A Grim Year – but Signs of Hope

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 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.