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Are you inhibited by fear of being regarded as an ‘extremist’? If so, is your fear based on emotional aversion to unpopularity, or on a strategic belief that unpopularity thwarts progress? Consider the following analysis.

Pro-life attitudes can be (and probably very often are) described as ‘extreme,’ and therefore their adherents as ‘extremists’. Incidentally, it is unwise to draw many conclusions when someone is described as, or claims to be, ‘pro-life’. Unreliability lurks beneath vagueness. An experienced pro-life campaigner once said that people who are ‘pro-life’ in one context are not always ‘pro-life’ in another. Definition is crucial.

The people who are the most likely to be branded as ‘extremist’ are those who espouse ‘absolute’ rules. An English judge had those in mind when offering his general view that “an extremist opinion is one which admits of no exceptions.”[1] The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has referred to them as “non-negotiable ethical principles”/ “moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation”/ “inalienable ethical demands.”[2] Therefore, ‘deliberate, direct abortion is unjustifiable in any circumstances,’ and the contrary – ‘there should be no legal restrictions on the availability of abortion’ – are absolute rules, and by the English judge’s definition they are “extremist” opinions.

Absolute rules/opinions feature in political and (seemingly less often) in religious discussion. Typical politicians are selective in their use of controversial absolutes, and seemingly-typical religious status-holders use safe equivocation even if privately they have clear, firm opinions. So (by again applying the judge’s definition) politics and religion include many ‘extremists’ and hypocritical ‘moderates’.

The lack-lustre character of Catholic leaders’ comments on abortion lead one to wonder sometimes to which category they belong. For example: On 27th June 2022, there was a short “Abortion Statement from the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.” Its first sentence declared that “the life that each one of us lives is the only one we have” (despite subsequent references to “human” life, that was a gift to atheists). There followed a tepid opinion that abortion “cannot be right,” a ‘unifying,’ ‘all-faiths-and-none’ type of claim that “No matter what position we take, this belief in the profound importance of the issue is shared by us all,” and an appeal that because “deeply held and divergent opinions are at stake…the conflict which arises from this should be handled with respect and civility.” Probably most people can recognise that to lose one’s temper can hinder the unmasking of error, but the effect of such limpness displayed by some anti-abortion commentators is likely to be that “respect and civility” suppresses justified, ‘hard-hitting’ plain speaking and becomes (even if not intentionally) a policy of undue deference.

On the next day, there was a statement by an English bishop about the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision that the U. S. Constitution does not confer a right to an abortion. He quoted Pope Francis as having described simple and convenient abortion as “troubling” (is that all?). Instead of urging stronger campaigning for (admittedly-unforeseeable) legal prohibition, the bishop called for “reflection,” which seems hesitant (if a bugler makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 1 Cor. 14:8). Among his suggestions were a “need to re-examine” the law under which disability can allow abortion at any time before birth, and fruitful debate which avoids “polarised” attitudes.  

Putting together such words, it seems reasonable to wonder what would have been the response to other egregious wrongs in history. For example, legal abortion in Britain has killed more people than the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ did. If Nazi Germany had been governed by a Parliamentary democracy, and the ‘final solution’ had been authorised by legislation, would the right response to the resultant mass murder have been to think that it “cannot be right;” and (exercising the legal right to free speech) to describe it as “troubling;” to suggest “reflection” and that some aspect(s) of the law should be “re-examined;” and, because “belief in the importance of the issue is shared by us all,” “no matter what position we take,” to urge proponents of “deeply held and divergent opinions” to avoid “polarised” attitudes and show “respect and civility”?  

The Scottish bishops’ statement invoked the concept of a “caring and compassionate society,” and the English bishop said that the Church would “strive to offer hope and healing for all those hurt by the tragedy” of abortion. Fine; but recurrent references to love and compassion, although in principle legitimate, subdue the energising effect of righteous rebellion.   

