U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia defends Catholic believers

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  • September 28, 2011

TORONTO - Critics often wonder how a Harvard-educated man like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia can believe in God. Scalia answers that being a devout Catholic does not mean you forgo your intellect or reason.

“A faith that has no reason is not sound,” Scalia said to a packed room of more than 200 lawyers and judges as keynote speaker following the 87th annual Red Mass on Sept. 22 at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto.

“That is why I am not a Branch Davidian,” he joked, with chuckles from the audience. (The Branch Davidians are the infamous sect notorious for the 1993 siege in Waco, Texas, where more than 80 people died during a standoff with the FBI.)


The talk, organized by the St. Thomas More Lawyers' Guild of Toronto, began with a 5 p.m. Mass at St. Michael's Cathedral celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Collins.

Historically, the Red Mass is celebrated annually in the Catholic Church for judges, lawyers, law school professors, students and government officials. It originated in Europe during the Middle Ages and borrows its name from the red vestments traditionally worn to symbolize the tongues of fire that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost.

In his talk entitled "Note to the Wise: The Christian as Cretin,” Scalia noted the disdain and disbelief of the “worldly wise” who look down upon faithful Catholics as “simple-minded” and unsophisticated.

“To believe in traditional Christianity is something else,” Scalia explained, while standing beside a framed painting of St. Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers and judges.

Other core Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth, Jesus' divinity and His teachings on suffering are also regarded with skepticism in the “modern world.”

“Those who adhere to these traditional beliefs are regarded as simple-minded,” Scalia said.

On Christian martyrs and their undying belief in the Resurrection, he said, tongue-in-cheek, that critics thought it was "surely part of their clever plan to get themselves crucified."

The labels attributed to “fundamentalist Christians” can be “easily applied to traditional Catholics,” he added.

And what about those people who pray the rosary, kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, go on pilgrimages to Lourdes and Medjugorje “and (follow) indiscriminately, rather than in smorgasbord fashion, the teachings of the Pope,” he continued. “Surely, these people are simple-minded and easily led,” non-believers would argue.

Scalia said Thomas More's life is an example of courage. To his contemporaries and friends, the reason for More's death was “silly.”

“More went to his death to support the proposition that only the Pope could unbind Henry VIII's divorce,” he said.

Although the papacy at that time was corrupt, Scalia argued that More did not waver in his belief of the papal succession originating from Peter, the first pope. He was “seeing with the eyes of faith. He believed Peter was the rock of the Church.”

“As low as the papacy got, the Vicar of Christ alone, not the bishops of England have the power to unbind marriage,” he said.

Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1936 to Catholic parents who emigrated from Sicily. He married Maureen McCarthy when he attended Harvard and she was at nearby Radcliffe College. They have nine children. “Nino,” as he's known to friends and colleagues, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and was nominated as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 by then President Ronald Reagan. Although his outspoken style has ruffled feathers, opponents admire his tenaciousness and formidable intellect.

Scalia is the leading jurist most identified with a formal textualist and originalist jurisprudence, meaning that he argues that judges should be guided by their decision-making through the plain meaning and original understanding of the Constitution as opposed to a “living constitution” which can be reinterpreted to the times. For example, he has argued that there is no constitutional right to abortion in the United States, saying the matter requires a political decision by other popular branches of the government.

Michael Obsorne, president of St. Thomas More Lawyer's Guild of Toronto, called Scalia “a true defender of justice and the rule of law.”

The guild, he said, believes that there is no contradiction between being a faithful Catholic and being a good lawyer or judge.

Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said Scalia's talk complemented Collins' homily at the Red Mass, with both describing Thomas More as a “man of his age, sophisticated in the ways of the world and the court politics of the day.”

“But on the key issues, he chose not to abandon (his) core belief,” Horgan said.

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