Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Too Catholic for the Court?

Christopher Hitchens dares to suggest that we ought to consider a Supreme Court nominee's religious beliefs, and in particular if they are Catholic. Hitchens understands that this is a politically loaded proposition, given the nation's history of antipapism. But his argument is worth consideration:

It is already being insinuated, by those who want this thorny question de-thorned, that there is an element of discrimination involved. Why should this question be asked only of Catholics? Well, that's easy. The Roman Catholic Church claims the right to legislate on morals for all its members and to excommunicate them if they don't conform. The church is also a foreign state, which has diplomatic relations with Washington. In the very recent past, this church and this state gave asylum to Cardinal Bernard Law, who should have been indicted for his role in the systematic rape and torture of thousands of American children. (Not that child abuse is condemned in the Ten Commandments, any more than slavery or genocide or rape.) More recently still, the newly installed Pope Benedict XVI (who will always be Ratzinger to me) has ruled that Catholic politicians who endorse the right to abortion should be denied the sacraments: no light matter for believers of the sincerity that Judge Roberts and his wife are said to exhibit. And just last month, one of Ratzinger's closest allies, Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, wrote an essay in which he announced that evolution was "ideology, not science."

Of course, while Roman Catholicism is perhaps unique in having such a codified set of beliefs dictated by a rigid heirarchy, it is not the only faith that makes deep demands of its members. While there is no one to excommunicate say, an evangelical Protestant, an individual's own conscience may not be as easily defied as the pope or even the local bishop. Catholicism is at least a known quantity; some questions may still be open for debate, but not the biggies, not the issues that are cultural flashpoints in America, like abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. A denomination that allows room for individual interpretation may offer few external clues as to how its adherents will treat such thorny matters.

Hitchens does not suggest that religious devotion should disqualify one from the high court; but he does come damn close to saying that it has its fill of Catholics already. He's right to call on senators to question how a nominee whose religious beliefs are well known would reconcile their faith with their duty as constitutionally empowered officials. But to suggest that Catholics alone would find themselves conflicted by their beliefs is at best ignorance and at worst bigotry. Hell, even a lapsed Presbyterian like me knows that.


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