CAMPAIGN 2008: The Supremes and the rest of us

Justice John Paul Stevens is 88, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 75. Justice Anthony Kennedy is 72. Justice Stephen Breyer is 70. Justice David Souter is 68. Given those demographics, the next president of the United States will likely nominate at least one, and perhaps several, justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Once upon a time, that would have been considered a non-issue in a presidential election. Things have changed, however: the court now plays a major, substantive role in our national political life that would have surprised, and perhaps dismayed, the Constitution’s Framers. Indeed, the combination of its own assertiveness and the Congress’s pusillanimity has turned the Supreme Court into the cockpit of the American culture war.

Beginning with the Everson decision in 1947, the Court has read the First Amendment in ways that seem to imply an establishment of secularism in American public life. Supreme Court decisions upholding racial quotas and defending a “right to pornography” (including Internet child pornography) have incensed many Americans, of all races, classes, and religions. The Court’s abortion jurisprudence since the early 1970s has imposed a radical regime of abortion-on-demand on the entire country, Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s confusions on the facts here notwithstanding. The recent Boumediene decision on the alleged habeas corpus rights of alien terrorist suspects held abroad inserted the Court into the national security debate in an unprecedented way.

The Court acquired considerable moral authority in 1954 by its wise decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which accelerated the nation’s journey to equality before the law (while effectively reversing the mistake the Court made in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 case in which segregation laws were held constitutionally permissible). Some would argue, and not without reason, that that moral authority has now decayed into potentially dangerous forms of judicial arrogance. Mistaken decisions are bad enough; to have nine unelected lawyers instructing more than 3 million Americans to fall in line and stop criticizing the Court’s work raises grave questions about the health of our democracy.

This trend toward the judicial usurpation of politics—which is widespread throughout the federal judiciary, and culminates in the Supreme Court acting as an unelected and unaccountable national legislature—has been challenged intellectually by notable legal scholars, whose work has now borne fruit in a genuine debate, within the federal courts and on the Supreme Court, over the limits of the judiciary’s role in our public life. That debate, in turn, has begun to have real effect in some federal judging. Yet things are now balanced on a knife’s edge, such that the next president could well determine whether, for the foreseeable future, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts play a more modest role in settling controverted issues or become an even more dominant force in both domestic and foreign policy.

Thus Catholic voters may wish to pose several questions to both major presidential candidates:

1) In the encyclical Centesimus Annus, the late Pope John Paul II wrote that the Church’s regard for democracy rests in part on the possibility of citizens participating in governance, and in part on the democratic system’s public accountability. Are you concerned that the increasing role played by federal courts in adjudicating hotly contested questions of public policy threatens the moral texture of our democracy, and indeed the entire democratic process?

2) Recent Supreme Court opinions have cited foreign and international legal materials in interpreting our Constitution. What role, in any, should contemporary foreign law play in American legal reasoning?

3) Does the Constitution mandate a “naked public square,” shorn of religiously-informed moral argument?

4) Was Justice Byron White (appointed to the Court by President Kennedy) correct in describing Roe vs. Wade as an exercise in “raw judicial power”?

5) How do you regard recent Supreme Court thinking on the rights of alien terrorists in U.S. custody?

6) Has the Supreme Court’s acceptance of certain types of racial and gender quotas advanced or impeded the project of “liberty and justice for all”?

7) Does the Supreme Court have the authority to impose same-sex “marriage” as a constitutional right?

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”