Blogs > HNN > Catholic Judges on the Supreme Court

Nov 21, 2007 9:00 am

Catholic Judges on the Supreme Court

Black scholar Shelby Steele published a splendid article not long ago in the National Review on Justice Clarence Thomas. He called the jurist the freest black man in America, meaning that Thomas thinks for himself and is not the slave of any ideology, including the concoction of self-pity, hostility, and left-wing politics preached by generations of civil rights leaders. Thomas is a conservative on most things by choice, Steele points out, and he is unafraid to disagree sharply with anyone when he believes that his position on an issue is morally and intellectually correct. Justice Thomas will stand alone if necessary, defying Court colleagues on the Right as well as the Left.

This contrasts sharply with the fear, expressed by some leftists and others, that the Supreme Court lacks balance these days because five of the nine Justices, including Thomas, are Roman Catholics. In April, Robin Toner wrote on the New York Times website, “The five justices who turned the Supreme Court around last week and upheld the ban on ‘partial birth’ abortion had much in common. All are men. All were nominated by conservative Republican presidents. And, it was widely noted, all are Roman Catholics.” A law professor called the majority in the Carhart case “faith-based justices.” A blogger described the decision as “a chill wind blowing from Rome.”

Are these five Justices, for all of their legal expertise, really free to seek justice, as defined by the rule of law, the intent of Congress, and the wishes of the majority? Some fear that Catholics are truly unable to think and speak freely on such controversial matters as abortion because of the dogmatic declarations of their church. It will be recalled that John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected President, had to swear publicly that his faith would not influence his official conduct. (In fact, it didn’t influence his unofficial conduct either.)

In theory, critics have a point. For while there are many Catholics who simply ignore what the Church teaches, those who are faithful and orthodox are pledged to follow what the Magisterium declares in all areas of faith and morals. The Magisterium is the teaching body of the Church, consisting of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. On matters of faith and morals, its teachings are infallible. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 888-92.) The Catechism clearly defines right and wrong, supplementing its definitions with detailed documentation and careful reasoning. Catholics believe, or are supposed to believe, that there is objective truth concerning the most critical areas of human life, and that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church knows what it is. Few declarations clash more strongly with modern, multicultural, politically correct thinking.

Catholics, then, are free to think for themselves about politics, economics, war, business, scientific theories, historical interpretations, and so on. Intellectual independence is a virtue enjoyed by all Church members. But the line is drawn by the Church officially on faith and morals. Every four years, at their conclave, the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops issues some stern statement on fidelity to Church teaching, stressing opposition to abortion. The bishops recently met. Was anyone paying attention?

In fact, Catholic members of the United States Supreme Court, are free to think and speak for themselves on all issues. This freedom covers virtually all Catholic public officials. The Church hierarchy in this country, with a few exceptions, does very little or nothing to enforce conformity to Church teaching. It is highly conscious of public opinion about the separation of church and state and of their status as a minority in the United States. The simple desire to avoid controversy, especially in a period noted for clergy scandals and strained budgets, no doubt accounts for much of the inactivity. In addition, many conservatives suspect that bishops do not back up their words with action because they themselves do not support some positions taken by the Church.

So Catholics Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Patrick Leahy, Rudy Giuliani, and John Kerry are as free to defend abortion in public and private as anyone. So is California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Justice William Brennan, a Catholic, was a key supporter of the move to constitutionalize abortion.

How defiant are Americans toward the Vatican? Every major Catholic university in this country has thumbed its nose at a papal demand to conform to a series of religious standards, designed to go into effect in 1991. (See Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae.) There have been no repercussions.

The majority of Catholics in this country no doubt approve of this unstated and consistent policy. Catholics are very much a two-party church. (In 2004, about 63% of Catholics voted, or close to 32 million people. Exit polls indicated that 52% voted for Bush and 47% voted for Kerry.) And Americans of all religious faiths can be extraordinarily firm about their freedom to do as they please.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Michael Calder - 12/23/2007

Hunter Thompson wrote of his encounters with Judge Thomas before Clarence Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court. Starting at page 287 in "Kingdom of Fear", we get the real Clarence Thomas and it is a scream to read.
Michael Calder

Stephen Kislock - 11/27/2007

The Sun, Our Star, is a Better God, You can Live, without Religion or Faith, But, not so without the Sun!

Thomas R. Clark - 11/27/2007

Reeves is right that Catholic justices are free to think for themselves depsite church teachings. I suspect the same five-member majority that voted to uphold the ban on "partial bith abortion" would also vote to uphold the death penalty -- despite the Church's teachings on that subject. (Granted, the Church stance on that issue, according to the Catechism, is not as absolute about that issue as it is about abortion, but it has nonetheless expressed grave reservations.)

The otherwise quite conservative Pope Benedict recently condemned the war in Iraq as failing to meet any of the criteria of a "just war." Yet the five Catholic justices seem the most likely to uphold Bush's policies in executing what the Pope has deemed an "unjust war."

If the five Catholic justices are acting according to their faith, then they are doing so very selectively.

By the way, I write this not as a critic of Catholics or of the Church -- but as one who is currently going through the process of becoming a Catholic.

Stephen Kislock - 11/25/2007

Mr. Pingitore, B.F. is 75 miles west of Johnstown.

Fear, was the teaching method I remember. Catholic School and the Marine Corps, there was not much difference, in the way of Teaching between the to. Wrong, they Hit harder in the Marine Corps.

Peter F. Pingitore, Sr. - 11/25/2007

You have brought a warm smile to me, Mr. Kislock. I also remember climbing underneath the desk in the hope of surviving an Atomic blast. Little did we know, eh? I agree, religion is responsible for much evil. But much has been done that has not been in keeping with the original tenets of the Christian faith. I think it best to look there. Is Beaver Falls near Johnstown? I have relatives there.

Stephen Kislock - 11/25/2007

Mr. Pingitore, this name is familiar.

I was a slow learner and therefore, I was a Child left behind.

I Remember the End of the World, was coming, this was 1952 or so, "The first Black Family was Joining St. Mary's in Beaver Falls, PA. The world did not End, but I was very Confused.

Religion, it's the Power to Control!

Peter F. Pingitore, Sr. - 11/24/2007

I would like to hear more of your views. I also attended Catholic schools in the 50's. Where is the dichotomy between what you were taught and the presence of a Catholic on the Supreme Court? At a minimum, Sir, check your spelling and sentence structure.

Stephen Kislock - 11/24/2007

Jesus Christ, I would considered being an Athestist, Today.

Really read, what I was Taught, going to Catholic School in the 1950's and there is No relationship, between J.C. and catholics on the u.s. supreme court................

Jonathan Dresner - 11/21/2007

Mr. Reeves is being disingenuous to cite the technical and sociological aspects of Catholic free-thinking: the population in question was carefully selected precisely for their ability to rationalize their imposition of Catholic morality on Constitutional questions.

That there are "no repercussions" for defying the Vatican is all well and good -- though not entirely true for members of the Church -- the question is their willingness to do so.