Jim Oberstar: A Congressman Who Fought For the Common Good

Former Congressman Jim Oberstar died on Saturday morning. In the days since, many who had the pleasure of knowing or working with him reflected on his personal character and commitment to the protection of human life and social justice.

Tom Berg, the James L. Oberstar Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas, described the Congressman’s commitment to the common good:

Jim Oberstar believed in the capacity of government to increase people’s opportunities to realize their dreams. Raised on the Iron Range as a miner’s son, he knew the help that public works, labor unions, and other features of the New Deal had brought to average Americans. In strongly affirming government’s positive role, he strongly disagreed with many of his fellow legislators. But in these conflicts, he was one of those members, on both sides of the aisle, who viewed public policy as a serious matter—as a means to seek the common good, not simply partisan advantage.

In addition, Oberstar showed a strong commitment to authentic pro-life principles:

Last but certainly not least, Oberstar represented the pro-life position within the Democratic Party. He ran for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination for Senate in 1984 and was defeated in part because he would not adopt the pro-choice position that was becoming increasingly dominant within the party. In a 2005 address at the St. Thomas law school (available here), he cited Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s metaphor of the “seamless garment of life” and stated that “it is not sufficient to be opposed to abortion: we must also support pre- and post-natal care of mother and child; we must advocate for education, health care, jobs with a livable wage, housing and food for the needy; oppose the death penalty; and resist unjust war.” For Jim Oberstar, protecting the unborn was of one piece with protecting the vulnerable in other aspects of life: an essential component of the common good. We desperately need to strengthen that voice today, calling Democrats back to apply to the unborn their concern for “the least of these,” and calling all of us to an ethic of care supporting all those in need and reducing the situations that drive women to feel they need abortions.

Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, sums up the type of man and public servant Congressman Oberstar was:

Jim Oberstar epitomized what a Catholic should be in public life – patriotic, caring, pro-union, champion of the poor, protector of the environment, brave warrior for social justice, and a passionate advocate for a “seamless garment” prolife ethic. Jim’s many years of public service amply testify to his conviction that politics and government must be ordained to the common good, and that the measure of that common good should be the life and dignity of our sisters and brothers most in need. I shall miss his conviction, his integrity, his humility, his compassion, and his wisdom. May angels welcome him into paradise.