D.C. ‘Red Mass’ Skips Politics As High Court Majority Fills Pews

A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court chose to attend this year’s “Red Mass” in Washington, D.C., but the event turned out to be less political than in years past.

The annual event at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle is timed to take place before the high court kicks off a new term. The mass, which has been held in the nation’s capital since 1952, often draws a cross-section of judges, attorneys, members of Congress and cabinet members. Presidents have sometimes attended in the past, but this year President George W. Bush was a no-show.

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer attended the Oct. 5 religious service, along with Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

The Red Mass, given its name for the red vestments traditionally worn by the officiating clergy, is sponsored by the John Carroll Society and is considered by the church to be “a traditional religious observance asking God’s guidance on the administration of justice, and for the Nation.”

In reality, it often is a rich opportunity for Catholic prelates to lobby the justices and other governmental officials on such controversial issues as abortion, gay rights, tax aid to religious schools, religion in public life and stem-cell research. Some officiants have even used the mass to criticize the way the high court has interpreted the separation of church and state.

This year, Cardinal John Patrick Foley delivered the homily. Noting that the Supreme Court once referred to Americans as a “religious people,” he cited several passages from the Bible, and followed by saying, “So many of these citations from Scripture sound very much like American ideals. In fact, many if not most of our values come not just from our God-given human nature but from our Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Foley does not have an archdiocese in America and serves as the grand master of the Equestrian Order of the HolySepulchre of Jerusalem, a Catholic chivalric order that traces its roots back to the First Crusade.

Foley was mild, but previous speakers have taken different approaches. During 1989’s Red Mass, for example, then-Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua deplored the “inviolable, impenetrable, and towering wall” that had been erected between church and state. He demanded a return to “religiously based moral values.”

Three years earlier, Cardinal James A. Hickey criticized the constitutional basis for Roe v. Wade, stating “The language claimed to protect the right of privacy has been mistakenly expanded to encompass a woman’s decision to destroy the life of her child and to an unconditional right to abortion during the first trimester.”

This type of rhetoric has driven some justices away from the event. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussed her decision to skip the Red Mass with Abigail Pogrebin, author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. In the book, Ginsburg spoke of her discomfort after attending a Red Mass because she did not want to be lectured by bishops on the evils of legal abortion.

“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.”

Added Ginsburg, “Even the Scalias – although they’re much of that persuasion – were embarrassed for me.”

The Red Mass began 55 years ago at a time when Catholic bishops were angry with the Supreme Court. In 1947, the justices issued a ruling in Everson v. Board of Education, a case that provided for clear church-state separation. Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable.”