As I sat in a seminar called “Classics and American Government” — one of my favorite classes in college — I was opining to the professor and the 12 other students about some problem in society which I thought the government wasn’t doing enough about. I don’t remember what issue specifically, and it doesn’t matter.
What did matter — and continues to echo in my mind five years later — was the professor’s response to me: “I think you expect too much from government.”
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt is a much more complicated question than it first appears. (Read the full decision here.) On the surface, abortion opponents are disappointed, and rightly so: we in the pro-life community will always say that abortion clinics need more regulation, not less. Of course, our opponents will point out that most pro-lifers are also economic conservatives who would say the opposite about most other industries.
Let’s admit it: laws like this are back-door attempts to limit access to abortion. It is clever, but at the same time, our ultimate goal is not for women to have to drive 100 miles further for an abortion. Rather, our goal is that no woman ever seeks an abortion.
At the same time, the Chief Justice and Associate Justices Alito and Thomas pointed out that in this case once again, the liberal wing of the Court has resorted to legal contortionism in order to advance its obvious social preference: abortion on demand. Ginsburg, Kennedy, Sotomayor, and company seem at times to be waging a culture war from the bench.
Our governors and state legislatures consistently show a willingness to act on important issues which is woefully lacking at the federal level. And yet, the gang of nine (or, these days, eight) has once again upended sensible legislation passed by the representatives of the people.
But there are bigger issues at stake here than abortion, or even the rule of law in the United States. Every June, it seems, people gather around computer screens and smart phones to look for the latest SCOTUS decision on controversial questions. Catholics in particular will cheer or jeer depending on how the justices decide on subtle legal disputes. Yet, I am reminded of my professors words: Do we actually expect too much from government?
Perhaps there is something Pollyannaish in all of us: we hope that those in power will pass, execute, and adjudicate laws according to how we want things to be. But this has never really been the case in the history of the American Republic, and, I daresay, in the past 2000 years. Even in those ages when governments were “Catholic monarchies,” the tension between church and state was never far in the background. This is not to say that we should write the state off; however, we should manage our expectations, not just on abortion, but on many other issues.
In the end, will abortion really be ended in this country thanks to the stroke of John Roberts’ pen? Not a chance. But it can — and will — be ended thanks to the individual choices of people of good will. Politicians and judges have a unique role to play in all this, but not an exclusive role. Everyone can make decisions in the context of concrete, local communities in favor of life that can help to transform the culture.
Like Christian formation itself, this transformation cannot happen on a large scale unless our families, parishes, schools, and friend groups are truly open to life. When that happens, we might find that we’ve been expecting too much from government all along: we’ve been expecting what we were supposed to do ourselves.
Eric Banecker is a seminarian studying for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He writes for the seminary’s blog, Seminarian Casual.