Scalia and Catholic Morality

Justice Antonin Scalia gave a talk at Duquesne University Law School recently, a Catholic school, and made some rather odd claims.

“I hope this place will not yield, as some Catholic institutions have, to this politically correct insistence upon suppressing moral judgment, to this distorted view of what diversity in America means.” …

A devout Catholic who came from humble beginnings in New Jersey to graduate with honors from Georgetown University and Harvard Law School, Justice Scalia said faith and morals are vital complements to an educational environment.

“This has nothing to do with making students better lawyers, but everything to do with making them better men and women,” he said. “Moral formation is a respectable goal for any educational institution, even a law school.”

I certainly agree that moral formation is not only a respectable goal, it’s an absolutely necessary one for any university. Moral reasoning is one of the most important things one learns about in the process of becoming a decent and rational human being. But the Catholic church is pretty much the last institution that ought to be teaching anyone about morality under any circumstances.

Really? I’m supposed to learn how to treat my fellow human beings from the church that spent centuries declaring anti-Semitic pogroms in country after country? That supported slavery? That formed the various inquisitions? That continues to turn a blind eye to the child molesters in its ranks? Sorry, I’ll look elsewhere for my moral reasoning. And so will Scalia, by the way, but only when it comes to one of the few areas where the Catholic Church is actually right on a moral issue:

The justice’s appearance, however, was not without its controversy as nine people outside the Palumbo Center carried signs and handed out material opposed to the death penalty. The Rev. Gregory C. Swiderski, who organized the group, said he did not expect to influence Justice Scalia; he hoped to reach some of those who came to hear him.

But Justice Scalia said he did see them and told the audience that he was aware of their position. Still, he said, he found no contradiction between his religious views and his support of the death penalty.

“If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign,” he said. “I could not be a part of a system that imposes it.”

But the Catholic Church itself vehemently opposes the death penalty. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an entire campaign to abolish the death penalty in America. Perhaps Scalia missed it because of the ambiguous title: Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. In a 1999 visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II called on the US to end the death penalty:

“I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary,” he said. “Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”

Funny how he considers the church’s moral teaching so vitally important and necessary — unless he disagrees with it, then it suddenly disappears.

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  • “If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign,” he said. “I could not be a part of a system that imposes it.”

    oohhh. Well then put up or shup up. Time to step down Scalia.

  • Larry

    So, Scalia is yet another cafeteria xtian.

    Who’d a thunk it?

  • Paul Neubauer

    It wasn’t all that long ago that I had the impression that Scalia was considered the intellectual voice of the conservative right, or at least the conservative right wing of the Supreme Court. But the more I pay attention to what he says (and I certainly have to thank Ed for ensuring that what Scalia says regularly comes to my attention) the less I can see it. Scalia is famous (infamous? notorious?) for his insistence that intellectual and methodological rigor enable him to avoid focusing just on results, but he seems to ignore facts as readily as anyone.

  • chilidog99

    In other words, Gays have no rights.

  • ManOutOfTime

    The Church is probably the most consistently pro-life religious franchise:at least rhetorically against abortion, death penalty, contraception, and in vitro conception. So the Scalias and the Thomases take every second dish at the buffet – the ones that are consistent with those of right-wing Evangelicals. They are quite simply corporatist, Dominionist fascists. I am going to go out on a limb and say they are not truly devout. Crazy, I know!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “Moral formation is a respectable goal for any educational institution, even a law school.”


    The entirety of the Christian religion is based on an application of the death penalty. The (alleged) crucifixion of the baby Jesus freed men from their sins, how could that be immoral?

  • eric

    Scalia’s on different from any other religous extremist, convinced that he’s got the right interpretation of doctrine any everyone who disagrees with him has it wrong.

    This case is merely a little more amusing and frightening. Amusing because he’s a self-professed Catholic implying the Pope’s opinion on Catholic doctrine is wrong. Frightning because he’s a supreme.

  • gshelley

    I thought that those on the right believed that moral judgements should play no part on applying the law and everything should be done on a strictly legal/constitutional basis.

  • The “cafeteria Catholic” accusation is one that is constantly hurled at other Catholics by conservative Catholics. And to this day, I don’t think I’ve met a single conservative Catholic who isn’t a cafeteria Catholic, and a heartless bastard, as well. These moral Cretins sputter endlessly about the moral failings of everyone else, while identifying entirely with the authoritarian aspects of the Catholic Church. In fact, the tenor of most of their whining seems to be that the Catholic Church isn’t authoritarian enough for their tastes.

  • Didaktylos

    The Catholic Church may have called for an end to the death penalty – but I havent heard of them threatening to excommunicate prosecutors who seek it, judges who impose it or prison officers who operate it

  • Funny how he considers the church’s moral teaching so vitally important and necessary — unless he disagrees with it, then it suddenly disappears.

    What else would you expect from a man who says that the 14th Amendment doesn’t apply to women or gays because the people who wrote it didn’t contemplate that it would but says the 2nd Amendment applies to revolvers and automatic handguns and the like, even though the people writing that amendment never contemplated those either.

    Scalia’s “morality” is no less capricious as his “original intent” and, to him, both are synomonous with “what I want the law to be.”

  • emaa


    To be clear, opposing abortion — a safe and effective medical procedure that significantly reduces morbidity and mortality — is not a “pro-life” position.

  • chilidog99

    I bet Scalia’s a C&E Catholic as well.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Funny how he considers the church’s moral teaching so vitally important and necessary — unless he disagrees with it, then it suddenly disappears.

    Just like the US Constitution. At least he’s consistent.

  • mikeym

    “But the Catholic Church itself vehemently opposes the death penalty.”

    Only in the recent past. Consider Giordano Bruno.

  • D. C. Sessions

    mikeym, do you mean that Scalia is a Catholic Originalist?

  • Got to be careful when you read Scalia’s words. He placed authority in Catholic doctrine not Catholic Church.

    Yes, it can be argued that the church with a pope as its head determines the doctrine, at least sometimes, but that is expecting a Catholic to not treat Christianity as a buffet.

    Larry (#2) is spot on.

    Besides JP only said it was “cruel and unnecessary” not “immoral”.

    In Hudson v McMillian (1992) the SCOTUS by a 7-2 margin held that beatings of prisoners by prison guards constitute cruel and unusual punishment. A Louisiana prisoner has been beaten and suffered a cracked dental plate and a few loose teeth. Scalia and Thomas said that beatings by guards are not covered by the Eighth Amendment.

    Why would Scalia have a problem with the death penalty, when beating prisoners seems moral to him?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    If only Sally Kern had been there, to ask him if the Constitution includes a “right to sin”…

  • imthegenieicandoanything

    Scalia was chosen to do exactly what he does: make up reasons to protect the American Great White Way by whatever means necessary.

    He is to justice what Mr. Potter was to banking – a mean, sour wretch who takes his misery out on everyone happier than himself (everyone not a rich, powerful, pathetic White wretch, that is).

    No doubt when he dies, and there is no need to delay the matter, someone has the good sense to slip a wooden stake into his flinty little heart, just in case.

    And yet… he isn’t even the ugliest “Republican” Supreme Court Justice there! He’s vying for second place!

    America is a country all but doomed because of the evil and bitterness of walking turds like Scalia.

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