’s travel to New York to procure abortions. In New York City, homeless men urinate in doorways and drug addicts shoot up in public at midday. In the face of these realities, Hochul’s commitment of resources to ensure the wide availability of abortion services seems more than a little perverse. The contrasts are even starker in Illinois. As the death toll of gun violence increases on Chicago’s South Side, Governor J. B. Pritzker has called for a special legislative session to address, not the murder rate, but “reproductive rights.”
One need not believe that life begins at conception to recognize the ugliness of abortion. One need not think abortion immoral in order to acknowledge something deeply tragic about a woman’s terminating the new life in her womb, whatever the reasons, whatever the circumstances. After Dobbs, those who want to ensure the “right” to “choose” must be more visibly pro-abortion. This change will unsettle the vast middle ground of opinion on the matter. Most people do not wish to confront the truth that Justice Alito repeats a number of times: Abortion requires the taking of a life. Under Roe, they could simply acquiesce in the legal regime. Dobbs removes this prop for the abortion license.
Going forward, pro-abortion forces must rally the median American voter to support their goals, and this will require speaking directly about what they want, namely a plenary right for women to terminate the life within them. This will make the activists who inveigh against Dobbs and conjure Handmaid’s Tale nightmares seem like “extremists.” They will bear the stigma of being “divisive.” The shoe is on the other foot. And I predict that, given the importance of the rule of law as a stabilizing center-point for any political consensus, polling will show a decided shift in public opinion. As the pro-abortion minority rages, today’s narrowly divided electorate will evolve toward one that is more solidly pro-life.
When a protest movement triumphs, it must pivot from opposition to governance. This holds for the pro-life movement. We need not accept the pinched notion that women are fulfilled only if they have advanced degrees and high-powered careers. But we do need to think about how to make our society more congenial to childbearing and childrearing—and pursue policies that have some promise of achieving that goal.
In “Sexual Counter-Revolution” (November 2021), Scott Yenor detailed the ways in which elite-sponsored changes in culture (many imposed by judicial power, as was the case with Roe) have disordered the lives of men and women. The harms done are becoming evident, not least in the effects of transgender ideology on adolescents. How we can make our way back to sanity is not evident, unfortunately. But dismantling the anti-discrimination legal regime that empowers activists might be a good place to start. When it comes to sex, the well-funded anti-discrimination industry has done far more harm than good to women (with the exception of elite women) over the last fifty years. Even the elite cohort may face a bitter reckoning as the ranks of single and childless high-achieving women grow—and age.
Family policy offers a more congenial avenue for change. Some pro-life Republican senators, such as Mitt Romney and Josh Hawley, have proposed dramatic increases in government support for households with children. The merits of these proposals should be carefully weighed. But we cannot dither. The victory of Dobbs puts a burden on us to spearhead changes. Whether it is extended maternity leave, increased tax benefits, educational vouchers, or even enhanced benefits reserved for married parents, something needs to be done. To be pro-life necessarily means being pro-family, which in turn means being pro-marriage.
In the months to come, First Things will be part of the pivot from protest to governance. We hope to publish essays that venture ambitious proposals, both for the sensible moral re-regulation of our society and for government measures to promote marriage and family life.
Signs of Restoration
Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was curious about Jesus. The signs and wonders were undeniable. But Nicodemus remained skeptical about some of the teachings of the rabbi from Nazareth. Aren’t we doomed to travel down the grooves set by our past? How can those who are old be born again?
We’re often more like Nicodemus than we’re willing to admit. Secularism seems our inevitable fate. The number of those professing no religious allegiance rises. The woke revolution crashes through many beloved institutions, like storm-driven waves breaking on the shore. Clerical abuse scandals demoralize. Church leaders are often paralyzed, unable to speak clearly and forcefully, even as ideologies such as transgenderism directly contradict natural and biblical truths.
It’s easy to fixate on the negative trends. They cause us to wonder: How can a faith that has grown old and feeble be born again? But Jesus warns Nicodemus not to presume that the principalities and powers that rule this world dictate the future. “The wind blows where it wills,” he observes. Beware the foolish conceit that we know what God can and cannot do, even with the unpromising material of fallen men. We do well to remind ourselves that the One who rules all things has definitively announced: “Behold, I make all things new.”
I don’t pretend to know what God has in store for the churches in America. But in my travels and conversations, I sense stirrings of life. Something is happening, something new, something renewing.
A small item: Young women are recovering the old practice of veiling their heads during worship. Those whom I observe are not eccentric “traditionalists” at furtive Tridentine Masses. They are university students and young professionals. I see them at parishes that have reputations for dignified worship and orthodox preaching. The numbers are not large. It’s a small minority. But to see even a few arrests my attention. It was only yesterday that there were none.
