Catholic Convert Judge Robert Bork Dies
Judge Robert Bork, former circuit judge, U.S. solicitor general and 1987 Supreme Court judicial nominee, has passed on to eternal life. May God welcome him and grant him peace and rest. I was blessed to interview Judge Bork in July 2003, just after his conversion to the Catholic faith on July 21 at the age of 76.
Here's what he told me at the time of his conversion.
Was faith important to your family growing up? In which denomination did you grow up?
Up until age 17, I was in Pittsburgh. I have no siblings. My mother was a schoolteacher up until she got married because at that time you couldn’t be married and teach. My father was in charge of purchasing for one area of a large steel company.
Until age 12, I was going to United Presbyterian Church. My mother and father belonged to two different Presbyterian denominations. Our faith wasn’t terribly important growing up. My mother was interested in spiritual matters, but she was somewhat eclectic about it.
What led you to pursue law?
It was either that or journalism. I would have been a journalist by first choice, but I had the wrong idea that you had to get a graduate degree to pursue journalism. I didn’t know any journalists or lawyers.
When I was about to graduate from the University of Chicago I wrote to the Columbia School of Journalism. However, because of the debate between John Dewey and University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins over the nature of education, Columbia wouldn’t accept a degree from the University of Chicago. They told me that if I would first go elsewhere for two years, then they would accept me. In a fit of pique I decided to go to law school and graduated from Chicago School of Law in 1953.
When were you married?
I was married in 1952. My wife died on Dec. 8, 1980. I remarried on Oct. 30, 1982.
I was introduced to the Catholic faith through my second wife, Mary Ellen. She had been a nun for 15 years. I didn’t know any priests or nuns. Although I had many Catholic friends, we never discussed religion. I had been to a Catholic Mass a couple of times with friends when I was in my teens and early 20s, but I hadn’t been to any church for years and years until I began going to Sunday Mass with my Mary Ellen.
What sparked your interest in the Catholic Church?
After I wrote Slouching Toward Gomorrah the priest at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., Msgr. William Awalt, told me that my views on matters seemed to be very close to those of the Catholic views, which was true. Not being religious, the fact that our views corresponded wasn’t enough to bring me into the Church, so it took me a while before I was ready to enter.
I had a number of conversations with Father C.J. McCloskey. He gave me some readings and he would drop by on his way home and we would talk for an hour to an hour and a half in my office. The one I liked best was Ronald Knox’s The Beliefs of Catholics. I’ve taught classes, but I didn’t feel like being taught a class. I wasn’t eager to be a student. Our time together was informative and highly informal.
Were there any misconceptions that you had to overcome?
When I was between 15 and 16, I was taught that the Catholic Church was highly authoritarian and that the priests had strict control over your thoughts and ideas. By the time it came to convert I had been around the world a while, so I no longer had those ideas. I knew too many Catholics to believe that.
Does it seem to make a difference converting at age 76 rather than when you were younger?
I don’t know that it has any effect. My mother is going to be 105 this fall. I don’t feel old compared to her. I haven’t spoken to her about it yet, but I assume she’ll take it well.
There is an advantage in waiting until you’re 76 to be baptized, because you’re forgiven all of your prior sins. Plus, at that age you’re not likely to commit any really interesting or serious sins.
Was there anything in particular that pulled you toward the Church?
I found the evidence of the existence of God highly persuasive, as well as the arguments from design both at the macro level of the universe and the micro level of the cell.
I found the evidence of design overwhelming, and also the number of witnesses to the Resurrection compelling. The Resurrection is established as a solid historical fact.
Plus, there was the fact that the Church is the Church that Christ established, and while it’s always in trouble, despite its modern troubles it has stayed more orthodox than almost any church I know of. The mainline Protestant churches are having much more difficulty.
Did your wife play a significant role in your decision?
Yes, although she never proselytized outright. She discussed things with me, but it was more her example than anything else. I don’t know whether it’s her faith or something else, but she is an extraordinarily fine woman. We received a note from Father Richard John Neuhaus saying that now all of the saints could get some rest from Mary Ellen’s importuning.
Where was the ceremony held?
Since I decided I wanted only a small group of people present, the ceremony was held at the Catholic Information Center chapel in Washington. There were three priests at the baptism. Msgr. Awalt did the baptism. Father McCloskey gave the homily and Msgr. Peter Vaghi, pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, also participated. I didn’t talk about it to anyone beforehand.
My three children were as surprised about it as anyone. I told the sponsors, Kate O’Beirne and John O’Sullivan, only a couple of weeks before. I don’t know how surprised they were. I never discussed it with them, but they probably expected that I wasn’t far off.