Roe Ground Zero

Once upon a time, the world was safer for children. We played outside without adults, invented games, solved our own disputes and everyone got home in time for supper. Day or night, we knew that we could (and did) knock on literally any door in the neighborhood, and the adults there would help us without question. The whole culture looked out for children.

These days, if adults are looking out for children, it may very well be to exploit them, not protect them. If kids are even allowed to play outside, there are not multiple safe havens to run to; most households have no one at home. It’s a different universe for children now; they have no idea what true safety actually is. Roe changed everything in 1973. The world was already changing, and Roe sent it nuclear.

As we look with hope to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Mississippi, it’s important to listen to those who once knew a world in which children were indisputably valued under the law. Only 20% of the American public was born before January 23, 1973, and knows what a pre-Roe world looked like. We are like World War II veterans; soon our story will be buried with us. We have to tell it, and it begins in Dallas, where I grew up.

Roe v. Wade is a Texas tale. The case originated in Dallas with a Texas cast of characters: Henry Wade, the swashbuckling Dallas District Attorney; Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two University of Texas law graduates; Norma McCorvey (Roe), a pregnant Dallas waitress, who wandered into the story by chance.

I was 14 years old in 1973, a freshman in a nominally Catholic high school in Dallas, and mostly unaware of national political events when Roe was handed down. My older sister remembers very well reading the Tuesday headline, “ABORTION LEGAL” on the front page of the Dallas Morning News on that fateful January day. She understood what it meant deeply enough that she remembers crying over it.

Many years later, I found out that one of my best friends was among the first in line when clinics opened the moment the decision was handed down. The clinics had been set up well in advance, ready to service women the minute the decision was announced. They were dicey affairs in sketchy parts of town, and my friend remembers it only as “hideous.” She’s spent decades trying to erase the memory, but she does recall that all the girls lay together recovering in a big space where folding cots had been set up in close lines without privacy curtains.

It seemed that January 23 was a “tipping point,” everything already in place to make the decision inevitable. It’s like the tracks were greased.

Henry Wade, the losing name in the equation, was the Democrat District Attorney for Dallas County. Wade was a big Texas legend who cast a long shadow. He had an undefeated record for criminal prosecutions, including Jack Ruby’s conviction for killing Lee Harvey Oswald. He put on a Southern-fried Columbo act, catching legal opponents in his web like a cigar-chomping spider. He was formidable.

But he seemed to have cared little about Roe. He’d earned his reputation as a prosecutor of murderers, rapists, assassins, not as a defendant of a Texas law he didn’t really support. He entrusted the defense to two associates, not interested enough to participate. In later years, he never even read the decision.

When opposing attorney Sarah Weddington was informed that the case would be argued by someone other than Wade, she is said to have thanked her lucky stars. She was only 26 years old, and had never performed in a courtroom before. Had Wade given a damn about abortion, he probably would have buried Weddington in court, and children might still be safe in the United States. Or maybe not. In hindsight, the victory appears planned and coordinated. 

In the original Dallas case, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington allied to force the issue of “reproductive rights” in the courts. Coffee had already sketched out a test case when she asked Weddington to join her. The legal team complete, they went looking for a plaintiff to challenge the abortion prohibition in Dallas County.

In 1969, Norma McCorvey, an addicted nomad who’d worked in carnivals and restaurants, found herself pregnant with a third child and no support. Looking for an illegal abortion, she was introduced to Coffee by an associate who knew Coffee needed a plaintiff. Norma was already 5 months along, and desperate for help. She seemed unaware that the legal proceedings would not, in fact, help her at all, given that she had only four months to delivery. That may have been the beginning of what Norma would later characterize as “being used” by people for their own purposes.

Had Coffee and Weddington actually answered Norma’s request, they would have arranged for her to get an abortion in New York or California, but they needed her to be pregnant when the suit was filed, in order to have legal standing to sue. As the legal machine was just getting warmed up, Norma delivered her daughter, who was adopted by a north Texas family, all in God’s good plan.

Meanwhile, Norma became the name of the abortion culture after the Supreme Court decision in 1973, and was passed around the country on the speech circuit. Really, she had gotten sucked up by circumstances: she wanted to lose a child at the same time that Linda Coffee desperately needed a pregnant plaintiff. Had Coffee not been so anxious to bring the case, she might have waited for a more well-spoken, more well-turned out subject than Norma. Even after years on the public stage, Norma never developed into a polished speaker, and was never quite sure what people expected of her.

Despite the fierce face she learned to put on, Norma was a fragile personality inside a hard shell. In the mid-90s, her prickly heart was cracked open by the affection of a 4-year old child who greeted her in the mornings as she went into work at a Dallas abortion mill. The child belonged to a pro-life worker, praying and counseling on the sidewalk of the facility.

Norma began attending church with that family, and in 1995, was famously baptized in a swimming pool by Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue.

Through friendships with many Catholics and Fr. Frank Pavone over the ensuing years, Norma began attending Mass at the Dominican Priory at the University of Dallas. She came under the direction of a holy priest, Fr. Edward Robinson, and was received quietly into the Catholic Church in 1998.

Norma regretted her cooperation with Coffee and Weddington terribly, calling it the biggest mistake of her life. In reparation, she founded the organization “Roe No More,” hoping she would live to see the day the carnage would end. She died in 2017.

And here we are, waiting expectantly for the Supreme Court to scrub her name from the pro-abortion movement. But can the world ever go back to the times when children were safe? Unfortunately, legal and widespread abortion has given rise to evil we couldn’t even have imagined in 1973. The hard-heartedness that grows in the aftermath of abortion has built up an army of irrational ragers against pre-born life, and against those who try to protect it. Over time, the movement has dispensed with niceties, and shown itself to simply be haters of goodness and of God.

It would be poetic for legal abortion to end in Dallas, where it began. And indeed, Dallas has built up a full-bodied pro-life organization with paid staff, hundreds of volunteers, and robust ministries for every phase of pregnancy and early parenthood. It’s been called the most effective diocesan pro-life organization in the world.

But it appears the honor of ending legal abortion will belong to Jackson, Mississippi, where the Jackson Women’s Health Organization of the case Dobbs v Jackson is still in business, pending the Supreme Court decision. A good synopsis of the case is here: https://www.ncregister.com/news/mississippi-pro-life-law-biggest-case-on-abortion-in-30-years.

Every pro-life organization and person in the country will need to step up if Roe is overturned by the Dobbs decision, as appears likely. It will take at least a generation for people to modify their behavior when abortion is less easily available. The children may be protected by law, but the task of reclaiming all the souls who have been coarsened by access to abortion will be epic. All hands will be needed.

Norma’s story should serve as encouragement. As a pro-abortion activist, she was none too pleasant, and I expect I would have recoiled from her anger the same way I recoil from the screeching rage that we see displayed now, across the country and even on our own small city square. But after everything she had done, and everything done to her, she retained enough of her true self to embrace Christ. I don’t think she ever fully healed from the damage she’d sustained, but Jesus and Mary brought her the rest of the way.

That’s a possibility for every person we encounter on the mined battlefields we will travel in this next era. Even if the Supreme Court doesn’t strike down Roe, notice has been served: the pro-abortion folks will never again take it for granted. The change is here, no matter what the Court does. And whether Miss Norma is in Purgatory or Heaven, she can pray for us. She can remind us that every angry woman can be saved.

May God strengthen us all to pave the way for goodness, after Roe is redeemed.

Movie Review – Father Stu

I didn’t hate “Father Stu.” That’s a low bar for a movie, but there it is. Though it personally left me a little cold, I have to acknowledge the good intentions of the movie, and the genuinely good real-life story of Fr. Stuart Long’s conversion and priesthood.

I just wish the movie had told that story. Perhaps to make the story more relate-able to “average” movie-goers, at least as Hollywood sees us, (ignorant of faith, entertained by vulgarity and with a certain bloodlust,) general ugliness was elevated over the real story. Details of the real lives of the Long family that would have mitigated the tawdriness of the movie were left out. Bill, the father played by Mel Gibson, was not the brutal drunk of the movie. Stu had a college education, and an intellectual life long before he entered seminary.

