For decades, those on the Left have called pro-life activists merely ‘pro-birth.’ ‘To be truly pro-life,’ the line goes, ‘one must support socialized healthcare, mandatory paternity leave, or anything the Left sees as necessary for the support of life.’ As families in the United States and throughout Europe fail to reach the replacement rate, being ‘pro-birth’ seems less like a slur and more like a patriotic duty. Argument and analysis continue on the Right as to how family policy might help nations reverse demographic decline.
To rehearse recent history, in April of 2021, Gladden Pappin, associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas and currently a visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, published a piece in Public Discourse arguing that conservatives need to use state power to deploy economic resources in support of families in a way that many families would prefer, namely with direct cash payments to support the procreation and raising of their offspring. His article occasioned a spate of critical and creative responses. Nonetheless, Pappin and others have continued to examine a nation that they think provides a fruitful example: Orbán’s Hungary. The summer of 2021 saw several high-profile American commentators, such as Tucker Carlson and Rod Dreher, visiting Hungary and depicting for audiences back home what it looks like for a European country to be proud of its Christian heritage and consciously working for its common good. Sven Larson closed out the year in this magazine by examining Orbán’s dedication to “protect[ing] the interests of families,” as the Hungarian Prime Minister put it.
Conservative policy wonks, however, rarely favor anything beyond the usual child-tax credit. It came as a surprise, then, that Pappin and others desiring that America follow suit and implement a more capacious pro-family policy found a fellow traveler in United States senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who proposed his “Family Security Act” in 2021 and released another iteration in June 2022. The fate of the legislation is yet unclear, but when surveying the rising generation of new adults, what is clear is that another factor in demographic decline must find a remedy: namely, the conscious decision of many Westerners to forego the drama of procreation and parenting for ideological reasons, whether for fear of a climate crisis apocalypse, or despair driven by a pervasive “doomer” mentality promoted by the mass media and prominent cultural influencers. Recently released in a new English translation, The Meaning of Birth—a short dialogue between an influential Italian priest and an anti-communist art critic who had recently returned to the practice of his Catholic faith—presents a dynamic struggle to articulate the beauty of our being born and other political and theological wisdom necessary for Westerners seeking to recover the metaphysics of being ‘pro-birth.’
Fr. Luigi Giussani was born in 1922, in a small town north of Milan, and was ordained to the priesthood at the young age of 23. During his studies for a doctorate in theology in the 1950s, he began to realize a nascent crisis in the Church, as many began to feel that Christian faith was no longer relevant to postwar life. Catholic tradition, he noted, seemed to neglect contemporary concerns. His work with high school and university students throughout the next several decades led to the foundation of a movement that received the name Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation) in 1969. This was a time when, in both Italy and France, the radical university protests of May 1968 led by communists and leftist fellow travelers were a recent memory, and Communion and Liberation, or ‘CL,’ sought to propose anew the idea that Christ, not communism, was central to true communion and freedom. Fr. Giussani sought to provide young people with the Christian proposal so that they might fruitfully encounter the joy of true freedom within their own lives. It should come as no surprise, then, that in 1978 some of the movement’s university students took the initiative to meet art critic and editorialist Giovanni Testori, who wrote for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, and soon after to introduce him to Fr. Giussani, with whom he began a deep friendship.
Testori was born just a year after Giussani and was similarly precocious, beginning his career as an art critic at the age of 17. Although raised a Christian, he long felt his religious upbringing as akin to the mark of Cain “stamped on my forehead,” and, despite never formally renouncing his faith, he lived in contradiction to it as an active homosexual. His artistic and creative work spanned the gamut of forms, from plays performed in northern Italy to short stories to criticism of painting and later film, to monumental poems and L’ambleto (1972), a rewriting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Only five years after reconstructing the Danish prince’s familial plight, Testori’s life would be upended by the death of his own mother in 1977, shortly before some unknown university students came knocking at his door. His involvement with CL culminated in a conversion back to Christianity. The Catholic movement proved a fitting resting place for Testori, an intellectually heterodox writer in a time when orthodoxy in the public square meant Marxism; in September 1977 he had protested communist hegemony in a column in Corriere della Sera. Needless to say, the column provoked a critical firestorm from the mainstream Italian press.
The mainstream media at the time had also caricatured CL as a militant reactionary group that responded only to a secular enemy, rather than possessing its own positive meaning. Testori’s proposal to Fr. Giussani in 1980—that they meet and tape-record a conversation which could be turned into a book—allowed a different picture of the movement to emerge. Rather than a group of bitter cynics who saw no good in the modern world, CL was presented as a family of the faithful who proposed Christ anew to a world hungry for salvation, affirming that, as Fr. Giussani wrote in Il rischio educativo (The Risk of Education, 1977), “faith corresponds to the fundamental and original needs of the heart of each person.” That meeting would produce Il senso della nascita, published during Brezhnev’s rule of the Soviet Union, in the year Ronald Reagan first won a presidential campaign, vowing to “Make America Great Again.” Some 41 years later, it has been translated into English as The Meaning of Birth, and remains extraordinarily relevant to the problems of the West today.
