Catholics on the Court

David Brooks writes in today's Times about his love for judicial nominee John Roberts.

In an aside, though, he makes a fascinating and, IMHO, very perceptive observation about the way in which some recent judicial nominee conflicts, especially a few of our more recent Supreme Court conflicts, were in some ways proxy fights for substantive intra-Catholic conflicts. He writes

Confirmation battles have come to seem of late like occasions for bitterly divided Catholics to turn political battles into holy war Armageddons. Most of the main Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are Catholics who are liberal or
moderate (Kennedy, Biden, Durbin, Leahy), and many of the most controversial judges or nominees are Catholics who are conservative (Scalia, Thomas, Pryor). When they face off, you get this brutal and elemental conflict over the role morality should play in public life.
Roberts is indeed a Catholic (if he's confirmed, there will be four on the court, three Protestants and two Jews), but he's not the sort to spark the sort of debate that leads to bitter Catholic vs. Catholic meshugas.

As someone unfortunate enough to often end up in the middle of said meshugas, this is a pretty plausible hypothesis. It also fits with the interesting fact that, in a large institution, when denied a forum to debate their issues within the structures of the church (or whatever institution happens to be involved), people will find somewhere else to hash out their disagreements. For Catholics, witness the Catholic v. Catholic blogosphere, as well as arcane arguments over the celebration of the liturgy in your local parish. As a member of the Paulist Center Catholic community in Boston, I also saw a lot of this sort of conflict at the ground level during the arguments over John Kerry's Catholicism during the last election. Now, I don't think that the lack of a working structural synodical system among American Catholics is likely to undermine the Republic anytime soon, but it is a fascinating phenomenon that while one hundred years ago, Catholics were regarding with suspicion in part because of their tendency to act as a unified bloc (possibly at the direction of a "foreign power"); today, we still have the same tendency towards unity, but are finding ourselves increasingly united in two distinct groups, with all of the suspicion and occasional bitterness to be expected among estranged relatives...

This isn't simply a political problem -- this is a theological problem. The Christian church's divisions stemming from Chalcedon, from 1054, and from the Reformation, already hinder our sacramental mission of showing the world the unity in love to which Christ calls us. The ecumenical movement has done much to begin healing those wounds, but we are failing in our Christian mission to the extent that our divisions hinder our mission "to be one, that the world might believe." We who are members of the Catholic church should be very nervous if our role in public life increasingly brings division to our nation and communities. I don't have any easy solutions; disregarding the questions of faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel in a relativizing way would be as irresponsible as not trying to heal the divisions at all. But when our internal divisions become so bitter that the first thing non-catholics see in the Catholic church is a bringer of "brutal and elemental conflict", we should be concerned about how faithful our witness to the love of God in Christ is.

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