Like most of you, I was edified by the pagan, Viking funeral that marked the passing of that champion of life, Sen. Edward Kennedy. I thought it particularly fitting the way they floated his human remains down the Charles River out to the bay in a burning boat made of the car he’d driven at Chappaquiddick. He has his reward.
Pardon me if I sound a little bitter, but I lost a friend this week — not to death but to its culture, to the prisons that serve its interests. Since he’d rather remain anonymous, let’s call him Crouchback — more musical than “John Doe M9,” which is what they’re calling him at Rikers Island these days. He sits there awaiting trial for conducting a one-man rescue at an abortion clinic in Manhattan. He refuses to cooperate with authorities enforcing unjust laws that allow the murder of children, so he won’t give his name. When brought to trial, he will say that his actions were justified, and if released he will do it again. The authorities must choose whether to let him go forth and rescue, or leave him in prison for life.
Crouchback doesn’t view himself as a lone, quixotic figure; he invites others to follow him, and in fact hopes to form an order of hermits, whose habits will be orange prison jumpsuits, and cells America’s prisons. He calls his group the Order of Mercy at Gethsemane. It is modeled on the Mercedarian order, a group of priests founded by St. Peter Nolasco that also devoted itself to rescue — of Christian hostages captured by Muslim bandits. Hundreds of priests of that order volunteered to take the place of Christian slaves in Arab countries and died in chains in alien lands so that ordinary, unlucky Christian laymen could go back home to their families.
For the record, I can’t decide if my old friend is crazy or a saint.
One of the original apostles who joined Joan Andrews in organizing Operation Rescue, Crouchback has never reconciled himself to the movement’s collapse — under the pressure of madly punitive laws that make abortion clinics “speech-free” zones, as sacrosanct as the Lincoln Bedroom. At what other business in America is it a felony to engage in civil disobedience? A tobacco company? An arms manufacturer making landmines? Not a chance. It’s better to be a former Weatherman terrorist these days than someone engaged in non-violent, pro-life sit-ins.
If you wonder why that is, Crouchback has an answer. As he used to explain to me over late night cappuccinos on Macdougal Street a few feet from the Blue Note: Abortion is the keystone of our culture of casual sex, the vital “fail-safe” that separates a casual roll in the hay on the fifth date (or are we nowadays down to the third?) from 18 years of motherhood or child support. In Casey v. Planned Parenthood, our nation’s highest court grounded abortion rights in the most fundamental American value — liberty — and nothing we’ve done in the past 15 years has changed that by one iota. You can tell what a country thinks is sacred by what it defends most savagely. By that standard, America has converted en masse from post-Protestantism to Aztec human sacrifice.
Crouchback’s answer to all of this horror is sharply theological:
[T]he mercy that our Lord showed at Gethsemane, as well as on Calvary, provides a model for imitation. It was explained best by Dostoevsky when he noted that the chief characteristic of love is the willingness to suffer for the sake of the beloved. That maybe isn’t so hard to understand when you consider what Christ was willing to endure because He loved us, because He loved His Father and knew how His Father loved us, and also because He knew that we’d just turn our souls over to evil unless He loved us, and was willing thus to suffer for us.
It’s important to remember that He did it for your sake. If you had been the only person for whom it was necessary, that would have been enough. And because of that, He showed us what it means to love and how invariably it can’t be separate — not from the desire, since not even He desired it – but from the willingness to suffer for sake of the beloved.
At Gethsemane He did not exactly attack the violence of sin, so much as absorb it, and offered union to all of us who have ever sinned, or suffered. That offer was divine, but also human, and in its human example, the Gethsemane order seeks to imitate it by our willingness to stand with the rejected unborn, and absorb some measure of the injustice and violence done to them.
I’ve known and loved Crouchback, railed at his stubbornness, and traded barbs with him for 20 years — since the days he was a key correspondent for a major Catholic newspaper. He wrote one of the best books I’ve read on Vatican II, as well as hundreds of articles back in the 1980s, when it seemed that the only fighters for faithful Catholicism were a few cranky, independent papers, and some forlorn figures in Rome who read them. (We know from the memoirs of one of the Church’s persecutors, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, that good men in Rome read those papers, and acted on them; Weakland spends pages whining about it.)
Crouchback was one of the underpaid, white-knuckled writers who raked up the muck that had been choking the American Church since the 1960s. Those of you privileged to grow up in the “John Paul II Generation” owe more than you’ll ever know to men like Crouchback; it was their reports that gave the incoming Pope John Paul II the intel required to find us better bishops. If your diocese’s seminary is full of normal and faithful men, if the altar rails at your parish haven’t been torn out by the bishop’s order, you have men like Crouchback to thank.
If, in ten years, there is a thriving order of Catholic hermits eating prison food, making converts among hardened criminals — as the Mercedarians often ended up baptizing their Arab captors — you may likewise thank him. Those who would like to thank him now, perhaps to send him books to help him while away the hours (think: Trollope, Newman, Waugh), may reach Mr. Crouchback here:
John Doe M9
B & C #3490913530
Rikers Island Prison
Anna M. Kross Center
18-18 Hazen St.
East Elmhurst, NY 11370
We may not wish to join him. We may think it isn’t prudent, or even worthwhile, to sacrifice our lives for the sake of strangers. And there’s no sin in that. I’m not planning on donning a prison jumpsuit anytime soon — and indeed, I tried to dissuade Mr. Crouchback from going off to jail.
Mostly, because I will miss him. His vanishing leaves a hole on Macdougal Street that no one else can ever fill.
America is missing millions in the wake of Roe v. Wade, and we will never know this side of heaven what we squandered. Is Crouchback’s the kind of witness we need nowadays? It searingly points up what’s happening every day — lives vanishing in a dark place maintained and protected by the State, in service of its new religion of “liberty.” For once, I have nothing to say. But Crouchback says:
As long as such an order exists — even if but with a solitary hermit — it would mean that, collectively, we are not only trying to save from the wreckage whom we can, but are also pledging ourselves with those who can’t be saved; and by this refusal to adapt to the daily slaughter of thousands, we also help to restore a kind of dignity not just to unborn humanity, but to the rest of humanity as well, that will otherwise be lost.
As Kennedy’s Viking boat recedes, flaming, into the distance, I will sit a lonely Kaddish for Crouchback.