I refuse to believe that Christopher Hitchens is dying. My sense is he will beat this esophageal cancer that – given his personal habits – seems to have been all but inevitable, and that Hitchens will live long enough to become the Malcolm Muggeridge of his generation, i.e., one of the preeminent Catholic apologists of our time.
I love Hitchens and I know I am not alone among orthodox Catholics.
Some years ago he debated Catholic League President Bill Donohue at the Union League Club in New York City about whether the New York Times is anti-Catholic. Among other things Hitchens said that if the Times was not anti-Catholic then the Church was not doing its job. Donohue beat up on Hitchens and got so rough that a long line of conservative Catholics stood in line to shake Hitchens’ hand and apologize to him for Donohue’s behavior.
Now certainly Bill Donohue is not the only rough customer out on the religious-political-cultural hustings. Hitchens is one rough customer, too, and can certainly take care of himself. But there is some measure of respect and perhaps even love that would make orthodox Catholics line up and apologize for the unfair battering he got from one of their own.
I buttonholed him once at a bar in Washington DC called Timberlakes. I had just heard about the Donohue dustup and wanted to add my good wishes to all the others he received that night. Remarkably warm and engaging, he stood there and talked and talked and talked. He wobbled a bit, but so did I. Leaving, he said, “I’m in the phone book, call me any time.”
I saw him another time at the American Enterprise Institute at a reading of children’s poetry organized by Jody Bottum of First Things. Hitchens sat behind the dais reciting children’s poetry, each delivered beautifully and from memory, All the while he slugged surreptitiously from a small flask kept hidden in his hand at belt level – as surreptitiously as one could slug while sitting at a dais. Poor Hitch, I thought.
He has a lot to overcome to come our way, maybe more than most. After all, Hitchens is the guy who wrote a vicious attack on Mother Teresa with the ghastly title The Missionary Position, in which he called her a thug and accused her of taking money from thugs. He also characterized her as a ghoul preying on the dying men and women of Calcutta, and criticized her for not having an elevator in her center for the dying, instead using the strong backs of her nuns to carry the dying from floor to floor.
One of the outspoken leaders of the new atheist movement, he’s written a book called God is Not Great. In his recently released memoir Hitch-22, he quotes his close friend Salman Rushdie who said that the earlier book had a good title, but just one word too long. In years of debates on the question of religion, he has usually gives better than he gets and takes every opportunity to sock God, religion, and the Catholic Church right in the kisser.
If he is dying, he’s not going down without a fight. Even in the last few days, even after the news of his perhaps terminal illness, he was going at the Catholic Church in the pages of Slate.com using the occasion of Mel Gibson’s latest sinister rant to say that Catholicism has always been inclined toward fascism.
Many of us watched eagerly as he came gingerly to the political right. He wrote a wonderful book about the Clinton’s called No One Left to Lie To. He broke quite publically with his long time friend, left-wing hatchet man Sidney Blumenthal when Blumenthal tried to get Hitchens to lie about some of Clinton’s female victims. Eventually Hitchens started hanging around with guys like Paul Wolfowitz and defending George Bush over the war in Iraq.
Still he kept after the Church. In his New Criterion review of Hitchens’ memoir, Christopher Caldwell says his anti-Christianity is the only thing remaining that tethers him to the Left. British journalist Douglas Murray questions whether this is even real, claiming recently that Hitchens told him that his attacks on the Church are mere cover so he can also go after Islam.
So what is it that makes me think Hitchens could come our way? Well, I don’t know. Wishful thinking, certainly. Perhaps his hatred for the Church is one reason. I don’t believe Murray; Hitchens hatred does not seem like anything other than genuine. You have to think something so pure and unalloyed as his hatred could, under certain circumstances, turn intensely to love. You don’t pay so much attention to something that does not arouse your deepest passions.
I think often of the parallel between Hitchens and Muggeridge. Muggs was the most famous British journalist of his time, a man of the Left who visited the Soviet Union and left the Left. He was a roustabout and a bit of a rapscallion and immensely and publically fascinating. Later in life, he went off to do a documentary about Mother Teresa and his life was changed unto eventual conversion to the Catholic Church.
You have to think that Hitchens has chosen to tangle with the wrong one – besides God – I mean that tough old bird, Mother Teresa. She likely did not know who he was until he wrote that book. Maybe she didn’t even know him then. She did not seem like someone who kept up with her detractors. But she did seem like someone who would love someone as lovable as Hitch. Even now, right now, you can almost see her whispering in Jesus’ ear, “Save that young man’s life. I love him so.”