For many Catholics of a certain age, Joseph Sobran will forever be remembered as one of the greatest literary defenders of the Catholic Church’s teaching on life over the past 40 years. From contraception to abortion, from euthanasia to just-war doctrine, Joe was an eloquent voice in the popular press for the teachings of the Catholic Church, and, in fighting for the truth, he wore himself out a few decades too early, dying at 3 P.M. on Thursday, September 30, 2010, at the age of 64.
For other Catholics, somewhat younger, Joe Sobran will be remembered, if at all, as the chief villain (along with Pat Buchanan) of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s 1991 National Review article “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” The attack of his boss, mentor, friend, and virtual foster father left Joe a broken (and worse for the country at large, virtually ignored) man, and the last 17 years of his life (from the time of his firing from National Review) were not nearly as happy as the previous 21 (from the time of his hiring at National Review). But they were equally productive, in the pages of his newsletter, Sobran’s, the national Catholic weekly The Wanderer, and, of course, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
Much of Joe’s best writing on life issues appeared in Human Life Review. Indeed, one might say that, for almost two decades, Joe Sobran was Human Life Review. As J.P. McFadden, the founding editor of HLR, wrote in his Introduction to Single Issues, a 1983 collection of Joe’s best essays from the Review, “we never dreamed how much he would have to say, or that he would become our most faithful contributor: his sharply-honed essays would have appeared in every issue over the past eight years [from the Review‘s founding in 1975 until 1982, when McFadden was writing], but for a few missed deadlines.”
Joe’s status as the preeminent literary defender of life in the latter half of the 20th century did not arise simply from what Joe had to say, or the number of words he wrote, but how he said it. For Joe, the most beautiful prose flowed from his fingers with incredible ease. McFadden was not exaggerating when he wrote that Sobran’s name “on anything whatever—article, review, commentary—was the guarantee of fine writing, sharp wit, and a most distinctive style which . . . made one think of nobody else so much as G.K. Chesterton.”
Such beauty flowed not only from his fingers but rode the waves of his splendid baritone voice. There are few people that one does not at least begin to tire of hearing after an hour or two, but those of us who had the pleasure of knowing Joe never wanted him to quit talking. Shakespeare was his academic major and his lifelong obsession; if he did not know every line of Shakespeare by heart (and I am not certain that he did not), then he had at least committed more of them to memory than any man alive today. He had a similar command of the writings of P.G. Wodehouse, whose easy humor shaped Joe’s, as well as of much of the writings of G.K. Chesterton. One could tape a Sobran soliloquy, transcribe it verbatim, and publish it without editing, and it would still be better than the best work of most writers today.
In the pages of Human Life Review and elsewhere, Joe was one of the first, and by far the best, critics of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to Catholic social teaching. Yet Joe, better than any other Catholic conservative, argued forcefully for a truly consistent ethic of life, regarding the Church quite properly as Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). He believed the Church’s just-war theory to be as important as Her teaching on abortion, but rather than using that belief to minimize the horror of abortion, he opposed the Reagan-era military actions, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the same passion and eloquence that he devoted to arguing on behalf of the unborn. In this, he followed the example of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, men he gladly accepted as his shepherds.
In his final years, Joe provided an example of Christian fortitude that should be an inspiration to us all. His health failing from complications from diabetes, a stroke, and finally kidney failure, Joe publicly admitted that he occasionally had doubts and fears. Yet he always turned his eyes toward Christ, and found in his Savior the comforts of faith and of hope.
As I type these words, there are so many passages in Joe Sobran’s work that come to mind that would give readers some measure of the man. But the piece that rises to the top is “Jesus’ Simple Message,” the January 2008 installment of his Chronicles column, The Bare Bodkin.
Halfway through, the column switches from a general meditation to a very personal one:
The loveliest argument I know against unbelief was made by a woman whose name I have forgotten, quoted by the theologian John Baillie in Our Knowledge of God; it boils down to this: “If there is no God, whom do we thank?”
The force of this hit me on a mild November evening when I was oppressed by woes; I prayed for a little relief and tried counting my blessings instead of my grievances. I’ve long known that a great secret of happiness is gratitude, but that didn’t prepare me for what happened next.
Joe writes that, “as I munched a cheeseburger,” “I could hardly think of anything in my life that couldn’t be seen as a gift from God”:
As one of the characters in Lear tells his father: “Thy life’s a miracle.” Of whom is that not true?
The more we reflect on the sheer oddity of our very existence and, in addition, of our eligibility for salvation, the deeper our gratitude must be. Amazing grace indeed! To call it astounding is to express the matter feebly. Why me? How on earth could I ever have deserved this, the promise of eternal joy?
And given all this, in comparison with which winning the greatest lottery in the world is just a minor fluke, how can I dare to sin again, or to be anything less than a saint for the rest of my life?
And yet the true measure of Joe’s faith, and the lesson his life offers us all, lies not in those words, but in the lines that end the piece. If only we could all be so frank about how far short we have fallen of the glory of God, there might be hope for us:
Yet I know that my own horrible spiritual habits will keep drawing me downward every hour. Like most men, or maybe more than most, I am my own worst enemy, constantly tempted to repay my Savior with my self-centered ingratitude. When I think of my sins, the debt of thanksgiving itself seems far too heavy to pay. No wonder He commands us to rejoice. It’s by no means the easiest of our duties.
Rest in peace, Joe.
(A version of this article first appeared on About Catholicism on October 4, 2010.)