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The Catholic Test

Two hundred years after the Framers renounced them, Senate Democrats have reinvented the Test Act.

12:00 AM, Aug 5, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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THE ARCHBISHOP OF DENVER, Charles Chaput, has rebuked the Senate Democrats who have blocked the nomination of Alabama attorney general William Pryor in stark terms: "[A] new kind of religious discrimination is very welcome at the Capitol, even among elected officials who claim to be Catholic." Chaput's entire statement on the matter deserves to be read widely and quoted alongside every ringing denial of anti-Catholic bias issued by Patrick Leahy and other bigots caught in the act of denying federal judicial appointments to individuals professing belief in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The debate over Pryor in both the Senate and in the media has revealed a pathetic failure to understand the basics of Catholic theology, as Archbishop Chaput points out. The debate is also embarrassing for senators who, if not obliged to know what Catholics are and are not required to believe, ought at least to be familiar with the Religious Test Clause that appears at the conclusion of the Oath Clause in Article VI of the Constitution: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States."

This barrier to religious bigotry was erected because of England's unhappy experience with Test Acts. The most severe of the laws was passed following the restoration of Charles II to the English throne, and the monarch's gesture of religious reconciliation to the Catholics of Great Britain in his Declaration of Indulgence. Historian Norman Davies writes on what followed in "The Isles":

The English Parliament was so outraged by this step in favour of toleration that it refused to vote subsidies for the Dutch War until the Declaration was rescinded and replaced by the first of two ferocious Test Acts, institutionalizing religious intolerance. The first Test Act (1673) insisted that all civil and military officers of the crown take the oaths of supremacy, allegiance, and non resistance, and formally renounce the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. . . . Its provisions were later extended by the second Test Act (1678) to all members of both houses of Parliament. In this way, both domestic and foreign policy became infected by bigotry.

Note that Davies uses the word "bigotry" to describe the motivation of official action designed to punish expression of Catholic doctrine. In the 18th century, Catholics were obliged to renounce the doctrine of transubstantiation in order to serve in government. The emerging modern test employed by Senate Democrats obliges Catholics to renounce--or at least remain silent on--belief in the sanctity of the life of the unborn if they wish to serve in the judiciary.

The Test Act was, according to G.M. Trevelyan, regarded by the Church of England as "the very ark of the Covenant," and the repeal of the law was not accomplished until an extraordinary political crisis launched the reform of many British institutions in 1828. Throughout the years from 1673 to 1828, the Church of England was not, according to Trevelyan, "a persecuting body," but instead, "a body with exclusive political and educational privileges." Senate Democrats have now decided that the privilege of serving on the federal bench will be denied to openly pro-life Catholics, which is to say faithful Catholics.

The Framers of the United States Constitution agreed that this country would not be burdened by such bigotry against Catholics or any other unpopular religious group. Luther Martin wrote to the Maryland legislature this account of Article VI:

The part of the system which provides, that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States, was adopted by a great majority of the convention, and without much debate; however, there were some members so unfashionable as to think, that a belief in the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that, in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and down-right infidelity or paganism.

As the majority of Framers couldn't even conceive of a situation where atheists would be denied office on the basis of their non-belief, it is a very safe bet that they would be shocked at the exclusion of William Pryor from the 11th Circuit because he upholds the Catechism of the Catholic Church in his personal profession of faith even as he promises to follow Supreme Court instruction on the subject.