The Catholic University of America
Feb 29 2012

Invitation for Discussion

Posted by Stephen Schneck at 8:56 PM
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In 2007 at Villanova University’s law school, Justice Antonin Scalia, who is proudly Roman Catholic, claimed “there’s no such thing as a ‘Catholic judge.”  Even more, he insisted that “the Catholic faith seems to me to have little effect on my work,” and “just as there’s no ‘Catholic’ way to cook a hamburger,” he concluded…

I am hard-pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would have come out differently if I were not Catholic.

In 1960 then presidential candidate Jack Kennedy addressed a gathering of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  At issue was the role his religion might play should he become president.  As current aspirant to the GOP presidential nomination, Rick Santorum, has reminded us recently, Kennedy famously claimed that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Kennedy elaborated further…

Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.


Many approaches can speak to this topic.  At issue are questions of conscience and epistemology, questions of good governance and theology, questions of jurisprudence and ethics, questions for the sociology of religion and civics, and many more.

I thought this might be a fruitful and interesting discussion for the Institute to have in this blogging space.  So, I invite everyone to send in a few brief comments or maybe a few paragraphs or maybe a whole new blog post.  What role should religion have in government, law, or political life generally?    Are we understanding Kennedy’s and Scalia’s arguments correctly?  Are the arguments of Scalia and Kennedy correct?  What role does religion play?  What role should it play?


Matt Green

Matt Green wrote on 03/01/12 10:39 AM

An important question, Steve -- glad you raised it. I find it hard to believe that one's decisions are not affected, even subliminally, by one's core values -- values that are invariably affected, in part, by one's religious traditions and beliefs. In this respect, to say religion should not play a role in policy-making is a little like trying to write a speech without using your native language.

But I also think policy makers, especially in our pluralistic society, have a responsibility to keep an open mind about all questions and issues, and be prepared to go against their own beliefs if, as Kennedy remarked, they are contrary to the national interest. To do otherwise is to betray the trust of the public.

Scalia's remarks, it seems to me, are too flippant in this regard; deciding on constitutional matters is far more relevant to religious (and philosophical) values than cooking a hamburger. Kennedy's quote is closer to the mark, insofar as he is commenting not on personal beliefs but on religious lobbying or "outside...pressures." But what if one's religion comes with it an expected fidelity to the issue positions of one's church -- including positions that many constituents oppose? This is an important and difficult dilemma -- one that I don't think Kennedy's quote quite resolves.
Maria Mazzenga

Maria Mazzenga wrote on 03/01/12 11:11 AM

Nineteen-sixty and 2007 are radically different as far as Catholics in American life are concerned. Kennedy's famous Houston speech was delivered to a group of Protestant ministers and a nation extremely suspicious of Catholics and particularly Vatican influence on the White House. Anti-Catholicism was alive and well in the U.S., and the Kennedy speech helped ease fears that Catholic doctrine would inform his executive decisions. To underscore how attitudes toward Catholics have shifted, one might look to Rick Santorum's rather shocking (and historically ignorant) comment that upon reading the Kennedy speech he "almost threw up," as he apparently disagrees with the notion of separation of church and state. And that such a comment would appeal to Christian evangelicals. One wonders what Justice Scalia thinks of Santorum's stance on the Kennedy speech, whether he thinks there's a Catholic way to cook a hamburger or not.

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