December 8, 2005
When Justice John Roberts was nominated for the Supreme Court, there was an immediate doubt cast over his nomination because of his faith. Newspapers began printing opinion pieces. Radio talk shows probed the pros and cons. TV anchorpersons reported what people were saying. The underlying question was always the same. Roberts is a practicing Catholic. Would his faith impede his duties as a judge? Would his faith dictate the decisions he would make on the bench?
No sooner did Samuel Alito receive his nomination than the same questions were raised with even greater force. Can a Catholic faithful to the Church be trusted? Many began to insist that it was not only fair but imperative to question Roberts and Alito about their Catholic faith. Nothing new in this. The late Justice William Brennan, Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy all faced the same issue. Would their Catholic faith interfere with their ability to uphold the Constitution and the laws of this country? Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, recently noted a fact that shouts out for explanation. When it comes to examining nominees, he observed, "the history of those Senate inquiries is that [Catholics] are the only people who have been asked [about their faith]" (Warren Richey, “Should senators ask Alito about the role of his faith?”
The Christian Science Monitor, November 04, 2005).
No one will argue against examining a would-be Supreme Court Judge on his judicial philosophy. No one would gainsay a questioning of his intellectual ability. But making his faith an issue is another matter. Are we dealing with a vestige of anti-Catholic prejudice? Or is there an even deeper issue at stake here? Beneath the surface of all the questions about a Justice’s Catholic faith is an attitude or idea that our age has inherited from the Enlightenment. And this idea or attitude deserves a hearing. It is the fundamental idea of the absolute supremacy of reason.
th and 17
th Europe witnessed many changes in all areas of human development - scientific, social, and political. This intellectual environment became the fertile soil for a new movement to be born. Individuals living primarily in Paris and London believed that human reason was the tool to build a better world. Reason could eliminate ignorance and superstition. It could dethrone all tyranny. Reason could insure the rights of the individuals over and against any authority outside themselves. Through reason, the sciences, both natural and human, could progress. By manipulating nature through advanced technology, the human person could control the world and bend it to his or her purpose. Through reason, people would be enlightened to live together in peace. Thus the 18
th century became the period of the Enlightenment. The only historical period that chose its own name.
Fundamental to the Enlightenment was our ability to reason on our own, uninhibited by the past. Included in that past was the Church. Since the Church offered her teaching with authority that went beyond reason -- an authority based on divine revelation -- then the Church’s teaching should be rejected. The philosophers of the Enlightenment pined for a world without the constraints of religious ideas and convictions. The dictates of reason, not the truths of a creed.
In some ways we remain children of the Enlightenment. Not without benefit. The strong emphasis of this historical period on using reason to examine the world in which we live has lead to some amazing scientific discoveries. The insistence on individualism has made us more conscious of the rights that belong to every human person. Yet, the characterization of Church as authoritarian and, therefore, outdated is not only a caricature of the truth, but an impediment to receiving the good the Church can offer the modern world.
Today the call for the total autonomy of the individual to fashion his or her own moral code finds its roots in the radical divorce of reason from faith and the consequent separation of Church from State. So many of society’s “enlightened” make every attempt to marginalize the Church’s teaching on human life. Is not the fear that a Catholic might accept and promote what the Church teaches on the essential matters of human life part of the issue that is being raised today? Is not the fear that abortion will be declared illegal and euthanasia not declared legal behind some of the questions about the influence of an individual’s Catholic faith on public morality? In fact, the Catholic understanding of human life is not only to be marginalized, but must be treated in the political and judicial realm as a bridle on human freedom and therefore totally unreasonable. But here is where the enlightened show themselves totally unenlightened.
Certainly the Church’s teaching is supported and upheld, affirmed and deepened by divine revelation. But her teaching on the respect for human life and the dignity of every human person from the moment of conception to natural death is a teaching that is based on reason. “Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf.
Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree” (
Evangelium Vitae, 2). Not to recognize this right, the very basic right upon which every human community, every political entity, rests is an abdication of reason itself and the most unenlightened of all attitudes polluting the political discussions of our nation.