Earlier this week, Dr. Bernard Nathanson passed away and entered into eternal life. Archbishop Dolan will celebrate his funeral Mass on Monday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In the earlier part of his life, Dr. Nathanson was a leader of the movement to legalize and normalize abortion in American life. He crafted public arguments — which he later admitted were rooted in falsehood — to justify the changing of laws and morals on abortion. And he personally performed thousands of abortions himself.
If that were all we could say about his life, it would be odd indeed to be celebrating a funeral Mass for him at our Cathedral. But that was not all.
Soon after he had accomplished his aims — the legalization of abortion in America — Dr. Nathanson began a remarkable personal and spiritual journey, which he recounted in his autobiography, The Hand of God.
Confronted by the images he saw on fetal sonograms, he became convinced of the humanity of the unborn child and rejected the practice and ideology of abortion. He became an outspoken pro-life advocate — a most famous and powerful convert to the cause of human life. He tirelessly denounced the deceptions at the heart of the abortion business, and deeply regretted his role in advancing it. He himself said, “I am one of those who helped usher in this barbaric age.” He was deeply oppressed by his complicity in the great evil of abortion, and steered close to despair from the burden of his sins. Despite this, he continued to resist turning to God for help.
Attending pro-life protests in the late 1980’s, Dr. Nathanson was confronted with something he did not expect. As he described in his autobiography, he was stunned by the sense of love exhibited by the pro-life protestors. They sang hymns and offered prayers for the unborn children, the mothers, and the clinic workers, their faces filled with joy. Their witness of selfless love touched Dr. Nathanson at his core, and he began a new stage of his journey.
He “began to entertain seriously the notion of God — a god who problematically had led me through the proverbial circles of hell, only to show me the way to redemption and mercy through His grace”. These thoughts about God, “held out a shimmering sliver of Hope to me, in the growing belief that Someone had died for my sins and my evil two millennia ago.”
This was the true turning point of his life — the beginning of his genuine conversion.
Eventually, he was baptized by Cardinal O’Connor in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, surrounded by pro-life co-workers and friends. All his sins were washed away in the water of life, and he was re-born anew in the Holy Spirit. Strengthened by that grace, he continued his ardent pro-life advocacy for the remainder of his life. He was a leader of the movement, and a mentor and friend to many. He will be deeply missed.
But, in a larger sense, Dr. Nathanson is an important witness to something that all of us must hold close to our hearts — the virtue of hope. It would have been easy for an outside observer to give up on him when he was still active in the abortion business, and to despair of any chance of his conversion. We in the pro-life movement frequently feel this way about others among us — like health professionals who perform or assist in abortions, and public figures who support it.
But we must never give up, because God never gives up on anyone — His grace is indefatigable. Dr. Bernard Nathanson is a shining example of our hope in the great and inexhaustible mercy of God.
In the famous story of the Prodigal Son, Our Lord told us of the loving, merciful father, who never fails to forgive those who return to him. When his wastrel son finally came to his senses, rejected his sins, and returned to ask for forgiveness, “his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Lk 15:20).
Let us all pray in hope that Dr. Bernard Nathanson, having now returned home, will be received with compassion and enfolded in the loving embrace and kiss of his merciful Father.