The Visitation, Pro-life, and Creating Structures of Virtue
In a few days (May 31) the Church will be celebrating the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast holds a significant place in the Christian liturgical calendar, commemorating the visit of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, to her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist.
The story as recounted in the Gospel of Luke (1:39-56) is a unique narrative that centers around two expectant mothers, one carrying the Savior of the world, and the other, his forerunner, the final (and greatest) of the Old Testament prophets.
The Visitation narrative begins with Mary responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and setting out “in haste” on a mission of charity to visit Elizabeth, upon hearing about her pregnancy (Luke 1:39). In hearing Mary’s greeting, something amazing and spiritual took place within the child in Elizabeth’s womb. The baby leaps for joy, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:41-42).
God the Son, the Word made flesh, desired that Mary His mother not only go to Elizabeth “in haste” to assist her in her pregnancy, but that she also go to her because the Son of God desired to sanctify John the Baptist within his mother’s womb. How remarkable that the first person (other than Mary and Joseph) to recognize the great gift Who was coming into the world is a preborn child!
In this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth the “Gospel of Life” is vividly on display. Mary, carrying Jesus – the source of life – visits Elizabeth, and this encounter becomes an occasion of joy, blessing, and the affirmation of life in its most vulnerable form!
For the pro-life movement, this story could not be more evocative and more affirming of our great mission to defend the most defenseless.
A Conspiracy Against Human Life
How desperately does our culture need the profound truths contained in this brief Gospel story!
Currently, we face a prevailing violence, “a conspiracy against human life.” As Pope St. John Paul II put it, the culture of death “is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency” (Evangelium vitae, no. 12), rather than with the radical affirmation of the value of every human life that is the center of the Gospel of Life.
Upon examination, it becomes obvious that many of our “political” issues are really spiritual issues and require a spiritual solution. The violence of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human trafficking, pornography, the exploitation and commercialization of preborn children (i.e., IVF, selling of baby-body parts, genetic engineering), etc. are examples of many social ills that have arisen as Western culture has rejected God and ignored the inalienable dignity of human life from conception to natural death. This situation is enabled and emboldened by the progressive weakening in individual consciences in a society that has lost the sense of the incomparable worth of the human person.
Experience shows that whenever a human person’s dignity is overlooked, devalued, or rejected, the consequences to society and culture are far-reaching. For this reason, the Catholic Church has always emphasized that the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This is clearly enunciated by the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which states: “The origin of social life is therefore found in the human person, and society cannot refuse to recognize its active and responsible subject; every expression of society must be directed towards the human person” (no. 106).
The Social Consequences of Sin
When society bases itself on any principle less noble and less unshakable than total respect for the dignity of the human person, it is merely a matter of time before grave evils arise. As the experience of the human race over the millennia has made abundantly clear, human nature is so wounded that without stringent, society-wide commitment to the highest possible ideals, unimaginable evils are possible.
Abortion is one such grave evil.
Here I am reminded of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s words and insight,
By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And, by abortion, that father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. The father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So, abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion (National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. in 1994).
While it is true that a sin is a personal act (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1868), the consequences of sin are always both personal and social. Sin ruptures our relationship with God, but it also ruptures our relationships with each other.
Pope St. John Paul II put it this way: “The mystery of sin is composed of this twofold wound which the sinner opens in himself and in his relationship with his neighbor. Therefore, one can speak of personal and social sin: From one point of view, every sin is personal; from another point of view, every sin is social insofar as and because it also has social repercussions” (Reconciliatio et paenitentia, no. 15).
We need to consider this type of sin that can insinuate into one’s daily habits and life without it being recognized as evil. These are “structures of sin” that are formed by the individual sins we commit. The social consequences of our sin can build up and become what the Catholic Church calls “structures of sin.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it this way: “Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. ‘Structures of sin’ are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn” (no. 1869).
The most common “structure of sin” is composed of all the individual decisions to promote intrinsic evils, like abortion and euthanasia. These “structures of sin” are causing harm to the common good by proactively undermining efforts to build a just society built upon the principles of human dignity and solidarity.
