One Catholic too many?

November 16, 2005|By GEORGE MITROVICH

Is five Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court one Catholic too many?

Is five justices on the nation's highest court of any religious persuasion one too many - whether Jewish, Southern Baptist or Methodist?

While notice has been taken that Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., if confirmed, would become the court's fifth Roman Catholic, that fact is met with silence from the political left and right, but especially from America's Protestant communities ---mainline, evangelical and fundamentalist.


Because political correctness strikes fear in the hearts of those who might otherwise think that a healthy discussion about having a fifth Catholic on the court is one worthy of a democratic society. No one wishes to be accused of political incorrectness. No one wants to be thought narrow-minded. No one desires the grief of expressing an opinion likely to be attacked as intolerant.

Moreover, no one wants to revisit the days when it was fashionable to bash Catholics, or when employers discriminated against Catholics, or when some Christian fundamentalists claimed the pope was the anti-Christ. Those days of mindless and disgraceful bigotry are done, and their departure is bid good riddance.

But still, is five Catholics one Catholic too many?

Composed as it is of only nine justices, the Supreme Court cannot reflect the diversity of the American people - either ethnically or religiously. But shouldn't that alone require a greater balance than a Catholic majority of five on the court?

In the presidential campaign of 2004, some Catholic bishops ruled that Sen. John Kerry would not be permitted Communion in their churches. They decreed that since Mr. Kerry was in favor of abortion rights, he was unworthy of the sacraments. When they intoned at the Communion rail that this is the body and blood of Christ broken for you, they did not mean Mr. Kerry. They made a religious ruling that had significant political consequences, and it denied Mr. Kerry a rite Catholics holds sacred.

Thus while the Bush administration says a person's religious faith should not be an issue in determining a nominee for the Supreme Court - Harriet Meirs, James Dobson and America's Christian fundamentalists notwithstanding - Judge Alito's Catholicism has become one.

When John F. Kennedy successfully ran for president in 1960, many thought the "Catholic question" was effectively put to rest. Mr. Kennedy made clear during his campaign that once he took the presidential oath of office, all other interests would be secondary - including his religious faith. Despite the efforts of some leading Protestant clergy, including Norman Vincent Peale, to deny him the presidency because of his Catholic faith and supposed fidelity to Rome, a majority of Americans took Mr. Kennedy at his word.

But 1960 was a time dramatically different from today. The rights of women and the question of abortion were not at issue. Mr. Kennedy was never asked his position on abortion. No Catholic bishop or priest sought to deny him Communion.

But now we have a nominee for the nation's highest court who belongs to a church that says abortion is murder.

What Judge Alito believes about abortion, not just his legal view but also his moral view, is a question deserving of broad public inquiry. The public has a right to know how, as a member of the Supreme Court, Justice Alito would rule in a case affecting Roe v. Wade. Would the Catholic Church's position on abortion prevail? Since his church believes that abortion is murder, does he? Is he capable of separating his religious beliefs from his judicial philosophy? Moreover, should he?

The Constitution says there shall be no religious test for public office. But when a nominee for the Supreme Court is poised to join four of his Catholic brethren on becoming a majority of five, at a minimum we should have a public discussion as to the wisdom of that occurrence.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader who served for 10 years as a board member and president of the San Diego County Ecumenical Council. His e-mail is

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