I know a few priests in university ministries. They report modest upticks in Mass attendance and significant increases in students asking to go to confession. One told me, “Millennials and Gen Xers tend to think they know all the answers. Gen Z kids aren’t so sure. They know that they have not been given anything solid and reliable.” The apostolic faith, embodied in the life and liturgy of the Church, promises a life-giving truth that can be trusted. Perhaps that is why the Harvard Catholic Center, a chaplaincy for undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard and nearby academic institutions, brought more than thirty people into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil this past April.
Another priest reports that university students are ready to trust clergy. They don’t seem affected by the clerical abuse scandals. At the same time, they’re not in awe of the priesthood. They live amid the spiritual and emotional wreckage of today’s society. In an emergency room, there’s little time for elaborate formalities.
Younger priests are realistic as well. Few harbor the puerile desire, so common among the clerical cohort now sunsetting, to project an “anti-clerical” aura. (I’ve always found clerical anti-clericalism distasteful. It’s rather like a vain man boosting his ego by officiously insisting upon his humility.) Those ordained during the last twenty years have a keen sense of the hostility of secular society. And, again, unlike those now retiring, they are aware that the church has spent down a great deal of her moral and spiritual capital through negligent experimentation and widespread pusillanimity. And, of course, they know that the clerical old boy system (which in many dioceses continues to persecute younger orthodox priests) protected sexual abusers. Because of the resulting lawsuits, this smug, insular, and arrogant cabal has financially bankrupted the Church. And yet all of this seems not to daunt the younger cohort. They express the utmost confidence in the supernatural character of their vocation, which they hope to uphold and embody.
As I reflect on what I see in the Catholic Church, I have to laugh when I read about Pope Francis’s intemperate remarks concerning “restorationism” in America. This attitude, he says “has come to gag the [Second Vatican] Council.” Gag the Council? I sincerely doubt that any of the young people who entered the Catholic Church at Harvard have an opinion about the Second Vatican Council, pro or con. The same is true for those attending a Tridentine Mass. To be sure, many have a sense that things went very wrong after the Council. They’re not blind. And they’re attracted to ressourcement, the return to various aspects of traditional practice that give weight and substance to Catholic life. They’re not stupid. A young friend finds the Latin Mass appealing. He responded with bafflement when I asked about his views on Vatican II: “Good grief, my parents weren’t even born then.”
I have to wonder what the Holy Father could be thinking. Are we to suppose that the “spirit of Vatican II” opposes the always necessary, always ongoing restoration of the Church? The fall of man imposes a bitter law of entropy on all our endeavors, including our noblest ones. The Church is forever spending down her inheritance, neglecting her spiritual riches, forgetting her theological wisdom. It was not within the power of the Second Vatican Council to repeal this sad law of decay and dissolution. Only someone beholden to a religious ideology, rather than informed by a genuine theology, could look at the last fifty years and imagine that we don’t need a strong dose of “restorationism.”
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ My friend Rabbi Yitzchok Adelstein passed along the following observations, penned by Rabbi J. David Bleich, an eminent Talmud scholar and legal authority:
Judaism owes a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church for filling a lacuna we have allowed to develop. Rambam questioned why the Holy One, blessed be He, allows Christianity to flourish. His answer was that the Church has kept alive and given wide currency to belief in the Messiah. Were Rambam alive today, I am fully confident that he would acknowledge that such a role is now being fulfilled by others and would have offered a different answer to his question. Today, he would respond that the Church deserves accolades for preserving recognition of the sanctity of human life in all of its phases as manifest in categorization of feticide as homicide. Jews were charged with promulgating that teaching by deed and by word. To our eternal shame, Divine Providence found other ways to do so.
♦ A retired priest was in touch recently. “At Mass a week or two ago I heard the lector read from Acts about ‘uncircumcised people.’” He was referring to the first reading for the Monday of the fourth week of Easter, Acts 11:1–18, which begins with Peter getting a talking-to from the brethren in Jerusalem for sharing meals with Gentiles. “I was fuming, figuring [the reader] was a feminist. After Mass I checked the lectionary. She was innocent. The revised lectionary has ‘people’ where the 1970 lectionary has men.” Curious, my correspondent did some research: “I checked the Greek and the word used is for ‘men’ rather than human beings. The Vulgate is hilarious: homines habentes praeputium: men having foreskins. Can’t miss that.”
