Supreme Court Justices in Church? We Can’t Have That

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At the Bench Memos blog at National Review, Mathew Franck linked to a rather hysterical screed written by Marie Griffith. The object of Griffith’s scorn: the annual Red Mass that takes place at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC before the opening of the Supreme Court term. Griffith is not at all pleased that two-thirds of the Supreme Court attended the latest Red Mass a couple of weeks ago.

Last Sunday, September 30, witnessed one of the most vivid and, to many (emphasis mine), disturbing examples of this religion/politics paradox.

Right out of the gate we get some good old-fashioned intellectual dishonesty. Who are the “many” that are disturbed by this visual? I would wager that the overwhelming majority of people have no idea that this Mass even exists, and that a scant few who are aware of its existence are very bothered by it. Rather than taking ownership of an opinion and writing that she is offended by the Red Mass, Griffith assigns a feeling to a mythical many. It’s a passive aggressive trick employed when a writer either lacks the guts to openly state their feelings, or when they want to conjure up support for an opinion that is not wildly shared by actual open beings.

She continues:

In his address to the crowd, Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop for the U.S. military, called for people to become “instruments of a new evangelization” and stated, “The faith we hold in our hearts must motivate the decisions, the words, and the commitment of our everyday existence.” In these times, as Catholic leaders have increased their public speech on any number of political issues, from contraceptive coverage and abortion to gay marriage, these words are anything but impartial. This year, the subject of gay marriage will be particularly important as the Court considers the Defense of Marriage Act. Catholic bishops are currently spending money to fight same-sex marriage. Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been an outspoken critic of legalizing same-sex marriage, saying it’s not about gay rights, and concluding in a press release, “You don’t redefine marriage—a given—just to accommodate people’s lifestyle.”

She only quotes one line from the Archbishop’s homily and uses it to imply that it was an overtly political homily. If only that were the case (I would have enjoyed watching the liberal jurists reaction to the homily given at my local parish yesterday on the subject of gay marriage), but Franck notes that the homily was fairly benign. A sample:

[W]e gather as a community of faith to beg an abundance of blessings upon the women and men of our judiciary and the legal profession. It is a moment to pause and pray for those who serve our Country and foster justice for all. We know that a believing community engages in prayer for the needs of all, but especially for those who face arduous tasks.

Indeed “Justice is radically intolerant of injustice; justice seeks out injustice to destroy it. To emphasize security at the expense of eradicating injustice creates a fool’s paradise” The Romans put it more succinctly: “Justitia non novit patrem nec matrem; solum veritatem spectat justitia.” Justice knows neither father nor mother; justice looks to the truth alone.

For that reason we are here primarily to pray with you and for you as you execute the daunting task assigned to you at various levels. We beg a blessing for all of you and for all of those who assist you in this important ministry. We invoke the only Just One so that He might inspire all that you do. We recognize “that those who involve themselves with human law are doing God’s work. . . .”

Yes, how dare we expose Supreme Court Justices to such blunt religious truths. Truly our republic is threatened with these words.

Elena Kagan’s presence at Sunday’s Red Mass, her first appearance, may seem the most surprising. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a fellow Jewish member of the court who holds a similar stance on questions such as abortion, has been openly critical of the Red Mass, citing one sermon she heard there as “outrageously anti-abortion.” As she wrote later, “Even the Scalia’s—although they’re much of that persuasion—were embarrassed for me.”

Well, if Griffith is quoting Ginsburg completely accurately, I’m a little embarrassed that a Supreme Court Justice used an apostrophe to form a plural, but that’s beside the point. While I’m sure that there are some Catholics – they’re busy reading the National Catholic Reporter right now – share Ginsburg’s discomfort and wish that our Priests wouldn’t preach on such touchy subjects ever, let alone in front of such important dignitaries, it isn’t the responsibility of the clergy to water down their sermons in the interests of not offending anybody. Moreover, any sensible person attending a Catholic Mass should guess that the subject might come up. Justice Ginsburg made a choice to attend the Mass, as did Justice Kagan. In fact I take it as a sign of respect that Justice Kagan bothered to attend. I somehow doubt that she is suddenly going to do an about-face on the issue of abortion simply because she attended a Red Mass, though wouldn’t it be nice if she did.

In fact by highlighting Justice Ginsburg’s annoyance with the homily she heard, Griffith destroys her own argument. If her overwrought concern is that by attending the Red Mass the Justices will soak in that subversive Catholic theology and become foot soldiers for Christ, then obviously that hasn’t happened.

Perhaps one day we will learn what Justice Kagan thought of Broglio’s message of living one’s Christianity in every part of one’s life. “We are instruments in the hands of the Lord, and so we pray to be ever open to his presence.” As Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, noted, “There is one purpose to have this. It is to make clear … just what the church hierarchy feels about some of the very issues that are to come before the court.” Those issues, of course, are the very ones on which some in the Catholic hierarchy have vociferously advocated.

Again, any educated person already knows how the Catholic Church feels about these issues. Assuming that Justice Kagan has picked up a newspaper anytime over the past six months, she has been clued in to the Church’s positions. Does Griffith think that Kagan lived such a cloistered experience that she had no idea how what the Church taught, and it wasn’t until Archbishop Broglio offered some general words about living one’s Christianity that it suddenly clicked for her?

