Our Brothers On The Court
It is a peculiarity of the current moment in American politics that the Supreme Court has six Catholic and three Jewish justices when Catholics and Jews make up only 22% and 3% respectively of the US population. (Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, was the last remaining Protestant on the Court.)
In the comparative lull today before the Court releases its final decisions of this term tomorrow, and in the wake of a flurry of decision in recent days, I’ve found myself thinking of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Watching the the devastation that followed after the levees broke in New Orleans, and the ongoing collective failure by our government (my government!) to respond effectively, brought a mix of anger, shame, embarrassment and grief that, I think, was shared by many Americans.
Regardless of what the Court decides tomorrow about the Affordable Care Act, I expect that I—and some minority of American Catholics—will feel some of those same emotions (more muted because Court decisions are themselves more “muted” actions than the flooding of a city), just as I have with many of its recent decisions.
My grief comes from the all-but-certain knowledge that the justices who favor striking down this nation’s first attempt at something approaching universal health care will be the some of same justices who think life-without-parole is not “cruel and unusual punishment” for juveniles, or that Arizona should be able to create its own immigration laws, or unlimited corporate campaign spending is protected by the Constitution, or favor imposing unprecedented barriers to collective action by labor unions.* And from the knowledge that all of those justices (Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas) are our Catholic brothers (my Catholic brothers!) in faith.
My Catholic brothers may well be right in their interpretation of the Constitution. They may be right as a matter of law and legal philosophy. (They certainly know more about it than I do.) They may be right in how they apply our Catholic faith to their roles as civil justices. They may be better (far better!) Catholics than I.
But I was raised in the practice of the faith by people who taught, in word and deed, that to be Catholic was to be on the side of the prisoners, the immigrants, the workers, the poor. Partly (the larger part, at least intellectually) that was because those were the teaching of the Church—starting with the Law and the Prophets, most centrally with the Gospels and Jesus’ life and teachings, continuing with all manner of catechisms, conciliar documents, encyclicals and the examples of the saints.
Partly (the smaller part, but very powerful on a gut level) it was because those were our people. If we (mercifully) weren’t necessarily imprisoned, or new immigrants, or oppressed workers, or impoverished, our ancestors had been one or more of those—and we were not to shame them by forgetting where we came from.
So now I look at my brothers on the Supreme Court. They have risen to the highest positions that exist in this country for their chosen profession, their vocation. Some of them have risen from humble beginnings, overcoming every obstacle of racial, religious and ethnic prejudice that stood in their paths.
They embody, to some significant degree, great American stories and great Catholic stories—the kind of stories we tell to inspire ourselves and our children in the belief that anything is possible. And yet they keep making decisions (or issuing dissents) that sure look—from my poor vantage point—like betrayals of much of what I was taught growing up Catholic.
As I said, this isn’t an intellectual argument I’m making. It’s an emotional reaction—one that I recognize says more about me than it does about my brothers on the Court. Over the years I’ve learned (slowly, painfully) that on balance I do better when I acknowledge those emotions then when I don’t. In the current moment, I guess the best I can do and hope for, is that we all (me, you and our brothers on the Court) continue praying for each other.
*By the way, if you’re not already following SCOTUSblog for its great reporting, analysis and opinion writing on all things SCOTUS (Supreme Court Of The United States), I commend it to you.