Let’s suppose, as a sort of thought experiment, that we the American citizenry were presented with a judicial candidate — or any public figure with influence on law or policy — who just happened to be active in the Boys Scouts of America the last 20 years. Let’s further suppose this particular figure was not merely a proud former Scout; he credited the organization and its philosophy for providing him his core moral and philosophical compass. As the number of sexual abuse settlements involving the Boy Scouts of America passed the 80,000 mark this fall, ultimately bankrupting the organization, would the general public not pipe up at some point and say to this public figure, “Hey, um, your attitude toward the Scouts, in light of the newly revealed reality, is at the very least awkward. It’s actually pretty fucked up, if we’re being honest. You, or anyone really, who puts such public faith in the philosophy or teachings of something so clearly dysfunctional, should probably not be in a position of authority in our government, much less the high court.”
Well, I ask you, America: Why does membership in and advocacy for the Catholic Church not prompt a similar rebuke? Today, six of the nine people on the U.S. Supreme Court consider themselves Catholics. All five conservative members on the court — including its newest addition, Trump-favorite Amy Coney Barrett — are quite open about the influence their Catholic faith has had and continues to have on their jurisprudence. In light of the church’s own ongoing sexual abuse scandal, one wonders why the American public tolerates this outward accreditation of something so clearly dysfunctional.
At the very least, we should be talking more about their recusal from cases involving religious faith.
For all the intertwining of Trumpism and evangelical Christianity, no religious force comes close to rivaling Catholicism on today’s high court. The Boston Globe broke the Church’s sexual abuse scandal early in 2001, but its impact has hardly abated, much less blown over. Nearly two decades on, each month brings another report of a U.S. diocese admitting to cover-ups and the shuttling around of offending priests — rather than promptly removing them from contact with children. To date, 21 Catholic dioceses have themselves declared bankruptcy on account of all the financial settlements they’ve been obliged to pay. To be clear, these are just those dioceses that could not afford to compensate all the parishioners who’d been sexually violated by members of its clerical class. There are dozens more that acted as abominably — the priests themselves and their higher-ups in the hierarchy — but could afford to financially compensate its victims.
This is to say, the problems posed by Catholicism remain extraordinarily relevant and widespread. The cynical response to this clearly systemic grotesquery goes right to the top apparently, to the Vatican itself, as November’s allegations against former Archbishop of Washington Theodore McGarrick have proved.
Vocal defenders of the Catholic faith, who include all these conservative justices and our boot-licking attorney general, Bill Barr, tend to blame the church’s abject moral failings on an infestation of homosexuals in the priesthood, or an evil liberalization of the church stemming from Vatican II reforms in the 1960s. When news of all this abuse first broke, in 2001, these and other Catholic apologists attempted to localize the blame in Boston. When that proved impractical, they blamed the liberalization of America generally. Barr is still beating this drum.
It’s high time that Catholics owned the facts and facets of their own faith, of their church structure and history, of the clerical hierarchy that has contributed to this epidemic of sexual abuse.
As such, America and Americans should also begin to insist that its Catholic public officials — attorneys general, justices serving on any federal court — refrain from using or otherwise citing their Catholic faiths in the execution of their public duties. Would we ask anything less of former Scouts?