I’m a proud graduate of the University of St. Mary of the Lake – Mundelein Seminary, which is the major seminary sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago in far-north suburban Mundelein, Illinois. Founded by Cardinal George Mundelein in 1921, the seminary campus sits on almost 1000 acres on natural woodlands, prairies, and a fairly sizable lake. I learned a lot at Mundelein, and one thing I learned that I didn’t expect was about how to handle visits from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
The IDNR used our campus as a training spot and as a kind of laboratory for various experiments in ways to treat certain invasive species, especially in the lake. There was one problem that most of the priests and seminarians agreed needed to be dealt: geese. The honking, the violent and indiscriminate landings, and, of course, the poop. Why couldn’t we take care of these pests? Couldn’t we just open up campus one Saturday for a wild goose hunt? Wasn’t there a way to keep these waterfowl away?
The late, great Fr. Tom Baima taught us one day in Parish Administration class about a little known, but strictly enforced, federal law: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), or as Fr. Baima called it, “The Waterfowl Protection Act.” We understood what he was telling us: “Do not kill the geese.”
I’m reminded of the MBTA as I sit in the rectory typing this, because on our small street in west suburban Naperville, something strange is occurring: 2 geese, presumably husband and wife (far be it for me to assume their gender identity and relationship status), have taken over the main lawn in front of North Central College’s Old Main, the lawn (our lawn) across the street in front of the rectory, and even the very real estate of North Brainard Street itself. The geese have decided to lay eggs and cultivate a homestead; to settle down for the Spring before flying North.
They haven’t been the nicest neighbors. They honk incessantly, they poop generously, they attack passersby (very inhospitable), and, perhaps most annoyingly, they have decided that their preferred area of relaxation is precisely in the middle of the street. This means that, at all hours of the day and night, there is another kind of honking ringing through the neighborhood as those with College business, grade school pickup, and even the lowly parish priests, try to coax the federally-protected-but-unwelcome new neighbors out of the street.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 states that “the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service” is prohibited under law. Such a law is based on the fact that all around us at any given moment is any number of ecosystems, which are vital in some way to the health, order, and right-function of the natural world. The MBTA applies to what it calls “native migratory bird species,” which it defines as a species “that is present as a result of natural biological or ecological processes.” The law extends not only to the birds currently sitting and honking on North Brainard Street in Naperville, but also to their offspring currently in gestation in the nest the lovebirds (pun intended) have made next to North Central’s School of Business and Entrepreneurship across the street from my house. Fr. Baima told us we couldn’t kill the geese, but in describing the detail about eggs and nests, his message was plain enough: “No, you can’t destroy the eggs, either.”
On May 3, the nation fell victim to an unprecedented and, as Chief Justice John Roberts said, an “absolutely appalling” breakdown of the American Democratic process. The leak of a draft of the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson is a tragedy for anyone who values the logistical function of the United States Government but, more broadly, for anyone who values the philosophical foundations of the American political experiment. Details about the who and why and what-it-all-means about the leak of the SCOTUS draft will become clear in the months and years that follow, but in many ways those details may never matter in light of what the draft reveals and, more so, in light of the public reaction to what the draft reveals.
The leaked SCOTUS draft revealed the complete overturning of the Court’s landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, declaring essentially that there is no Constitutional right to abortion. Therefore, according to the 14th Amendment, the legality of abortion and the regulation thereof would fall back to the States themselves, and the people – through their elected representatives – are able to decide for themselves the legality of abortion and the regulation thereof. That the people should decide something about the way they live through the decisions of their elected government is the central core of American politics, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade doesn’t outlaw abortion de facto (certainly not, anyway, in Illinois which is the extent of my purview). As Justice Scalia noted in his opinion on the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations upon it, are to be resolved like the most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.” (Casey, 505 U.S., at 979)
I’m a Roman Catholic priest, and yes: I believe what is growing in the womb is a human being from the moment of its conception, and as a human being has the same rights and privileges as me. Why do I believe this? There are two big reasons:
- For the same reason that we are all in agreement that what is growing in those goose eggs is a goose. To me, the fact that the conversation about humans is not as simple as this is a sign that as a culture we are not ready to debate abortion because we are nowhere near being able to begin such a debate from anything remotely close to the same starting point. Too many parties are approaching this from too many different starting points.
- To say that what is growing in the womb of a human woman is not a human being with the same rights and privileges as me introduces a philosophical conundrum that I have difficulty resolving. If the baby is not a human being before, say, 15 weeks but is a human being after 15 weeks, what is the change that has occurred to confer humanhood? Does the potential for viability outside the womb confer humanhood? Is there something very magical about the birth canal that confers personal dignity on the clump of cells passing through it?
It seems to me that until we can arrive at a common starting point, this issue will only divide our culture further. The starting point must be this: is this a human being inside the womb or isn’t it?
As a priest, I have been so privileged to walk with women who are unable to conceive, who have miscarried, who have children with illness of every kind, who have lost children as adolescents and adults to sickness, accidents, and suicide. I cannot describe the stunned silence and reverence I experience in front of the experiences of these women; as a man, and especially as a celibate man, this is a pain that I will never be able to experience or understand. Likewise, I have been edified by the number of people I am connected with on social media who, in the wake of May 3, publicly shared their personal stories of difficult pregnancies, miscarriages, and decisions to abort. The idea that the conversation about abortion would be simple, “black & white”, is ridiculous. Anyone with five minutes of pastoral experience will tell you that walking with the real, lived experiences of people is anything but simple and clear.
This is why we need a starting point. But I don’t believe we’ll ever get there, not in this generation, anyway. Why? Because abortion is a moral question and there does not currently exist in America any moral voice strong enough to bring the various sides together; there is no trusted moral authority left.
You can listen to the rest of this homily here:
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