It has been four years since the death of Joseph Sobran. Scott P. Richert has written a moving tribute at the Chronicles magazine website.
“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.”
“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.”
Yet after Bill Buckley fired Joe Sobran from National Review in 1991 he was also dismissed from Human Life Review (both publcations emanated from the same offices). When HLR subsequently celebrated a major anniversary – I believe it was their 25th – Sobran’s name was not mentioned. Indeed, when Sobran came out in opposition to the Republican party and its Iraq war, Human Life Review ran a hit piece written by James Hitchcock directed primarily against him:
“Sobran’s way of dealing with the life issues can then be seen as the conservative counterpart to the liberals’ “seamless garment”—an attempt to persuade pro-lifers to transcend their “narrow” outlook and support a wider agenda. …
(F)or some on the Catholic part of “the Right,” the life issues are no longer paramount, if they ever were.”
Sobran’s prior role at HLR was of course not mentioned in this shameless screed. It had become clear that supporting the agenda of the Republican party and of the neocons – especially as it related to the Mideast – had taken precedence over all other concerns at the publication that Joe Sobran had put on the map. It was also a particularly outrageous insinuation, for, as Richert writes, regarding life issues “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).”
We must concede, however, that in this question of authority Bill Buckley may have been somewhat more perspicacious than Joe: Mater si, Magistra no! Death spared Sobran the spectacle of a Bishop of Rome lecturing Catholics not to “obsess” about abortion, gays and contraception; of a new archbishop of Chicago who had discouraged pro-life vigils at his former diocese – this action being touted as one of his key qualifications – and, just the other day, of a Spanish Opus Dei priest raging against “fundamentalists” because “the stubborn defense of the right to life is plain and simple ideology.”
Sobran had to bear an extraordinarily amount of suffering in his last years. But his writings witness a true Christian acceptance of the various personal and health trials the Lord had sent him. I hope a younger generation rediscovers the man and his work. Scott Richert’s article is a good place too start.