I spent the last week of June waiting for the release of Supreme Court decisions and reading each day about rulings that continue the rightward trajectory of American legal and political life. These rulings are driven by white conservative backlash to the attempts to implement a more just society for historically oppressed and disempowered groups. Given the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority, these decisions did not come as a surprise to me or to the friends and colleagues with whom I spoke about the news over that week. But the felt inevitability did little to assuage the sense of anger and grief at the loss of affirmative action as an important tool for racial justice, the dashing of hopes for student debt relief and the opening of the door to further LGBTQ discrimination. One summer after the Dobbs decision, and with what we can assume will be a long tenure of this conservative-majority court, these cases continue to set a path for the American legal system that suggests more undoing of protections for marginalized groups to come.
In the midst of reading and reacting to these signs of the political times, I went to Mass on Sunday at a local parish. There, I heard nothing of these signs of the times, but rather about America’s story as one of “hospitality” accompanied by the singing of “America the Beautiful.” Being relatively new to the area, I have attended a variety of parishes seeking to understand the lay of the parochial land, and I do not expect that I would have experienced a vastly different liturgy at another local parish. Indeed, across various states around the country, I have encountered this kind of nationalism in the parish. But the contrast between the conversations of the preceding week and the Fourth of July-themed liturgy was particularly stark. That encounter left me reflecting, as I have many times over the past years, on the theological formation offered by U.S. Catholic parishes and its ability (or lack thereof) to meet the challenge of our political moment.
In her discussion of Catholics and the Supreme Court, Barbara Perry traces the history of Catholics on the bench, beginning with Chief Justice Taney who delivered the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, now considered the worst decision of the Court’s history. From there, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the development of the so-called “Catholic seat” on the Court, by which presidents aimed to attract voters through this symbolic representation. By the late 20th century, however, Perry argues, the “Catholic seat” began to carry less weight for attracting voters. When President Reagan appointed Justice Antonin Scalia, though the administration was aware that Scalia would be the first Italian American on the Court, Reagan was less interested in Scalia’s religious affiliation than his conservatism. Indeed, Perry argues, by the time the Court arrived at a Catholic majority in the 2000s, the presidents who appointed these Catholic justices were far less interested in their religion than in their willingness to serve conservative ideological priorities.
Though Perry’s history ends in 2009, prior to the current makeup of the bench, her point about the ideological selection of justices seems to me to have merit, as well as resonances beyond the Court. Though interviews or profiles of the six Catholic justices (Gorsuch was also raised Catholic, though he is now an Episcopalian) make mention of their Mass attendance or self-descriptions of their faith, it is not possible for me to state the importance of Catholicism in informing the justice’s thinking. But with regard to Catholic teaching, the separation of church and state is most apparent in the justices’ rulings on issues like the death penalty and the recent ruling on affirmative action (which is contrasted by the positive recommendation of affirmative action policies in the USCCB’s 1979 Pastoral Letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us”). Last week’s 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis decision, on the other hand, stands in a line of decisions weakening that church and state division where it serves conservative political priorities.
The apparent conservative ideological motivation for these rulings finds comfortable resonances among U.S. Catholic voters, particularly white Catholics. As is by now well-known, a majority of white Catholics voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, giving support to his choice of justices and the rulings they have made. More frequent Mass attendance made it more, not less, likely that a white Catholic would vote for Donald Trump. While there are plenty of parishes where this kind of political conservatism is openly preached, in others there is simply an anemia of preaching and teaching any alternatives. The result is that many white U.S. Catholics are largely ignorant of the Social Teaching of the Church and its implications for political life. I sympathize with pastors who do try to make some of this message known, aware that they see their parishioners on Sunday morning, while Fox News lulls them to bed every night. In our particular political moment, when even some bishops seem more informed by right-wing news than theological reflection, it is difficult to preach any social teaching or political theology that might challenge the political status quo. But silence resigns us to a political theology of Christian nationalism and temptations to fascism as described by my colleague Dan Rober.
The readings for last Sunday did indeed speak of hospitality—hospitality given to the prophets, the righteous and the “little ones” (Mt. 10:37-42). The current Supreme Court appears disinclined towards hospitality to any of these, welcoming with open arms instead the priorities of one political party and the kindness of billionaires. They are part of a larger moment of political crisis that calls out for prophetic critique and politics that center on the “little ones.” Both resources can be found within the Catholic tradition and need to be resurfaced and taught as central to U.S. Catholics’ theological formation.
Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.