The Catholic Thing
A Grim Year – but Signs of Hope Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 21 December 2009

We interrupt our usual column, as varied as its business has been, just to take account of the ending of this year, grim from start to finish – and yet, to find in this Christmas season, the flickering signs of hope and renewal. The movement of the calendar has brought a relentless train of deaths, claiming one dear friend after another within this family of writers, churchmen, academics. It began last December around this time with the death of Cardinal Avery Dulles, and then, just a few weeks later Fr. Richard Neuhaus, followed the next month by Bill Buckley.

And the funerals kept coming, no more than about three weeks apart, it seemed: Msgr. William Smith (the wisest of men on matters of theology and “bioethics,” and clearly the best stand-up comic even within the ranks of priests in New York). Then, Fr. Frank Canavan (in his ninety-first year), Dorothy Bernstein Dubin, Jack Kemp, Ernest Lefever, Karen Novak, and then, just two days later, Bob Novak, followed in turn by Irving Kristol. In each case, we had the sense of a vast hole torn out of our lives. We are still coping with the losses, but what the rest of us feel can hardly compare with the loving spouses alone now after long, devoted marriages. Our prayers in this season are especially for Michael Novak, Seth Dubin, Bea Kristol, Geraldine Novak, Margaret Lefever, Joanne Kemp.

With a mordant sense of humor, we were getting the feeling at times that our friends, as ever clear-headed about the world around them, had decided simply to check out in this Age of Obama. For they could see whither the culture and the country were tending. But then the regret: that they weren’t here to see the resistance taking hold in the country, with a kind of reawakening. The pundits are suddenly startled to see, in the surveys, a public that has become more pro-life, especially among the young, and voters more determined to stand against the currents to resist same-sex marriage. And all of this has been quite separate from the clarity of mind suddenly sparked in the public by the prospect of Obamacare: the conversion of insurance companies into public utilities, with rising costs, cuts in Medicare, and finally the rationing of care, especially for the old. As I write, the fate of the bill may still hinge on whether the Left will be willing to accept a landmark act that trumpets, once again, the refusal to accept rightness of abortion as a “public good,” to be endorsed and spread by the force of law. Or that final barrier will be in place unless the pro-life Democrats cave in.

We may have an uncanny replay here of 1993: With Bill Clinton newly installed in the White House and with his party in control of both houses of Congress, the Democratic leadership sought to enact the Freedom of Choice Act, to inscribe the right to abortion in the statutes of the country. And yet, the Democratic majority in full momentum, found itself at the end of its tether, and it was jerked to a halt. That bill still could not be passed. Whether that state of affairs has remained the same depends on whether the pro-life Democrats have been able to retain their seriousness in a party in which they are ever more marginal.

In other times seemingly dark for the pro-life movement, Charley Rice at Notre Dame would try to cheer me up by saying, “Don’t forget, you’re on the winning side.” In the same vein, some of us can still hear Richard Neuhaus, ever hopeful when things seemed tilted against us: “We can still turn this around!” If he were on the scene with us now, he would be ever surer – and going on the offensive.

Richard once did a fine piece on “How I Became the Catholic I Was.” That piece lingers with those of us who have come to absorb the logic of Catholic teaching, even as we had not grown up with the calendar of feasts and saints, with the vestments and incense, and the things that mark an enveloping Catholic culture. It struck me last year at this time that, as a youngster looking on from the outside, the meaning of Christmas had not been conveyed even by those holiday programs so showily seeking out the “real meaning” of Christmas. We heard about a spirit of generosity and love, and that “unto us a son is given.” But what didn’t quite come through was this simple but pivotal point: that God had entered the world. He had entered the world of his own Creation, where He would suffer what ordinary men and women could suffer, and in suffering, redeem that world.

In one of his essays in the 1930s, Winston Churchill reviewed a book contemplating the advance of technology, with interplanetary travel, and the extension of the span of life. And yet nothing in those advances altered those simple, enduring questions, “Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither Are We Going?” Against those questions, he said, “no material progress. . .however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” It was that fact, he concluded, “more wonderful than any Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well.”


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
Icons of Truth
written by Willie, December 22, 2009
A good piece,indeed, as one has been battered all year by the antics of liberal elitist ideologies. Those mentioned icons of the past with their sustaining virtue and clarity of thought will be surely missed. There will be others that will follow in their footsteps because the pursuit of truth and happiness is the aim of every man of virtue. Maybe there are signs of hope as so many become aware that a Godless government unrepresentative of so many of its people is in our midst. In God we trust?
Request for information25
written by Ray Hunkins, December 22, 2009
Thank you Prof Arkes for a message of hope in these troubled times - a message especially meaningful to those of us who have converted to the faith in recent years. Can someone direct to Father Neuhaus' piece mentioned: "How I Became the Catholic I Was" ? Thank you.
Hope and renewal?
written by Joseph, December 22, 2009
Hadley, I wish I could have the same rosy outlook for this world, but everywhere, it seems, the mass of men are living lives of unquiet desperation, as Edward Abbey wrote, in revising Henry Thoreau.

Science has given us lots of information--factoids, to use Norman Mailer's word--but no understanding.

20 centuries have come and gone and still Jesus remains the central figure of the human race, affecting more lives than all the Kings and governments that ever were. THAT ONE SOLITARY LIFE.
Sources for Mr. Hunkins
written by Hadley Arkes, December 22, 2009
For Mr. Hunkins -- Fr. Neuhaus's article was in First Things, April 2002, and it can be called back for printing from the website for First Things. In response to Joseph, you cannot assume that I'm looking out "beamishly" on the world. For people in my circle, it seems to us the end of the world. After the election last year I was looking into real estate in Malta. Still, we should not fall into despair and neglect to see the signs of renewal and rewakending all about us. --Hadley Arkes
written by Robert Royal, December 22, 2009
Here's a direct link to Fr. Neuhaus' article:
written by Dan Kennedy, December 22, 2009
Hadley, this year seems to be the best of times and the worst of times. Introspection and hope are my companions this year (and The Catholic Thing!).
written by Dan, December 23, 2009
We are so prone to judge according to the limitations of our human minds. The prospects are indeed bleak. What we don't see is the meaning of the events that God is allowing to happen. We are like the apostles who lost Christ. When the meaning of the loss was revealed to them they spent the rest of their lives rejoicing and spreading that joy to others. Like Jesus and the apostles we must suffer and as we accept the suffering in and around us we will come to see what God is accomplishing. Exult.
Prof. Arkes is a champion
written by Gamgee, December 24, 2009
-21 approval rating for President B.O. most precipitous rating fall and soon to eclipse the absolute lowest.
Congressional polling indicates Democrats will lose Congress next year.
What is Moloch to do? Get Kmeic to write things from Malta? Cecile Richards to send Xmas abortion cards? Get B.O. to keep SAYING he won't change the status quo on federal funding for abortion? Moloch hasn't much time to get to the 60 Congressmen. What madness will he hit them with?
written by WS, December 27, 2009
A fine piece, but with a minor inaccuracy. Bill Buckley died in February of 2008, not 2009.

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