A Toast to Rich Doerflinger

by Yuval Levin

Richard Doerflinger, who served for more than 30 years as the chief pro-life strategist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, retired last week and set off for the west coast. 

He assures his many friends and admirers that he will remain involved in the abortion and bioethics debates from a distance—consulting on state and federal legislation. I have no doubt he will continue to make invaluable contributions in retirement to the defense of innocent human life. But those of us who were lucky enough to see Richard in action also know what a daunting challenge confronts the activists and strategists who will try to fill his shoes. 

For me, he has above all embodied the lesson—so crucial in this trying year—that firm commitment to principle makes it possible to be patient, civil, and discerning in the long-term pursuit of practical progress. Richard has always been a calm, quiet voice in the midst of heated debates. He achieved that neither by being quick to compromise nor by being inflexible but by being absolutely crystal clear about which questions involved matters of essential moral principle and which involved more tractable and negotiable matters of strategy and tactics. This unusual clarity has made him a gifted crafter of wise compromises and at the same time an implacable enemy of careless and imprudent ones. 

On numerous instances over the past decade and a half or so, I’ve witnessed Richard’s capacity to pull off a feat that often seems nearly impossible in Washington: to actually persuade people and change their minds about something. By the force of his quiet moral gravity and piercing intelligence, he could guide fellow activists toward a plausible way forward. His efforts to do that didn’t always work, of course, but Richard would take setbacks with the same calm equanimity as he took successes. The fight would go on, in both cases. 

Richard has always understood that building and sustaining coalitions requires an enormous amount of patience and good humor, born of the conviction that deeply shared commitments can overcome the shallow differences that always present themselves when human beings work together. But he has also shown us all the importance of keeping the ultimate purpose and goal in mind. He has devoted his life to the defense of the innocent, the weak, and the abandoned from the ravages of a society that has made itself callous to their humanity. It is no easy thing to retain your own humanity while engaged in such a struggle for so long. It’s only possible, I would think, when you are persuaded as Richard has always seemed to be that this world does not have the last word. 

It’s hard to think of anyone I have encountered who has done more to earn a happy retirement, or who better deserves to be proud of a career and reputation built on humane, devoted service to a noble cause. Godspeed to him in this next chapter. 

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