Illusions of Certitude
After reading “Scalia v. Aquinas,” by Anthony Giambrone, O.P. (3/21), I was tempted to defer to the dictum, “Say good things about the deceased or say nothing.” But in fact Justice Scalia’s confidence in his ability to divine the true meaning of the Constitution is an example of legal fundamentalism no less naïve than the religious variety.
Unlike the artificial languages of science and mathematics, the language of the law is rife with ambiguity. Whether we consider the Constitution rotten with ambiguity or, like the Bible, rich with ambiguity is a crucial question for which there is no definitive answer. It could be considered rotten, defective because it leaves room for interpretation; or it could be considered rich, a text from which principles can be applied to factual issues that the framers could not have possibly anticipated. The only wrong answer to this question is that the Constitution (or the Bible) is unambiguous. And that is the answer Justice Scalia, like his fellow originalists, insisted on, despite manifest evidence to the contrary.
Why is this position dangerous? Because it leads to illusions of certitude, which is perhaps the most lethal intellectual disease of our time, whether we find it in Sharia law, the Vatican curia or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Aquinas on Abuse
I appreciate this candid story of the real Antonin Scalia. Isn’t it regrettable that the writer’s correct natural-rights view on the application of statutory law was not applied by the U.S. Catholic bishops in their resolution of the church’s sexual abuse cases? St. Thomas Aquinas would have been pleased had the strict adherence to inappropriate time limitations statutes been viewed for what it was: allowance for numerous wrongs to go unpunished. Instead, the natural law would have permitted settlements based on fair standards. Although Aquinas’s philosophy is taught in our schools, it was not practiced when it came time to settle.
Re Of Many Things, by Matt Malone, S.J. (3/14): I tell friends often that Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz are a reflection of the American soul. If they do not like what they see, they need to take a close look at their reflection.
I do not miss the longed-for political parties that never really existed. But I do miss bishops leading. I miss bishops being taken seriously by politicians, Catholics and non-Catholic Americans. I truly miss the Catholic mark most Catholics once showed through their actions with civility, forbearance, humility, temperance and restraint. The political process has declined because the American soul has darkened. It is foolish to blame Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump, Republicans and Democrats. These all metamorphosed on our watch and with our money. We are the ones who supported them.
Give us Catholic leaders forming the conscience of the United States, and then we will make America great again. Until then, brace yourself.
Re “What Did He Say?” (Editorial, 3/14): I believe it was John Courtney Murray, S.J., who taught that people writing and speaking from a religious perspective have the right to address the moral content of political issues, since there is no issue that is purely political. Thus Pope Francis, bishops’ conferences and others have not only the right but the duty to point out what is moral and what is not in what many consider to be purely political areas, like immigration reform, the environment and the economy.
In “College Free for All?” (Editorial, 3/7) the editors write: “Proponents of free tuition, at least for the lower middle class, point to Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden, all of which offer a free college education. It is ‘free’ because fewer students attend college in these countries than in the United States and because citizens are willing to pay much higher income taxes.”
The first part is true, but the second part is certainly not. While fewer students in Germany attend college (the schools are very selective), income taxes are not really higher in Europe than in the United States. Yes, the federal-level taxes are higher, but Americans, unlike Europeans, also have to pay state income and local taxes. And this is before we get to things like property tax or taxes on business, which are a whole lot higher in the United States than abroad. For all the taxes we pay we should be getting free college and health care the way the Europeans do, or at least have an Abitur system that is selective, as in German universities and technical schools.
The article by Travis LaCouter and Marcarena Pallares, “The Transforming Power of Tragedy and Poverty” (3/7), reminded me that America does not seem to have a policy requiring authors to use inclusive language. The constant use of mankind, man or men throughout the article when referring to all human beings should be totally unacceptable. Many of America’s writers do use inclusive language, and a few even avoid using gender-specific pronouns for God, but it should be communicated to all who wish to be published that submissions must use inclusive language.
Spring Valley, Ill.
Re “False Mercy,” by Helen Alvaré (3/7): The author is correct to point out that supporters of abortion have quickly appropriated the Zika virus issue to advance their own ends. Nonetheless, in order to advance her own position, which advocates a complete ban on abortion, she is also guilty of distortion and unsubstantiated allegations. Not “all” women regret their abortions—either at the time or decades later. The author might profitably read a recent article in The Washington Post (“In Abortion Debate, a Space Between,” 2/26), which highlights the vast range of responses women have to abortion. There is no single response. Not all women regret their abortions; many are sad but believe it was still a necessary choice.
The larger issue is that abortion is defined in terms of a problem by, for and about women. If the all-male hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church expressed more openness to artificial contraception and to opening up the priesthood to women, their position on abortion would not be so suspect.
We the People
Re Of Many Things, by Matt Malone, S.J. (2/29): Justice Scalia’s reliance on “original meaning” acknowledges that in the Constitution it is “We the People” who established the government and who retain to ourselves the ultimate power to change it by amending that Constitution. By using the amendment process set forth in Article 5 of the original document, we have changed the Constitution 27 times, updating it to meet our evolving intentions.
If we do not like the way the Supreme Court reads the First Amendment, or the Second, or any other, we need simply to restate it or repeal it by amendment to make clear our current intent. Justice Scalia understood the limitations implicit in a Constitution that vests only certain enumerated powers in the federal government and its branches and in which the people clearly retain to themselves the power to make changes.
I am disappointed to learn that Father Malone, had he been a Supreme Court justice sitting with Antonin Scalia, would “more often than not” have found himself in agreement with the late conservative justice. Does this mean that the editor in chief of America would have approved of Justice Scalia’s opinions broadening an individual’s gun ownership rights, limiting citizens’ class actions against corporate defendants, supporting the “free speech” (i.e., unlimited political spending) of individuals and corporations, defending the death penalty, and criticizing and curtailing affirmative action or the operation of the Clean Air Act?
Policing the Priesthood
Re “Abuse Commission Shake-up” (Current Comment, 2/29): As a victim and survivor of clerical sexual abuse myself, I appreciate this thoughtful essay and the understanding that “the voice and witness of survivors on the papal commission is essential.” I personally know Peter Saunders. He is a man of integrity. He loves the church and he loves Pope Francis, even though Mr. Saunders was sexually abused by two Jesuits when he was a schoolboy in London.
Mr. Saunders is on a leave of absence by decision of the commission, not of the pope who hired him. I hope and pray that Pope Francis will find a way to integrate Mr. Saunders back into a Vatican process created for dealing with current challenges, which include working more closely with the secular police around the world. It is the job of the police to investigate crimes in the church; the pope has enough to do in removing the predator from the priesthood.
Human to the End
“My God, My God,” the excellent article by James Martin, S.J. (2/15), gives us great insight into the humanity of Jesus—and our own. And that is the catch. Jesus was a true man and true God, and from a human perspective his cry was one of agony to one who could save him from that utter humiliation—and the Father did not. It is exactly what each one of us may endure in the agony of our death. We do not understand, and Jesus in his humanity did not understand. But there was no despair: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” were the final words of surrender and faith in his Father’s will.
In other words, Jesus truly was like us in all things except sin. He endured the same agony we all do, to the very dregs of our humanity. How terribly consoling.