By Dr. Donald DeMarco
I was reading, with genuine sadness, about a Jesuit priest who visits a Catholic home for unwed mothers three times a year to give weekend retreats. He describes the tragedies in the lives of these young girls as “appalling.” The age of these young mothers ranges from 13 upwards, with the median age being around 16 or 17. The role of the priest is heroic, while the plight of the single moms is something that was largely avoidable.
An old Dutch maxim comes to mind: “We are too soon old and too late smart.” The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted: “We live forward, but we understand backwards.”
We can repent of our mistakes, but we cannot relive our opportunities to avoid them. The role of the priest, then, must be to urge his retreatants to get smart and to learn from their mistakes.
We live in what is often referred to as a “pro-choice” culture. The abiding illusion is that choice is more “free” to the extent that it is emancipated from responsibility. And then, the consequences of irresponsible choices hit with unremitting vengeance. One might say that these unwed mothers were victims of choice. One might also say that they were betrayed by culture. Being twice victimized elicits strong sympathy.
Among the many strange and misleading things that flowed from the pen of Sigmund Freud, is his wise comment that people tend to “overestimate the unattained sexual object.” His language may be a bit impersonal, but his point is very sound. The romantic allure of sex can be overpowering and therefore, blinding.
We send young girls out on dates poorly equipped to understand their own weaknesses as well as the seductive role of culture. How prone these ladies are to the tender words and false promises of their boyfriends. “When the blood boils,” wrote Shakespeare, “how the prodigal soul lends the tongue vows.”
Part of the problem that leaves young girls so highly vulnerable is the fact that culture has virtually abandoned “courtship.” That beautiful word owes its origin to the Franciscan notion of “courtesy,” that special respect that all of us should have toward every one of God’s creatures.
For our heroic priest, “Courtship of old — a gracious ritual with clearly defined roles for man and woman, in which everyone knew the measured music and the steps — grew out of sturdy human roots: the stability of the home, the sacredness of the family, the wisdom of postponing pleasures.”
There can be little doubt that a relationship exists between a decline in respect for the sacred institution of marriage, and abandoning young people to a meretricious culture that has little regard for their well-being.
The dilemma that the unwed mothers find themselves in is a reflection of our culture’s loss of respect for marriage. One dilemma is made even more problematic by its intimate association with another. The way out of these twin dilemmas is not easy. Nor is it evident.
The work of pro-life people is very broad. It goes to the heart of problem of unwed teenage mothers and abortion to consider factors that beset marriage and the family. The family remains the basic unit of the family and so many ethical problems in society can be traced back to problems within the family. The task involves no less than the whole of culture. In short, the pro-life movement is attempting to bring about a Culture of Life.
St. John Paul II may have best expressed the matter in his encyclical, The Culture of Life: “In seeking the deepest roots of the struggle between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death,’ we have to go the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test.”
It is to be hoped, then, that under the tutelage of Pope Francis, respect for those wonderfully Franciscan values of courtesy and courtship may be at least somewhat restored.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo, Ontario and faculty member at Catholic Bible College of Canada. This essay appeared in the April 16 edition of The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission.