On Defying the Majority When They Are Wrong

“The majority can often be wrong.”  ~ Charlan Nemeth

John Mulaney’s grandmother is my new hero. I admit it’s an odd claim because I don’t know much about her—not even her name. But, based on John’s testimony, I know this much: His grandmother is no respecter of persons. She cares not a speck for popular opinion. She shrugs her shoulders in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Oh, but for such courage as that.

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Mr. Mulaney’s tribute to his grandmother appeared in a recent Wall Street Journal story by Reid Epstein and Madeline Marshall about an obscure American statesman, Elbridge Gerry. Although a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Gerry is primarily remembered for a word coined in his honor: “gerrymander”—the now common partisan partitioning of electoral districts that favors the party in power over its rivals.

Apparently, Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) was an early adopter of the practice, and a contemporary pundit mashed together Elbridge’s surname with “salamander,” thus evoking the serpentine shape that many of the artificial districts took. Over time, however, the hard “g” of Gerry’s name morphed into a soft “g” (like “geriatric”), and today few would pronounce it otherwise. And since gerrymandering is in the news a lot lately, I hear the soft “g” version referenced regularly—almost daily—on NPR and other talk radio. My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary does still list both pronunciations as legit, but it’s noteworthy that the soft “g” version (ˈjer-ē-ˌman-dər) appears first in line.

Does it matter? Not much, I guess, but I have a stubborn affection for such quixotic causes, and that’s where Mulhaney’s elder relation comes in. It seems that the word’s pronunciation popped up on an episode of Late Night with Seth Myers, and Mulaney, a guest that night, had a tale to tell. Here’s how Epstein and Marshall summarized it in their WSJ piece:

Mr. Mulaney said he told his grandmother, who lives in Mr. Gerry’s hometown of Marblehead, Mass., that “everyone, and I mean everyone, says gerrymander” with a soft G.

She said, “Everyone is wrong.”

Isn’t that great? Flat out: “Everyone is wrong.” No excuses. No hedging. No apology. Just “everyone is wrong.” It’s this steely resolve that we admire in the likes of Thomas More and John Fisher of Henry VIII’s England, and of Athanasius before the Arian onslaught. It’s a trait we want to emulate ourselves and form in our children: to be fearless and firm in the face of majorities—even overwhelming majorities—that are simply off the mark.

Because, despite the contemporary clamor, truth is not democratic.

The intransigence of Mulaney’s grandma came to mind when, a couple of days later, I turned again to the WSJ and skimmed through its pull-out section on “Health-Care Technology.” There were some engaging stories on innovations in O.R. technology and practices, but what caught my attention was a story by Saabira Chaudhuri about smartphone-assisted alternatives to chemical birth control: “Apps Promise to Help Avoid Pregnancy.” According to Chaudhuri, women are increasingly interested in finding reliable methods of spacing pregnancies that work with their bodies instead of against them. That’s no surprise since chemically disrupting a healthy bodily system—namely women’s fertility—is bound to have a negative domino effect on other parts of the body. It’s an idea consistent with natural law, and it dovetails with the Church’s ancient proscriptions against contraception.

Pope Paul VI argued this point in Humanae Vitae back in 1968 well before the dangerous side-effects of chemical contraception were fully understood. “A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman,” the Holy Father wrote, “and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires” (HV 17, emphasis added). Natural family planning, of the sort that Chaudhuri references in her article, avoids assaults on feminine homeostasis and respects sexuality’s dual meanings, both unitive and procreative.

Despite this, the use of artificial birth control is virtually universal, and even most Catholics disregard the Church’s teaching on the matter (at least in practice). There are no doubt plenty among them who’d be inclined to respect its teaching, and judiciously resort to only licit means of birth-spacing, if it weren’t for nagging doubts regarding NFP’s efficacy. There’s a widespread assumption out there, reinforced by those who promote contraceptive technology, that following Humanae Vitae automatically means having more babies.

But that’s not the case. Natural Family Planning works—and you don’t have to take the Church’s word on this. Here’s Chaudhuri on the efficacy of one high-tech NFP method:

Just as the pill depends on women remembering to take it at roughly the same time every day, contraceptive apps require users to take a daily, active role in recording symptoms, which can lead to missteps. Still, a Natural Cycles study of 22,785 women published in the medical journal Contraception in December reported a 93% efficacy rate for the app with typical use.

The Church isn’t going to reverse its rejection of birth control, so Catholics who find it necessary to space their children ought to find Chaudhuri’s reporting reassuring. Plus, those who promote and teach NFP as a viable and effective alternative to contraception ought to boldly adopt the words of Mulvaney’s grandmother: Everyone “knows” that natural methods don’t work, but everyone is wrong.

As I continued reading the WSJ healthcare section, I came across a second Mulvaney moment. In an article entitled “Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Death,” Amy Dockser Marcus outlines the ongoing controversies associated with brain-death criteria, end-of-life-care, and vital organ procurement. Even though the vast majority of medical practitioners long ago accepted the cessation of brain function as a legitimate definition of death, a significant portion of the public stubbornly persists in its skepticism.

That is especially the case for those whose loved ones have been declared “dead” by brain-death criteria, despite evidence that they are, in fact, alive. A prime and recent example of this is the saga of Jahi McMath. Declared brain dead after surgery complications in 2013, Jahi continued to thrive with the help of a ventilator, and her family fought in the courts to give the young girl a chance to recover. They argued that there were definite signs that Jahi demonstrated “minimal brain activity and other brain function,” Marcus writes. Thus, even if brain death criteria are legitimate, they didn’t apply to Jahi. Like Mulvaney’s grandmother, the McMath family insisted that “everyone is wrong.”

Their assertions seem to be borne out by a Washington Post headline just a few days ago: “Jahi McMath, the Calif. girl in life-support controversy, is now dead.” It’s a tragedy for the McMath family, to be sure, but the WP’s announcement at least lends credence to their courageous stand, for if Jahi is only “now dead” in the summer of 2018, then she really wasn’t dead at all back in 2013—brain death criteria notwithstanding.

And the saga isn’t over, writes WP reporter Samantha Schmidt, for the McMath family has indicated that they will proceed with a “federal civil rights case to reverse her initial death certificate.” Schmidt goes on to quote Jahi’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, as saying that her daughter not only showed “tremendous strength and courage” throughout her illness, but also “forced the world to rethink the issue of brain death.”

This “world of rethinking” includes outspoken defenders of the brain death definition. In her WSJ story that appeared prior to Jahi’s recent actual death, Amy Marcus quotes Dr. David Greer, chair of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, who had claimed that brain death is a “line in firm sand, almost concrete.” Nonetheless, even Greer acknowledged “that the McMath case may present a challenge to that view.” Marcus continues:

If the McMath family is able to conclusively demonstrate that she regained brain function…, “we can’t sweep it under the carpet,” says Dr. Greer. “We were wrong about brain death.”

Unlike the morality of artificial birth control, a settled question in Church teaching, the morality of brain death criteria remains a matter of legitimate dispute for Catholics, and it should not be left to the “experts” to sort out. “The conversation about whether brain death rightly diagnosed constitutes human death,” writes E. Christian Brugger, “needs to make its way from the heady journals of medicine and bioethics to the pews.”

That is especially the case since it’s in the pews that you’re more likely to find courageous souls like Mulaney’s grandmother and Jahi’s mom who are willing to defy majority opinion in the pursuit of truth. Given the stakes in the brain death debate, particularly with reference to vital organ transplantation, those are exactly the kind of folks we want front and center in the conversation.


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