Bench Memos

Needless Fear and Trembling Over the Red Mass

At Washington University in St. Louis, one can find the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics–a fitting conjunction of subjects to be considered by a center named for the former senator from Missouri who is also an Episcopal priest.  That’s why it’s disappointing to see a foolishly handwringing post at the Center’s “online news journal” Religion & Politics, by director Marie Griffith (h/t RealClearReligion).  Titled “When Church and State Collide: The Supreme Court Goes to Mass,” Griffith’s post is devoted to criticizing the now six-decade tradition of having a “Red Mass” in Washington just before the beginning of the Supreme Court’s October term each year.

Griffith notes that “Catholic leaders have increased their public speech on any number of political issues, from contraceptive coverage and abortion to gay marriage,” and that “the Catholic bishops are currently spending money to fight same-sex marriage.”  Yes, and the bishops are perfectly within their rights–they would say they are responding to the call of duty and necessity–to bear witness to the moral teachings of their faith. 

It’s difficult to know what Griffith finds objectionable about the Red Mass.  Is it that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy has staked out a visible position in great moral and political controversies?  Is it that many of the justices (including non-Catholics like Justices Kagan and Breyer, pictured on the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral) attend the Mass?

Griffith writes:

Challenge me, do, but I must register deep discomfort with the cozy government-church embrace represented by the Red Mass in Washington D.C. However well intentioned, the attendance of 2/3 of the U.S. Supreme Court at a holy service that explicitly promotes the Catholic faith sends a bewildering message to citizens who hold other religious beliefs, and those with no religion at all. Perhaps the real question to ask is why some Supreme Court justices who clearly disagree with current Catholic pronouncements on political matters that divide the court—or who disagree with any perceived religious interference whatsoever, despite their own beliefs—nonetheless, apparently, feel the need to attend the Red Mass. Why?

Viewed in the sunlight of American fellow-citizenship, rather than in the dim corners of strict separationism, there is no “bewildering message” at all.  Here’s a shocking thought.  Perhaps the justices are just really nice people.  You know, decent, civic-minded public servants, who appreciate that the leaders and laity of the Catholic community actually want to pray for them as they embark on the solemn business, on behalf of all Americans, of the administration of justice.  That is the point of the Red Mass, after all, though you’d never learn it from the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.  Instead, she approvingly quotes the professional pestiferator Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: “There is one purpose to have this. It is to make clear … just what the church hierarchy feels about some of the very issues that are to come before the court.”

There is no Supreme Court justice inhabiting a cocoon in which he or she is unaware of “what the church hierarchy feels” about important moral and political issues that sometimes come before the Court.  Lynn’s characterization of the Red Mass is the exact opposite of the truth.  Here is a bit of the homily given at this year’s Mass by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who is archbishop for all the military services (his priests are the Catholic chaplains in the armed forces) and thus knows a bit about the intersection where faith and public service meet:

[W]e gather as a community of faith to beg an abundance of blessings upon the women and men of our judiciary and the legal profession. It is a moment to pause and pray for those who serve our Country and foster justice for all. We know that a believing community engages in prayer for the needs of all, but especially for those who face arduous tasks.

Indeed “Justice is radically intolerant of injustice; justice seeks out injustice to destroy it. To emphasize security at the expense of eradicating injustice creates a fool’s paradise” The Romans put it more succinctly: “Justitia non novit patrem nec matrem; solum veritatem spectat justitia.” Justice knows neither father nor mother; justice looks to the truth alone.

For that reason we are here primarily to pray with you and for you as you execute the daunting task assigned to you at various levels. We beg a blessing for all of you and for all of those who assist you in this important ministry. We invoke the only Just One so that He might inspire all that you do. We recognize “that those who involve themselves with human law are doing God’s work. . . .”

This was the 60th annual Red Mass in Washington.  As in past years, some of the justices (and other public officials and members of the bar) attended, and others did not.  All comers were welcome, Catholic or not.  No politicking of any kind occurred, and Griffith’s concern about Archbishop Broglio’s homily (which she calls his “address to the crowd,” as though she’d never been to a Catholic Mass before) is entirely misplaced.

For someone who directs a university center on religion and politics, named for one of the most unashamedly and openly devout public servants of recent times, Ms. Griffith is dismayingly squeamish about the interaction of faith and public life.  Since she sees fit only to mention the culture-war obsessions of the Charlotte Democrats, it is hard not to suspect her attitude is ideological in its origins.

Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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