The loss of ‘a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer’

The loss of ‘a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer’

The right to life movement lost an irrepressible and irreplaceable voice on Jan. 7 with the death of Nat Hentoff, a man who described himself as “a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer.”

Hentoff died at the age of 91 in his Manhattan home, surrounded by his family and, fittingly, listening to Billie Holiday. He was most widely known as a jazz critic and free speech advocate, but on the subject of abortion his voice was as uncompromising and impassioned as an Old Testament prophet.

He was strongly influenced by the “consistent ethic of life” argument, articulated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, that viewed all life issues — abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment — as part of “seamless garment.”

“That had a profound effect on me. It’s not new,” Hentoff wrote in a 1986 essay. “But there was something about the way Bernardin put it that hit me very hard.”

Once Hentoff became a pro-lifer, others hit back hard. Some of his co-workers at the Village Voice, where he wrote a column for 50 years, stopped talking to him. He also stopped getting invitations to speak at fundraising dinners for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Then there was the issue of his “fiercely pro-choice” wife.

At times, Hentoff even had a difficult time with other pro-life advocates. In a 1986 essay, for example, he recalled speaking at a Right to Life convention in Columbus, Ohio, and arguing that abortion opponents ought to be against capital punishment, nuclear armament and aspects of the Reagan budget.

“I finally finished my speech to a chorus of howls,” he wrote. “Most of my disappointed listeners, once they caught their breath, charitably ascribed my failure to understand the total unrelatedness of nuclear arms and abortion to my not yet having found God.”

His memoir, “Boston Boy: Growing Up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions,” begins with his learning of his excommunication by a group of rabbis. In the book he also describes how, at the age of 12, he took pleasure in shocking his Jewish neighbors by eating a salami sandwich on his front porch on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and fasting.

In addition, he became aware of anti-Semitism while growing up in Boston, a fact of life he couldn’t avoid while getting beat up by local Catholic boys.

Yet among his many books is a 1988 biography of Cardinal John O’Connor, the former archbishop of New York. At the time, the cardinal was arguably the most influential Catholic churchman in the United States, known for his loyalty to Pope John Paul II and his unwavering defense of the unborn.

The cardinal was often the target of fierce criticism, both nationally and in liberal New York City, not just for his pro-life stance but also for his opposition to the ordination of women, his defense of church teaching on homosexuality, and his public debates with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro.

Hentoff — a New Yorker, a liberal and a non-Catholic — argued that the cardinal’s critics unfairly caricatured him and pointed out that the prelate was a defender of organized labor, an advocate for the poor and the homeless, and an opponent of racism and anti-Semitism.

Also in “John Cardinal O’Connor: At the Storm Center of the Changing American Church,” Hentoff documented the cardinal’s compassion with AIDS patients and the important role he played in the drafting the U.S. bishops’ pastoral on peace and nuclear arms.

“Yeah, I like him,” Hentoff told the New York Times in a 1988 interview. “Whatever disagreements I have with him, I guess what I like most about O’Connor is that he is a mensch.”

Hentoff didn’t believe in God, but he did believe that every person — including believers and the unborn — has inherent rights and deserves to be treated fairly. In this time of racial, political and religious tension, his voice will be missed.

Carl Peters is managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.

Categories: As I See It, Columns

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