At Religion & Politics, we welcome all viewpoints, on the conviction that ‘tis better to air strong arguments openly and civilly than to foster likeminded cliques that echo and leave unchallenged one another’s biases. Challenge me, do, but I must register deep discomfort with the cozy government-church embrace represented by the Red Mass in Washington D.C. However well intentioned, the attendance of 2/3 of the U.S. Supreme Court at a holy service that explicitly promotes the Catholic faith sends a bewildering message to citizens who hold other religious beliefs, and those with no religion at all. Perhaps the real question to ask is why some Supreme Court justices who clearly disagree with current Catholic pronouncements on political matters that divide the court—or who disagree with any perceived religious interference whatsoever, despite their own beliefs—nonetheless, apparently, feel the need to attend the Red Mass. Why?

Well, I’ll give her credit that at least in this paragraph she makes it clear that she feels the discomfort rather than assigning it to “many” people. But Matthew Franck expresses why this discomfort is rather silly.

Viewed in the sunlight of American fellow-citizenship, rather than in the dim corners of strict separationism, there is no “bewildering message” at all.  Here’s a shocking thought.  Perhaps the justices are just really nice people.  You know, decent, civic-minded public servants, who appreciate that the leaders and laity of the Catholic community actually want to pray for them as they embark on the solemn business, on behalf of all Americans, of the administration of justice.  That is the point of the Red Mass, after all, though you’d never learn it from the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.

Griffith thought it important to make this point:

In case it needs noting—and these days, who knows—let me note that it is not anti-Catholic to ask these kinds of questions.

Oh of course not, and I would totally not even imply as much, though I must say that as I read her article I couldn’t help but think of this cartoon:

Griffith closes:

In other words, if any religious body—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or you-name-it—imposes upon political leaders some supposed necessity to attend its own worship service in order to be considered legitimate, beware.

I’m pretty sure the Archdiocese of Washington exerts absolutely zero pressure on any Supreme Court Justice to attend the Red Mass. Considering that three Justices did indeed skip the Mass, including, by logical deduction, at least one of the Court’s Roman Catholics, then this closing statement is even more preposterous.

But don’t you dare for a second think that there is any anti-Catholic bias at work.

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  1. “… I’m a little embarrassed that a Supreme Court Justice used an apostrophe to form a plural, but that’s beside the point…”

    LOL! It’s the editor in me, but that was the first thing I thought upon reading that quote.

  2. We invoke the only JUST one that He might inspire all that you do….

    So perfectly said, however the heights of the bench seem to tower over heaven in the case of a few Justices.

    Humility anyone?

  3. For the record, Justice Breyer, also Jewish, was in attendance. So, 4 Catholics and 2 Jews. There were 2 Catholics that were not there: Justices Alito and “Wise Latina”.

  4. It’s too bad these special people are “disturbed” by liberties that our forefathers won with so much blood, sweat, and tears.

    We need to ensure these special people can never act toward such paradoxes as did their heroes: Che, Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, . . .

  5. If the Klan of the 1920s (and their lawyer, Mr. Hugo Black) could only see the Supreme Court of today: 6 Catholics, 3 Jews, and nary a Protestant (and the only Southerner a black Catholic man).

  6. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more Southerners on the Supreme Court – starting with a certain bowtie-bedecked Catholic currently sitting on the Georgia Court of Appeals.

    (Imagine the field day the libs on the Judiciary Committee would have with “Stare decisis is fo suckas!”)


  7. In France, the equivalent of the “Red Mass” is held up and down the country on the feast of St Ives, the patron saint of lawyers (and abandoned children) on 19 May. Magistrates and advocates attend in their robes, as do members of the law faculties of universities.

    In Paris, it is held in the Sainte-Chapelle (arguably the most beautiful small building in the world) which is part of the courts complex (the Palais de Justice) and state property.

    Every year one hears some criticism, not to the fact of the mass (for laïcité guarantees freedom of worship) but to the wearing of official dress, which opponents argue gives it the appearance of a state occasion.

    By the by, there is a daily mass in the Sainte-Chapelle on weekday mornings at 8.30 am, for those working in the courts or having business there – even though the Sainte-Chapelle is only about 300 m from Notre Dame cathedral.

  8. Writers, without any known exception, are assumption peddlers; they assume, you read then ignore or make it your own–they could care less all the way to the bank. This humorous piece has but one answer; the justices who attended the Red Mass did so because they wanted to for their own personal reasons as big boys and girls often do and, oh yes, responding to God’s ever-present grace may have been a factor. I pray so.

  9. “… I’m a little embarrassed that a Supreme Court Justice used an apostrophe to form a plural, but that’s beside the point…”

    You’re incorrect. It is impossible for an apostrophe to form a plural. A Supreme Court justice may claim that it does, but it’s outside the nature of an apostrophe to do such a thing. An S performs its natural function when it is applied to a word without putting a barrier between it and a word. That’s how plurals are formed. Liberals may object to that, saying that people are free to form plurals any way they want to, but you can’t alter the nature of the plural without serious consequences. In fact, trying to perform a pluralization with an apostrophe turns the act into an artifical form of contraction.

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