Russert and Catholicism II: Every Man His Own Church

My late leader, the first Mayor Daley of Chicago, once recoiled in anger from a volley of attacks, and remarked that, in holding to his views, “I have been vilified, I have been crucified, I have been …criticized!” I well understood that I should brace for some stings of reproach when I sounded a note deeply critical over the memorials, the lessons offered up, over the death of Tim Russert. It must ever be sad to see a man struck down, so comparatively young, when he seemed to be at the top of his game. One must also feel the hurt of the family and friends who would find him missing from their lives.

But that is not all there was. In the effort to draw out the deeper meaning of Russert’s life, the public commentary drew a firm connection between his character and his “faith” as a Catholic. And yet, as I argued, the success of Russert’s career depended on his willingness, as a commentator, to mute the matter of abortion. But in doing that, he would convey the sense that a matter quite central and preeminent in Catholic teaching, was not, in the scale of things, all that important.

Among the criticisms relayed to me was that Russert was but a “moderator,” and on the other hand that he did in fact press certain Democrats to defend their position on abortion. A transcript arrived in which Russert kept challenging Al Gore to state when he thought human life began.

But Gore evaded the question, and Russert showed no doggedness in pursuing it. Besides, Russert never gave any indication that he was willing to treat the answer as anything more than Al Gore’s view of the matter. That was quite different from taking matters to the root–as in asking a Mario Cuomo or Pat Moynihan to explain how anyone could be justified in regarded the offspring of homo sapiens in the womb as anything less than human, given the findings of embryology and the force of principled reasoning. Were human offspring less human when they were shorter, without arms, not yet gifted with speech? And did one need justifications less compelling to destroy the lives of small humans? I would readily change my estimate of Tim Russert if there was a transcript showing him raising those kinds of questions, truly “running deep,” to any Democrat of high standing. A friend I respect deeply, Rich Doerflinger, sent me a transcript of Russert interviewing Howard Dean, but Russert’s performance there was even shallower than with Gore, and what it revealed, I’m afraid, is an interviewer who had quite evidently not given, to this matter, any reflection running very deep.

Russert’s questioning of Al Gore was enough to undo that curious claim that he had been only a “moderator.” Even “moderators” have vast discretion in the issues they raise–and teaching in that way just what they regard as important. I’d propose one simple test: Is there any evidence that Tim Russert ever called in Democrats to see why they were opposing the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act, the act to preserve the life of the child who survived the abortion? It was the strategy finally of the Democrats to let the bill go through, but to avoid any public argument, which could only draw attention to the bill. The New York Times fell into line by offering virtually no coverage, and no articles on its op-ed page. Bill O’Reilly did have a segment on his program, expressing outrage that there should be the need for such a bill. Did Russert have any such session? Show us the transcript on that one, and I would gladly revise my judgment–or rest my case.

Now it could be that, as a public commentator, Russert was obliged to treat abortion as one issue among many, as though they all stood on the same moral plane: some people want lower interest rates, or mortgage bailouts, others just want to kill innocent babies in the womb for wholly private reasons. But if so that rather confirms the point: celebrating that kind of performance as the work of a serious Catholic offers the most distorted, and false, account of what Catholicism teaches and what it means to be Catholic.

But beyond everything else, the recoil from my piece, with a sharper edge of feeling, came with the view that I had been uncharitable, that there was something gravely wrong in questioning Russert’s avowal of his own faith. But if nothing had been said on Russert’s faith during the mourning, there would have been no more reason to discuss it than his allegiance to the Buffalo Bills. If the question was, “Do you credit a man’s own account of himself,” I’m as ready as anyone else to credit Russet’s account that he considered himself a Catholic and a fan of the Bills. But the argument was, Who are you to call into question Russert’s understanding of his faith? That criticism implied that Russert’s understanding of Catholic teaching must be respected because it was his. The implication is that any of us would be free to offer our own version of Catholic teaching that fits more comfortably with the state of our own lives and moral shadings. But that could be the case only if there were no Catholic teaching with a coherence and integrity of its own. Evidently there are many Catholics who have made themselves suggestible to these notions. But the truth that has not yet broken in on them is that, as they have backed themselves into this understanding, they have backed themselves out of Catholic teaching and the logic of what it means to be Catholic. With a certain serenity, and without quite realizing it, they have ceased to be Catholic.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.