♦ A new venture, PublicSq.com, has been launched. Short for “public square,” the digital app aims to attract “liberty-minded Americans.” Of particular interest is The Marketplace, “a curated digital network of businesses that share your values and want to serve you.” It’s a useful resource in a time when woke corporations have become aggressive in imposing the progressive agenda.
♦ Gay Clark Jennings serves as president of the House of Deputies of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. The leaked majority opinion in the Dobbs case put her on edge: “The cause for alarm goes far beyond abortion.” The republic is imperiled by “Christian extremists” who wish “to exercise theocratic control.” Jennings urges her fellow Episcopalians not to remain quiet: “We have an obligation to stand against Christians who seek to destroy our multicultural democracy and recast the United States as an idol to the cruel and distorted Christianity they advocate.” The moment is urgent: “Now—before this outrageous opinion becomes law—we must make our Christian witness to the dignity of every human being by insisting that we support the right to safe and legal reproductive healthcare because our faith in a compassionate God requires us to do so.” Apparently, the destruction of innocent life in the womb is not an offense to “the dignity of every human being,” nor is the taking of life something Jennings’s “compassionate God” cares about. In truth, I cannot muster outrage at this endorsement of abortion-on-demand. I’m simply mystified by the incoherence and moral blindness.
♦ It’s beginning to sound a lot like Little Rock in 1957, as the voice of nullification echoes throughout the land. Prosecutors in many big cities refuse to bring criminals to justice, deeming laws against drug possession, shoplifting, and other crimes illegitimate. The end to court protection of unlimited abortion is amplifying the lawlessness among those who swear to uphold the law. Steve Descano, a prosecutor in Fairfax County, Virginia, has announced that he will “never prosecute a woman for making her own health care decisions.”
♦ During its next term, the Supreme Court will take up the vexed question of racial “scoring” in elite university admissions. As the author of “Defeating the Equity Regime” (May 2022) observes, if the high court overturns Bakke and proscribes covert methods of racial discrimination in university admissions, the scope of nullification will make resistance to Brown v. Board of Education look modest.
♦ My colleague Mark Bauerlein did some research using the Modern Language Association Bibliography, a database of scholarly publications in the humanities. From 1970 to 1979, the word “transgression” popped up in the titles of books, essays, and dissertations only thirty-three times. From 2000 to 2009, it occurred 1,138 times. Trans-talk to elementary school kids did not come out of nowhere. It had a long foreground in academia. Our universities have cultivated an environment in which the perverse is championed and the normal is condemned.
♦ Baby formula is in short supply. Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg regards this as typical: “Babies and their well-being have never been much of a priority in the United States. But the alarming shortage of infant formula—and the lack of a national mobilization to keep babies fed—provides a new measure of how deeply that indifference runs.” One doubts Rosenberg associates this “indifference” with support for abortion.
♦ In response to Roe’s reversal, Amazon (the second-largest private employer in the United States) says it will pay up to $4,000 to fund abortion-seekers’ travel to states that retain abortion-on-demand. This pledge clarifies what it means to be a “progressive corporation.” You can seek monopoly control of retail, create inhumane working conditions in warehouses, and fight unionization at every step, but as long as you endorse the sexual revolution and do the bidding of organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign (which represent the interests of the professional managerial class), you receive accolades from the left.
♦ Bishop Robert Barron writes, “Some apps offer Morning, Evening, and Night prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.” Very convenient. “However, many who use these apps have recognized a desire to move away from screens during liturgical prayers.” May the many grow in number! “This is especially true when praying in churches and chapels. We instinctively know that phones are inappropriate in these sacred spaces, which is why we aim to have fewer screens in church, not more.” Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire ministry offers Word on Fire Liturgy of the Hours, a printed version of the Liturgy of the Hours, something tangible and material rather than virtual and disembodied. Rather like our Savior.
♦ Bishop Barron is right about allowing our heads to be bowed over iPhones. Along the same lines, I’ll register my pet peeve. The installation of large screens in churches undermines prayer and devotion. Count me opposed to Jumbotron worship.
♦ After the Dobbs decision overturning Roe was handed down, the editors at Commonweal penned an editorial that seemed more to regret the Supreme Court’s decision than to applaud it. They wrote, “People who believe in the sanctity of life, including the unborn, can recognize that abortion law is a particularly complicated matter because of the competing goods it must balance: the life of a child, the health and self-determination of the mother.” Balancing competing goods? That’s exactly the moral reasoning that animates Roe and Casey.