Instead, we are witnessing people losing their jobs and livelihood because they stand against such structures. We are seeing the entire political and legal debate consumed by an industry that advocates for the murder and commercialization of preborn children, as well as the exploitation of women. Whether or not we intend to further the wrongs built into these systems or the sins that created them, we can find ourselves living, working, and even perpetuating them.
When, for instance, we stay silent in order to avoid an “awkward” social situation; when we fail to advocate for just laws and policies; when we fail to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and vulnerable by offering concrete help to women in crisis pregnancies; when we support and consume entertainment (especially pornography) that perpetuates exploitation and false views of the human person.
Visiting Women in Crisis
Although the story of the Visitation is a brief episode in the New Testament, there are many aspects of the story that one could meditate upon, and which are deeply relevant to our fight against the “structures of sin” outlined above.
It is not only worth noting how a preborn child recognizes Our Lord in the womb of his mother, but also how Mary models for us the ideal approach to the news of new human life. Scripture suggests that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was advanced in age, certainly much older than Mary. As such, the normal physical challenges of pregnancy would no doubt have been more acute for Elizabeth. Knowing this, Mary in charity, even though she herself is pregnant, immediately sets out “in haste” to help her cousin Elizabeth.
What a beautiful act of love on Mary’s part! And what a model for all of us.
For many women, the news that they are pregnant is an occasion for mixed feelings: joy, but also often trepidation, fear, anxiety, doubt. In such moments, women instinctively turn to lean on those around them, looking for the support and encouragement they need to welcome this new child.
In a society infected with “structural sin,” however, women will turn to look for support, and rather than support they will find…nothing. No words of encouragement. No practical support. No helpful visits from relatives or friends. Or even worse: active denigration of motherhood, words of discouragement, perhaps even outright anger from the father of the child or other relatives and friends who think she should not be having a child.
The data shows that a majority of women do not want abortion. And yet, because of the way we have allowed sin to percolate throughout our society, many women feel as if they have no option. They do not feel that they can have and bring up a child all alone, in the face of hostility, judgment, mockery, or simply passive neglect.
To counteract all of this, we must work to inculcate what we might call “structures of virtue” in our society. That is, we must model our personal actions, our cultural norms, and our laws and spending priorities on the story of the Visitation: that is, we must base all of these upon the need to affirm the fundamental dignity of human life from conception, and on the moral imperative to help and support women during pregnancy.
That is, we must create a society founded upon the principles of human dignity and of solidarity, which are fundamental to Catholic social teaching.
Celebrate the Visitation: Celebrate Life
In the story of the Visitation, Our Lady gives us a perfect model of all of the above. Like her, we must work to bring Christ into every moment, becoming ambassadors of Christ by ministering to the marginalized, needy, and vulnerable.
The crimes against human life, especially against the humanity of the preborn child, will never cease unless we demand their end, their complete and unequivocal end. However, at the same time it is not enough merely to demand the end of these grave injustices. We must also put in the hard work to remove the perverse incentives that push women towards the abortion clinic, and the sick and elderly towards assisted suicide and euthanasia.
How do we do this? One word: love. Love will spread, erode, and collapse the “structures of sin,” and unite human beings in a common bond of respect and solidarity. In a “civilization of love,” women no longer feel alone during pregnancy, and the sick and vulnerable know that their family, their neighbors, and their governments have their back, no matter how difficult their circumstances might be.
This is the hour to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable. Let us be united in this effort, bearing witness to Truth. We must confront the inertia (the tendency to remain at rest) that is almost impossible to overcome. Otherwise, “Not to oppose error is to approve it, not to defend truth is to suppress it” (Pope Felix).
We also know that once our morality begins moving in a particular direction it accumulates an extraordinary momentum (the tendency to keep moving) which is very difficult to change. Right now, the momentum seems to all be going in the wrong direction. But as the reversal of Roe v. Wade shows, with much prayer and hard work we can reverse these trends and begin to build a society that more closely resembles the love and solidarity manifested by Mary in her visit to her cousin Elizabeth.
Did you find this useful?
Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.