Local Catholic school students get unique window into Supreme Court hearings

It’s not often that students have the opportunity to talk to someone making history on a national scale, but 8th grade students at Notre Dame Catholic School recently got to visit via Zoom with a woman who was part of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for the newly-appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett.  

Appellate attorney Laura Wolk, who is a good friend of Notre Dame 8th grade teacher Abbie Carter, spent an hour visiting with the students about everything from her work as an attorney and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to her opportunity to testify during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings on behalf of Justice Barrett. She also addressed many questions from the students about the challenges she has faced as both a blind woman and as the very first blind person to serve as a clerk for the Supreme Court.   

Wolk was a student and mentee of Justice Barrett’s when she attended law school at the University of Notre Dame. She told the Notre Dame students how Justice Barrett helped her get the assistive technology she needed to compete on a level playing field with her sighted peers.  

Eighth grader Vy asked Wolk who had inspired her the most of anyone she’s met. Wolk shared that it would have to be Justice Thomas. He grew up very poor and during a time when segregation was still happening, and had every reason to feel like he didn’t belong, but he instead remained joyful and faith-filled; he never let negative things get in the way of his success and instead chose to be happy and positive.  

Wolk told the students how Justice Thomas believed that life can be amazing “when you allow joy and happiness to dominate your life” and that’s what she tries to do as well.  

Abbie Carter’s 8th grade class at Notre Dame Catholic School recently had the chance to have a virtual visit with Laura Wolk, an appellate attorney who testified on behalf of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett at her confirmation hearings. (Photos by Carol Nesbitt)

Student Nicholas asked Wolk what it felt like knowing she made a difference in history by participating in the nomination hearings. Wolk shared with the students how incredibly humbling it was for her, and how she’s received many messages from young people with disabilities or their parents about how she’s inspiring them. She says she didn’t have many role models with disabilities when she was growing up.  

Oliver asked Wolk what biggest attribute it takes to be successful. “It can be tempting to give up when things are tough,” said Wolk. She urged them to keep trying and to also remember that kindness is really essential.  

When Aliyah asked Wolk what advice she’d give to them as 8th graders, Wolk encouraged them to read lots of different kinds of books that introduce them to different kinds of experiences in the world and will be beneficial for their brains and vocabularies as well. 

After the call was over, Carter said she was thrilled to be able to offer her students this incredible opportunity to meet her dear friend. “I’m just so excited that the world has gotten to meet her,” she said.  

Student Oliver Valdez thought it was pretty cool to be able to have a conversation with her.  

“I think it’s special to meet someone so influential in history. She made history so that’s a cool thing to see,” he said. Oliver was amazed by Wolk and talked about how her disability has not brought her down but only made her stronger.  

Laura Wolk testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of Justice Barrett.

The biggest thing that stood out to student Cate Busche was when Wolk talked about people with disabilities, and how they often feel like that have to try harder than others – almost be the “best of the best” to be able to compete in a sighted world.  

“I’m glad she could represent others who are blind,” Busche said.   

Mrs. Carter says her students have been learning about the Supreme Court and the role of a Supreme Court justice, and how having her friend participate in the nomination process was such an incredible and wonderful coincidence.  

“It just all came together with what they’re learning in class with current events and was a ‘perfect storm of opportunities’ for them to be able to speak with her,” Carter said.  

The students watched Wolk give her testimony in front of the committee, which helped them form the questions they each asked her during the Zoom.  That testimony helped put fellow Catholic Amy Coney Barrett on the highest court in the nation – the United States Supreme Court. It was a wonderful opportunity for the Notre Dame students and their proud teacher to be witnessing history and talking to the woman who helped make it happen. 

Getting a little emotional, Carter said of her students and of her friend, “I am so incredibly proud of her, and I am so incredibly proud of them as a class. I hope that Laura has inspired them to never give up on their dreams of what they hope to achieve one day.”  

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.