A Catholic Supreme Court?

catholic supreme courtSupreme Court nominee Samuel Alito will most likely be confirmed this week or the next by the Senate and for the first time in United States history, the nation’s highest court will have a majority of Catholics serving on the bench. The Economist, with its European perspective, unsurprisingly sees this event as more significant than do its American counterparts:

This is a remarkable historical turnaround. Arthur Schlesinger senior once remarked that prejudice against the Catholic church was “the deepest bias in the history of the American people”. The Protestant majority denounced Catholics as minions of the anti-Christ and servants of a foreign power, marginalised Catholic schools, demonised Catholic pastimes, particularly drinking, and tried to keep them out of high political offices. It is not so long since presidents observed an unwritten convention against having more than one papist on the court.

The turnaround is all the more surprising for two reasons — who was responsible and when it happened. The Catholic takeover of the court has been engineered by the Republicans — the erstwhile party of the Protestant hegemony. And the takeover has coincided with the worst scandal in the Catholic church’s history in America: a paedophilia crisis involving dozens of abusive priests and cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy.

So why have the Republicans been so keen to tap Catholics? The most obvious reason is political: the Catholic vote is up for grabs. Catholics were once a solid Democratic constituency, up there with blacks and Jews. They began to turn against the Democrats in the 1970s when the latter moved to the left on issues such as abortion. Ronald Reagan won the Catholic vote easily in 1984 (Catholics were the archetypal Reagan Democrats). But they are not reliable Republicans. Bill Clinton won a plurality of the Catholic vote in 1992 (41%) and a majority in 1996 (53%). Catholics voted for Al Gore in 2000 (50% to 47%) but then George Bush in 2004 (52% to 47%).

Americans like to forget their country’s darker histories — largely to their benefit, I believe — but in this case I believe it’s important to remember and appreciate the significance of this event. … OK, now let’s move on and figure out how this happened:

Above all, Catholics are becoming ever more mainstream. The Catholic electorate is probably not that different from the population as a whole, even on issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Millions of traditional Catholics manage to ignore the “crazy aunt of Catholic dogma” on matters such as birth control. The court’s Catholic majority is unlikely to vote as a block, even though they were all appointed by Republican presidents. Antonin Scalia (Reagan 1986) opposes the legalisation of sodomy, but Anthony Kennedy (Reagan 1988) supports it. As for following Rome, Mr Kennedy has upheld Roe and Mr Scalia has blasted the papal line on the death penalty. Clarence Thomas, who has returned to Rome since being appointed to the court, has generally stuck to the Scalia line on matters Catholic.

Mr Alito’s arrival on the court may be more of a swansong for Catholic America than the beginning of sustained popish hegemony. The America that produced so many Catholic intellectuals — the parallel America of Catholic schools and Catholic youth organisations — has dissolved as Catholics have moved out of their urban ghettos and into the anonymous suburbs. The Catholic faith is becoming ever less distinctive as conservative Catholics slide into the pews with conservative evangelicals, and liberal Catholics swap ideas with liberal Protestants. Three of Mr Alito’s most bitter critics in the Senate were fellow Catholics — Edward Kennedy, Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin. Which is surely a triumph for the American way.

This concept of the Pew Gap is of course not new, as we see here in a tmatt post on the thesis presented by James Davison Hunter. What is fascinating, and new to me, is the magazine’s prediction that the “popish hegemony” among American Catholics might be on the way out due to moving to the anonymous suburbs, among other reasons.

The final sentence in the article referencing the American way also grabbed me. Is America great because religious ideologies don’t divide us the way they have in Europe? And are we headed toward old European-style politics where religion matters in politics and government?

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  • Tom Breen

    The parallel article to this was published, I think, in First Things, where it argued that the appointment of Alito signals the intellectual domination of America by Catholicism.

    Personally, I’m inclined to accept the Economist’s understanding of this as further evidence that Catholics have become completely mainstream. Jimmy Breslin was writing about this 25 years ago, saying the old Irish Catholic urbanites had become “shopping center people” like the rest of America.

  • http://turtleislander.blogspot.com/ Paul Grant

    Americans forget dark histories to their benefit? For shame, Mr. Pulliam. One of the ongoing themes of Getreligion has been the ignorance – cultural, historical, religious and otherwise – of mainstream journalism.

    Memory is what makes us human, and makes faith possible in a historical God. Intentional forgetfulness in inhuman, and is more often than not committed by those with an interest in unfair absolution from the crimes of history. It’s only the perpetrator who benefits from forgetting dark history.


  • Maureen

    I’m Catholic. I also think Alito will be a good judge, and would even if he weren’t Catholic. (But then, I’m conservative.) Still, I think it would be unfortunate if denomination comes to matter so much. We don’t want some weird piechart determining if someone can be a judge or not. If an atheist could be scrupulously fair on matters of freedom of religion as well as other constitutional matters, I’d say that atheist might also make a good Supreme.

    Also, I hasten to remind folks that the infamous Judge Roger B. Taney was a Catholic (and Francis Scott Key’s son-in-law!). The Church is a church of sinners, but the sinners have to try to work on their sins, too.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin Jones

    “The parallel article to this was published, I think, in First Things, where it argued that the appointment of Alito signals the intellectual domination of America by Catholicism.”

    That was FT’s editor Jody Bottum writing in the Weekly Standard, not his own journal.

  • MJBubba

    It seems that the Catholic persons on the Court exhibit a typically American spread from liberal to conservative. At least three of the Catholic Justices seem out of step with the party line from the Vatican; perhaps this is why there is not much media concern regarding Catholicity. Personally, I am less concerned that there will be five Catholics than I am concerned that there will be seven graduates of Harvard. That seems too much like inbreeding to me, but this also appears to have gone unnoticed.

  • Alexander Scott

    I think Catholics are seen as a “safe” pick in culture battles – many liberals see Catholicism as an ethnicity and not a religion. This gives their views on cultural issues some cover that Protestants do not have. When Catholics oppose abortion, there is a certain element of acceptance because their church demands it (just as many liberals think blacks and women have a monolithic point of view). Those individuals still catch hell over their beliefs but it seems to originate from “guilt by association”; by contrast, I seem to recall that John Ashcroft was treated as if he manufactured his beliefs out of thin air for the sole purpose of hating others rather than as the natural consequence of his Christianity.