At this pivotal time in our nation's history, many of us are struggling with the question of how to more effectively promote a culture of life. Even if recent legislative victories and polling data suggest we are doing enough, it's clear we fall far short of the "civilization of love" and "culture of life" about which Pope John Paul II speaks and writes so eloquently. Why have we fallen short? The answer is both painfully simple and frighteningly complex. It may have more to do with our failure to communicate effectively than with the clever strategies of those who support the culture of death.
The Imitation of Christ: Heeding the Counsel of a Practical Idealist
Let's begin by evaluating both our manner and methods of communication against the touchstone of the greatest communicator, teacher and healer of all time. Christ taught us to speak with our actions as well as our words. He taught us to show empathy, respect and love for our audience by adapting our message to their unique needs and circumstances.
In each of His parables, He showed us how to engage an audience where they are – not where we would prefer for them to be. When He spoke to an audience of farmers, He addressed them on their terms. He spoke of tilling the soil and pruning dead branches. When he spoke to shepherds, He spoke of leading a flock to safety and the joy of finding one lost sheep. In
essence, He loved His audience enough to translate His eternal truths into the familiar language of their own life circumstances.
Notably, He bore witness to the truth through His actions and almost always to one, uniquely blessed, soul at a time. For every miraculous incident where Jesus fed the masses with a few loaves and fish, there are far more instances where He healed a certain leper, cured a chosen blind man, and forgave the sins of a specific sinner. He repeatedly expressed His love through concrete, tangible actions. He refused to keep a safe distance from His subject whether in word or action. Instead, He reached out and touched one broken hurting person at a time.
Translating Christ's Witness to Our Audience Today
Students of debate are taught the three basic ways to defeat an opponent: First, appeal to their reason. By assembling the most compelling rational arguments, an opponent accedes to the supremacy of logic. Second, appeal to their morality. By presenting the most unassailable ethical principles, an opponent concedes to the superiority of a moral imperative. Third, appeal
to their emotions. By sharing moving personal experiences, an opponent succumbs to the pre-eminence of feelings of compassion (love) or anger (justice).
Let's consider how these fundamental rules of debate might apply to our task of exposing the harm that abortion has done to our society in general and to women in particular. In doing so, we might ask which of these three tools of argumentation would be most effective in reaching our culture today.
We begin by asking the simple question, "Can arguments drawn from our comfort zones of reason and morality accomplish the task?" In a society in which moral standards are dismissed as a matter of personal opinion, defending human life based on the fifth commandment's proscription "Thou shall not kill" is not likely to change many minds. In a civilization in which objective truth is considered to be unattainable or merely subjective, how much credence would an exclusively rational argument be given? In a culture in which only "feelings" are widely accepted as real or valid, an argument based exclusively on what is "right and reasonable" is unlikely to be persuasive.
Today's advertisers know how to appeal to the public. They've discovered that the key to prying open the closed American mind – whether using print, billboards or television spots – is through an emotional appeal to personal (therefore, irrefutable) experience. The ratings popularity of "reality TV" shows and Oprah-style talk shows over more objective news or issue oriented programs bears out this approach. It stands to reason that if "truth" is subjective or no longer attainable and what is "good" is just a matter of "choice," it seems a dreadful waste of time to think seriously about such disquieting topics as whether abortion ends a human life.
A Change in Emphasis: Engaging Our Audience Where They Are — Not Where We Want Them to Be
I am not suggesting the need to compromise or contradict the solid moral and rational underpinnings of our defense of all human life. I am, however, recommending a significant change in emphasis. I suggest that we more authentically imitate Christ by not forgetting whom we are trying to reach. Specifically, I am calling for a more creative approach to the selection of
voices, and the choice of words, to speak our truth. I am asking that we choose words and spokespersons who are more likely to be heard.
As good communicators with a message that desperately needs to be heard, we have no choice but to engage our audience where they are. We must reach the minds and hearts of the American people. We must be willing to depart from the safe, familiar ground of our own beliefs, values and vocabulary. It is time to venture forth "into the deep" by translating our message into the words and vignettes that will better address the real and legitimate needs of today's "least of these," that audience whom we are "called by name" to reach.
Knowing and Loving our Audience: Reaching the "Least of These"
Knowing and loving our audience as any Christ-like communicator is called to do, let's examine whether we have chosen the right people to share our message. In a culture in which women often have been abused by men through coerced abortion, divorce and desertion, would one generally expect men to be effective in demanding that a woman place the needs of
an unborn child ahead of her own?
