Joseph Sobran, R.I.P.
by Scott P. Richert
ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS — 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
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
Wanderer, and my own publication, Chronicles: A Magazine of American
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 all of Shakespeare by heart (and I am not certain that
he did not), then he at least knew more 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
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
As I type these words, there are so many passages in Joe Sobran's
work that come to mind, passages I would dearly love to share to give
readers the true measure of the man. But the piece that rises to the
top is "Jesus'
Simple Message," the January 2008 installment of his column, The
Bare Bodkin, in Chronicles.
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, my friend.
Scott P. Richert is Executive Editor of Chronicles:
A Magazine of American Culture, a magazine that published a regular column by Joe Sobran.
This article appeared at Scott's Catholicism
at the About.com GuideSite to Catholicism.