Odium Naturae: The Thread of Madness

In the 1980’s, at the height of his influence among American bishops, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, alluding to the robe of Jesus for which the Roman soldiers cast lots, proposed that Catholics treat a host of political issues as one.  The “seamless garment” of respect for human life, for the Cardinal, implied opposition to abortion and to capital punishment; opposition to the threat of using nuclear arms; suspicion of any belligerent stance taken by the United States against communist Russia and her satellites; and the support of a vast social welfare state, with no clear boundaries to protect people against its benevolence.  One wonders how different our history might have been had the Church since the time of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society maintained the same suspicion of warriors against nature, children, the family, the parish, the small school, and the local community, as some prelates came to have of warriors in uniform.

I will not suggest that Cardinal Bernardin, may he rest in peace, was insincere.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  He may not have intended to give cover to infanticides for two generations of Catholics.  He may not have wished to allow Catholic politicians to purchase absolution for more than a million children’s lives snuffed out every year, by parading their clemency for a serial killer, and their large-hearted championing, not of the unfortunate single mother here or there, but of the very “ideal” of single motherhood.  Let us grant that Cardinal Bernardin meant well.  Let us even grant, to clear the topic out of the way, that Catholics should oppose the death penalty.  Still, the Cardinal was badly mistaken.  He had the right idea but the wrong garment—as the least exercise of theological and historical analysis should have shown him.

For the Cardinal had allowed the issues of the day to collapse into vitalism.  To be in favor of “life” meant to be in favor that people should be alive, and should have sufficient means to enjoy their being alive.  But what kind of life that was (what it means to be a human being) and where that life was going (to heaven or to hell) were not discussed.  Planned Predators and their ilk rushed into the breach, maintaining, though they did not use the words, that vitalism is an absurd idol.  Nobody wants merely to breathe!  One must look at the quality of human life, and by quality they could only mean, since they were vitalists too but of a deadly sort, the things that a human being could do, or the narrowly defined utility to others that such a life could bring.  To hell, or to oblivion, with the feeble minded and the infirm.  To hell also, or to oblivion, with the unwanted.  These bore a double misery, first to be unloved, and then to be poisoned or dismembered for the crime of being unloved.  The electric chair would have been gentler.

The problem is one of equivocation.  When a Catholic uses the word “life,” he should be thinking—the Cardinal should have been thinking—about more than the continuance of physical functions.  It is not what the Greeks called bios that Christ promises us, but zoe, and that in abundance.  It is to “dwell in the house of the Lord,” as the psalmist puts it.  Human life is more than breathing, but not because man builds skyscrapers or visits the bathhouse or whatever is supposed to give pleasure or to be impressive.  Man, composite of body and soul, cannot be reduced to either.  When we have a wrong view of man, a reduced view, we then can have nothing sensible to say about man’s life, both what it is in itself, and towards what it aims.  In other words, we do violence to human nature.

 

As soon as I write those words, I see I must clear up another equivocation.  When modern man uses the word “nature,” lacking any deep theological or philosophical training, and ignorant of the poetry of his mother tongue, he means, vaguely, things that aren’t skyscrapers and bathhouses.  He means grass, trees, streams, oceans, birds, fish, snakes, lions, tigers, and bears.  If he’s a little more astute, he will mean the instincts he discovers in the beasts, recognizing that Rover likes to sniff the telephone pole because that is a male dog’s nature.  He will, however, and almost in one breath, deny that he himself has any supernatural aim, and deny that he is largely bound by limitations similar to Rover’s.  Thus he will say that a dog needs a pack to run with, and deny that a boy needs a pack to run with, and not be aware of the contradiction.  He avoids both the Church and the open field.  The Church says that he is a composite of soul and body.  Modern man approaches the madness of claiming that he has neither a soul nor a body.

“No one can be so mad as to make that claim!” you protest.  But hatred brings madness in its wake.  And the thread that runs through all of our modern diseases is odium naturae, the hatred of nature.  I do not mean hatred of grass and trees.  I mean hatred of what human life is and where it is going.  On some days this hatred appears as hatred of the body and its human meanings.  On other days it appears as hatred of the soul and its divine meanings.  Sometimes, when its object is the soul, the hatred casts the human being as just another beast, another fervid lump of mud.  Sometimes, when its object is the body, the hatred spurs man to deny that he is dust, and to take his own evolution in hand, going somewhere, progressing towards—nothing, because there is no aim; let us go forth boldly to anywhere but this miserable hole where we live now.

In a coming series of essays I’d like to examine this odium naturae in its various shapes, always holding forth for our wonder and affection the sweet and ordinary and natural, that which the Creator beheld in the beginning and declared to be good.  But since I have begun with the issue of abortion, it’s well to take a quick look at that now, to see why the garment that Cardinal Bernardin chose was the wrong one.

In an exercise of illogic and madness that can only come from an intellectual, the pro-abortion philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson asked us to imagine a woman waking up, attached to tubes and wires, her bodily functions supporting those of a concert violinist, a perfect stranger.  He needs her for nine months, and then she can go her way.  Surely no sane person would say that she must consent to have her body usurped?  Isn’t that what happens when a woman is compelled to bear an unwanted child to term?

Of course the analogy is absurd.  It is a vitalist nightmare.  There is nothing we do that magically brings full-grown concert violinists into the world, unknown to us and needing our organs.  Nor do our bodies sprout wires and tubes, to make connections with the next Paganini.  But this philosopher, hating human nature, sees the natural relation of a mother and her child in the womb as nothing better than a contraption of invasion, wholly artificial, extrinsic to the woman, and cruel.  To her, life means nothing more than to have one’s bios at one’s discretion, to go and do as you please.

Thus the most natural thing in the world comes to be seen as the most unnatural.  The same feminist who nods in approval of this bizarre analogy will go visit the Museum of Art on the morrow, to look at the paintings of Mary Cassatt—whose greatness consists in her devotion to womanly nature, painting women with their small children; and she will not see the contradiction, because her attachment to Cassatt is a gerry-rigged mass of political tubes and wires, and not a love of what the artist loved.  If Mary Cassatt were Martin Cassatt, and painted the very same paintings in the same way and with the same love, she would loathe him as sentimentalizing the oppression of women.

The next time you see a woman great with child, walking with her husband and a couple of children already born, consider that you are beholding something natural and holy.  Abortion is evil because it takes an innocent human life.  But abortion is heinous because it attacks those natural bonds at their roots.  Murder is sometimes a crime of passion.  Abortion is, in the individual case, not so culpable as murder; and yet its principle is wickeder.  The murderer kills a man.  The abortionist does that too—and murders human nature to do it.

(Photo Credit: Newscom/KRT/Ernie Cox; Cardinal Bernardin 1993)

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Northeast Catholic College. Dr Esolen has authored several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008), Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013).

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