The Blog

The Catholic Test, Part 2

Big media has been avoiding the new Democratic religion test, but the blogosphere has answered the bell.

12:00 AM, Aug 7, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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Tempting as Adler's position is, it misses the genuine problem with the Democrats' position: Their test falls inevitably on Catholics who are faithful to the Catechism, and that faithfulness can be inferred from other behaviors without a question ever being asked and answered. Truly, can it possibly escape the notice of Leahy's crowd that a nominee is a daily communicant? Does it really seem possible that the minority staff on the Judiciary Committee draws no conclusions from the religious practices revealed in FBI background reports? If a nominee to the appellate bench declares himself a faithful Catholic, trying to conform his or her life to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, isn't a filibuster inevitable?

This inevitable blackball is what I believe triggered Bishop Chaput's denunciation, as well as the elite media's avoidance of his denunciation. It is damned unpleasant to talk about such things, just as it was unpleasant to talk about who could and could not join certain clubs, and who could and could not eat in certain restaurants, and who could or could not attend certain universities. Bigotry is unpleasant stuff.

The Supreme Court declared in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) that "State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions, than it is to favor them," and that the federal government cannot force anyone "to profess a belief or a disbelief in any religion." Justice Robert Jackson, in striking down a compulsory salute to the flag, fairly thundered that "[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."

The Senate Democrats have discovered an exception: Opposition to abortion rooted in "deeply held religious beliefs" is their new orthodoxy, violation of which will trigger a filibuster. This is a striking development for the Democratic party, which as John McGreevy notes in his new book, "Catholicism and American Freedom," counted among its members a number of prominent anti-abortion Democrats as recently as the 1970s, including Edmund Muskie and Tip O'Neill. In the Democratic party of the early post-Roe years, a litmus test that excluded faithful Catholics from the federal bench would have been unthinkable. Perhaps Senate Democrats have dropped the pretense of welcoming devout Catholics into the federal appellate judiciary because, as McGreevy notes, "[p]racticing Catholics are increasingly likely to vote for Republicans in presidential elections."

Embarassed by the attention paid to their radical application of a new test act, some of the Democrats who are also Catholic have held out their own church identification as a defense to the charge of bigotry. This is, of course, not a defense at all; it is truly beside the point.

The central argument is that Senate Democrats are forcing the repudiation (or, at best, the silencing) of religious belief. Substitute the demand for a repudiation of "the belief of the immorality of abortion" with the demand for a repudiation of "the belief in transubstantiation" and you have the perfect analogy. Service in government is predicated in both instances upon an abandonment of a central religious teaching--a religious test, supposedly prohibited by Article VI.

There isn't a Catholic lawyer in the country who misses the implication of this showdown. If the Senate Democrats prevail, those lawyers had better drop either their overt Catholic practices or their ambitions to serve as a circuit judge. You can't have both under the Democrats' rule. Edmund Burke warned of the result of such obvious threats to belief: Men will "suborn their reason to declare in favor of their necessity," he concluded. "Man and his conscience will always be at war. If the first races have not been able to make a pacification between conscience and convenience, their decedents come generally to submit to the violence of the laws, without violence to their minds."

Senate Democrats would prefer that this suffocation of a robust Catholic bar opposed to abortion occur quietly, and the elite media is apparently in agreement on the non-necessity of attention to the issue. Archbishop Chaput disagrees. He sees the stakes clearly.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.