Archbishop Philip Hannan is one of the most lovable public figures of recent times, and his new book The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots: From Combat to Camelot to Katrina — A Memoir of an Extraordinary Life shows him to be one heck of a raconteur. The man has seen and done an amazing amount of things in his 97 — and counting — years. He was an Army chaplain in the European theater in World War II, a bishop at the Second Vatican Council, and — in his nineties — a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. In the dark days of late November 1963, at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, he delivered the eulogy at the funeral Mass of his friend John F. Kennedy.
He has also been stalwart in the struggle against abortion, and recounts a remarkable conversation he had with Chief Justice Warren Burger after a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Washington, D.C., at which the Pope had denounced abortion and birth control:
I walked over to Chief Justice Burger and said, “I know the Holy Father expressed some views that you don’t agree with. What, in general, did you think of his talk?”
Burger replied: “I do disagree with him about abortion. It’s something that’s so obviously a part of the Constitution.” I thought to myself, “What part of the Constitution are you talking about?”
I am especially interested in the word “obviously” deployed by the venerable Nixon appointee. It reminds me that we fallen human beings need God’s mercy not just for the bad choices we make, but for the things we do that we do not even think are choices: They are simply things we “have” to do: “obviously.” Or, as Ronald Reagan used to put it, the problem is often not what people don’t know, but what they know that just ain’t so. The content of these falsehoods may change from generation to generation, and demographically from subgroup to subgroup, but the phenomenon is a universal human one. In this particular case, Archbishop Hannan is clear: “Abortion is not health care. It’s a death sentence.” And that this death sentence is a protected constitutional right was not at all obvious before 1973 – indeed, “unthinkable” might be a more accurate word — and the number of Americans who question it has been growing in recent years.
Philip Hannan has interacted not just with presidents and popes, but with figures as diverse as Marina Oswald (Lee Harvey’s widow) and the man whose childhood experiences ended up being fictionalized by William Peter Blatty in The Exorcist. His book is a fascinating trip through an awful century.