‘Frodo undertook his quest out of love’

Mary Nikkel writes about the virtue of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo, whose obstacles are “primarily internal” in contrast with the obstacles Sam faces, which are “exterior to himself”. Nikkel draws out Tolkien’s understanding of Frodo’s heroic virtue:

I remember when I was younger, I struggled to accept and understand why a lot of my peers found Frodo either forgettable or material for mocking. I understand it a little better now: the movies DO often make him not particularly likable or watchable. The book portrays him as someone who doesn’t seem to be experiencing a reasonable range of human expression/emotion, which admittedly can make him less compelling to read about. I understand that. But I also think it’s integral to the point of the character.

Frodo and Sam are necessary for understanding each other. Sam was a character cast from the mold that Tolkien learned on the frontlines of World War I. Tolkien saw Sam as the everyday hero, the embodiment of the simple good-hearted courage of the men he watched die in the trenches. Sam’s obstacles are exterior to himself: the geography. The threat of enemy soldiers (orcs), of Shelob, of his companion’s physical and mental difficulties.

By contrast, Frodo’s obstacles are primarily internal. He endured a lot of those same exterior challenges as Sam, but Sam did much to absorb their impact (see the Cirith Ungol rescue). Frodo’s challenges are the slow, steady erosion of a soul being asked to carry a tremendous internal darkness without being consumed by it. Everything he was became laser-focused on that monolithic spiritual and emotional task.

This is why, at the end, Frodo had to sacrifice far more than Sam. Because Sam’s primary struggle was against external forces, once those external forces were alleviated, he could go home, marry, have children, live as a functional member of his community. For Frodo, the cessation of exterior pressure could do nothing to mend the way his soul had been burning from the inside out.

This is a hard thing to portray in movie form (the greatest weakness of the LotR movies is their inability to portray subtlety and spirituality, two traits the narrative Tolkien crafted requires). We see Frodo’s neck chapping from the actual physical weight of the Ring as a representation; well and good. But it’s hard to truly convey the immense mental weight, the crucible of enduring without utter collapse.

If Sam is a kind of patron saint for the good-hearted soldier, I would posit that Frodo is the patron saint of the depressed, the suicidal, the addicted, the ones living with trauma. We see it best maybe at Mount Doom, where Frodo’s very self has been ground down to nearly nothing: “No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”

If you’d ever been deeply depressed, ever lived chained in the prison of PTSD, you will have experienced that exact same thing.

And of course that’s not always the most likable thing to read about or to watch. Mental anguish has a way of stripping away so many of the human details about you, even your personality itself.

“Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different,” J.R.R. Tolkien himself wrote.

In another letter (#246, for the curious), Tolkien addressed the concern that had been posed to him that Frodo was a weak and failed hero, that his decision at Mount Doom proved it. “I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure,” Tolkien clarified. “At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum– impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted… I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been– say, by being strangled by Gollum, or crushed by a falling rock.”

Tolkien built into Frodo a validation of the internal struggle, marking it not as weakness, but ultimately even as a special kind of strength. Through the character of Frodo, Tolkien displayed that internal anguish, fear, and pain were not moral failings. He might not have known it, but Tolkien was building an incredibly beautiful fictitious case study on the impact of trauma on the soul and the human ability to endure.

“Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task,” Tolkien summarized. “His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.”

And for any of us carrying a weight of horror, trauma, grief, dread, anxiety, depression, despair— maybe our hope is the same. To do what we can. To know that, even when our minds give out under the tremendous weight, we are still enough.

“I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure,” Tolkien clarified. “At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum– impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted… I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been…”

March for Life 2020

Americans of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs are in Washington, DC this weekend and they came to be a part of today’s March for Life, marking 47 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s imposed Roe doctrine of lawful indifference to human life.

It’s a powerful and hopeful week of events, organizing, rallying, prayer, and companionship when we take stock of the victories of the past year and the work to come. There are incredible reasons for hope, even as threats to the human right to life have expanded across the spectrum, particularly concerning patients’ rights and suicide. There’s always work to be done.