A new voice is called for, just as different words are needed. We should focus more on presenting moving personal testimonies from real women who have confronted the painful consequences of living in a culture of death. By allowing their anguished voices to be heard, the falsehoods lurking behind the "choice" rhetoric can be exposed. By permitting their tears to be seen and their broken hearts exposed, it will become obvious that women do "deserve better" than abortion. By shining the light of truth on their moving, real-life testimonies it will be clear that abortion stops one beating heart and breaks another's, too.
How could we apply this suggested change in communication strategy? We could invite a female obstetrician/gynecologist, rather than a male professor of ethics to present the medical and scientific facts showing why life begins at conception. To present the case that abortion is a morally reprehensible form of child abuse, we could profile a young mother who has survived a crisis pregnancy rather than a male criminologist. To address the reality of post-abortion stress, we could highlight the personal experience of a working woman who suffered physically and emotionally from her abortion, rather than inviting a male pro-life activist to speak.
In essence, we must remember that it is the mother in crisis–not the unborn child, no matter how infinitely valuable his or her life truly is–who has the power and responsibility to make a life and death decision. We cannot afford to overlook the fact that it is the mother who is being asked to accept the economic hardship, social embarrassment and physical sacrifice of her unplanned pregnancy. It is the mother in crisis, far more than anyone else, who must hear compassionate words and credible offers of assistance if she is to persevere on the lonely path of protecting the life of her unborn child.
The Nurturing Network: Compassion in Action
This awareness is what caused my professional life to take a sudden detour two decades ago from the comfort and grandeur of an executive suite in midtown Manhattan to the far more modest office of a founder and managing director of an international charity. While it initially took the personal anguish of a mid-trimester miscarriage for me to grasp the horror of prenatal
death, it has taken the daily, life-saving activity of the Nurturing Network to teach me the primary importance of translating my reverence for all human life into concrete, Christ-like action.
I cannot recount all that this apostolate has come to mean to me, but when I call to mind and heart the 16,000 innocent children whose physical lives have been saved and the equal number of courageous mothers whose emotional and spiritual lives have been nourished, I cannot imagine a more enduring or more meaningful way to help "build a culture of life."
It simply is not enough for any Christian to say that we are "for life" unless we are willing to provide the practical means to support it. This is not a catchy slogan, but a heartfelt conviction that is lived out every day in the courageous, sacrificial actions of our 40,000 Nurturing Network volunteer members worldwide.
An example of Compassion in Action
Let me offer a concrete example of the living miracles we see each and every day at the Nurturing Network. Our clients give new meaning to the maternal version of being a "profile in courage" and our Nurturing Network members bear witness to Christ's call to practical compassion.
Janice was a second year college student who had always done everything right. One night at a fraternity party, she made a poor decision never thinking a crisis pregnancy could possibly happen to her. When she shared her situation with her family, they panicked and threatened to cut her off from any economic support unless she would "get rid of her problem." When she refused, they withdrew all emotional and practical support.
Like many of our clients, she became depressed and suicidal. First she scheduled an abortion appointment and then phoned the Nurturing Network. By offering her compassionate counseling, a loving family with whom she could live until her own parents could heal, a caring doctor to deliver her child at no charge to her, and financial support so she could remain in nursing school, Janice was able to persevere in protecting the life of her unborn child. Through the daily support of our staff and resource members, she found the inner strength to continue her unplanned pregnancy and graduate from nursing school near the top of her class. She is now the happy mother of a healthy little girl, has reconciled with her parents, and is engaged to a young man who is devoted to her for her living example of courage and love.
This example reminds me once again that in all of my twenty years of counseling literally thousands of women like Janice, I have not received a single call on our toll free life-line asking to debate the morality of abortion. Nor have I heard any woman request a recap of the most compelling rational arguments for continuing a crisis pregnancy. Instead, I have heard a cry for empathy manifested by an offer of real and tangible resources, the kind that will empower her to answer the call of her maternal heart and choose life for her unborn child.
I need only to reflect upon the contemporary "Mary Magdalenes" whom I have had the joy of serving since founding the Nurturing Network two decades ago to say with conviction that the binding of deep wounds and the healing of broken hearts is an intensely intimate and essentially practical experience. The simple but profound truth is that there is no efficient or effective substitute for the private, personal, time-intensive conversations that translate beyond words into the most life-saving message of all, "You are a beloved child of God. No matter what mistake you may have made or sin you may have committed, you are infinitely valuable and precious in God's sight."
