Oct 05, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court is back in session today, which means Justice Sonia Sotomayor has taken her seat on the bench for the first time.

Yesterday morning was another first for the junior justice. She attended the Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle as a VIP guest.

Five other justices sat with her in front pews: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer. All these justices, besides Breyer (who is Jewish) are Roman Catholic. The court's sixth Catholic, Clarence Thomas, was absent because he was attending a wedding.

In addition, Vice President Joe Biden, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and dozens of others in the legal profession were in attendance.

This was the 56th year of the Red Mass in Washington. It's become a Catholic tradition in our nation's capital and has often been used as an opportunity for Catholic clerics to lobby the justices and other governmental officials on issues such as abortion, gay rights, tax aid to religious schools and stem-cell research.

This year was no exception. I was warned to pay particular attention to the homily delivered by Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston because he had been extremely vocal in criticizing the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Barack Obama to be its commencement speaker in the spring.

"Though I can understand the desire by a university to have the prestige of a commencement address by the President of the United States," DiNardo told the Texas Catholic Herald in March, "the fundamental moral issue of the inestimable worth of the human person from conception to natural death is a principle that soaks all our lives as Catholics, and all our efforts at formation, especially education at Catholic places of higher learning."

So it wasn't shocking to me that amidst the Cardinals' homily inundated with references to scripture, he snuck in a line about protecting the unborn during Sunday's mass.

"There are always smoldering wicks and bruised reeds needing our human attention," he said, specifically addressing the lawyers. "The many smoldering wicks are our 'clients' but more than clients. They are the poor and wealthy, confused and lucid, polite and impolite. In some cases the clients are voiceless for they lack influence; in others they are literally voiceless, not yet with tongues and even without names. They too require our most careful attention and radical support."

What was even more troubling than this blatant anti-abortion pitch to the justices was the cardinal's instruction that members of the legal profession should rely on a "divine fire from the Lord" in their professional lives, not just their personal ones.

"The Word of God has taken an initiative in speaking and the response is certainly to hear and understand," DiNardo said. "This contemplative dimension, however, also leads to obedience, an obedience of Faith. Graced in this manner, we respond in our personal lives of faith and witness and in our professional lives too, not only for the good of our souls but also for the sake of our professions that must show God's justice in the world."

The cardinal ended his message to the justices and other governmental officials, "May that voice of the Word of God touch our hearts and tongues in the judicial year that lies ahead."

Despite Cardinal DiNardo's claims, our justices should remember that their personal faith and beliefs should never dictate their judicial decisions.

For some justices, we know this may be a lost cause. But we have high hopes that Sotomayor will recognize that as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, she must heed the Constitution and not the Catholic Church or any other religious body.

We'll soon know if she agrees. The high court will hear this week its first church-state case, Salazar v. Buono. Stay tuned.