It is unsurprising, and unimpressive, if politicians tend to tailor their public performance to attract votes, but the positions of religious status-holders are not dependent on votes; their loss of public approval is measurable by diminished attendance at church. No doubt, fear of causing increased lapsation acts as a gag on their highlighting of differences between truth and error and between virtue and vice.

What of ‘ordinary members of the public’? How much ‘understanding’ do we deserve if we ‘mince our words’ or keep silent to avoid incurring unpopularity?

If you ‘side,’ at least mentally, with ‘pro-life’ opposition to the “culture of death,”[3] consider whether you are afraid of being called ‘an extremist’. An ‘extremity’ is ‘the farthest possible point’. Identification of that depends on using true measurement. Are you confident that true measurement is the root of your pro-life opinions? Relativism undermines such confidence. Relativism asks ‘Who is to say what is true?’ That is a legacy of the mis-named ‘Reformation’ and – equally inaccurately – the ‘Enlightenment’. It pervades the societies in which reside probably most of the people who are reading this. Our Parliaments legislate against atmospheric smog but are relaxed about the mental equivalent. Cognitively crippled by crediting a denial that an objective source of authority exists, answers to moral questions are surrendered to majority opinion and regarded as thereby validated: ‘No-one really knows what is true or right, so let’s just leave it to democracy.’ Pope Benedict believed that consensus was a fragile basis for democracy.[4] Fragility in terms of philosophical authenticity, yes, but sometimes (as in the case of legal abortion and other abominations) invincible strength.   

Consider also, in the light of what ‘extremism’ means, whether fear of it is rational. There are good ‘extreme’ principles. The Ten Commandments are historically-early examples. Most of them are negative (“Thou shalt not…”). That ‘puts off’ some people, even highly intelligent ones. In an interview with German media,[5] Pope Benedict said that the Church’s message should be presented first in positive, rather than negative, terms. Pope Francis has shown very clearly that he holds the same opinion. Some pro-lifers make much more positive comment about the value of life than negative comment about the evil of abortion. Many people who still go to Mass each week-end hear almost no negative comments in the sermons. ‘Be positive’ has become the order of not only the day but of our era. It has not prevented the disintegration of Christendom.    

Pope St. John Paul wrote that “The negative moral precepts, which declare that the choice of certain actions is morally unacceptable, have an absolute value for human freedom: they are valid always and everywhere, without exception. … In this sense [they] have an extremely important positive function. The “no” which they unconditionally require makes clear the absolute limit beneath which free individuals cannot lower themselves. At the same time they indicate the minimum which they must respect and from which they must start out in order to say…”yes” which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good.”[6]

So do not be defensive about negativity. Here is another thought: putting everything in exclusively-positive words is simply not enough to produce a fully-satisfactory outcome. For example, positive statements that new life is God’s gift, and giving practical help to people for whom pregnancy seems more of a problem than a joy, does nothing to end the availability of mass murder by abortion. It is, although admirable and worthy of support, only ‘damage-limitation’. It offers a choice of good but co-exists with (instead of taking away) the choice of evil. It is a tacit acceptance, and a symptom, of ‘pro-choice’ because of the futility of arguing for ‘no choice’. It is like being satisfied with leading people away from fire but tolerating a law which says that arson is sometimes justified.

There remains the question of whether fear of being an unpopular ‘extremist’ is based on a strategic belief that unpopularity thwarts progress. Such belief is superficially rational. The nature of unpopularity is lack of support, and progress depends on support. Yet support cannot be won by silence. Furthermore, attention is gained and ‘impact’ is made more by passion than by ‘pussyfooting’. Secularism has supplanted Christianity as the dominant influence in society by assertiveness, not gentleness. The soporific policy of Christian ‘leaders’ is, however, to encourage gentleness, like an ant holding a ‘Please don’t squash me’ placard as a steam-roller approaches. Gentleness can be effective in a quiet setting between individuals who trust each other, but does not arouse the zeal which is necessary for large-scale change. A notion that such change starts with individuals diverts attention from what has happened during recent decades, resulting in the overthrow of objective standards of morality. Behind the religious terms in which gentleness is advocated there lies timidity, calculated to appease opponents. Experience in public debate has shown that putting something mildly is not a shield, but at best a cushion, against criticism, and that the preferred shield is silence (whereby “Humanae Vitae” has been buried).