These are the healing words that will help build a genuine and lasting culture of life. They ring true and find their way home in every wounded human heart. And when enough voices like ours proclaim this truth with genuine compassion and unwavering courage, Christ's love will become the leaven in the bread of new life that will, indeed, "renew the face of the earth."
Mary Cunningham Agee is the Founder and President of the Nurturing Network, a nationwide charitable organization comprised of over 40,000 resource members who have provided for the urgent and practical needs of over 16,000 women with unplanned pregnancies. Ms. Agee has twice been voted by World Almanac as one of "The 25 Most Influential Women in America." Mrs. Agee is a member of both the Order of Malta and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. She is a devoted wife and mother of two children.
Form a TNN "Cluster" of Local Resources
A TNN Cluster is an active group of local volunteers in a given geographic area who offer the practical support most often requested by a mother experiencing an unplanned pregnancy. A chairperson (or Cluster Coordinator) communicates this information to Nurturing Network's headquarters where it is maintained in a nationwide database. Often this "founding" group is the Respect Life Committee at a particular parish or a group of 2-3 motivated friends. A multitude of print and video resources are available at no charge to support this vitally important volunteer development process. Emphasis is placed on developing an outreach to local college and university campuses. Anyone needing support may call toll free, 1-800-TNN-4MOM, or request help online at www.nurturingnetwork.org.
Here is how you can participate as a member of a TNN Cluster:
- Encourage your friends, colleagues, fellow parishioners, family members and other associates to support TNN's program of practical compassion by offering employment or educational opportunities, medical services, a Nurturing Home, professional counseling or a financial contribution.
- Offer one of these essential practical resources yourself.
- Provide an introduction to a local CPC so that collaboration is more effective.
- Facilitate the distribution of TNN client pamphlets at a university Student Health Center or local Woman's Clinic and encourage counseling that consistently includes Nurturing Network as a resource for women with unplanned pregnancies.
- Provide an introduction to college administrators, students or faculty members at your own Alma Mater or at a nearby college.
- Encourage Resident Assistants and other student leaders to provide Nurturing Network information to students in their respective living groups.
- Consider how Planned Giving in the form of property, investments or a portion of an estate as a living legacy could make the difference of a lifetime for many deserving mothers.
- Continue to pray for TNN's staff, volunteer members and all mothers in crisis who are in need of our life-saving support.
Ask your pastor's permission to keep a clear plastic 5-gallon barrel in the church vestibule labeled "Pennies for Life." Through bulletin inserts and an initial pulpit announcement, invite parishioners, especially children, to drop pennies in the barrel every week. (Larger contributions also welcome!) All donations should be given to your local pregnancy resource center or parish "Gabriel Project," for example. One or two members of the parish Respect Life Committee can share the responsibility for regularly collecting the donations, rolling change, and obtaining a certified check from a bank payable to the charitable recipient. Thank contributors often through notices placed on or near the barrel or in the Sunday bulletin which state the running total of contributions. Note: If security is a problem, consider leaving the barrel in the vestibule only during weekend Mass times.
Nurturing Network (TNN) Print and Video Resources
All resources are available at no charge by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the Development office at 509-493-4026.
- TNN's General Information Packet – Information pieces that fully illustrate TNN's comprehensive program of compassionate and practical life-affirming service.
- TNN's College Information Packet – Information pieces with special emphasis on meeting the unique needs of college women.
- TNN's Clustering Packet – Guidelines, camera-ready media material, inspiring stories and motivational aides for sharing TNN's mission with potential resource members.
- 12 x 18 Poster for colleges, parishes and CPC's directed at reaching college or working women in need of support and practical resources.
- Inspirational Video appropriate for use in small groups, workshops or conference display settings.
- In-depth Training Videos on Cluster and College Development.
The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II. USCCB, Wash.,D.C. 1995 ($9.95)
Healing the Culture, Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2000.
Life Insight, (Newsletter), Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, Wash., D.C., (no charge.)
Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. USCCB. Wash., D.C., 1998 ($3.50)
The Right Choice, (Video), Pro-Life Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, Wash., D.C. ($12.95)
The Truth of Catholicism, George Weigel, HarperCollins, New York, 2001.
Will I Cry Tomorrow, Susan M. Stanford-Rue, Ph.D., Fleming H. Revell Co., 1990.
Copyright © 2004, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved.