Intellectual Capital: Michael McGough / Counting Catholics
Roberts would give members of his church a plurality on the Supreme Court, but no one is making a big deal about it -- yet
Monday, July 25, 2005

WASHINGTON -- When The Washington Post on Wednesday published what journalists call a "bio box" about U.S. Circuit Judge John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, something was missing: Roberts' Catholicism.

Michael McGough is an editor at large in the PG's National Bureau (mmcgough@
The omission may reflect the Post's squeamishness about group identification -- yesterday the paper's ombudsman took the news side to task for deleting the race of the suspects from a police identification of four men being sought in connection with two murders. Or the Post may have taken its cue from its sources, the Justice Department and The Associated Press.

The AP probably relied on Roberts' official biography on a federal judicial Web site, which doesn't mention his religion.

Or -- and this is my preferred explanation -- the fact that Roberts' confirmation would give the nine-member court its fourth Roman Catholic was not considered a big deal, at least in the first news cycle after Bush's announcement. More interesting were his Republican credentials, his Harvard education and his supposed membership in the Federalist Society, an influential group of conservative lawyers and law students. (This proved to be an urban legend; Roberts may be a federalist but he's not Federalist.)

The media eventually caught up with the religion angle in featurish profiles of the nominee and opinion columns. Stories about Roberts' wife, who has advised an anti-abortion group, also mentioned the couple's Catholicism. Still, the initial reticence about the nominee's religion was remarkable -- at least for readers of a certain age.

When I was in Catholic elementary school in the 1950s, our teachers and our textbooks went out of their way to mention Catholics who were prominent in American history. (In Catholic history books, John Barry, not John Paul Jones, was the father of the American Navy.) My maternal grandmother was one of the millions of Catholics who said a Rosary or two after John F. Kennedy -- "one of our own" -- was elected president.

Even in the 1970s, when I started to work in newspapers, it was considered notable when a politician (or a judge) belonged to the Catholic minority, a fact easily ascertainable from the reference works of the era.

It was often mentioned that Justice William J. Brennan Jr. occupied the "Catholic" seat on the court, and that it was his religion that had attracted him to the president who appointed him, Dwight Eisenhower.

(Catholic justices were not a 20th-century phenomenon. Chief Justice Roger Taney, who gave us the 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding slavery, was Catholic. I don't recall Taney enshrined in Catholic history books.)

Catholics in America are no longer a marginalized minority, nor will they automatically vote for "one of our own." According to exit polls, 52 percent of Catholic voters in 2004 chose the Episcopalian-turned-Methodist George W. Bush over the Catholic John Kerry. Catholics are well represented at formerly WASP redoubts like the Ivy League, as is evident from the academic pedigrees of the Catholics on the high court. Like Roberts, Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy graduated from Harvard Law School. Justice Clarence Thomas is a Yale Law School graduate.

Bizarrely, the inclusion of Catholics in the American mainstream has coincided with a chorus of complaints from politically conservative Catholics that Catholic-bashing is still rife.

This largely mythical anti-Catholicism has figured in the debate over one of President Bush's controversial appeals court nominees, former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor.

Democrats were wary about Pryor's statement that Roe v. Wade was an abomination, and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York artlessly invoked the separation of church and state and said of Pryor that "his beliefs are so well known, so deeply held that it's very hard to believe -- very hard to believe -- that they're not going to deeply influence the way he comes about saying, 'I will follow the law.' "

This prompted Pryor's defenders to argue that Schumer and other Senate Democrats were declaring the federal judiciary off-limits to practicing Catholics who accepted their church's teaching on abortion. Never mind that two Catholic justices -- Brennan and Kennedy -- had supported abortion rights in their opinions.

This issue may also play a role in the debate over John Roberts.

Last week the Religion News Service reported that Catholic groups planned to "guard against any attempt to use religious faith to derail the nomination of Judge John Roberts, a devout Catholic, to the U.S. Supreme Court." Joe Cella, the president of a group called Fidelis, said: "A person's religious faith and how they live that faith as an individual has no bearing and no place in the confirmation hearing."

Well, yes, and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee would be foolish to interrogate Roberts about his personal beliefs about abortion and how they were shaped by his religion. But it is fair to ask any nominee how he would react if he saw a conflict between his religious duties and his public ones.

Actually, that question already has been asked of Roberts and answered.

At his confirmation hearings for his current position, Roberts told the Judiciary Committee that "Roe is binding precedent and, if I were confirmed as a circuit judge, I would be bound to follow it. Nothing in my personal views would prevent me from doing so."

The first part of that answer referred only to Roberts' role on the appeals court, but the second part is equally applicable to service on the Supreme Court. If, as a Catholic, Roberts felt that it was a violation of his religion to use his judicial power to support legal abortion, he could not have given that answer. It isn't anti-Catholic for senators to ask him to repeat that promise as a Supreme Court nominee, and make their own decision about whether they believe him.

First published on July 25, 2005 at 12:00 am