President Trump’s remarks were perfect, and an encouraging sign that political leadership at the highest levels will increasingly participate in the March for Life.

President Trump to speak at the March for Life

Kimberly Leonard reports that President Trump will speak to the March for Life tomorrow, becoming the first president to address the rally in person in its 47 year history:

President Trump will deliver an in-person speech on Friday at the March for Life, an annual rally held in Washington protesting the legalization of abortion.

Trump will be the first president in history to appear at the march, one of the highest-profile events of the anti-abortion movement. March for Life is in its 47th year, having taken place every year since the passage of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

Last year, Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise appearance at the march before roughly 100,000 attendees. The president also gave a message of support for the cause to attendees through a live video.

Jeanne Mancini, president of the organizing group, celebrated the announcement in a statement, saying Trump had been loyal to the anti-abortion movement.

“From the appointment of pro-life judges and federal workers, to cutting taxpayer funding for abortions here and abroad, to calling for an end to late-term abortions, President Trump and his administration have been consistent champions for life and their support for the March for Life has been unwavering,” she said. “We are grateful for all these pro-life accomplishments and look forward to gaining more victories for life in the future.”

It’s a fact that President Trump’s appearance will ensure that every future Republican president will be expected to rally at the March for Life in person, and that’s long overdue. Terrisa Bukovinac, my friend from Pro-Life San Francisco, offers her thoughts as a Democrat:

The liberal leader expressed her support of the President’s appearance, despite their differences.

“Although Trump and I don’t agree on much, we do agree that the horror of abortion is the most pressing human rights issue in America today,” stated Bukovinac via e-mail.

“Trump’s willingness to draw the media to this historic event is an important move, regardless of our profound disagreement.”

“It would be fantastic to juxtapose Trump with a prominent national pro-life Democrat,” said liberal pro-life leader Bukovinac. “But until the 72 percent of Democrats who want abortion restricted stop voting for pro-choice extremists, we will continue to have to rely on right-wing leadership to draw attention to the March for Life.”

One who breaks an unjust law

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, here’s MLK on the difference between just law and unjust law:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. …

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. …

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws. …

Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
April 16, 1963

The political task of Christians

What if we woke up one day only to realize that what we thought we knew of the world was wrong?

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes that our knowledge of the world, and the way we think, is flawed in a very particular way:

No one has written more insightfully nor critically about secularism than the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. His classic book, For the Life of the World, is not only a primer on the meaning of the sacramental life, but primarily, a full-blown confrontation with the great heresy of secularism. Secularism is not the rejection of God, but the assertion that the world exists apart from God and that our task is to do the best we can in this world. Fr. Alexander suggests that the Church in the modern world has largely surrendered to secularism. “The Church’s surrender,” he says, “consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs…but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation.”

He is not alone in this observation. The Protestant theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, says much the same thing:

“…the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church. Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice means, are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea. It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.”

The extent to which we have all been secularized is easily measured by just how strange these statements by great theologians sound. The Church has surrendered because it promotes the value of “helping?” The Church does not exist in order to make the world a better place? These have been common themes in my writing (and I easily acknowledge my indebtedness). But when I have said, “We will not make the world a better place,” my articles are met with a torrent of dismay. I offer here more of the same.

Hauerwas makes the clear point that the word “better” has no meaning apart from the story of Jesus, or certainly no meaning that Christians should agree to. Schmemann goes so far as to call the Church’s agreement to “help” the world (however the world wants to define that help) as surrender.

So what are we to do?

Human rights and human violence

Today the District of Columbia moved closer to embracing the fiction the human rights can ever include a right to end human life. David Grosso, DC Council At-Large, described the Strengthening Reproductive Health Protections Amendment Act of 2019, which he co-sponsored, this way:

To amend the Human Rights Act of 1977 to recognize the right to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization and to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term to term, to give birth, or to have an abortion, to prohibit the District government from interfering with reproductive health decisions and from imposing a punishment or penalty on an individual for a self-managed abortion, miscarriage, or adverse pregnancy outcomes, and to prohibit employment discrimination against health care professionals based on the professional’s participation in or the fact that the health care professional is willing to participate in, abortion or sterilization procedures.

But this description obscures what the legislation would do. Katie Glenn, Government Affairs Counsel at Americans United for Life, testified against the Act and highlighted some of its key deficits:

  • Although council members may say that their intent to cover a limited range of employers with this Act, it extends broadly across the spectrum of health care without exception for faith-based providers. This includes school nurses, care for the elderly, and pregnancy care centers.
  • The Act would violate the 1st Amendment rights of many service providers because they’d be forced to choose between violating their conscience or violating the law.
  • DC already has some of the most extreme abortion laws in the country, yet this Act would make it even more difficult to regulate health and safety in the abortion context in any meaningful way.
  • DC is one of just three jurisdictions with an affirmative right to abortion for minor girls, and this Act would double down on that bad public policy.
  • Clearing the way for abortionists to perform abortions on minor girls without regulation or oversight is not “women’s health.” It is dangerous and wrong.

I offered my own testimony as a District resident, particularly on the issues of conscience and protection of the vulnerable. Because public witnesses are only provided three minutes, I had to deliver an abbreviated version of the remarks submitted in writing below:

Testimony on DC B23-434, the “Strengthening Reproductive Health Protections Amendment Act of 2019.”

Committee on Government Operations
The Council of the District of Columbia

December 19, 2019

Dear Chairperson Todd and Members of the Committee:

My Name is Tom Shakely. I am a resident and voter in Ward 2. I moved to Washington a little more than a year ago from Philadelphia, and have grown to love this place. While I have not been very involved in local politics so far, when I heard about the issue being considered today, I felt a need to speak up from a place of love.

What are we doing here today? We’re not here to discuss sustained delays on the Red Line, or stifling congestion, or rising crime. We are here because some wish to wipe out whatever abortion oversight remains in the District of Columbia, a place which already has the most pro-abortion regulatory regime in the entire country, as far as I know.

We’re hearing some this morning advocate for Planned Parenthood and abortionists in basically religious terms. And we’re hearing about abortion as if it were the highest sacrament of this religious ideology that seeks to reshape American law.

Who is this bill meant to satisfy? What constituency is this measure designed to serve? One of the core parts of this bill, the “Strengthening Reproductive Health Protections Amendment Act” would allow abortionists to sell their products to underage women. And whether we view abortion as a human right, a public good, an economic choice or even a religious right, let’s be clear: abortionists are paid to provide only one product—dead human beings. There is no way around this scientific and medical reality. No abortion is safe, because no abortion permits both patients to thrive.

Who has decided that it is politically important for underage girls—for children—to be targeted and marketed by abortion practitioners? (And whatever DC law says, we can know by common sense that a 14 year old pregnant girl is a child and is not an adult.) We define certain persons as “under age” precisely because we used to recognize that these persons are particularly vulnerable, and deserve a unique protection, from those who would exploit them.

Is it not our responsibility to stand up for, and to do everything we can to protect, those who need it most? And if we can’t recognize that underage girls—that our little sisters, that our nieces, that our daughters—don’t deserve protection, we should have enough humility to remain silent today.

Empowering mothers and fathers to play a role in the decision over whether their child should abort their grandchild cuts to the heart of pro-patient, pro-family, pro-child law and policy. How can the District hope to have strong families, strong households, and strong neighborhoods if it severs the bonds of relationship between related persons?

But let’s step back. Why would a minor attempt to obtain an abortion, or why an abortion would be sought on her behalf? The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children underscores that the average age of sex trafficking victims is 15 years old. We’re talking about a 15 year old—or younger—child. We’re talking about a victim of human trafficking. We’re talking about a type of slavery.