The movie portrays Stu as ape-ish, led around by anything but common sense, with the facial expression of someone who’s been hit too many times in the boxing ring. There’s not a whiff of his interior life. Even when he begins RCIA, he is depicted as simple; and I don’t mean endearingly simple like a child, but dull and unwitting like an orangutan (that fell out of a tree on its head.)

The constant level of vulgar speech in particular is noted in most reviews. It was not just the use of vulgar words, though; it was also vulgar concepts. I worked for a man once who did that: put together two ugly words to create an ugly concept that you just couldn’t scrub from your mind. Like a mashup of cussing. I’ll refrain from using an example here.

I’d been warned about the language, and was prepared. That’s the guarantee of a good story, right? If the language is way over the top, it must mean that the story is so good, it justifies the language. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. But that overshadowing of ugliness with beauty was not fully achieved in “Father Stu.” The movie was not so good as to make the language worth it.

Part of the problem was numerical: two-thirds of the movie stayed on the dark side, leaving only a third to explore Stu’s conversion and life in Christ. Truth to tell, they never really got to his life in Christ. Oh, they showed lines of people waiting to go to Confession with him, but the movie never gave up the goods on exactly why he was so compelling as a priest. They left it at the implication that any priest who could cuss at a professional level would be enough to draw crowds. But it takes more than just a deep knowledge of the seamy side of life to make a good confessor. Why didn’t they explore that? A lost opportunity of great magnitude.

Comedy is what happens when you juxtapose two radically different things, so there was some comic relief when Stu goes into a prison to minister, alongside a seminary classmate who is painfully proper. The prig bombs like a plane dropping out of the sky, and Stu steps in (so to speak; he’s crippled by disease at that point) with some crudity, immediately gaining the trust of the men. It’s an easy laugh to show a Catholic priest saying seriously vulgar things, and the director took advantage of it. I wondered later if the real Father Stu actually taunted imprisoned men with the idea of their wives in bed with other men. That goes beyond crude, all the way to cruel.

The sermons Stu preached in the movie lacked depth, which was perhaps part of the strategy to draw in a worldly audience who couldn’t comprehend anything more. But doesn’t that imply that genuine Christianity is too much for the average person? I think that was a poor decision. Christ never dumbed down anything.

I particularly noted a facile bumper-sticker slogan that Stu repeated in a conversation, “We’re not bodies having a spiritual experience; we are spirits having a bodily experience.” That is not Catholic theology: we are not two separate essences, body and spirit, one dominating the other. We are one essence, an inseparable unity. Granted this is a little profound for a Hollywood film, but since it is at the heart of damaging gender ideology, it’s an especially inappropriate time to throw that confusion at an audience.

I didn’t like Stu as a person for most of the movie. I didn’t like his father or his mother either. Carmen, his love interest, was the shining light of the movie, a rose of pristine virtue… and then he beds her. This detail was true to life, but it broke my heart. Did it advance the movie to include this detail? I suppose it did make his decision to enter seminary particularly poignant, set against the weeping betrayal that Carmen felt.

So the language, the violence, the bedding, was the first two-thirds of the movie. By the time Stu actually became likeable, the movie was almost over. His change of heart, his deepening, his development as a priest, were all glibly portrayed in about ten minutes, with easy devices, like the line snaking out the building for confession.

I have friends who found the movie perfectly excellent, who appreciated the long road that Stu traveled to get to the Faith and the priesthood. The road beyond that conversion point, though, was the real interest for me, and that road was very lightly trod by the movie. I would have switched the proportions, and given more time to the amazing priest that Stu became.

The movie certainly has people talking, and articles are appearing about the “real” Father Stu, who was quite a bit more inspiring than the movie character. For touching those who explore his life outside of the movie itself, “Father Stu” may have scored an indirect win.

6 out of 10, mostly for the good intentions and unintended consequences.

Links to find the “real” Father Stu:

Fr. Stuart Long’s testimony

Fr. Stuart, Montana priest

Full interview with Bill Long, Stu’s father

Interviews with Father Stu

Is the movie based on a true story?