Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee told attendees at this year’s “Red Mass” that religion and democracy should seek a partnership.
“It is a cherished part of our American heritage, then, to rejoice in a mutually enriching alliance between religion, morality, and democracy, since, as de Tocqueville observed, ‘Respect for the laws of God and man is the best way of remaining free, and liberty is the best means of remaining upright and religious,’” Dolan said during the annual event.
He added, “No wonder the bishops of the Catholic Church of the United States, meeting in council in Baltimore in 1884, could write, ‘We consider the establishment of our nation, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers building better than they knew, the Almighty’s hand guiding them.’”
The Red Mass is a special church service held for members of the legal profession the Sunday before the Supreme Court begins its new term. Although such masses take place around the country, the service in the nation’s capital is the most prominent and often draws heavy hitters from the worlds of politics and law.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., working with the John Carroll Society, sponsors the special service, which is named for the red vestments the presiding member of the clergy wears.
This year’s service at St. Matthew’s Cathedral took place Sept. 30. It was attended by six members of the high court Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito, Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer. (Members of Congress and other government officials also were present.)
The mass usually has political overtones, and the homilist often takes swipes at separation of church and state albeit sometimes in carefully couched language and speaks out against legal abortion, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage or other issues of interest to the church’s leadership. In previous years, some bishops have even used the mass to carp about the lack of tax support for Catholic schools.
At this year’s event, Dolan remarked, “[P]erhaps a way to view our participation in this annual Red Mass in our nation’s capital is as our humble prayer for the red-hot fire of the Holy Spirit, bringing the jurists, legislators, and executives of our government the wisdom to recognize that we are indeed made in God’s image, that deep in our being is the life of God, and then to give them the courage to judge, legislate, and administer based on the consequences of that conviction: the innate dignity and inviolability of every human life, and the cultivation of a society of virtue to support that belief.”
He later asserted that in contemporary culture, “we’re tempted to act like animals instead of like God’s icon” and blasted “a culture where life itself can be treated as a commodity, seen as a means to an end, or as an inconvenience when tiny or infirm, in a society where rights are reduced to whatever we have the urge to do instead of what we ought to do in a civil society….” This was perceived as code language for opposition to stem-cell research, abortion rights and the right to die for the terminally ill.
Dolan’s sermon fits the pattern. At last year’s Red Mass, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., insisted that opposing “threats to the dignity of life” church code language for its anti-abortion lobbying is not an effort “to force values upon society.”
Wuerl asserted, “Politics and faith may mingle, because believers are also citizens. Church and state are home for the very same people.”
In 2004, Boston Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley called on lawmakers to conform laws to church policy, telling attendees, “Too often when politicians agree with the church’s position on a given issue they say the church is prophetic and should be listened to, but if the church’s position does not coincide with theirs, then they scream separation of church and state.”
During the 2003 Red Mass, Cardinal Avery Dulles bluntly called on government to “protect and support” religion. He then blasted public schools for failing to include moral instruction and implied that private institutions may need to take over the task of educating youngsters.
The bishops’ rhetoric has actually become a bit more guarded in recent years. That may be because the ham-fisted sermons annoyed one justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a writer last year that she attended one Red Mass after being placed on the high court in 1993 but doesn’t plan to go again.
“Before every session, there’s a Red Mass,” Ginsburg said. “And the justices get invitations from the cardinal to attend that. And a good number of the justices show up every year. I went one year, and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion.”