We’re confronted by this girl. She may as well be here standing beside us. She’s 15 years old. She’s being trafficked as a sex worker. She becomes pregnant as a consequence of her abuse. And now, today, if the District enacts this legislation, her abuser will be empowered to bring her to an abortion center precisely in order to erase any evidence of his crimes.

I cannot believe the District would rather empower human traffickers than patients themselves, alongside their mothers and fathers, in exercising authentic conscience rights.

Today’s legislation would strength neither reproductive health nor patient protections. It would strength the interests of an abortion lobby whose own amoral interest in expanding its customer base would ultimately serve to further human exploitation and grave harm to vulnerable persons.

If we’re truly concerned about fostering a hopeful future for women and children who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and who feel there are no obvious solutions, we can do far better.

Democratic Gov. Robert Casey said “it’s less a question of when life begins than when love begins. We can do better than this loveless culture.

Advising abortion based upon a guess

Gina Christian reports on the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia’s 38th Annual Stand Up for Life Dinner, which took place last month in Philadelphia:

When Rachel Guy was just 22 weeks old, several doctors urged her mother to have an abortion.

They explained that a “chromosomal abnormality” would very likely leave Rachel blind and deaf.

Guy’s parents advised that abortion violated their deeply held religious beliefs, and sought out a new team of physicians who supported their decision to bring their baby to term. Arriving via Caesarean section, and with a birth weight of just over one pound, Guy spent five and a half months in neonatal intensive care.

Now a young adult with full faculties of sight and hearing, Guy recently shared her life story at a major gathering of the area’s pro-life organizations.

Guy was the keynote speaker of the 38th annual “Stand Up for Life Dinner” held Nov. 24 at the Philadelphia 201 Hotel in Center City.

Sponsored by the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, the event drew more than 1,250 attendees, including dozens of high school and college students who were honored during a “roll call” of represented Catholic schools by Father Christopher Walsh, chairman of the Pro-Life Union’s board and master of ceremonies for the dinner.

Father Walsh, the pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort Parish in Philadelphia, welcomed guests by showing images of babies that had been assisted by the Pro-Life Union’s member agencies during the past year. Among them, Philadelphia-based Guiding Star Ministries, which now partners with archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, has cared for about 240 single pregnant women since its opening in 1992, said Father Walsh.

He added that more than 400 calls and texts had been exchanged last year through the Pro-Life Union’s pregnancy hotline (484-451-8104), and he urged attendees to keep the number handy.

“God might be using you to save a life,” he said.

I had been familiar with the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia through my family, and it was Fr. Chris Walsh who first invited me to join the board of the Pro-Life Union. One of the people I’ve met along the way has been Dr. Monique Ruberu, whose witness to human life is incredible:

Dr. Monique Ruberu, a Montgomery County-based obstetrician and gynecologist, echoed Guy’s observation by sharing a painful example from her own medical training.

While still in her residency, Ruberu was asked by a professor and mentor to assist with an abortion. After reminding him that her beliefs would not permit her to perform the procedure, she allowed the professor to convince her the abortion was necessary due to a “fetal anomaly,” and she would not directly participate but only provide confirmation that the procedure had been completed.

Speaking through tears, Ruberu said she was tasked with “putting together the pieces of this child” to ensure it had been fully removed from the mother’s womb.

“I stood there and put the small arms and legs and body back together,” said Ruberu. “And with tears pouring down my face, I knew then I would never again put anyone in front of God or these sweet, innocent children.”

Now a board member of the Pro-Life Union, Ruberu speaks extensively in support of the pro-life movement, and in 2018 co-founded Sidewalk Servants, whose members volunteer one or more hours per month to pray and to offer pro-life resources to women visiting abortion centers.

Americans want abortion clinics held to same medical standards as hospitals

Earlier this year we commissioned an Americans United for Life/YouGov national poll in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signing late-term abortion into law in New York, and we found that a supermajority of self-identified pro-choice Americans oppose New York-style late-term abortion.

