September 20, 2007
On a bookshelf in my office sits a copy of the third printing of Joseph Sobran’s wildly popular 1983 book Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions. I have another copy, a first edition, at home. Both bear the same Introduction by J.P. McFadden, the founder and first editor of Human Life Review. Sobran dedicated the book “To J.P. McFadden . . . with affection.” Both the Introduction and the dedication are especially appropriate, since the book is composed of 15 essays, all of which first appeared in Human Life Review.
Each essay in the collection is a sparkling gem, some of the best prose ever to emerge from the typewriter of one of the master wordsmiths of the American conservative movement. It’s not hard to see why McFadden declared, in the first paragraph of his Introduction, that Sobran’s name “on anything whatever—article, review, commentary—was the guarantee of fine writing, sharp wit, and a most distinctive style which . . . made one think of nobody else so much as G.K. Chesterton.”
For many years, when one thought of Human Life Review, one thought of Joe Sobran, and with good reason. As McFadden writes, “we never dreamed how much he would have to say, or that he would become our most faithful contributor: his sharply-honed essays would have appeared in every issue over the past eight years [from the Review’s founding in 1975 until 1982, when McFadden was writing], but for a few missed deadlines.”
The warmth of J.P. McFadden’s words (“Mr. Sobran is a most unusual and original man, whose friendship is as warm as his laugh”) makes the dishonest attack on Joe Sobran in the Spring 2007 issue of Human Life Review seem all the more despicable. I have to wonder what the late Mr. McFadden would have thought of the decision, by those entrusted with carrying on his legacy, to print James Hitchcock’s 6,700-word screed, “Abortion and the ‘Catholic Right’“ (or, for that matter, of the scare quotes around the “Catholic Right”). Surely, whatever his later disagreements with Joe Sobran (and there were some), he would have regarded as vile slander the final clause of Hitchcock’s concluding paragraph:
The widely held, apparently self-evident, assumption that the pro-life movement is the creature of the “religious Right” has blinded even most informed observers to the unexpected and intriguing fact that, for some on the Catholic part of “the Right,” the life issues are no longer paramount, if they ever were.
And Mr. McFadden would doubtless have been incredulous that, somehow, Hitchcock managed to mention Sobran on all but three of the sixteen pages of his article, yet never once mentioned that Sobran had once been the “most faithful contributor” to the very publication in which Hitchcock’s calumny appeared. That, of course, would simply have muddied the waters, for Hitchcock’s purpose wasn’t really to examine where the “Catholic Right” stands on the question of abortion (hint: it’s against it), but to draw blood—both Mr. Sobran’s and that of the venerable independent Catholic newspaper, The Wanderer.
What’s that, you say? Surely I jest? After all, is there another Catholic publication in the United States that, over the course of 140 years, has dedicated more words to upholding the Church’s consistent teaching on abortion and all other “life issues”? Hitchcock, a professor of history at Jesuit-run St. Louis University, has certainly proved himself good with numbers over the years. Before suggesting that “life issues are no longer paramount, if they ever were,” for his coreligionists at The Wanderer, he would, like any responsible scholar, certainly spend a little time tabulating column inches devoted to abortion and euthanasia and contraception, wouldn’t he?
Apparently not. Instead, he weaves—not a tissue of lies, exactly, but a series of anecdotes, half-truths, and innuendo, clearly meant to give the impression that abortion is no longer discussed in the pages of The Wanderer (a manifest untruth, but one which nonsubscribers would have no way of spotting), and that, when abortion was discussed in the past, it was, at best, just a cover for those issues that truly are “paramount” for “some on the Catholic part of ‘the Right.’” That’s why, for instance, Hitchcock strains hard to pretend that the names Charles Rice (“a law professor”) and Judie Brown (“a pro-life activist named Judie Brown”) mean nothing to him. Hitchcock doesn’t want to admit what he knows full well: that Rice, a full professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, is perhaps the leading Catholic legal expert on abortion law in the United States, and that Judie Brown runs the American Life League, one of only two national pro-life organizations (the other being Human Life International) to uphold in its fullness the Church’s teaching on life issues. No, if Hitchcock were candid, he might have to admit that The Wanderer’s April 26, 2007, article “Supreme Court Ruling Might Not Prevent One Abortion” was actually criticizing the Supreme Court from a pro-life position. Instead, he slyly insinuates that Paul Likoudis, the longtime news editor of The Wanderer and the article’s author, might be hiding something: “Like pro-abortionists, Likoudis referred to partial-birth abortion in quotation marks, as though the term is somehow misleading.” (So now we know what Hitchcock intended by putting “Catholic Right” in quotation marks in his headline. The only question that remains is whether he meant to suggest that “Catholic,” “Right,” or both are misleading when applied to Joe Sobran and The Wanderer.)
