Ethics & Public Policy Center

Mr. Leahy’s Limbo

Published in The Catholic Difference on October 15, 2003


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Readers born before 1955 or thereabouts will remember “limbo,” that post-mortem place of “natural happiness” where, according to one theological opinion, unbaptized infants would spend eternity. There hasn’t been much discussion of “limbo” in recent decades; the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1261) avoids the word. Which makes it all the more curious that the United States Senate has revived limbo with a special assist from four Catholics: Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Richard Durbin of Illinois.

One of America’s most thoughtful Catholic public servants now finds himself in what I call Leahy’s Limbo, in honor (so to speak) of the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bill Pryor has a distinguished record as Attorney General of Alabama, where responsible observers across the political spectrum have praised his fairness and probity. Nominated earlier this year for a seat on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Pryor’s nomination got through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a straight-line party vote, with Senator Leahy leading his Democratic colleagues in a solid phalanx of opposition. Senate Democrats now threaten a filibuster in order to prevent a straight up-or-down vote on Pryor in the full Senate – a vote Pryor would almost certainly win.

Thus Leahy’s Limbo: a state of “natural happiness” (i.e., you get past the Judiciary Committee, if by a single vote) that falls short of the fullness of beatitude (in this instance, life tenure on the federal appellate bench).

The knock on Bill Pryor is that he’s an “extremist” who’s “outside the mainstream.” Senators Leahy, Kennedy, Biden, and Durbin carefully refrain from giving a clear definition to this charge. It doesn’t take a political genius to figure out what’s going on, though. Bill Pryor thinks that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided – that the U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong, constitutionally, in creating an unlimited abortion license out of the thin air of a “privacy” right nowhere mentioned in the Constitution’s text. According to the Senate Democratic leadership and every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, that judgment renders one an extremist outside the mainstream.

Oh, really? The Attorney General of Alabama came to his conclusions on Roe v. Wade as an intelligent man and a well-read student of constitutional law. Pryor knows that elementary embryology and logic both teach us that the product of human conception is a human being, period. Thus from science, logic, and a close reading of the Constitution, Bill Pryor judges that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. That also happens to be the judgment of the Catholic Church, of which Pryor is a devout and committed member. Bill Pryor’s Catholic faith certainly informed his moral and legal judgment on Roe v. Wade. His faith didn’t dictate that judgment in an uninformed or mindless way.

Yet that’s what anyone listening to Senator Charles Schumer, grilling Pryor at a Judiciary Committee hearing this past summer, would have had to conclude. Schumer (D-NY) bluntly declared that Pryor’s “deeply held beliefs” would prevent him from being an impartial judge. Did any of Pryor’s fellow-Catholics – Leahy, Kennedy, Biden, or Durbin – challenge this brazen attempt to suggest that the Catholic Church’s position on abortion was irrational? No. Did Leahy, Kennedy, Biden, or Durbin even gently suggest that a de facto religious test for public office was being imposed on Bill Pryor – even though Pryor had made it perfectly clear that he had a coherent and publicly accessible rationale for his critique of Roe? No.

Senator Schumer evidently believes that only his deeply held beliefs (and the parallel beliefs of the judges of whom he approves) are permissible in public life; that’s bad enough. That no Catholic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee was willing or able to demand that this debate be put on a higher level, as a matter of constitutional decorum and public mental health, is worse. That these same Catholics tacitly acquiesce in the canard that the Church is trying to impose its sectarian moral judgments on the nation is perhaps the worst of all.

Leahy’s Limbo – the product of defective moral judgment married to political expedience – tells us more about those who created it than those who currently reside there.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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