Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — such as the Hobby Lobby ruling, which affirmed a corporation’s religious objection to contraception — offered pundits an opportunity to pose some jarring questions.
“Should we have six Catholic justices on the Supreme Court?” Center for Inquiry President Ronald A. Lindsay wondered in a Huffington Post blog.
Meanwhile, a Freedom From Religion Foundation ad in the New York Times lamented the “Roman Catholic Majority” of the high court, which Frances Kissling of Catholics for Choice once dismissed as a “Catholic Boy’s Club.”
To some, this is a 21st century version of the anti-Catholicism that was prevalent 100 years ago.
“From the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, Catholics had to deal with the Ku Klux Klan,” said Catholic League president Bill Donohue. “Now they must deal with more sophisticated bigots.”
Is he right? Not quite, though the court’s critics would be wise to steer clear of religion and focus on good old-fashioned politics.
The first thing that must be pointed out is that six Catholics serving on the Supreme Court — Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas — should actually be celebrated. For decades, no Catholics were ever nominated to serve on the high court, and for much of the 20th century, just a single seat on the court was informally reserved for a Catholic.
Let’s take a moment and acknowledge this progress, before we get to the complicated stuff.
Defenders of the Supreme Court’s majority are quick to label its detractors anti-Catholic. But today’s rhetoric is tame compared with what you’d see during anti-Catholic high points of American history, for instance the 1840s or 1920s.
In 1921, future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black rose to political prominence in Alabama by defending Methodist minister E.R. Stephenson who murdered Catholic priest James Coyle. Coyle had officiated the marriage of Stephenson’s daughter to a Catholic. Stephenson was acquitted; Black later joined the anti-Catholic KKK before serving on the court from 1937 to 1971.
Either way, these days it seems the court’s guiding principles are more philosophical than religious. Though they are supposed to be above the political fray, the fact is the court’s conservative majority of five were all appointed by Republican presidents who seemed more interested in their right-leaning jurisprudence than in their church membership.
The court’s current critics should similarly focus more on politics. Liberals and moderates are not “sophisticated bigots” who are upset that there are so many Catholics on the court. They are upset because of the kinds of Catholics — conservative ones —serving on the court.
Even to the most secular of liberals, six Catholics on the Supreme Court would not be a problem, so long as they were six Catholics like Sotomayor.
The only viable solution for those who dislike the court’s conservative tilt is to make sure the next vacancy is filled by a Democratic president elected in 2016. (Four current justices are older than 75.)
As for the court’s supporters, they might be tempted to feel victorious, even smug right now. Not only do they win big cases, but they can claim to be victims of bigotry.
But those speaking out for aggrieved Catholics are defending a church that is, to say the least, divided.
The Vatican itself acknowledged this last month in a report based on parishioner surveys.
The “vast majority” of Catholic respondents feel that church leaders passing judgment “on the different methods of birth control ... (is) an intrusion in the intimate life of the couple.” The same might be said for a wide range of hot-button issues, from gay marriage to abortion.
In short, the Catholics on the Supreme Court and their defenders may be out of step with many Americans, but they are definitely out of step with many Catholics.
The truth is this: Americans are still fighting the same culture war that led to the infamous Scopes Monkey trial in 1925. We still have not figured out the proper role religion should play in everyday life.
Some things have changed. Devout Catholics and Protestants no longer view each other as enemies. (Again, that’s a good thing.) They are now allies against what they view as an aggressively secular elite that has America slouching toward godlessness.
But many Catholics and Protestants — not to mention non-Christians — believe their faiths are in need of some serious changes when it comes to contraception, sexuality, gender and a host of other issues. Reform is not bigotry.
But when the court’s critics make an issue out of all those Catholic justices, they do the same thing they claim the justices do: Pay far too much attention to religion.
(Tom Deignan, a regular contributor to The Star-Ledger, writes about Catholic issues for America Magazine, the Irish Voice newspaper and other publications.)
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