Hitchcock may be unpleasant and mendacious, but he is not a stupid man. He knows precisely where Joe Sobran and The Wanderer stand on abortion and all other life issues. What upsets him is that Mr. Sobran, Mr. Likoudis, and other writers for The Wanderer have dared to stand with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in opposing the American war in Iraq. Worse yet, they have sometimes written about their opposition without also mentioning abortion. If that, however, indicates “that, for some on the Catholic part of ‘the Right,’ the life issues are no longer paramount, if they ever were,” one could equally surmise that, for Hitchcock, the Church’s teaching on contraception is no longer important, if it ever was, because Hitchcock has spent more time discussing abortion than he has contraception.
Political debates, and religious discussion of political issues, do not take place in a vacuum. There is a reason why pro-life Catholics who agree with two consecutive pontiffs’ moral admonitions about the war in Iraq spend some time discussing the war rather than abortion: There’s a war going on. That such a point is blindingly obvious only serves to make it clear that Hitchcock’s own concern is not to bring Catholic moral principles to bear on current public debates. He, of course, takes the path of all Catholic supporters of the war in dismissing two consecutive pontiffs’ moral admonitions as “prudential judgments.” Too bad for them that the Church teaches, in the words of Fr. John Hardon, S.J., that prudence “is the intellectual virtue whereby a human being recognizes in any matter at hand what is good and what is evil.” Which seems like an important question, when one is discussing the rights and wrongs of a war.
Hitchcock is not really concerned that Mr. Sobran and Mr. Likoudis and others are occasionally talking about something other than abortion; he’s concerned that they are talking about the war, and about the Church’s social teaching, and about other issues where the Church dares stray from the agenda of the Republican Party. Perhaps the Vatican is too naïve to realize that “involvement in political action necessarily brings with it the moral ambiguities inherent in all politics.”
So Hitchcock suggests, when he argues that if Catholics want to stop abortion, they may have to align themselves with those who oppose other elements of the Church’s teaching. As Hitchcock writes:
Abortion as a political issue brought the pro-life movement into a somewhat unexpected alliance with the Republican Party, an alliance that has made many formerly Democratic pro-lifers uncomfortable. Such an alliance necessarily places voters in the situation of in effect having to buy a whole political package. Public officials have to take positions on a wide range of issues, so that, in supporting Republicans, pro-lifers are implicated in everything that party does.
It’s Cardinal Bernadin’s old “seamless garment” approach, turned inside out. Rather than regarding all moral issues as of equal weight—an approach that Mr. Sobran quite rightly criticized in the pages of Human Life Review for deemphasizing the paramount importance of abortion—Hitchcock is arguing that the paramount importance of abortion requires pro-life Catholics to accept those positions of the Republican Party that contradict Church teaching. And, first and foremost, that means binding ourselves to the Republican Party’s war:
History seldom moves in a straight line. Plans are often upset by unforeseen events and, as it turned out, the pro-life movement was at least temporarily derailed in 2006 by the strong public backlash against the war in Iraq. By no means all pro-lifers support the war, but support for pro-life Republicans has in many cases amounted to a vote for the war, or is seen as such.
Note, of course, that President Bush had six years in which he controlled both houses of Congress to make good on his pro-life promises, yet he made no effort to do so. Note, too, that Hitchcock blames the derailing of the pro-life movement, not on Republican inaction (designed to keep the pro-life issue alive as a campaign issue, at the expense of the lives of unborn children), but on “the strong public backlash against the war in Iraq.” If Hitchcock had not so fully clothed himself in the “moral ambiguities” of his version of the seamless garment, he might actually realize that, logically, “the strong public backlash against the war in Iraq” depends, first, on the waging of this unnecessary and unjust war.
In other words, if “the pro-life movement was at least temporarily derailed in 2006,” it was derailed because of Republican inaction on abortion and Republican action on Iraq, not because of those on the Catholic Right (no need for scare quotes) who followed the Holy Father in upholding a consistent ethic of life.
In fact, Mr. Sobran and Mr. Likoudis and Wanderer editor Al Matt might turn the question around. Based on his own analysis and testimony, which is paramount for Hitchcock: The Catholic Church, or the Republican Party? Abortion, or the war in Iraq? If Rudy Giuliani is the Republican nominee in 2008, Dr. Hitchcock will have the opportunity to decide that point for himself. Here’s hoping, for his soul’s sake, that he makes the right choice.
Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and a frequent contributor to Taki’s Top Drawer.