♦ A Supreme Court majority has decided that football coaches can pray on the field after games without calling into question the constitutional order. The decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District contributes to the Court’s ongoing work to bring sanity to our religious freedom and non-establishment jurisprudence. In the 1950s and 1960s, judges participated in the elite consensus that middle-class America was too homogeneous and censorious. This consensus counseled the cabining of religion in order to loosen up society and promote greater freedom to define life as one saw fit. Thus we got the notorious “wall of separation.” Today, the American middle class is demoralized, tattooed, and indebted. Some—including, perhaps, a majority of Justices—are beginning to realize that high school students are imperiled by our crude popular culture, not by the piety of the occasional teacher or coach.
♦ In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor regretted that the majority failed to protect the rights of the students in the Bremerton School District, “who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized as vulnerable and deserving of protection.” Yes, they certainly are vulnerable to pornography, transgender ideology, grooming by “sex positive” activists, mass culture, smart phone addiction, cyberbullying, social media shaming, family break-up, and more. But do they need protection from public displays of religious faith? One wonders in what universe Justice Sotomayor resides.
♦ In this term, the Supreme Court decided that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a state tuition assistance program. The decision no doubt turns on close reasoning about First Amendment jurisprudence. But it also reflects the sensible judgment that society benefits from religious schools and the piety they encourage, all the more so in a time when so many young people are atomized, alienated, and abandoned to disordered lives.
♦ In the last issue, Russell Berman noted that our ruling class has become addicted to the language of emergency. This language justifies forestalling the popular will and shifting power to elites. As if to provide proof of Berman’s claim, in advance of the Dobbs decision, the female members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to President Biden, urging him to declare a national emergency and “utilize additional flexibilities” to reverse the consequences of overturning Roe.
♦ In Return of the Strong Gods, I describe the governing imperative forged in the postwar decades as the open society consensus. It insists that all our problems stem from over-consolidation and a “conventional” outlook. The remedies include “diversity” and the regular shock therapy of transgression. Faithful to this consensus, while speaking at a civil rights conference in Lansing, Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel riffed on the benefits of drag queen story hour: “[You] know what is not a problem for kids who are seeking a good education? Drag queens.” Far from harmful, they offer great benefits. “Drag queens make everything better. Drag queens are fun.” Nessel’s policy proposal, made in the pride-parade spirit of the open society consensus: “A drag queen for every school.”
♦ This summer we were fortunate to have three outstanding summer college interns. Caleb Symons of Patrick Henry College has upgraded our media offerings, gently nudging us beyond our ink-stained, text-only focus. Ian Paine of Berea College and Joseph DeReuil of Notre Dame have labored with good cheer beside our Junior Fellows, doing many of the indispensable tasks that keep the publishing machine running. I’d like to thank Berea College and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for providing financial support for Ian and Joe’s time with us this summer. I’d also like to thank Jack Bauerlein and Elisenne Stoller for volunteering this summer. They were especially kind to Mabel, the office puppy, a hopelessly cute dachshund.
♦ At the end of July, Hunter McClure finishes a yearlong stint as a Junior Fellow, during which he combined efficiency in his work with a passion for philosophy. He returns to his native Alabama, where he will prepare for graduate study in the humanities. We will miss his Southern drawl and mordant observations about politics, both secular and ecclesiastical. I’m happy to report that his colleague, Elizabeth Bachmann, has signed on for a second year as Junior Fellow, which we will mark by raising her to the exalted rank of assistant editor.
♦ Not all the denizens of the publishing world regard the title of editor as honorable. Writers like to tell the following joke about editors: Mr. X, a much-lauded writer, came upon Mr. Y, a famous magazine editor, who at that moment was urinating in a clear mountain stream. “What,” asked Mr. X in horror, “do you imagine you’re doing?” “I’m making it better,” Mr. Y replied.
♦ We publish essays and reviews that stimulate reflection and conversation. So it’s not surprising that readers sometimes gather to discuss First Things. These gatherings, when they fall under the leadership of volunteers and meet regularly, are called ROFTERS (Readers of First Things) groups. Three readers are stepping forward to form new groups.
In Washington, D.C., Genea Callahan wishes to form a group. To join, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Racine, WI, Fred Beuttler is starting a group. Contact him at email@example.com.
In Worcester, MA, John Edward Keough is forming a group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also received notice that the ROFTERS group in Phoenix, AZ, is changing locations. For information, contact Andy Halaby at email@example.com.
The Durham, NC group remains active, but a new organizer is coordinating. To join, contact Dale Steinacker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ As I write, we are in the clubhouse stretch of our mid-year fundraising campaign. I would like to thank everyone who donated. First Things is blessed to have a devoted and generous readership.