Of Virginia said that Clarence Thomas...

GOV. DOUGLAS WILDER

July 17, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

GOV. DOUGLAS WILDER of Virginia said that Clarence Thomas' Catholicism raised the issue of "how much allegiance" he would owe "to the pope?"

Actually, Thomas is an Episcopalian. So the question is, "how much allegiance would he owe to Ralph Lauren?"

The Catholicism of Supreme Court justices has seldom been an issue. Of course, there haven't been many -- 8 of 105. Two of those sit today -- Antonin Scalia (appointed 1986) and Anthony Kennedy (1988). William Brennan, who retired in 1989, is also a Catholic. So in 1988 and 1989, 33 percent of the justices were Catholics. The nation is about 21 percent Catholic.

I say Thomas is an Episcopalian, but all I know is that he was raised Catholic and now attends an Episcopal church. This seems related to his divorce and second marriage.

The first Catholic Supreme Court justice was married to an Episcopalian. That was Roger B. Taney. He was appointed chief justice in 1836. He was married to Anne Key (Francis Scott Key's sister). They had an unusual pre-nuptial agreement. They decided that all sons would be raised as Catholics and all daughters would be raised as Episcopalians. They had six children who survived. All were girls.

Even if Thomas is an Episcopalian, that won't save him from some Catholics if he displeases them. The Orthodox Catholic Diocese of Louisiana recently ex-communicated Gov. Buddy Roemer, who is a Methodist.

There is something religious about the Supreme Court. Its building looks like a temple, the members wear robes and they often resort to Latin to make a point.

A black Catholic from Clarence Thomas' Georgia is unusual. Blacks are usually Baptists or Methodists and are usually suspicious of Catholics if not downright hostile to them. At least they used to be.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Georgia. John Kennedy called Coretta King to comfort her and promise his support. This led her father-in-law, Martin Luther King Sr., who had been a very public supporter of Richard Nixon to that point, to announce, "I'll vote for [Kennedy], even though I don't want a Catholic. But I'll take a Catholic or the Devil himself if he'll wipe the tears from my daughter-in-law's eyes. I've got a suitcase full of votes to give to Senator Kennedy."

It was the switch of a substantial number of black voters and Catholic voters from "Republican" in 1956 to "Democrat" in 1960 that elected the first (and last) Catholic president.

The "pope" issue plagued Kennedy in 1960. At a Bronx Democratic Party affair in April of that year, before he had won the nomination, Kennedy told this story:

"I sat next to Cardinal Spellman at dinner the other evening and asked him what I should say when voters question me about the doctrine of the pope's infallibility. 'I don't know, senator,' the cardinal told me. 'All I know is, he keeps calling me Spillman.' "

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