Pro-life demonstrators take part in the annual March for Life rally in Washington for the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade abortion decision (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters).

Twice today I’ve been confronted by the kind of high moral seriousness that seems to consign all who don’t share its commitments to the outer darkness. Such confrontations are tiring, distressing, and commonplace. They’re among the chief manifestations of the unsustainability of our body politic as anything other than territory upon which armies of light fight armies of darkness to the death, leaving only scorched earth behind. 

First case: I woke early and beguiled the pre-dawn hour with the New Yorker, that pacifier for lovers of the dieresis (where else will you see “coöperate”?), expensive wristwatches, and high-end luggage. The issue I read (dated February 12, February 19) contains a portfolio of photographs by Maggie Shannon under the title “Last Resort,” with an accompanying one-page essay by Margaret Talbot. The piece documents the work of a clinic in Maryland that provides abortions as late as thirty-four weeks, and is proud to do so. The photographs are solemn black-and-white. We see a speculum, an empty package of mifepristone, a doctor in a surgical mask framed by the stirruped thighs of a woman, a coat-hanger necklace fingered meaningfully as it dangles from a neck, etc. The prose of the essay—and the captions—is weighty and, above all, serious. I’m left in no doubt that for Shannon and Talbot it is essential that abortion remain available till the end of pregnancy, and that (therefore?) there’s no room for mention of, and lament for, those killed in such abortions. The dead appear only as fetal tissue; and trouble is taken to deny that any of them are born alive during the labor-like procedures involved in very late-term abortion.

How much stronger “Last Resort” would have been if it had shown both that there are women who would die or suffer horribly if late-term abortions were unavailable, and that every time such a procedure is performed someone is killed by it. Both these things are unambiguously true. Instead, the piece is agitprop: it presents just one of these truths as the right view, and there’s no lament for the damage done by acting upon it, but instead a careful drawing of the veil over that damage. 

How much stronger “Last Resort” would have been if it had shown both that there are women who would die or suffer horribly if late-term abortions were unavailable, and that every time such a procedure is performed someone is killed by it.

Second case: I go to morning prayer at my parish church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, this first Thursday in Lent. It’s 7 a.m., the sun is just up, frost is on the ground, the world shows itself as unbearably beautiful. The first intercessory prayer offered by one of the faithful is for an end to the evil of abortion. It’s an ordinary prayer in a Catholic Church. Today, however, having just seen the the New Yorker’s photo essay, I hear it as another distressing case of high moral seriousness. The prayer suggests to me (and to God) that there’s nothing good to say about abortion; that there’s no human suffering and death averted by it, no people of good will and high moral seriousness who go to the barricades for its continuation, and that it (and those who defend it?) must be ended, overcome, placed where there’s only wailing and gnashing of teeth. I attribute none of this to the thought of the person who spoke the prayer, but only to her words as I hear them; they resonate, for me, with the same tones I heard in the New Yorker piece.

How much stronger, surely, the prayer would have been if it had urged not only an end to abortion with its killing of children, but also an end to the suffering and death of women when abortion is not available. Clear vision of one evil too often involves blindness to its complement, and high moral seriousness thickens the blindfold, perhaps particularly among the pious, even with the wisdom that piety brings. Prayers too can be agitprop, and the remedy for that is always the same: lament for the damage that our answered prayers will do.

And so this afternoon, after a difficult morning, I vow to abandon high moral seriousness, though I’m also aware that such a promise may sound like another example of it. Better: I acknowledge to myself that I have political and moral and practical certainties upon which I must act, but I should acknowledge that in so acting I’ll do damage, and that sometimes I know what that damage is. That, perhaps, is low moral seriousness. May it be enough.

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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