Pro-Life Leader Hadley Arkes becomes Catholic

By Christine M. Williams

Anchor Correspondent


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Catholic Church’s voice for the littlest among us got even stronger last month. 

Hadley Arkes, professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, and one of the foremost Pro-Life legal scholars in the country, received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion at the chapel of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. on April 24. 

Born and raised a Jew, Arkes said he views his newly-embraced Catholic faith as a fulfillment of his Jewish faith. Rather than a departure, he sees it as accepting Christ as Messiah.

More than a decade ago, Arkes realized that there was something special about the Catholic Church as a “truth-telling institution.” When the Church stood against the currents of opinion in the world, he was inclined to believe the Church was right, he told The Anchor

Before he embraced the Church’s faith, he had embraced the Church’s respect for human reason. In an article about his conversion for The Catholic Thing, an online periodical, he described his appreciation for the Church’s tradition of defending and promoting the natural law, with regard to the Pro-Life issue and in general. “The natural law we know through that reason that is natural for human beings. The Church’s moral position here did not depend on faith or belief. One didn’t have to be Catholic to understand it. And that was precisely the teaching of the Church.”

He told The Anchor, “I found myself explaining the Catholic position to Catholics.”

Robert George, the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, wrote about his friend Arkes’ conversion on Mirror of Justice, a blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory. He noted that, although the Catholic Church’s moral witness on the sanctity of human life, marriage and sex has made the Church a “sign of contradiction” to many of the most powerful in contemporary Western culture, that same witness drew Arkes to the faith. Despite the failings of many of its members and leaders, especially in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, Arkes recognized that the Church is indeed “a truth-telling institution,” he said.

“In teachings that many find to be impediments, Hadley found decisive evidence that the Church is, indeed, what she claims to be,” George wrote. 

Friends have said that Arkes has remarked that it is not a surprise that a faith that believes God himself comes under the appearance of unleavened bread is sensitive to the dignity of human life in even its tiniest form.

Joe Reilly, a former executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, told The Anchor that Arkes is a “deep thinker” and one of the most brilliant men he has come across in his work to defend life. He says he has long helped the whole Pro-Life movement think more deeply about the legal and philosophical principles at play. 

Former students of Arkes have thanked him for leading them to the truth found in natural law and, well before Arkes became a Catholic, for helping them to become better Catholics. 

One former student, Ned Desmond, who grew up on Cape Cod and graduated from Amherst in 1980, said that Arkes’ course on political obligations was “very clever” and “really steadied my hand and my mind as far as what I believed and what I thought was right,” he told The Anchor.

Arkes taught that abortion can never be justified, and Desmond said he was struck by the “deep saneness” of natural law theory. He later made the connection between the theory and Catholic teaching, which brought him closer to the faith. 

“He helped so many Catholic students get their bearing at Amherst,” said Desmond, who now lives in Maryland where he is the president of Go Sportn, Inc, and a former executive at Time magazine. 

Many leading Pro-Lifers give Arkes credit for some of the biggest recent achievements of the Pro-Life movement. Arkes helped write the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002 and calls the legislation proof that “you don’t have to wait for the court to do everything.” He regularly contributes to journals and has written several books. He is currently working on a new book while on leave from Amherst, where he has taught since 1966.

Although he accepted the teachings of the Church, Arkes waited to convert. Concerns about how family members would take the news held him from taking the leap right away. He did not want to hurt his family nor seem to disrespect the Jewish faith.

He found that many Catholics respected Jewish tradition. They, like him, believed Abraham made a covenant with God. He saw the connection between the manna in the desert and the Eucharist. “You can read the Old Testament without the New, but you can’t really read the New Testament without the Old. Everything is predicated on the Old,” he told The Anchor.

Last year in October, after the Red Mass for members of the legal profession in Washington, Arkes and his wife Judy were approached by Father Arne Panula, the director at the Catholic Information Center where Arkes would be baptized. Father Panula provocatively asked him what was preventing the most famous non-Catholic at the Red Mass from coming into the Church. Arkes responded in the tradition of “The Wizard of Oz’s” Cowardly Lion, “c-c-c-courage.” In a homily one month later at a Mass at which Arkes was present, Father Panula said what the first reading and the Gospel of the Mass showed was the need for “c-c-c courage.” For Arkes, that illustration and inside joke “was the hook that finally worked.”

In a letter to friends after the baptism, Arkes wrote to thank them for their continued support.

“Judy and I are still dealing with the after-glow. It lingers, magically, and we aren’t inclined to snuff it out right away and get on with other things,” he said. “We can’t thank you all enough.”

Arkes and his wife, Judy, met in high school and have been married 48 years. Judy is Jewish, and Arkes said he could not have joined the Church without her support.

In a second Mirror of Justice blog entry, David Forte of Cleveland State University School of Law and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that Arkes was like Jesus in ministering to those who reason. Arkes, he said, “has never entered a debate to debate, much less to ‘win.’ Rather, he prepares for contests by seeking to understand, and he enters the lists seeking to persuade.”

“For all of his adult life, Hadley Arkes has followed in the steps of the Master.  He now walks along side of him,” he added.

© 2014 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing, Fall River, Mass.