The dialogue form of the work will be familiar to many today, due to the proliferation of long form podcasts pioneered by members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, to name a few). Such discussions tend to be at their best when the interlocutors are close friends familiar with each other’s thoughts, desirous of both testing their own positions and allowing that of the other to unfold creatively; this includes a bit of prodding when an utterance seems unclear to one conversational partner, as we see frequently unfold in Plato’s dialogues. That happens once or twice here, but Giussani and Testori are best conceived of as members in a musical duet, and their conversation a piece starting lentamente until it finally swells into a glorious crescendo, where it returns to its original theme but on a more elevated, explicitly theological level. While the conversation meanders through a number of themes, those perhaps most worth exploring here are birth—which is the overarching theme of the dialogue as a whole—abstraction, suicide, and Christmas.
The conversation begins with Testori asking Fr. Giussani for a name: if this conversation is to be a book, the first of many of their conversations, what ought it to be titled? The poet wants to seek a name so as to begin their talk from a particular. He has been thinking of birth, through his Christian poetic sensibility immediately connected to the crib, and thus to the cross, of Christ. He suggests that these are all intimately connected to hope, and yet to pain as well. Why, he asks Giussani, do the two moments of the crib and the cross “have such a great weight: why are we so marked by them?” Throughout the dialogue, the meaning of birth emerges in three distinct ways, as related to pain and hope, as revealing our dependence and therefore the fact that we are loved, and finally our need for the Church as the home our Father has built for us.
Young people in our time know full well the reality of pain. Fr. Giussani claims that pain is central to the “experience of humanity.” Aside from the normal and varied trials of youth, such as trying strange new things (eating broccoli, for instance), learning to share, and the more difficult occasions such as the betrayal of apparent friends, young people today experience anxiety disorders at a more frequent rate, are more likely to grow up without a father or in an otherwise broken home, and often find themselves subject to racial and gender ideology which deforms their personalities or bodies by casting them in a state of war against immutable, unchosen aspects of their own existence. Many of these pains are unnecessary, and the presence of responsible men and women could avert them. Nonetheless, children will experience pain. In such a world, one finds the meaning of pain in the reality of the Incarnation, that God chose to become man and suffer for the sake of redeeming His Creation. The suffering of men, women, and children can be redemptive insofar as it is joined to the mystery of the Cross, and because God creates each of us personally, as Testori says, “so the cross of every man is large even in its smallness, in its hesitation, in its shame and its betrayal.”
The pain of the Cross can be the pain of personal rebirth. Mothers testify to the pangs of childbirth but also to how they are forgotten in the face of their child’s presence. Fr. Giussani distinguishes between carnal pain, the simple reality of suffering, and the pain that makes a “path to a new birth, a presence,” namely, the pain of sin. We may recall Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s discovery of this reality while in the gulag, the sense of responsibility and recognition of his own participation in the Fall of man. Giussani claims that the pain of sin in fact allows carnal pain to “become a door to heaven,” that, in it, man turns aside from the “tragic alternative… of a rebellion that denies reality.” We might remember, for instance, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov’s “returning the ticket.” This claim of Giussani about the relationship between pain of sin and carnal sin helps us make sense of Solzhenitsyn’s strange note of praise in The Gulag Archipelago, “Bless you prison! … I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: Bless you prison, for having been in my life.” Carnal pain, as sign, symbol, and metaphor for the pain of sin, Giussani posits, “is already in itself a liberation from rebellion and therefore from meaninglessness.” The problem that young people and all of us face, he claims, “is not that man should be sinless, but that he should be true—that he should begin to place himself, to locate himself in his point of reality and truth.” This requires remembering our birth, our rootedness in a family, that, as Marc Barnes of New Polity has recently put it, we are “always already in relationship.”
Abstraction and suicide
Remembering our birth reveals the lie inside the myth of the abstract individual. While we are each uniquely loved by God, human persons cannot be radically individual in the way demanded by modern political philosophy. Our individuality comes in being this person, with a multiplicity of shifting interpersonal relationships, with a destiny bound up in the destinies of those we know and love. Forgetting this memory, which Testori calls the “failure to recognize ourselves as children,” was the fault that presaged Cain’s murder of Abel; the former’s denial of being his brother’s keeper was also a denial of being God’s son. In our day, however, Testori continues, “hatred has undergone an evolution, an ultimate degradation, certainly a mechanization and abstraction without precedent.” Whereas previously the murderer killed the visible brother-made-rival, now we seek to kill those who present a living testimony of our dependence, namely unborn children themselves. Abortion begins in the materialist abstraction of the child to a mere “clump of cells.” In the act of abortion itself, those involved “seek, in short, to have no more contact with that clump of cells, not even in the moment when we cancel it and kill it.”
