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Five Catholic Supreme Court Justices. Should We Be Scared?

May 2, 2007

On April 25, the New York Times published a brief web-only analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ban on so-called “partial birth abortion,” a term which, as Jessica Valenti has suggested here, doesn’t do such a great job of denoting the rare procedure to which it refers. The article/blog post, written by Robin Toner, sees the ruling through the lens of the religious identity of the five justices who decided in favor of upholding the ban: all five — Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas — are Roman Catholic.

“Anti-Catholicism is the last socially acceptable bigotry for Americans of a liberal persuasion.” — New York Times blog post, April 25, 2007

“Did their religion matter? Should it even be discussed?”, Toner asks as if finally giving voice to the vapid closed-answer questions on the tips of our tongues. (Is Toner serious? Can print, television, and online media stop simplifying complex subjects and baiting readers — readers who really are open to complexity, I swear they are — with disingenuous questions? Yes or no?) She then forges ahead with her discussion, one which, to my reading, cunningly suggests the five justices’ Catholic identity does indeed matter by way of pointing out all the ways in which it doesn’t, not really. Not in any provable way. Not as much as the five justices’ conservatism. No matter. Behold! Be scared. They’re Catholic.

Toner’s article and the lively comments it prompted remind me of an observation my mother, a former nun, voices now and then: Catholicism, she says, is the only religion it’s okay to bash these days. It’s the sort of thing Garry Wills might say. A number of the responses to Toner’s article contain similar assertions: alongside harsh criticisms of the Catholic Church and of the totally inappropriate role religion plays in U.S. lawmaking, legal interpretation and politics in general are the frustrated voices of readers who sound as tired as my mother is of protecting Catholicism from people who aren’t familiar with the religion and its range of expression; from people who, like the pope, are hell-bent on misinterpreting the religion’s tenets; from Catholics who want to impose their beliefs on everyone; and from detractors in general. Here are excerpts from a few of the postings:

    Posting #7: “Anti-Catholicism is the last socially acceptable bigotry for Americans of a liberal persuasion. Raising this ‘issue’ is like Fox News raising the ‘issue’ of Barack Obama’s middle name.”

    Posting #11: “On the question of whether the five Roman Catholic justices are motivated more by faith or conservative ideology, one need only look at their recent record on death penalty cases. Of the five Catholic justices, four voted recently to uphold death penalty sentences. The Catholic church doctrine is clear in its respect for all life and thus abhors the death penalty as it does abortion. Only Kennedy it would seam [sic] has chosen the consistent Catholic position, siding with the 4 non-Catholic justices overturning 3 dubious Texas capital sentences.”

    Posting #85:“I always thought that the claim that ‘anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the liberals’ was as silly as Belloc’s position on ‘auctoritate,’ in addition to being stupid for ignoring the racist component in modern anti-Semitism. But blogs like this one are giving me second thoughts. If a U.S. newspaper ran an article like this one claiming that there were ‘too many’ adherents of any other religion (or [...] ‘too many’ from a certain ethnic group, or race, or religion) on the Supreme Court, a great howl of protest about unAmerican bigotry would go up from the liberal end of the U.S. elite. Articles and blogs [...] themed as this [are] having a polarizing influence, when sensible and sober liberal and progressive policy seeks consensus.”

    Posting #99: “I don’t know if I’m more astounded by the anti-Catholic bigotry of the article, or by the bigotry of the responses… What’s next? Will the NYT publish articles that Wall Street is run by a nefarious ‘Jewish Cabal’? Or that Hollywood is in the grips of a ‘Gay Mafia’? Of course not. I am deeply disappointed in the NYT, but (sadly) not surprised.”

It’s easy to imagine a devout or even moderately observant follower of any religion feeling similarly exasperated by criticisms of their faith and its purported role in public life. I’ve heard cries of misrepresentation from followers of as many creeds as I’ve encountered and I often — alas, not always — see good reason for grievance (I’m not talking faith-based initiatives here). But I find the targeting of Catholicism particularly frustrating: partly because, thanks to an immensely open-minded and compassionate Catholic mother, I had what appears to be an uncommon early experience of the religion (I’ve got a conscience, but I’m pretty damn near guilt-free!) — the Church of intolerance and guilt and conservative values is unrecognizable to me as the Catholic Church; partly because I’m as appalled by the Catholic hierarchy’s responses to contemporary (and not so contemporary) issues — need I name any one of them? — as the next freedom-loving person is; and partly because for all the harm Catholics did as they colonized the New World (not to mention the harm the Church’s clergy and followers have inflicted in the five hundred years since), they have played tremendously important roles in social justice and civil rights causes. And partly because I’m not really a practicing Catholic; the two or three times per year I go to church I go either to think in the solemn context of the Catholic mass or to participate in a ritual I find comforting. I don’t go because I think the religion’s establishment has got it all right. It obviously has so many things wrong.

I suppose I’m frustrated mostly because I grew up around Catholics of the sort I probably wouldn’t know about if I hadn’t met them: priests and nuns who, for example, smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey and cursed and talked politics without infusing their talk with religious dogma — people who did not have the sick and horridly criminal desires of the Catholic priests or colluding bishops and cardinals who’ve made the headlines in recent years. People who I wish were more visible than monstrous and self-serving clergymen, conservative Supreme Court justices, and anti-everyone-but-themselves loonies.

I remember attending the June 12, 1982 nuclear disarmament march in New York City, singing “We Shall Overcome” alongside the nuns with whom my mother and I marched. I was just a kid, but I could tell these nuns were serious about peace. Hippies in their own way, socially-minded intellectuals in every way, and not the least bit interested in seeing their church join hands with their state.

Catholics for whom belief is a private — not public or political — matter exist everywhere. I’ve met far more of them than I have Catholics who can’t make the distinction between private belief and public policy. Those who don’t have the capacity to make the distinction are far more impaired by conservative ideology than they are by Catholicism. As one of the people who responded to the Toner article suggests, if it’s religious belief that motivates the five Catholic justices, where was that belief in Smith v. Texas, Brewer v. Quarterman, and Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman? On April 25, the same day Toner’s piece was published, the Court threw out death sentences in each of these three cases; four of the five Catholic justices voted to uphold the sentences. How un-Catholic of them.

What was it that Stephen Colbert said to Justice Antonin Scalia at the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner? Or was it something he did? Some kind of a, uh, greeting or gesture he sent Scalia’s way? Ah, Colbert. Now there’s a freakin’ Catholic.

— Suzanne Menghraj

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