An open letter to Senator Patrick Leahy

George Weigel

Dear Senator Leahy:

Because you’re the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, your performance during the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge John Roberts will tell the country a lot about the constitutional and moral priorities of the Democratic Party and the party’s sense of fair play.

As one Catholic to another, permit me to suggest that you also have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to insure that Catholic-bashing, overt or subtle, does not spill over into the Judiciary Committee’s deliberations from the activists’ battle-of-the-blogs and the food fights on cable TV.

Shortly after Judge Roberts’ nomination, President Bush was accused of “playing the Catholic card” in an opinion piece widely circulated in the blogosphere. “Playing the Catholic card” is, to be frank, either a vulgar appeal to ancient prejudices or code-language for “someone who can’t be trusted to take Planned Parenthood’s position on abortion.” In a news story chronicling Roberts’ work as deputy solicitor general, the Associated Press went out of its way to describe the nominee as a Catholic. Referring to Judge Roberts’ Catholicism in a news story in which that fact is wholly irrelevant is yet another example of barely disguised prejudice or warning-shot-by-code-language.

An overreaction? I think not. Consider what would have happened if, after nominating Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court, President Clinton had been accused of “playing the Jewish card”? Suppose the Associated Press had run a news story in these terms: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Jew, once wrote an ACLU legal brief on the constitutional status of Roe v. Wade”? There would have been outrage, and it would have been wholly justified. American civil society simply will not permit public displays of thinly veiled anti-Semitism. In your work before and during the Roberts confirmation hearings, perhaps you could challenge America to rid itself of vestigial anti-Catholicism — which, as historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., once observed, is the most deeply rooted prejudice in the history of the United States.

Permit me to raise another concern. In late July, you told a Vermont radio show that you wouldn’t vote to confirm a nominee who “didn’t consider Roe v. Wade settled law.” You then compared Roe to Brown v. Board of Education, the epic civil rights case that rejected “separate but equal” public education as unconstitutional. I suggest that you have the wrong analogy here. The correct analogy is between Roe and Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision that created the “separate but equal” doctrine. Now there was “unsettled law;” there was a decision that cut across the grain of basic principles of justice; there was a decision that roiled our politics for generations, until Brown effectively reversed Plessy in 1954. Plessy, in a word, was the Roe of its time: a case wrongly-decided on a fundamental issue.

There is nothing “settled” about Roe v. Wade, which liberal constitutional scholars like Archibald Cox and Alexander Bickel deplored as judicial overreach in 1973. Roe ignited the most divisive debate in our national politics — just as Plessy eventually did. Because Roe got it so wrong on such a basic point of justice — does innocent human life deserve the protection of the law? — it has endlessly distorted other aspects of our law and our politics: again, just like Plessy did. Roe no more “settled” the abortion debate than Plessy settled the question of racial justice in America. To suggest otherwise ignores the evidence all around us.

One final thought: in these hearings, I trust that you (and Senators Biden, Durbin, and Kennedy) will not reinforce the Kerryesque canard that the Catholic opposition to abortion is a sectarian matter, analogous to Mormons trying to “impose” a ban on caffeinated beverages throughout the United States. The Catholic argument is not complicated: the product of conception is a genetically unique human being; that human being never will be anything other than a human being; as innocent human life, it is inviolable and deserves the protection of the law. That’s it. You don’t have to believe in seven sacraments or papal primacy to engage that argument.

Please remember that in the weeks ahead.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.