From the Ark to the Barque
Hadley Arkes Speaks About His Conversion
BY Tim Drake
Register Senior Writer
September 12-25, 2010 Issue | Posted 9/3/10 at 7:45 PM
Hadley Arkes is a leading expert on American political philosophy, public policy and constitutional law. He has been known as a prominent Jewish pro-life advocate. According to his biography on the website of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, of which he is a senior fellow, he was the “main advocate, and architect, of the bill that became known as the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act.”
Now he is Catholic.
The Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, Arkes has published five books with Princeton University Press and two books with Cambridge University Press — most recently, Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.
Arkes came into the Church in April under the sponsorship of his friend, theologian Michael Novak. He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake about his journey.
Where did you grow up?
Wartime Chicago. I was born in 1940, the very first grandchild on both sides. I’ve explained what a morning in that household looked like: A 2-year-old wanders into the kitchen early in the morning. The kitchen is filled with grown-ups getting ready to go to work. The child says, “Good morning” and receives a standing ovation. I grew up with a sense that the world was filled with catchers in the rye — everyone wanting to look after you and take care of you.
Later, the question arose, How was it that a working family, where no one went to college, was able to impart that sense of security to a youngster? And I think the answer is that the grown-ups were competent to their ends. They could be counted on to be there when you needed them. They were always there.
My father was a foreman in a factory, had a launderette, and later ran a shipping room for his brothers in a business they had. He died about 15 years ago. My mother died about five years ago.
Did you grow up a practicing Jew?
I grew up in an Orthodox family, attended Hebrew school, and I had a bar mitzvah. The next generation did not go to services as often as my grandparents did. The commitment faded. The later generations would go mainly on high holidays, but they weren’t as fastidious or as observant as my grandparents. For the most part, they saw themselves as what is called these days “cultural” Jews. They understood themselves as Jewish — we might say these days, “members of the tribe” — though there was not much talk about God or his laws.
Later, your own commitment faded. Why was that?
I continued to have an interest in things Jewish. It was a way of staying in touch with the Jewish world. When I was about 34, I was part of an academic mission to Israel. I wasn’t Orthodox, but I saw myself as Jewish. Out of ancient tradition and memory, I attended high holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I discovered that Jewish public life was becoming more committed to the liberal Democratic agenda than things Jewish. It was kind of like a political catechism rather than any serious engagement with the Hebrew Bible. I was uneasy with the political messages that kept filtering into the synagogues along with the devotions.
A critical moment came when the president of the synagogue at Amherst asked me to speak on Yom Kippur. I had spoken there often before, but I explained that the problem was that I could not speak in the synagogue on the most central, burning moral question of the day. He responded by saying, “There is no subject you would want to address that this congregation wouldn’t want to hear you on.”
I said, “Abortion.” What followed was a silence (the silence I had expected). And then he said, “I’ll get back to you.”
It confirmed something disquieting — that the condition of my staying in the synagogue was to preserve silence on the gravest moral question of the day in our politics. I thought that was a condition that should no longer be accepted. That’s when I stopped going.
What first led you to consider the claims of the Catholic Church?
It came through my involvement over many years in the pro-life movement. I’ve been moving in this direction for a long while, perhaps more than 20 years. The process is often the reverse of what is told in the media. The media suggest that we’re pro-life because we’re religious, when in fact, many of us are won over by the force of the moral argument and the evidence of embryology. Then we’re drawn to the Church that defends that argument.
Over the years, I picked up many friends in the pro-life movement and people I collaborated with in writing. At every turn, I found I had a Catholic constituency of people who were supporting me. My friends genuinely came to represent, to me, the body of the Church. Each one had different things to teach me about the Catholic life, and they all showed in different ways what people come to look like when they’ve led a Catholic life.
I was drawn to the body of the Church — the Church made visible — the people around me who absorbed the life of the Church and lived the life of the Church.
I often wonder if people appreciate the importance of the “congregation” for Jews as well as Catholics. It does make the most profound difference if one becomes aware that one is enveloped, in the services, by people who share a communion, people who genuinely share your concerns about the so-called “life issues” and marriage — what John Paul II called that central question of “the human person.”
How did your journey manifest itself?
In the early 1990s, I was invited to address the U.S. bishops’ conference. I was received warmly by the bishops and staffers. It was there that I met that young, remarkable bishop from Yakima, Francis George.
About 20 years ago, while at a pro-life dinner in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law heard I was there and had me brought over to the head table. He wondered how I was able to do the pro-life things that I did at Amherst and said, “When Richard Neuhaus came over to the Church, we thought you were coming too.” I deflected the cardinal by replying that “We thought Richard was arranging a ‘group rate.’”
I found myself drawn into Catholic circles, and out of interest, I began to attend Mass occasionally with friends, such as [former Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow] Michael Uhlmann in Washington. There was never any pushing or proselytizing. On my own, I found things to read on Catholic doctrine, and friends were never reluctant to recommend books to me.
