Another Perspective

Reading the Mind of John Roberts

What did he mean when he told Arlen Specter he agreed with JFK that the Catholic Church doesn't speak for him?

By 9.14.05

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Rob Vischer at Mirror of Justice uses a remark by Supreme Court nominee and practicing Catholic John Roberts to pose a not-entirely-rhetorical question. The remark that made Vischer's antenna vibrate came in response to this September 13 query from Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania:

"When you talk about your personal views and, as they may relate to your own faith, would you say that your views are the same as those expressed by John Kennedy when he was a candidate, when he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960, quote, I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me, close quote?"

The transcript of the hearings records Mr. Roberts' answer to that question as "I agree with that, Senator. Yes."

So, asks Mr. Vischer: "When the Church speaks on public matters, for whom is it speaking? I understand that the Church does not impose, but simply proposes; however, it still must be proposing views that are deemed claims of truth from someone's perspective. So on public matters, is the Church's perspective somehow separable from the laity's perspective, or at least potentially separable -- i.e., can and should faithful Catholics discern for themselves whether they will embrace the Church's stated perspective? Or is Roberts implicitly defining the category of 'public matters' to involve issues where prudential judgment is key, and where the Church may not have more expertise than the laity? Or does the Church speak for the laity in their roles as citizens, but not when they take on public roles like President (JFK) or judge (Roberts)? What exactly does it mean for Roberts to say that the Church does not speak for him?"

I'm glad Mr. Vischer is paying close attention, but I'm not sure the kabuki dance of a confirmation hearing warrants that kind of attention.

LET'S NOT FORGET THAT Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter is the gadfly who invoked Scottish law while debating whether to impeach former President Clinton. By way of introducing a question about precedent (stare decisis) for Mr. Roberts, Specter let rip with "When you and I met on our first so-called courtesy call..." His party affiliation is incidental to his ego, and I say that not in ad hominem attack, but because Specter's track record casts doubt on his sincerity.

Note how far the JFK question strays from a traditional understanding of what "advise and consent" means in our republic. Specter cares not a whit about whether Roberts is qualified, which is the one thing the Senate should care about.

Instead he, like most of the grifters and bounders who've turned the Judiciary Committee into a bastion of pious know-nothingism, wants to know whether Roberts might consider taking a Catholic position while pondering court cases that touch on, for example, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, and abortion.

The obvious subtext here is that any justice of the Supreme Court who agrees with Catholic moral teaching must ipso facto phrase such agreement delicately indeed, unless he or she has cultivated a Scalia-like indifference to those who cast aspersions on judicial integrity when it fails to redress their own grievances.

As to what exactly Roberts means by saying that the Church doesn't speak for him, only he can say.

Catholicism makes room for "prudential judgment," as Vischer notes, and good thing, too. That kind of discernment applies to areas where the church has said nothing. You can't settle arguments over the designated hitter rule or the likelihood of Darwinian "descent with modification" by pulling out a copy of the catechism.

Prudential judgment may also be invoked at those times when theologically informed partisans argue about whether it's a sin to build a nuclear weapon, or when economists of the Sowellian bent can drive figurative trucks through the ignorance of pastoral letters on subjects like the "living wage."

But Alice herself can't skip blithely down that rabbit hole when bishops are on their home turf, championing what John Paul II famously called "the culture of life," not least because prudential judgment requires a "well-formed conscience" which in turn must be cognizant of unbroken teaching rooted in 2,000-year-old mission statements like "I came that you may have life, and have it more abundantly" as recorded in John 10:10.

Per the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life": "...those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a 'grave and clear obligation to oppose' any law that attacks human life."

This obligation weighs more heavily on legislators than on judges, but it is not something that any practicing Catholic in public life can shirk.

BACK, THEN, TO VISCHER'S questions. On the evidence of the intelligence he has shown so far and the fact that everyone watching the proceedings knew Specter would bloviate until his time ran out, it's safe to assume that John Roberts meant nothing revolutionary in agreeing with Kennedy's timeworn assertion. His answer is either a delineation of roles or a simple failure of nerve. In other words, said the nominee, "I'm Catholic, but I'm a judge, not a spokesperson for the Catholic Church. You want Fulton Sheen, you're a little late. You want Benedict XVI, you know where to find him. Meanwhile, here's the soundbite you all knew was coming. It's a crying shame you guys are still asking questions you asked forty-five years ago."

Anyone so inclined could also read Roberts' answer as a tacit admission of Christian failure. If you accept the twin Catholic propositions that we live in a fallen world and that the church speaks not simply for Christians but also for Christ, then any divergence between what the church says and what individual Christians say, while not necessarily regrettable, is at least cause for pause. Individual Christians (never mind Americans) can't presume to have the benefit of doubt if we've ignored the voice from the clouds saying "This is my Son, on whom my favor rests. Listen to him."

It's safe to say that Roberts did not have such theology in mind, not because he's incapable of humility or lofty thought, but because a Senate committee hearing run by the likes of Joe Biden, Arlen Specter, Ted Kennedy, Pat Leahy, and Dianne Feinstein is more properly cause for meditation on verses like "By their fruits you shall know them," "I send you forth as sheep among wolves," and (too late for Roberts on this one) "shake the dust of that town from your feet."

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.