Opinion

Kavanaugh would maintain the Catholic majority. What does that mean for the Supreme Court?

President Donald J. Trump listens to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh during a July 9 announcement of his nomination to the Supreme Court.
President Donald J. Trump listens to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh during a July 9 announcement of his nomination to the Supreme Court. Washington Post

When President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Anthony Kennedy as associate justice of the Supreme Court, media attention focused on the fact that both men are Catholics.

Should Kavanaugh be confirmed by the Senate, the Catholic majority on the court would be maintained. In addition, Trump’s first court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, although he attends an Episcopal church, was raised Catholic and was a contemporary of Kavanaugh at Georgetown Prep, an elite Jesuit high school in Bethesda, Maryland. What does this “Catholic Court” mean for the decisions that lie ahead?

It might be noted that the other three judges on the court are Jewish. It is ironic — but perhaps a sign of progress — that two religious groups that experienced discrimination for generations and were long excluded from the court now monopolize that institution. In more recent decades, there was a so-called “Catholic seat,” a “Jewish seat,” and a “black seat” on the court. Now, in the interest of diversity, perhaps there’s a need for a “Protestant seat”! Indeed, since an increasing proportion of the American population professes no religion at all, there might be a seat reserved for a nonbeliever.

In accepting the nomination to the bench, Kavanaugh referred to the motto of his Jesuit high school — “men for others” — and added, “I’ve tried to live that creed.” Even after his nomination, the nominee to the highest court in the land continued his longtime volunteer work of serving meals to the homeless. Jesuit Father Tom Gaunt, the executive director of the Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, commented that for the person instilled with the Jesuit spirit, there is not just an anonymous mass of people, but “always a living, breathing person standing in front of you who either benefits or suffers from the consequences of your choices and actions.”

It is not only Republicans who point to the significance of their Catholic faith and Jesuit education. In 2016, when selected by Hillary Clinton to be her vice-presidential running mate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia used words similar to those of Kavanaugh. As a young man, motivated by those values, Kaine had spent a year as a volunteer at a Jesuit-sponsored vocational school in Honduras. He then continued his education at Harvard.

Both Kavanaugh and Kaine have said that their Jesuit education inspired them to enter public service. Likewise, both have expressed their admiration for Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope.

That Kavanaugh is a Republican and Kaine a Democrat suggests that Catholics cannot easily be labeled as conservative or liberal. In the House, where one-third of the members are Catholic, half are Democrats and half Republicans. In the Senate, 15 Catholic members are Democrats and 9 are Republicans.

What can be expected in the years ahead with a “Catholic Court?” Perhaps a clue, a hope, is provided on the website of Georgetown Prep. Under the heading “Ignatian Discernment,” referring to St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, it says, “God’s voice can be discerned most clearly by a careful examination of one’s deepest, most authentic desires. God’s voice can also be discerned in a group setting: prayerful consideration of the movements of the Spirit in the group’s ongoing work, conversation, prayer, etc.”

If nine people, of whatever religious persuasion, work together with openness and respect, let’s hope what emerges are the decisions that best reflect the spirit of the Constitution and the well-being of all the American people.

William Powers, a retired sociology professor, lives in Chapel Hill. He is the author of “Tar Heel Catholics: A History of Catholicism in North Carolina.”




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