August 5, 2005


Catholics and the battle for the Supreme Court

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, has observed a strange feature of the ideological battles that have taken place over recent judicial appointments. According to Brooks, “Confirmation battles have come to seem like occasions for bitterly divided Catholics to turn political battles into holy war Armageddons. Most of the main Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are Catholics who are liberal or moderate (Senators Edward Kennedy, Joseph Biden, Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy), and many of the most controversial justices or nominees are Catholics who are conservative (U.S. Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, federal judge William Pryor Jr.). When they face off, you get this brutal and elemental conflict over the role morality should play in public life.”

Whether or not we agree with Brooks’ analysis, there is something very disturbing about the image of Catholics in America waging “holy wars” over judicial appointments. There was a time—not so long ago—when Catholics were effectively excluded from the debates that took place at the highest levels of American public policy. Now that we clearly have a voice (or voices), we need to ask ourselves whether what we have to contribute to these arguments is true to who we are as Catholics and as Americans.

The good news is that Catholics care deeply about the role morality should play in public life—and are willing to fight about it. The bad news is that Catholics on both sides of the ideological divide tend to be confused about what the Church actually teaches on fundamental moral issues and how this relates to the role of public officials—particularly at the level of the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts has been asked whether his Catholicism presents a potential conflict between the imperatives of his religious faith and the requirements of civil law. Roberts responded that his personal views would not color his judicial thinking. Some news reports even suggested that Roberts might recuse himself from cases involving abortion, the death penalty or other subjects where Catholic teaching and civil law can clash.

We reject out-of-hand the notion that Catholic teaching on issues of morality and social justice are somehow incompatible with effective judicial thinking. We also reject the idea that a judge (or any government leader) can “personally” hold the teachings of the Catholic faith while “publicly” thinking or acting otherwise.

The challenge that any responsible person in public office (including Catholics) faces is how to reconcile what he or she truly believes with the demands that law and culture make on them as civic leaders. This inevitable conflict cannot be avoided by some arbitrary compartmentalization of personal and public views. It can only be reconciled through careful thinking, prayerful examination of conscience and the willingness to make painful, often unpopular, decisions.

We hope that, if he is confirmed, Roberts will use all his God-given gifts and talents (including the gift of his Catholic faith) to wrestle with all the vitally important issues facing the Supreme Court (including abortion and the death penalty) and to make decisions that are wise, faithful to our Constitution and clearly beneficial to the common good. We also hope that Roberts, and every other public official in the United States today, will recognize that a personal commitment to religious values is not an obstacle to public service. On the contrary, religious values can strengthen and enhance a public official’s dedication to the protection of life and the promotion of the common good.

Catholics who truly understand the teaching of our Church, and who strive to integrate these principles into their personal and public lives, have much to contribute to legislative proposals and judicial interpretations. We don’t need “holy wars” waged by extremists. We need principled thinking, sound moral judgment, and an authentic understanding of who we are as a nation governed by the rule of law and dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the finest and most authentically American ways.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the ­editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.) † 


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