Après Gorsuch le deluge

George Weigel

Did you find the Gorsuch hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee a depressing exercise in political theater? Are you tired of the members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” playing “Gotcha!” games that would embarrass a well-trained high school debate team? Have you had it with a mainstream media that doesn’t hold senators accountable for gross ignorance and bias and a social media universe that’s constantly in hysterics?

If so, I’ve got some bad news for you: the melodrama over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court was just the warm-up. Things will be immeasurably worse the next time. Why? Because Gorsuch was a trade-across that maintained the Court’s philosophical balance after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Assuming the next justice to retire or die is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who’s 84), Justice Anthony Kennedy (who will be 81 in July), or Justice Stephen Breyer (who will be 79 in August), the nominee to follow will be replacing a justice fully committed to the abortion license defined by Roe vs. Wade in 1973 and reaffirmed by Casey vs. Planned Parenthood in 1992.

Which means, in a word, Armageddon: a battle of apocalyptic passions, unhinged from reason.

Disturbing as that forecast may be, Armageddon seems virtually inevitable after the Gorsuch hearings and the Senate floor debate on his nomination. For beneath the “Gotcha!” games played by the Senate minority, an implacable determination to preserve the abortion license, at all costs and in its present form, was obvious to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. And perhaps the most chilling formulation of that grim resolve came from Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

The Senate today is not replete with genius; it’s somewhat disconcerting to contrast today’s solons with a Senate that included, in 1850, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Jefferson Davis, William H. Seward, Lewis Cass, Salmon P. Chase, and Stephen A. Douglas – men who, irrespective of their positions on issues, argued with keen intelligence anchored by deep learning. There are few such senators today; but Dianne Feinstein enjoys a reputation for seriousness and thoughtfulness that is, in my experience, deserved.

Until the subject turns to abortion. Then we get the following:

“Judge Gorsuch has not had occasion to rule directly on a case involving Roe. However, his writings do raise questions. Specifically, he wrote that he believes there are no exceptions to the principle that ‘the intentional taking of a human life by private persons is always wrong.’” And that principle, Senator Feinstein concluded, raised the specter of a situation where a woman’s “decisions about her health care will be determined by politicians and the government.”

It would be interesting know if there are situations other than the termination of an unwanted pregnancy in which Senator Feinstein would recognize a liberty right to the “intentional taking of a human life by private persons.” It would be even more interesting to know if, in formulating her fear as she did, Senator Feinstein was conceding that the unborn child is a “human life” – a life that for a variety of reasons, does not deserve the protection of the laws? Which would then get the discussion down to what seems to be the bottom line: the senator’s claim that Roe vs. Wade gave a “woman…control over her own body.”

And there we arrive at the Armageddon-like character of what’s-coming-after-Neil-Gorsuch.

The day after the presidential inauguration, Washington saw a display of rage, vulgarity, and violence by over half a million demonstrators, the overwhelming majority of whom, I’m willing to bet, consider the empowerment of women inextricably linked to the abortion license defined by Roe. The false (and indeed bizarre) linkage between the abortion license and the dignity of women has served the interests and convenience of irresponsible and predatory men. It has led to a tragedy of breathtaking proportions – the deaths of 58 million innocents. It has warped our politics for two generations. Yet that linkage is what leads an otherwise intelligent senator like Dianne Feinstein to take issue with “the principle that ‘the intentional taking of a human life by private persons is always wrong.’”

Reason is another victim of Roe vs. Wade. The Gorsuch hearings underscored that. Which does not bode well for the future.

COMING UP: Pilgrimage: A journey through Church history

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“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Paul proclaims these words the end of the book of Acts, capping off the biblical narrative of the work of the Apostles. The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the death of the Apostles, however, but continues in the life of the Church, fulfilling the words of Paul. The Gentiles have accepted the Gospel and have built up the Kingdom of God on earth. This is our story and we continue it.

If you want to know how the story continues after Acts, I’ll be teaching a class through the Denver Catholic Catechetical School this year, called “Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History.” It begins with the early Church and follows the story to today. The class explores the Church Fathers, the fall of Rome, the building of Christendom, the High Middles ages, the Reformation (perfect for the 500th anniversary this year), the expansion of the missions around the globe, the modern revolutions, and the Second Vatican Council. We’ll be looking at and discussing the most important historical sources and exploring the art of the various time periods. We’ll be entering into the Church’s story by allowing the key figures and events to guide us.

We see one turning point in the story in the year 430. St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo as the Vandals prepared to sack and conquer the city. Augustine lived at the end of an age as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, but also at the beginning of a new Christian one, an age he helped forge. The great doctor of the Church thought through the implications of the rise of Christianity in an age of political decline and saw right into the heart of history. History, unlike the focus of our textbooks, finds its true course not in politics or economics, but through love.

Augustine posited that all mankind belonged to one of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. One city took its shape by loving God before all else and the other in a love turned inward on oneself. Augustine taught us that we live as citizens of our true homeland above even within the midst of this passing world: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work. . . . I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city—a city surpassingly glorious.” Augustine’s teaching laid the foundation for a new Christian civilization, Christendom, which sprang up amidst the ruins of Rome in Europe.

One young man unexpectedly began building the foundations for this new civilization. He was studying within the ruins of the decadent city of Rome in about the year 500 and fled the temptations of town to live as a hermit in the wilderness. Eventually, others flocked to him and he laid the foundations for monasticism throughout Western Europe. The monasteries provided the foundation upon which a new society was built. St. Benedict, for this work, has been recognized as a patron of Europe and a true father of Christendom. His Rule does not seek to build up the earthly city, but looking to the City of God to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.” And this is the key to Catholic culture and history: seeking the lasting the city helps us to live better in this life, with wisdom, courage, and hope.

We are all pilgrims, living in exile in the city of this world, and journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). And yet we have to build a city on earth and looking to the past provides inspiration for this great project. This is why we should study Church history, especially as our culture goes through a period of upheaval, not unlike St. Augustine’s time. We need the witness and the legacy of the saints and doctors to guide our pilgrimage as we continue the story of the Church. Looking to the past helps us to plot out our own path on our journey to eternal life.

Class details

“Pilgrimage: A Journey Through Church History,” John Paul II Center, Denver. Tuesdays, 9:00 AM. Information Sessions: Aug 1 and Sept 5, 9:00 AM. Classes begin Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Register at: https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1968327