The Magazine

Alito and the Catholics

The decline of an institution and the rise of its ideas.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Work still needs to be done to explain the causes of the priests' crimes, together with the reasons for the American bishops' horrifyingly insufficient response. But, along the way, the political power of the Church itself came at last to its complete end. Perhaps the perceived influence of America's hierarchy had been, in fact, unreal for some time--a brief-lived leftover from the days when Catholic bishops really could direct their parishioners' votes. Still, the national prominence of, say, John Cardinal O'Connor before his death in 2000 seemed the natural order of things: Archbishops of New York have always occupied a powerful place in American affairs--or, at least, they always used to occupy a powerful place. O'Connor's successor, Edward Egan, appears mostly to wish he belonged to the Church Invisible, and he remains little known even to his fellow New Yorkers. With some exceptions (such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Francis Cardinal George of Chicago--neither, it is worth noting, implicated in the cover-up of the priest scandals), the vast majority of America's bishops have joined Cardinal Egan in full retreat from public engagement.

And that leaves--well, who is there now to speak for American Catholics? As their ethnic unity dissipated, Catholics have had considerably less need for someone to represent them, in the old, tribal sense of the word. But at the same time, the vacuum in public discourse allows Catholicism to act as a marker of intellectual depth about public philosophy--for good or for ill, depending on your view of the various issues on which it impinges, but always somehow a symbol of something that must be taken seriously.

So, President Bush, reeling from the rejection by conservatives of a nominee perceived as unserious, tossed aside all the diversity qualifications he had claimed for Harriet Miers and picked yet another Catholic for the Supreme Court. It doesn't always prove true, of course (as the existence of pro-abortion Catholic politicians demonstrates), but the American public seems to take serious Catholicism as an immediate sign of moral attention on intellectual topics like the law. Who now speaks for American Catholicism? A good example might be someone like Samuel A. Alito Jr.

NOT THAT ALITO is much of a spokesman for his coreligionists. He's never been a professional Catholic, one of those commentators who make their living off the fact of their faith. Nor has anyone claimed that his earlier jobs at the Justice Department and on the federal bench were obtained through some Catholic quota, the way the Supreme Court for decades had what used to be called the "Catholic seat." According to a report on Beliefnet.com, Alito sometimes attends Mass at St. Aloysius in Caldwell, New Jersey, a church very traditional in both its theology and its sacramental practice. But he's also a registered parishioner at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in neighboring Roseland, which is, by all accounts, a fairly typical liberal suburban church, and the parish where his wife teaches catechism to the local children. Nothing in Alito's record suggests a desire or even a willingness to stand as the token Catholic representative for much of anything.

Which, in its way, makes him even more representative. In 2004, during the second presidential debate, John Kerry boasted that he used to be an altar boy, as indeed he did. It was a naked appeal to the old style of the Catholic vote: the ethnic unity that for more than a century delivered the votes of blue-collar urban America to the Democrats. In the end, George Bush won a good majority of Catholic votes--as might have been predicted when Kerry went immediately from mentioning his boyhood Catholicism to explaining why he supported public funding for abortions. Fifty years earlier, Bush's appeal to shared ideas of Catholicism would have been trounced by Kerry's appeal to shared membership in the Catholic Church.

Of course, 50 years earlier, Kerry would have shared the ideas of Catholicism, too. The meeting of evangelicals and Catholics in the opened center of American public discourse was probably bound to produce somebody like President Bush, an evangelical who couched his second inaugural address almost entirely in the language of natural law. But what's particularly interesting is that this somebody is a Republican--for by all rights, it should have been a Democrat. For that matter, so should most of the Catholics that Republican presidents have put on the bench in recent years. Perhaps the privileged upbringing of the new chief justice, John Roberts, would have made him a Catholic Republican anyway (there were occasionally such rare beasts), but Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas would almost certainly be Democrats, if there were left any place for their kind of Catholic thought in the Democratic party.