The wit and wisdom of a “most gloriously judgmental” man

A review of "Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society", a collection of essays by the late Joseph Sobran

In 1980, as a priest not yet thirty years of age, I found myself placed in charge of developing local chapters of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights on the entire eastern seaboard. Those were heady days with Pope John Paul II truly coming into his own and determined to correct course for the Catholic Church and President Ronald Reagan seeking to do the same for the United States and, by extension, for the world. Serendipity brought me into the orbit of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary and, to my amazement and delight, of a seminal group of young, intelligent, committed Catholics, which included the likes of Robert Royal and Dinesh D’Souza and students like Jay Scott Newman, Michael Keenan Jones and John Barres (all of whom became priests, with the last a bishop).

Through that “web of grace,” I made the acquaintance of Joseph Sobran, whose insight, faith, wit and ability to communicate impressed me immediately. We became fast friends and, for a time, I served as his confessor and spiritual director. At a professional level, I enlisted him for my radio and television shows and numerous seminars and, of course, to write for the Catholic League. He never disappointed.

Unfortunately, with various moves of mine, we lost touch. The appearance of this posthumous collection of his essays, titled Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society, has enabled me to re-establish my relationship with Joe. In reading these reflections of his, I hear echoes of his seemingly off-the-cuff observations shared by him with a glass of wine in hand in the living room of his home or in one of Princeton’s many eateries. Joe’s description of his literary hero, Dr. Johnson, brought a smile to my face: a man “in rumpled clothes” with “amusing opinions on almost every subject under the sun”; he likewise noted that “the one word you won’t find in [Johnson’s] great dictionary is ‘non-judgmental.’ Dr. Johnson is one of the most gloriously judgmental men who ever lived.” No wonder Joe loved Johnson so much; they could have been identical twins!

Which leads us to consider some of the “opinions” offered by this latter-day “most gloriously judgmental” man. The first point to make is that Sobran was never hesitant to proclaim his Catholic Faith and to do it in triumphant (some would say “triumphalistic”) tones – rather typical of converts. At the same time, he was unfailingly fair in his assessment of non-Catholic Christians, reminiscent of Archbishop Fulton Sheen: “I am convinced that millions of Protestants are only waiting to be invited back into the Catholic Church. All that is missing is Catholic evangelical zeal. . . . These Protestants aren’t really heretics; they never committed heresy themselves, they merely inherited an abridged version of the Faith, and they have been faithful to as much of it as they know.” He then throws down to the gauntlet to his fellow Catholics: “[Such Protestants] would find fulfillment and joy in Catholicism; and the worst mistake Catholics make is to dilute the Faith in the hope of making it more appealing. No soul full of faith, hope, and charity is attracted to a lowest common denominator.” [42]

His opposition to the Iraq war may surprise readers who have pigeon-holed Sobran into a kind of knee-jerk conservative spouting, “My country, right or wrong.” In point of fact, he believed that the just war theory (originally intended to hem in possibilities for war) was being used to make war a more viable possibility. He also developed a strong allergy to “statism” in all its forms, carefully distinguishing it from the true virtue of patriotism. He was most wary of politicians who promoted a cult of personality, cautioning that such situations are fertile soil for dictatorships. What must Joe think of our current presidential election cycle?

Sobran got himself into no small amount of difficulty with some of his musings on Jews and “Jewry.” The editors and publisher are to be congratulated for their intellectual honesty in reproducing those problematic texts. Some of his comments were taken out of context; some were misinformed; others were simply off-base. I suspect that many of his statements would have been more acceptable had he made clear, as he does in one essay [332], that he is referring to “the secularized liberal Jewish mindset,” and not religious Jews – whose devotion he praises in many places. He also had some historical data incorrect (unusual for him). He writes: “The Second Vatican Council, mindful of Nazi crimes, proclaimed that today’s Jews don’t share the guilt of the Jews who conspired to murder Christ.” He also speaks of Pope John Paul II’s synagogue visit as “unprecedented” [333]. In reality, the 1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent clearly taught that sinners of every age were responsible for the death of Christ, commenting that “our crime. . . is greater in us than in the Jews.” Further, part of the coronation rites of medieval popes involved the new pope’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, where he was met at the door by the Chief Rabbi, kissed the Torah scroll, and gave gifts to the congregants – all as acts of gratitude for the Jewish roots of the Catholic Faith. In other words, post-Vatican II Catholicism (to which Sobran had a rather neuralgic reaction, and rightly so, in many instances) had not gone off the rails in its attempts to cultivate wholesome relations with the Jews.

Sobran’s thoughts on Islam are quite enlightening – and balanced. In speaking of the de-Christianized West, he observes that “if ‘democracy’ means the kind of hedonism we now take for granted, [devout Muslims] want no part of it.” [378] Looking into his crystal ball regarding a future Islamic conquest of the West, he coolly asserts: “It remains a fighting faith, demographically expansive, facing a depopulated religious vacuum in what used to be Christendom.” [381] Very somberly, he says: “The real danger is our own apostasy (as Belloc rightly warned us), which has already done so much more harm than Islam ever could.” [383]

Joe wrote passionately on abortion, the nature of marriage, “toleration,” the rule of law, constitutionalism, introducing his audiences to great thinkers down the ages. For those who never had the pleasure of a glass of wine in Joe’s living room or who are too young perhaps even to know his name, this anthology makes a most welcome contribution. Now that this is out, maybe someone can produce a collection of his very quotable “bons mots,” published as The Wit and Wisdom of Joseph Sobran.

Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society
by Joseph Sobran; edited by Fran Griffin and Tom Bethell
Vienna, Virginia: Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, 2015
Hardcover; 425 pages

About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 29 Articles

Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.