Requiescat in pace, Robert Bork

CNN and others are reporting the death of Robert Bork early this morning:

Former federal judge and conservative legal scholar Robert Bork died early Wednesday at his Virginia home, his family confirmed to CNN. He was 85.

Perhaps best known for his nomination to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Bork was rejected for the post after a contentious confirmation battle led by left-leaning groups that opposed his conservative judicial philosophies.

Bork had recently served as a senior legal adviser to Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He was a solicitor general during the Nixon administration and first gained notoriety for carrying out the president’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal in 1973, an episode known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

But it was the Senate’s rejection of his high court nomination that earned the conservative Bork a political legacy — symbolic of the contentious, partisan nature of congressional confirmations.

Bork was also known as a staunch advocate for “originalism,” a principle that defends the original intent of the Constitution.
In recent years, Bork became a well-regarded conservative voice on legal and constitutional matters, as well as the author of several books including “Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.” He was also a frequent commentator.

Matthew Cooper of the National Journal writes:

By all accounts, Bork was fun and interesting and one of the really grand figures of Washington even if his book title, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, suggested a scold. He converted to Catholicism with the help of Fr. C. John McCloskey and opus dei priest who assisted the late journalist Robert Novak and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to Catholicism. (Bork’s widow is a former nun.) I know his daughter Ellen a bit and wish her and her family the best. A giant’s fallen.

Bork was, of course, far, far more than a “scold”; he was a true intellectual, as a reading of his books and articles indicates. Here are a couple of short passages from Slouching Towards Gomarrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, published in 1996:

The truth is that, despite the statistics on churchgoing, etc., the United States is a very secular nation that, for the most part, does not take religion seriously. Not only may the statistics overstate the religious reality – people may be telling pollsters what they think makes a good impression – but statistics say nothing of the quality or depth of American religious belief. It is increasingly clear that very few people who claim a religion could truthfully say that it informs their attitudes and significantly affects their behavior.

The practices and beliefs of the Catholic laity offer a good test case because the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, and the infallibility of the pope on matters of faith and morals, are unusually clear. Yet it is also clear that many of the laity display the Tocqueville syndrome and “keep their minds floating at random between liberty and obedience.” … Conformity to the spirit of the times appears to be characterize the clergy as well as the laity. …

The obstrusive fact is that the churches that make the highest demands on their members, that focus on salvation, community, and morality, that stand against the direction of the secular culture, are the churches that have gained in membership. …

If religion is being alterned internally by the forces of feminism and left-wing ideology, it is simultaneously being marginalized in our public life by the hostility of the intellectual class. The two most significant manifestations of that hostility are the federal judiciary’s wholly unwarranted expansion of the First Admendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion and the national press’s ignoring of religion as a topic of any importance.

It’s worth pointing out that Bork wrote all of that years before becoming Catholic. Over at First Things (to which Bork contributed), Austin Ruse writes about Bork’s conversion to Catholicism in 2003 by referring back to a piece he wrote for The Catholic Thing about that conversion:

Bork has referred to judges as Olympians, and not as a compliment. By that he means those judges around the world who have decided that they, and not elected representatives, should rule. Bork has a different, more limited view of the role of a judge. Even so, being a member of the Supreme Court is Olympian, a chance at a kind of secular immortality given to very few. Bork did not get this; he got something else instead.

Five years ago, Robert Bork was baptized into the Catholic faith. Accompanied by his saintly wife Mary Ellen, in a chapel bursting with friends, Bork nearly ran the table of sacraments. He got five that day: baptism, confirmation, first confession, first Communion, and his marriage was regularized according to the Church. All that was missing were last rites and priestly ordination.

At the time of his Senate hearings, according to Bork himself, he was an atheist. And here is what I wonder. Would Bork have journeyed to Rome had he served on the Supreme Court? While Mary Ellen’s example and influence would have remained present either way, other influences certainly would have been brought to bear, namely, power, and our tendency to attach ourselves to it. The rich young man went away because he was too attached to his things. How much more alluring is power? How heady is it to be in the very thick of the most important questions of our time; questions that affect hundreds of millions of lives and that reverberate through time even unto a kind of immortality? Wouldn’t the danger of hubris and the Olympian nature of the Supreme Court make such interior considerations difficult, if not even impossible?

There is another puzzling question. With Bork on the court, Roe might have been overturned in 1992. But on the court Bork might not have found God and the Church. I don’t even know how to think about that except in light of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to find the single lost one. The Church teaches that a single soul is worth more than the whole universe. Figure that one out, Christopher Hitchens.

A more pleasant thought: Is it possible that Robert Bork lost the whole world – the court and all that meant – but gained his soul?

May God grant Robert Bork mercy and eternal rest.

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.