Yesterday morning, I attended the Red Mass here in Washington along with five Supreme Court justices and Vice President Joe Biden. Okay, we weren’t in the same pew – they were in the front rows; I wasn’t.
But all of us heard Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, an American who now works at the Vatican, give a homily that instructed those in attendance on how they should feel about same-sex marriage, abortion and the dire threat of “humanism.”
This was my third visit to the Red Mass, which for more than 50 years has been held just before the Supreme Court comes back into session in October. In the past, the Sunday service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle has provided a rich opportunity for the Catholic hierarchy to lobby the justices on controversial issues, and this year was no exception.
Di Noia, a Dominican theologian who now serves as secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has been outspoken about these issues before. In a December 2009 essay for the Adoremus Bulletin, for example, he blasted “the emergence of an ideology of evil” that “inspires certain political leaders and even some democratic parliaments to initiate projects that are contrary to the identity and mission of the family, and, what is worse, contrary to the dignity of human life itself.” (That’s church-speak for opposition to abortion rights, civil marriage for same-sex couples and other policies that transgress Catholic doctrine.)
Di Noia also has a warm relationship with the Religious Right. In 1994, he joined with Chuck Colson, Richard Land, Pat Robertson and others in signing “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” That document was intended to paper over long-standing theological differences between conservative Protestants and Catholics and pave the way for common cause on political projects undermining church-state separation, reproductive choice and gay rights and advancing voucher aid to religious schools and more religion in public schools.
That’s why it didn’t come as much of a surprise that Di Noia would use his opportunity at the Red Mass pulpit to nudge his powerful congregants toward the church’s official position on abortion, gay rights and the place of religion in establishing government policy. After all, he had an audience that included Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas.
“Positive law,” he said, “rests on certain principles the knowledge of which constitutes nothing less than participation in the divine law itself: the pursuit of the common good through respect for the natural law, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of innocent life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage, justice for the poor, protection of minors, and so on.
Later, he argued that “the democratic state does not so much confer the most fundamental human rights and the duties of citizenship as acknowledge their existence and source in a power beyond the state, namely in God himself.”
Di Noia claimed that democratic societies are in danger of adopting the view that “man can find happiness and freedom only apart from God.”
“This exclusive humanism,” he said, “has been exposed as an anti-humanism of the most radical kind. Man without God is not more free but surely in greater danger,” adding that “the eclipse of God leads not to greater human liberation but to the most dire human peril. That innocent human life is now so broadly under threat has seemed to many of us one of the many signs of this growing peril.”
When you cut through the theological fog, DiNoia’s bottom line is this: abortion should be banned, gay people should be denied marriage rights and governmental policy should be based on religiously grounded concepts.
The archbishop didn’t deliver his views that bluntly because it might have caused a stir – and a political backlash. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg stopped attending the Red Mass a few years ago when a prelate blasted away against abortion rights a little too vigorously.
The fact that the mass goes on almost every year just as the high court is coming back in session is no coincidence. It’s apparent that the Catholic hierarchy uses this event as a way to try to direct governmental policy within the context of a worship service.
The U.S. Constitution separates religion and government, and the courts have the responsibility of upholding that principle. The Red Mass certainly doesn’t bolster that constitutional concept. Let’s just hope that this Supreme Court term we have justices who do.