Friday, November 04, 2005

The end of the anti-Catholic bias? Alito and the five-Catholic Supreme Court

It has not gone unnoticed, but it has gone largely unremarked, that Judge Alito will make five justices out of nine on the Supreme Court who identify themselves as Roman Catholics: Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts. In a country about 25% Catholic, we now see a majority of Catholics on America's highest court.

Even more remarkable is this: All of them were appointed by Protestant presidents. All of them were confirmed by an overwhelmingly Protestant Senate. None seems to have been an affirmative action choice; in none does a deliberate strategy of appealing to the Catholic vote appear to have been a central reason for the appointment. In each case it simply appears that the president in question thought the candidate was the best man for the job.

The sea change has been quiet but dramatic: in nineteenth century America, Rome as the whore of Babylon was thought to be a threat to democracy itself. Rome's hierarchical church was imagined to be incompatible with egalitarian democracy. In 1928, the nomination of Catholic Al Smith as the Democratic party's presidential candidate resulted in a massive anti-Catholic backlash that Herbert Hoover rode to the White House. As late as 1960, the campaign of John Kennedy raised widespread fears that the pope was trying to take over America. Harry Truman, with a shrewd insight into the power of the pursestrings pulled by Kennedy's dad, quipped: "It's not the pope I'm concerned about, it's the pop!"

The hysteria that five Catholics on the Supreme Court would have evoked only a generation ago, and the contrast with the present day, is something to behold. The Senate is about to put a fifth Catholic on the Court, and nobody much seems to care. Is this the end of the anti-Catholic bias? Can we now write finished to one of the longest and most deeply held prejudices in American history?

For the most part, yes. Oh, anti-Catholicism can still be found here or there. If you dig deeply enough into the American trash can, you can still find the few cockroaches of anti-Catholicism crawling around on the bottom. But for the most part, this is a bias that is dead and buried--more so, I think, than some in the older generation of American Catholics may realize.

It's worth noting too that this is not merely a transformation in the attitudes of non-Catholics. It reflects as well the enthusiasm for the American experiment in democracy that was a long part of the American Catholic experience, but received a special boost at Vatican II. John Paul II made it a part of his special mission to put the Catholic Church squarely behind democratic reformers: the result was a wave of Catholic energy for democratization that brought to power democracies in Poland, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Latin America, and throughout the Catholic world.

Today many people think that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. The dramatic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq are evidence that there is nothing in Islam that stands in the way of an authentic commitment to democracy. The day may well come when the Islamic commitment to democracy is taken for granted, as much as the Catholic commitment to democracy is now.

And perhaps the day will come when there are five Muslims on the US Supreme Court, appointed by non-Muslim presidents and confirmed by a non-Muslim Senate...and the fact that there are five Muslims on the Supreme Court will raise hardly an eyebrow, since nobody will much care.


At Sunday, 06 November, 2005, Blogger antimedia said...

Interesting observations. I recall the fears when Kennedy was running, so your article stirs old memories. Frankly, I would never have made those connections on my own. And you're absolutely right. No one cares that Alito is Catholic.

At Sunday, 06 November, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

Thanks for dropping by! There's a wonderful new doctoral dissertation by a woman named Haein Park (UC San Diego) on Catholicism and anti-Catholicism in American literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And reading it drilled home to me how much America has changed.

Am I allowed to add as a Catholic?--what a great country. What a wonderful country we live in. Yes, it's true that America has had an anti-Catholic past; and no, it's not good...but at the end of the day, so what? Catholics poured into this country from all over the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, knowing that there were going to be times when being a Catholic here would be a challenge. But neither we nor our grandparents would trade this country for any other country on earth.

And if our grandparents could see the changes, they would be surprised...and yet at another level they wouldn't be. They believed passionately in this country and in the promise of freedom that our country represented.

And I'm sure now they are looking down from heaven, keeping our Church and our country in their prayers, proud of the progress that the country has made, and yet thinking...yes, yes, we're not really surprised. We knew it would work all along.

God bless America.

At Sunday, 06 November, 2005, Blogger John Salmon said...

I wouldn't take it for granted, though, that the Dems won't try to allege that Alioto's Catholicism makes him unfit to judge fairly, as they have done with other judicial nominees. From their point of view, he begins with the wrong set of preconceptions-if he in fact is an orthodox Catholic.


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