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Hyde and Scalia, Catholics with consequences

Two of the most influential Catholics in American public life mark important milestones in their lives and careers this month. The nation owes both men a large debt of gratitude.

For the first time in a very long time, Henry Hyde’s name will not be on a ballot in this election cycle: one of the greatest Catholic legislators in U.S. history is retiring, full of years — and not a few pains — but unbroken and unbowed. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. House of Representatives without Henry Hyde, whom a television journalist of decidedly liberal views once described to me as “the smartest man in Congress.” During twenty years in the House minority, Hyde, the undisputed leader of Congressional pro-lifers, had, by force of argument and personality, an influence on politics and law that few in the majority could match. During his twelve years in the House majority, chairing the Judiciary Committee and then the International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde demonstrated that principle and robust argument can go hand-in-hand with courtesy and respect. Hyde leaves the Congress with thousands of friends and very few detractors, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, whose praise the Congressman would likely find…unsettling.

It has been one of the great privileges of my life to have worked with Henry Hyde since 1984, in good times and in bad, when we were winning and when we were losing. Those twenty-two years of collaboration and friendship are chock-full of memories, but perhaps my fondest recollection of Henry involves, not a great public moment, but a hospital bed. It was the late Eighties, if memory serves, Henry’s prostate was acting up, and he’d had surgery at Georgetown University Hospital during the Thanksgiving season. Late Thanksgiving morning, I went to visit him and there, in a hospital gown, with tubes coming in and out of this and that, was the quintessential Henry Hyde: larger than life, smoking a huge cigar, watching the Bears and the Lions on TV, reading a biography of William Wilberforce (the British parliamentary reformer whose agitations finally put an end to the slave trade), and cracking jokes about a would-be successor, back in Illinois, who had suddenly become solicitous for the Congressman’s health.

That was, and is, Henry Hyde: a man of intelligence, conviction, courage, and unbounded good humor, who took on fights that others deemed unwinnable because it was the right thing to do. We’ll probably not see the like of him again, and the Republic will be the poorer for it.

Justice Antonin Scalia has also just marked the twentieth anniversary of his appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States.

When Justice Scalia joined the Court, the idea that judges should attend to the text of the Constitution, and the public meaning of its provisions at the time it was ratified and amended, was not, to put it gently, well established. Results-driven judging was the order of the day. Get the result right, proponents of this view argued (and there were both liberals and conservatives among them); then figure out a plausible argument to support that result. Justice Scalia begged to differ. In his settled opinion, judging that wasn’t anchored in the text, in its original public meaning, amounted to the judicial hijacking of politics, with judges doing what legislators are meant to do.

It was a lonely view, then, if a highly principled one: a jurisprudential application, some might say, of Chesterton’s famous observation that tradition is the democracy of the dead — that is, paying attention to the wisdom of our ancestors. But Justice Scalia stuck to his intellectual guns, and now finds himself as one of the senior figures in a movement that is having a marked influence on both the courts and the law schools. If the actual text of the U.S. Constitution means anything today, no small part of the credit for that must go to Justice Antonin Scalia.

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A salute, then, to two Catholics of consequence, Henry Hyde and Antonin Scalia, men of faith who brought faith and reason together in the service of America.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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