A malaise cannot be rectified unless opposition to it is built. Nothing is built without effort. Corrective social transformation will not occur automatically. When the status quo is firmly entrenched, as is the contraception-rooted “culture of death,” calls for change always start with a minority, whose opinions are dismissed. Some of today’s taken-for-granted norms started as extremes.

Complacently-emollient people regard such phenomena as simply symptomatic of how times change, and tend to recommend ‘swimming with the tide,’ but, wrote Michael Coren, “It’s not a question of changing with the times:…the times can be bad just as an idea or a person can be bad. We would not have asked a German in 1938 to change with the times! Fashion is by its nature entirely unreliable as a guide to what is true, right, moral and just.” Relativists pretend that the meanings of those concepts are illusory, and therefore that they are not ‘absolutes’ but variables.[7] “Change,” added Michael Coren, “…is often a euphemism for compromise if not downright surrender.”[8] Even as long ago as 1950 it was noted that in ethics “we have the spectacle of doctrine which claims divine authority being steadily withdrawn from the particular to the general…Each of these retreats, however, involving as it does the surrender of a previously final position, threatens the fundamental security of religious morals and provokes the unbeliever to ask ‘Why stop here?’.”[9]

A parallel policy in official comments and exhortations is their directing of attention almost exclusively to the corporal works of mercy. Such works are meritorious, but by comparison with subjects such as abortion they are safely uncontroversial and therefore carry no risk of unpopularity. The reason underlying this preference is probably that ‘There’s no chance of defeating the culture of death, and keeping on about it would just get us a bad name, so let’s face facts and do something else.’ An equivalent opinion in War-time Germany would have been ‘We have many casualties to be treated, and that’s more urgent and effective than futile complaints about gas-chambers. We can’t do anything about those, and the only effect which your complaints are likely to have is getting you arrested. Be sensible. Keep quiet and do something which is both Christian and safe.’

Supporters of the ‘final solution’ to unwanted pregnancies are at liberty to accuse pro-lifers of ‘extremism’. Sometimes pro-lifers make the same accusation in reverse. It is worthless, because extremism is in itself neither good nor bad; the important factor is whether a particular extremity is morally defensible. The predominant judgment on that question will depend on how skilfully and extensively the competing beliefs are proposed. Society involves, however, more than mere debate. Practical action is needed. No matter how many debates may be won, events do not automatically accord with the triumphant judgment. Contrary to the hypocritically-promoted principle, views must be imposed, often by law. Imposition depends on possession of power. Concrete effort to acquire power seems to be in short supply among pro-lifers. Putting people off choosing abortion is, of course, a good objective, but putting some of them off it is not going to stop it. While the law caters for the choice, many people will choose what is wrong. Their opportunity to do so should be obstructed. To do that, we need to get enough of our allies into the legislature. That is very difficult, for various reasons; one of them is that ‘consumerism’ has deified choice. To people who worship choice, restricting it seems ‘extreme’. We shall make no significant progress if we allow ourselves to be inhibited by that.

[1] “Law and Democracy,” in “Public Law,” Sweet & Maxwell Ltd., 1995, at p.87.

[2] Doctrinal Note, “On the Participation of Catholics in Political Life;” Catholic Truth Society, 2003, paragraphs 3 and 4.

[3] Pope St. John Paul, “Evangelium Vitae,” 1995, paragraph 12.

[4] “The Universe,” 26th September 2010, p.19.

[5] Transcript published in “The Catholic Herald,” 18th August 2006, p.4-5.

[6] “Evangelium Vitae,” paragraph 75.

[7] Cf. Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” – Jn. 18:38.  

[8] “The Future of Catholicism,” a Signal paperback [Signal is an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House Canada Ltd.], 2014, p.3.

[9] “Testament for Social Science,” Barbara Wooton; Allen & Unwin, 1950, p.132-133.

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