Bishop's Column

The wisdom of this world

In 2012, I was seated next to Justice Antonin Scalia at a small dinner of Catholics in Denver. We talked about his son, Father Paul Scalia, my good friend. We talked about his formation as a Catholic, most especially his memories of the faith in his family life. We talked about the vital place of faith in the public square, and the importance of believers willing to advocate for the common good.

I had a few other occasions to meet Justice Scalia, but none compared to the experience of that dinner. For a while, we talked about the role of natural law in modern democracies.   Justice Scalia explained his own viewpoint in great detail, and then fairly, accurately, and clearly presented the other viewpoints on the subject. I have a graduate degree in moral theology, and still, the depth of his reflections, and the obvious extent of his research, astounded me. No one, no matter his politics, can credibly deny Scalia’s genius.

Over the next few weeks, Scalia will be analyzed and categorized to no end, by commentators hoping to weigh in on his legacy. Some will vilify him, of course, and some will portray him as flawless. But those kinds of commentaries often miss the mark; they usually reveal more about the author than about their subject.

We can only really understand the life and legacy of Justice Scalia if we understand his Catholic faith. His faith influenced his mind, his will, and his imagination. It seems clear to those who knew him that Scalia was a committed jurist precisely because of his formation as a Catholic—as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and his Church.

As a Catholic, Scalia was committed to certain fundamental truths. He was particularly attentive to the needs of the unborn, the defense of marriage and the family, and the fundamental right to religious liberty. Justice Scalia believed, firmly and wholeheartedly, that life began at conception. And he believed that the judges of the Supreme Court had no right to impose legally protected abortion on the United States.

Scalia was a principled man who believed in objective truth and objective moral law. Despite the prevailing relativism of our day, he believed in objective reality, and defended it. Scalia believed in the objectivity of justice, and the objectivity of the common good. He believed in the rule of law, and he confronted a troubling erosion of integrity in our nation’s legal and judicial processes.

Because Scalia believed in objective reality, he tried to understand the Constitution as it really is, and not as he wished it to be. In 2002, he wrote that the Constitution “means today not what current society thinks it ought to mean, but what it meant when it was adopted.” Scalia was an optimist about democracy; he trusted that if Americans wished the Constitution to change, it would be voters, and not courts, who would bring that change to bear.

Of course, Catholics do not need to agree with every decision or viewpoint Antonin Scalia offered. A Catholic American does not need to hold the same perspective on Constitutional originalism as Justice Scalia, or reach the same conclusions he did about the Constitution’s meaning. But like Justice Scalia did, all Catholics have an obligation to form their consciences according to the teaching of the Church, and to commit themselves to serving the common and public good.

In Christifidelis Laici, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that the political situation of our time “calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.”

Justice Scalia did not remain idle in the face of our political circumstances. In the face of great injustices, he offered himself—his intellect, his energies, and his judgment—for the sake of the common good. Every Catholic is called to imitate Scalia’s commitment to religious liberty, the family, and the unborn. And each one of us is called to use our votes, and our voices, to form a culture of life, and a civilization of love.

Like Justice Scalia, each one of us is called to seek justice and truth. We are called to support the right to life and the dignity of the human person. We are called to actively engage in public and political life, not in spite of our faith, but because of it.

It seems likely that Justice Scalia’s death will lead to a Supreme Court more hostile to religious believers, and less supportive of real human freedom. In the absence of Justice Scalia, our obligations in the public square, and the voting booth, become even more important. Today, the words of John Paul II ring ever more true: “it is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.”

Shortly after our dinner in 2012, Justice Scalia gave a formal talk about the witness of St. Thomas More’s integrity. He said that very often “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight.” He meant that nothing should deter us from proclaiming the truth, no matter how unpopular or unpleasant. Justice Scalia lived his life seeking the truth, and proclaiming it. I pray that each one of us will have the courage to do the same.

May Justice Antonin Scalia rest in peace. May perpetual light shine upon him.

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Bishop Conley

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