The first person who gave me some serious insight into the teaching of the Church was my dear friend and colleague at Amherst, Dan Robinson. He offered an example of the most formidable intellect, a man accomplished in philosophy and science, and able to offer the most sophisticated account — and defense — of the teachings of the Church. As I continued in my teaching, in effect, of natural law, it became more and more evident that the Church had become the main sanctuary for moral reasoning and natural law, standing against the currents of relativism that were corroding almost all other institutions. And in a world in which people with pricey educations were more and more drawn to exotic theories ever more implausible, the Church was grounded in the world as it really is. It could not only see the world as it was, but its “realism” encompassed a recognition of the realism of moral truths.
Was there a tipping point?
One of the triggering lines came from my dear friend Dermot Quinn (for the last 20 years as a central figure at Seton Hall University.)
Dermot had said that you could believe everything the Church tells you and not be a good Catholic. The real question, he said, is whether you believe in the Church as a “truth-telling institution.” And I thought: I really did. When the Church stands contra mundum — against the currents of fashion and opinion in the world — my inclination is to think that the Church has it right. The Church has had a couple of thousand years to look over the range of rival experience. And as Father [James] Burtchaell [formerly of the University of Notre Dame and author of The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities From Their Christian Churches] used to say, the Church holds up a mirror — it shows us what we will look like if we continue along a certain path.
What held you back for so long?
I was concerned that a certain shock would be felt by members of my family who would not understand. My sister, younger than I, has taken the news rather hard. Most of my aunts and uncles are gone, but I have two aged uncles whom I love, and I didn’t want to jolt them.
When coming out of the Red Mass in Washington, D.C., Father Arne Panula [director of the Opus Dei-run Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.] asked me, “What’s holding you back?” The implied question, decorously unstated, was: Are you just playing with this or are you serious? I replied by drawing on my Bert Lahr repertoire from The Wizard of Oz: “C-c-c-c-courage” — the line, of course, of the cowardly lion.
What held me back was my concern and how much pain I would cause my family. Once Father Panula put the question to me, I had to put the question to myself. My 70th birthday was approaching: How long should I really be waiting to do what I thought was the right thing to do?
Do you have any memorable stories you can share from the Neuhaus era at First Things?
In 1987, when Richard John Neuhaus was still Lutheran, I was invited to a First Things seminar. Tom Derr at Smith College had given Richard a copy of my book First Things, and he was taken with it — though he wasn’t in accord with everything I was putting in place in that book. I became one of the “family” that came to form around the colloquia run by Richard in New York. It was the most remarkable seminar I had ever been involved in. One day I leaned back and thought, God, I really love these guys. Nothing was ever lost with them. You might have said something that would be brought back years later. Bob Jensen might say, “Hadley made this argument three years ago.” Everyone listened. No one forgot anything. Richard had the ability to bring in people who often weren’t in the same room together, people quite at odds on the politics of the day; and yet we came together with civility and for a serious, penetrating conversation.
I remember when Richard came into the Church at [the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York in] Dunwoodie [Yonkers, N.Y.]. Cardinal [John] O’Connor must have looked at those of us gathered there and wondered what kind of family Neuhaus was bringing into the Church. But I recall Cardinal O’Connor’s memorable line: “Richard, you don’t deserve this — any more than I deserve to be here ministering to you.”
I know that you have family that don’t understand your decision. How have you tried to explain your decision to them?
The question I posed to one of my cousins was: Why is the Jewish atheist in the family not thought to have left the Jewish people, but the Jewish Catholic, who affirms the God of Israel, is thought to have left? Why aren’t the same questions posed against the people in the family who scoff at the religious? If it’s a matter mainly of being a member of the tribe, I’m still as much a member of the tribe as anyone else. If it’s a matter of affirming the God of Israel and his laws, I’ve been closer to that as a Catholic than I was in many of the synagogues and services I attended.
So you see your Catholicism as a fulfillment of your Judaism?
Yes. It’s strange that people are so distant that they don’t see or understand the continuity. Cardinal [Jean-Marie] Lustiger [of Paris] famously said that when he became a Catholic he did not abandon the Jewish people. Those who do understand the connection have understood at once what I’ve meant when I’ve said that I’ve not left the Jewish people or repudiated the Jewish tradition.
Most Jews are not Orthodox. In most cases, it’s that sense of connection to things Jewish, even quite detached from religiosity. But that reduces the matter, then, to the ethnic or racial connection — the sense, again, of being a member of the tribe.
When Jewishness is understood in that way, a serious religious engagement is not required. And that is why the “Jewish atheist” is still accepted as Jewish. And for some of these people, I’m afraid, their Jewishness does not inhere in a commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but mainly, decisively, a rejection of Christianity, even though it is still, with the Christians, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Judaism there is already an expectation of a Messiah and a virgin birth. In the case of Jesus, we have an empirical record and witnesses: Men rather hardened, skeptical, not easily taken in, witnessed what took place and touched his wounds. And as my friend Bob Bork remarked, if Jesus really had died and came back from the dead … well, certain implications flow from that.
My Catholic friends did not try aggressively to proselytize and convert me. When one or two of them actually made the case or earnestly asked me to consider coming over, I didn’t take offense, for there was a need to understand them as they understood themselves. They were trying to put before me the case that there was a serious truth to consider. It was never a posture of Catholic aggressiveness on their part. And the best stance for them to take is simply to help people to understand the continuities. As my friend Michael Novak remarked, to be Catholic one has to be at least Jewish.
Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.
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