The Alito apologies

George Weigel

With Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., safely and, I trust, happily, seated on the United States Supreme Court, apologies are in order — as they frequently are after these judicial confirmation brawls.

The first apology is due to the Framers of the Constitution, who never intended the Federal judiciary to assume the dominant role it now plays in our public life, and who could not have imagined that confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee would become the most bitterly contested exercises in American politics. The Court itself is the chief culprit here, for the most fevered issues of our public life should not be decided (often peremptorily) by judges; they should be decided by the people through their duly-elected representatives. If the Roberts Court tempers the judicial overreach of the past five or six decades, it will do a signal service to the Republic.

The second apology is due to Justice Alito. That a man of transparent integrity and competence should be subjected to scurrilous innuendo about his probity and his skill is bad enough, not least when such groundless suggestions come for the senior senator from Massachusetts, who seemingly cannot enunciate a coherent, grammatically correct English sentence without reading from a staff-written cue card. But then Senator Edward Kennedy outdid himself  with this charge, the week before the Senate vote: “Judge Alito does not share the values of equality and justice that make this country strong.”

That is a lie. To be precise, it’s that form of lie known as calumny, which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is an offense against both justice and charity, because false statements that harm the good name and reputation of others give rise to false judgments about them. Perhaps the good citizens of Massachusetts owe the rest of us an apology for returning to the Senate a blustering bully who is dishonest in a particularly odious way?

I don’t know whether one can apologize to the truth, but the truth, as usual, took a beating in the Alito hearings. There were serious questions to be explored with the nominee: the reach of presidential power in the distinctive kind of war in which we find ourselves; the importance and limits of Court precedent; the constitutional grounds for thinking through the Church-state and affirmative actions issues on which the vote of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whom Alito was nominated to replace, was often decisive (if according to reasoning that often defied logic). Some of this was explored during the hearings, to be sure. Underneath the verbiage, though, it quickly became clear that the real issues were abortion, presidential power, abortion, abortion, and abortion (as columnist Mark Steyn neatly put it).

And here, again, some of the most vigorous defense of Roe v. Wade and its open-ended abortion license came from senators who are Catholics: Kennedy, Durbin of Illinois, Biden of Delaware, Leahy of Vermont. Yet another senator who is a Catholic, John Kerry (D-Davos and Massachusetts) led the charge to filibuster the Alito nomination — a gambit in which he was supported by numerous other Catholics in the Senate.

Years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wisely decided not to take positions on judicial nominations. Yet when professed Catholics are systematically misrepresenting the truth in the matter of the inalienable right to life — a grave civil rights issue the bishops have addressed in a clear, non-partisan, and non-sectarian way — is there nothing to be said by the Church’s leaders? As Jody Bottum has pointed out in a provocative article in the Weekly Standard, Catholic ideas and Catholic “language” (especially the language of natural law) now play an enormous role in shaping our public life — but because of Catholic activists, intellectuals, jurists, and (some) politicians (like convert Senator Sam Brownback), not because of effective work by the institutional Church. If apologies are not due here, perhaps examinations of conscience are.

The next Supreme Court nominee will mark the so-called tipping-point. Expect that nomination battle to be even more grisly than this one, with even more apologies required afterwards.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.