And earlier this month we released another Americans United for Life/YouGov national poll in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider Louisiana’s Democratic-sponsored 2014 “Unsafe Abortion Protection Act,” which ensures that no woman can be abandoned by an abortion practitioner, and that when a woman’s life is threatened from complications arising from an abortion, emergency transfer laws will ensure her access to life-saving medical care. Madeline Fry puts this issue into context:

For some abortion supporters, regulations that require certain medical standards from abortion clinics are a trap — literally, a TRAP: targeted regulation of abortion providers.

Included among this supposed scheme are laws requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. A paper in the American Public Health Association calls them “stringent” and “medically unnecessary.”

Yet a majority of Americans aren’t buying it. The pro-life organization Americans United for Life commissioned a poll by YouGov, a non-partisan polling firm, which surveyed more than 1,300 adults last month to ask them about these medical standards.

What did we find? We found that supermajorities of Americans supporting common sense life-affirming law and policy:

  • A vast majority of Americans (78.2%) believe that physicians performing abortions should be able to transfer women who experience complications directly to the emergency room;
  • 70% agree that abortion facilities should be held to the same medical standards as any ordinary hospital;
  • 73.8% support states being able to pass safeguards that ensure abortion facilities are in compliance with basic medical practices and sanitation;
  • Three out of four Americans agree that abortion doctors should be held to the same medical standards as ordinary physicians; and
  • Of those surveyed, 43.3% were self-identified pro-choice, 35.5% were pro-life, and 23.9% were neither.

We also spoke with Alexandra DeSanctis on “Life, Liberty, and Law” about the AUL/YouGov poll and SCOTUS as we look ahead to 2020 and its planned hearing of oral arguments in late winter.

Optimism for social welfare

Tyler Cowen offers an optimistic perspective on Social Security’s stronger than expected future:

…over the next 75 years, about 17% of scheduled benefits are currently unfinanced. [Charles] Blahous estimates that the U.S. could cover that gap if the Social Security payroll tax were raised from 12.4% to 15.1%.

Now, you might have strong views about the wisdom of that kind of tax increase, but you should acknowledge that this is a very different reality than a bankrupt system. With Social Security on full cruise control, and with no forward-looking reforms, today’s younger earners still are slated to receive more than their parents did — just not very much more.

Dean Baker, an economist to the left of Blahous, also has studied Social Security. He estimates that retirees 30 to 40 years from now will receive monthly checks that are about 10% higher in real terms than today’s benefits. And keep in mind those are estimates per year. To the extent life expectancy rises, total benefits received will be higher yet.

To be clear: It may well be a bad thing when the Social Security trust fund is depleted, and Social Security is financed fully from current government revenues. …

I’m not saying everything will be fine in the future. The U.S. is vastly underperforming relative to its potential. But the claim that post-boomer generations will be left holding the bag, through a bankrupt Social Security system, just doesn’t add up.

A more interesting issue than the future of Social Security is whether we can imagine and implement a better and more solidarity-focused system of social welfare than we have today. I think that would look a lot more like what some European nations are experimenting with, nations like Hungary and Italy. And I wonder whether a new social welfare system would help encourage more Americans to see themselves more as the authors of their own destiny, supported and upheld by their neighbors, than as victims of circumstance amidst a frothy global economy, recipients of abstracted but desperately necessary national benefits.

Friendship in good times and in bad

The first snow flurries of the fall/winter started yesterday morning at Notre Dame, which made the walk to the morning sessions at the Notre Dame Fall Conference on friendship even more picturesque than it normally is:

Last night’s Josef Pieper Keynote on “Friendship in Good Times and in Bad” by Archbishop Borys Gudziak was powerful:

Carter Snead jokes in his introduction to Archbishop Gudziak’s talk that the conference has been described as “Catholic Woodstock”. It ranks with Napa Institute as two of the most meaningful conference experiences of which I know.