Remembering where the spots were

Hadley Arkes, Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, received the sacraments of Christian initiation into the Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, April 24. He has been described by Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame Law School as “America’s most articulate and cogent defender of the limited, but important and indispensable, role of moral reasoning in constitutional adjudication.” Like St. Thomas Aquinas, he teaches that law and morality, while distinct, are intrinsically related.

Over the years, he has brought many of his students back to the Catholic Church, not by instructing them in the faith, but by confirming their confidence in knowing moral truths. “The students,” he surmises, “had absorbed the sense that we can never do without that faculty for tracing our judgments back to that core or that ground of first principles, and what some of us may call the ‘natural law.’ In any event, as the students renewed their confidence in moral truths, they seemed to have been drawn yet again to the Church that has stood firmly with these truths, even against the currents and fashions of the time. And that Church has provided the main sanctuary for that disciplined moral reasoning, even as the schools of philosophy may be drawn to the romance of post-modernism and nihilism. (As Allan Bloom used to say, these people talk so casually about nihilism ‘as though it were a jacuzzi.’)”

On May 10, Pope Benedict wrote to an ecumenical gathering in Munich: “In his impassioned dispute with God over sparing the city of Sodom, Abraham obtained assurance from the Lord of the Universe that if there were ten just people there he would not destroy the city (Cf. Genesis 18:22-23). Thanks be to God, in our cities there are many more than ten just people!” Thanks be to God and, I would add, to people like Hadley Arkes!

Hadley, whom I am fortunate to call my friend, is a superb pro-life speaker and author, maybe the best there is. He masterminded the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002. In the current issue of First Things, he has a fine article about the pending Supreme Court case involving the University of California’s refusal to grant recognition to the Christian Legal Society on campus because it insists on not condoning homosexual conduct among its members. In the current issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, he has another piece on Supreme Court case law regarding the obligation of contracts in light of the current economic crisis. Ever prolific, he has a book entitled “Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths” coming out from Cambridge University Press next month.

Here’s what Princeton Professor Robert George wrote about Hadley’s conversion: “Speaking of his Jewish identity, Hadley said that he neither would nor could ever leave the Jewish people. His entry into the Church was for him, he stated, a fulfillment of his Jewish faith, and in no way a repudiation of it. Invoking the testimony and authority of the late Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, he declared that he was and would always remain a Jew, though a Jew who, like the earliest Christians, had come to accept Jesus as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”

Hadley, who looks a bit like Groucho Marx and can be just as funny, occasionally wears dark, pin-striped suits that make him look he came straight out of Damon Runyon and “Guys and Dolls,” which happens to be a musical we both love. The last time I saw him, at Washington’s annual pro-life march, he reminisced about the scene involving Big Julie, an intimidating gambler who comes to New York to shoot craps, but insists on using his own dice. Nathan Detroit is suspicious, and notices that the dice have no spots. So Big Julie assures him, “I had the spots removed for luck. But I remember where the spots formerly were.” At a time when widespread moral relativism and skepticism have removed the cultural signposts and dots that can guide us as individuals and as a society to a morally upright, examined life, and when Church sexual scandals can obscure the Church’s witness to truth, Hadley remembers where the spots were--and where they point.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at University of Massachusetts School of Law Dartmouth (formerly Southern New England School of Law). He holds degrees in civil and canon law.