by Edward G. Lengel
Robert Bork, the Culture War, and the Catholic Church
Judge Robert Bork, a conservative legal and judicial champion well-known to American readers, was received into the Catholic Church on July 21, 2003, at age 76. Most readers will remember Judge Bork because of his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. An outspoken conservative, Bork was attacked by liberal politicians for his opposition to unbridled "civil liberties"most notably his opposition to Roe v. Wadeand after acrimonious confirmation hearings he was voted down by the Senate. Judge Bork went on to become a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches constitutional law, antitrust law and cultural issues.
Bork's conversion did not come about suddenly. After the death of his first wife in 1980, Bork married Mary Ellen, who had taught religion for fifteen years as a nun of the Sacred Heart and remained actively Catholic even after her departure from that order. He credited her with introducing him to the Faith, but the journey would take many years. A defining momentfor both Bork and American societycame in 1996, when he published his book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. The impact of this work cannot be overstated. Coming in the midst of Newt Gingrich's neoconservative "revolution," which was driven less by concern for cultural issues than by resentment with President Bill Clinton and burgeoning interest in classical liberal notions of economics and politics, Bork's book alerted both religious and secular conservatives to the dangerous slide toward decadence in western society.
Instigated by liberal elites who manipulatedand were manipulated bythe so-called "youth movement" of the 1960s, this cultural decadence has become evident in ways that are now all too familiar. Bork spells them out, describing the deterioration of art and music; the popularization of pornography; the collapse of the family and consequent social disintegration; the radicalization of academia, law, and politics; legislation for divorce on demand, abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia; racial politics; and the decline of religion under multiple assaults from feminism and political correctness. The revolution has been both deliberate and successful, and has transformed our society into something no one could have imagined fifty years earlier.
Yet Slouching Towards Gomorrah is not just a tale of gloom and doom. Deep as the moral rot has penetrated into the vitals of society, Bork sees a faint hope for an eventual curein religion. "We may be witnessing a religious revival, another awakening," he writes. Evangelical Protestants and orthodox Jews are gaining strength as never before, and struggling to hold the ramparts against the decadent tide. All of their efforts are destined for naught, however, unless they are joined by one institution, the most important of all: the Catholic Church. It is "a crucial question for the culture whether the Roman Church can be restored to its former strength and orthodoxy," Bork observes.
Because it is America's largest denomination, and the only one with strong central authority, the Catholic Church can be a major opponent of the nihilism of modern liberal culture. Pope John Paul II has been attempting to lead an intellectual and spiritual reinvigoration, but there is resistance within the Church. Modern liberal culture has made inroads with some of the hierarchy as well as the laity. It remains to be seen whether intellectual orthodoxy can stand firm against the currents of radical individualism and radical egalitarianism. For the moment, the outcome is in doubt.
Like many thinkers, Bork had pondered the problems of politics, economics, and society only to find himself one dayseemingly accidentallyin accord with the age-old teachings of the Catholic Church. Some who make this discovery flee into denial; others, more honest and intelligent, investigate the Faith further. And Bork is nothing if not honest. As he told Catholic journalist Tim Drake, after he wrote Slouching Towards Gomorrah he was approached by a priest who told him that his "views on matters seemed to be very close to those of the Catholic views, which was true." Another priest, Fr. C. John McCloskey who had aided the conversion of columnist Robert Novak and a U.S. Senator from Kansas, then engaged Bork in informal instruction, supplying him with books like The Belief of Catholics by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox.
Whether the Faith remained intact was another question. Implicit in his book, although he does not address it directly, is the disappearance of the Church's moral authority as it succumbed to internal disarray in the wake of Vatican II. The absence of an orthodox Catholic voice in society was of vital importance in allowing the cultural collapse of the 1960s. Bork nevertheless found that the fundamental elements of the Faith remained intact. "The Church is the Church that Christ established," he discovered, "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."
Thanks in part to Knox, Bork likewise found the theological arguments for belief compelling. "I found the evidence of the existence of God highly persuasive," he recalled, "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." Mary Ellen aided the process with her own prayers and persuasion. Bork was still religiously undecided in 1999; when he signed on to teach a course in the Moral Foundations of the Law at the conservative Catholic Ave Maria School of Law, founded in 1999 by Tom Monaghan (the actively pro-life founder of Domino's Pizza). But four years later, all the pieces had come together, and he entered the Catholic Church.
Bork's conversion of course has not weakened his commitment to the culture war, and particularly to its newest front: "gay marriage." His help is sorely needed. Many libertarians, Republicans, and self-described "conservatives" tremble at the notion that government should intervene to protect this fundamental social institution. "Enough already!" cries commentator Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online in response to the gay marriage debate, "many of us just don't want to hear about it anymore ... there are more important things in the world." Larry Elder, another conservative commentator, approvingly cites Vice President Dick Cheney's remark that "I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions and that's appropriate[;] I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area," and suggests that government should get out of the marriage business altogether and let people do as they pleaseincluding, presumably, if they have an inclination for polygamy or incest. "Our society will endure," Elder smugly reassures us. Even columnist Charles Krauthammer, a friend of Bork's who has taken a staunchly conservative line on many social issues, writes: "for me the sanctity of the Constitution trumps everything, even marriage. Moreover, I would be loath to see some future democratic consensus in favor of gay marriage blocked by such an amendment." For similar reasons, many Republican politicians are now working to kill the proposed Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Catholics are likewise divided, with the spiritual heirs of Vatican II's "renewal" conniving in support of the homosexual lobby, and the majority of even those who call themselves orthodox regarding the issue with boredom and apathy.
The willful blindness of such a view seems obvious; yet Bork is one of the few still willing to cry, "It's the culture, stupid!" At a recent meeting of the Catholic Lawyers Guild in Boston, Bork joined with Archbishop Sean O'Malley in urging Catholic jurists to fight the lemmings' march toward gay marriage. "If they don't," Bork quipped after the meeting, "I didn't speak very clearly." In his recent book, Coercing Virtue: the Worldwide Rule of Judges, he deals with the issue further by showing how legislation for gay marriage, civil unions and the like has come about as a result of the efforts of activist, leftist courts. "The cultural war," he says, "is an international phenomenon and the courts have the power of judicial review to strike down statues or accept them. They have taken one side in the culture war the side of the intellectual elite, or a term I like, the Olympians. They are those people who think they have a superior attitude in life and that those of us lower down the courts should be coerced into accepting their views."
Bork's embracement of the Catholic Faith provides ample cause for celebration, both for the sake of his soul and for those who have fallen victim to the unrelenting campaign against Christian values in modern society. Now more than ever, the Church is in need of leaders who can draw orthodox believers from of their bunkers and bring them outfiguratively and literallyinto the streets to do battle for the Faith. Let us hope that the conversion of this sage will not be the last.
Edward G. Lengel holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia, where he is an Associate Professor on the staff of the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project. He has written several articles for Catholic periodicals, and also is the author of three books, including an upcoming military biography of George Washington to be published by Random House.
Bork, Robert H. Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. New York: Regan Books, 1996.
"Judge Bork Converts to the Catholic Faith," National Catholic Register, 20-26 July, 2003.
"Gay Marriage Debate: Enough Already," Jonah Goldberg, Tribune Media Services, 20 February 2004.
"The State Should Get Out of the Marriage Business," Larry Elder, Creators Syndicate, 26 February 2004.
"Debating Marriage," Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, 27 February 2004
"Bishop to Lawyers: Stop Gay Marriage" Boston Herald, 12 January 2004.