Testori then turns the conversation towards this initiation of modern murder, abstraction, speaking of several ways in which the contemporary world has become less human by becoming more abstract. Criticism of political practice based on excessively abstract thought is common to a variety of conservative and anti-revolutionary thinkers, including Edmund Burke, the Southern Agrarians active in the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s, Russell Kirk, and Sir Roger Scruton. Such a critique finds a favorable appearance even in The Plague of Albert Camus, that rare character on the Left who incisively analyzed and rejected both the French and Russian Revolutions. To agree with the conservative concern, one need not possess the skepticism Burke displayed towards metaphysicians (an epithet he habitually used for the Jacobins). Such apparent disdain for philosophy earned Burke criticism from some on the 20th century Right—he was critically appraised as a conventionalist by Leo Strauss in Natural Right and History and disparaged as overly reliant on the progressive argument from circumstance by Richard Weaver in The Ethics of Rhetoric. (This despite Burke’s recurrent return to natural law thinking; on this, Peter Stanlis’ Edmund Burke and the Natural Law deserves re-consideration). The conservative critique of abstraction, rather, is something akin to what Cicero suggests in his De republica—that apolitical philosophers (much less the chattering class of sociologists, epidemiologists, and critical theorists) who isolate themselves from civic affairs will not be fit to govern, despite their knowledge, because they have dragged themselves away (abs-tractus) from practical experience. Lacking prudence—the queen of intellectual and moral virtues—in political matters, they are unable to apply their wisdom to public life.
The materialist abstraction which Testori criticized in abortion finds its mirror image in another pernicious abstraction which has since become common in the West today, obtaining a near ideological hegemony which would have been unthinkable in 1980: the spiritualist kind, namely gender ideology. This example from our day helps to reveal that the conservative critique of political abstraction centers on its capacity to disable within the statesman what Kirk deemed the preeminent conservative virtue, namely prudence. Last June, reflecting on the U.S. Supreme Court case Bostock vs. Clayton County, which effectively replaced “sex” in American civil rights law with “sexual orientation and gender identity,” Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer aptly called Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion a failure of prudence. While Hammer meant that Gorsuch failed to properly imagine how far his ruling would be applied to transform the legal regime of the United States, the decision was also a failure of prudence in a more fundamental way. Gorsuch’s textualist (not originalist) reasoning would make Jacques Derrida proud, as he found himself convinced, distracted by the play of signifiers in the legal codex, that there was such a thing as an abstract human being, forgetting the concrete reality of men and women outside of the text. That concrete reality includes but transcends anatomy; societies throughout human history have recognized in varied mores the social distinction of—and reciprocal relationship between—the sexes, and such customs are crucial in our understanding of what it means to be male or female.
Only the recognition of our concrete embeddedness in relationship can help the desperate, as young people in the West today struggle to find a sense of purpose. Many, especially in the wake of COVID lockdowns, tragically took their own lives. About halfway through The Meaning of Birth, Testori turns to thematize an issue implicit throughout the dialogue, asking Fr. Giussani what he would do if a suicidal person came to his door. His first answer—“in that moment I say what I can and in the way I can”—is completed by the encouragement he finds in the “multiplying of people who are presences,” namely people who, attending to the “concrete that can undermine this dominion of abstraction,” testify in their being to the fact that courage and charity can conquer desperation. To the person experiencing desperation, he urges them to return to the fundamental relationship and do first “something that may seem strange: to pray” a prayer from Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, “God, if you exist, reveal yourself to me.”
Such a revelation happened in a tremendously definitive way once in history, but it recurs throughout time in human hearts. Birth, the underlying theme of the whole dialogue, returns on a higher register at the conversation’s end, as Testori turns the thought of modern man’s “terrible nostalgia” to its goal, namely, Christmas. A great love for this feast connects the Italian, the Englishman, the American: St. Francis of Assisi with his crib, G.K. Chesterton’s Charles Dickens with his figgy pudding and Scrooge redeemed, and Charlie Brown and Linus with the Gospel and a humble tree. Testori proclaims lyrically that this “is the moment in which man cries in nostalgia to have his own true home again and to travel and find again in its depths the true and proper Christmas: the birth of Christ.” He reminds us that, being an element of sacramental time, Christmas does not only come once a year, but is our continuous participation in Christ being born in history, his being born in us: “in this sense, Christmas is making every day, every minute, every word you say, every gesture you do, the effort you make, the work you carry out, the children you bring up, the children that aren’t yours, to whom you try to give everything you would give to your children—all of this is renewed, becomes a true Christmas every time… an announcement incarnated in the incarnation of Christ.”
This call to a life radically consecrated in the joy of Christmas, being constantly ‘pro-birth,’ is the elevation by grace of the freedom of responsibility discussed by Testori and Fr. Giussani in this work. This responsibility extends to public policy, for those capable of inspiring, creating, and directing it. But, as Pater Edmund Waldstein wrote recently, quoting the historian John Rao, “all we need is everything.” For the rest of us, the freeing responsibility remains to recover a re-birth of the Christian hope and share it with our family, friends, and Church, so that Western civilization might remember its roots and be nourished by the love of the One who moves the sun and the other stars.