The Alito apologies

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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.