Almost 20 years after headlining The Cardinal Newman Society’s first national conference in Washington, D.C., the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is being remembered as a devout Catholic and a great public defender of faithful Catholic education.
At the Newman Society conference in October 1997, Scalia urged Catholic colleges to retain their religious identity and boldly challenge the relativism and secularism of modern society.
“The American landscape is strewn with colleges and universities, many of them the finest academically in the land, that were once denominational, but in principle or practice no longer are,” he said. “With foolish sectarian pride I thought that could never happen to Catholic institutions. Of course I was wrong. We started later, but we are on the same road.”
Nevertheless, Scalia said that especially in a society drifting towards secularism, there is a particular need for the Catholic university:
…because of the moral environment in which its work is conducted — an environment that sternly disapproves what the Church teaches, and in most cases what traditional Christianity has always taught, to be sinful.
Part of the task of a Catholic university, at least at the undergraduate level, must be precisely moral formation. Catholic universities cannot avoid that task, and indeed betray the expectations of tuition-paying, Catholic parents if they shirk it.
Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, gratefully recalls how important Justice Scalia was to the Society, just four years after its founding in 1993.
“In his characteristically frank and insightful manner, Justice Scalia said precisely what has been a bedrock principle of the Newman Society — that the heart of a faithful Catholic education is formation and not secular prestige,” Reilly said. “It was notable that such an eminent justice would so publicly challenge Catholic college leaders, and it was a great encouragement and motivation to those of us who were committed to the renewal of Catholic education.”
“We mourn his loss in this world but pray that he finds much deserved love and peace in the arms of Christ,” Reilly said.
Scalia said in a May 2014 interview with The Remnant that he became “a serious Catholic” at Xavier High School, a Jesuit high school in New York City, influenced by the “thoroughly religious atmosphere of the school” and the many young Jesuit priests who were his teachers. He even seriously considered entering the priesthood, but being an only child with no cousins on his father’s side, he thought the disappearance of the family name would greatly upset his parents.
So Scalia considered another profession and decided to go into the practice of law while studying at the Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university. He would later lament the loss of Georgetown’s Catholic identity.
During a speech at Duquesne University School of Law’s Centennial Celebration in Pittsburgh in September 2011, almost 14 years after addressing the Newman Society, Scalia again asserted that Catholic universities have a duty to morally form students.
“Our educational establishment these days, while so tolerant of and even insistent on diversity in all other aspects of life, seems bent on eliminating the diversity of moral judgment, particularly moral judgment based on religious views,” he said. “I hope this place will not yield, as some Catholic institutions have, to this politically correct insistence upon suppressing moral judgment, to this distorted view of what diversity in America means.”
Scalia told the audience that moral formation “has nothing to do with making students better lawyers, but everything to do with making them better men and women. … Moral formation is a respectable goal for any educational institution, even a law school.”
“Religious educational institutions from universities down to local schools are not strangers to the American scene. They are as Americanas apple pie,” he continued. “A Catholic law school should be a place where it is clear, though perhaps unspoken, that the here-and-now is less important, when all is said and done, than the hereafter.”
Scalia openly offered his criticisms of those universities he thought were failing in their Catholic mission, including his alma mater Georgetown. In the May 2014 interview with The Remnant, as the Newman Society reported, Scalia bluntly stated that Georgetown “is not Catholic anymore,” adding that when he attended “they rolled you out of bed to attend Mass. Not anymore.”
It wasn’t the first time he criticized the lack of Catholicity at Georgetown. During an October 2013 appearance at University of Virginia, Scalia said, “When I was at Georgetown, it was a very Catholic place. It’s not anymore — and that’s too bad.” He posed the question to the crowd, “What has happened to Catholic universities, that they would lose their reason for being?”
Scalia added that many other Catholic universities have drifted away from the faith, and remarked that while many in the educated and intellectual class view religious people as foolish or naïve, it’s important for Christians to be proud of their faith.
“You’ve always got to be open to discussing your faith. Be eager to discuss it,” he said. Scalia told the crowd that too many Catholics have shown an unwillingness to spread their faith, and because of that “the Church has been in trouble for a while.”
In addition to his public statements, Scalia’s votes on the Supreme Court supported Catholic education, said University of Notre Dame Law School Professor Richard Garnett in an interview with The Cardinal Newman Society.
“Certainly, Justice Scalia participated in several important decisions that were helpful to Catholic schools. For example, in the series of cases having to do with scholarships and other forms of aid to students attending Catholic schools, he consistently voted in favor of the idea that evenhanded, neutral forms of aid — vouchers, tax credits, etc. — are permitted by the Constitution,” Garnett said. “This development has been very important in helping Catholic schools stay open and do their good work.”
Garnett also pointed to the Court’s 2012 decision in the Hosanna-Tabor as “also very important to the mission and character of Catholic schools.” The Court ruled in the case that religious organizations, including schools, should be free from government interference when they choose to hire or fire ministerial employees “if the schools believe hiring or retaining those teachers are not consistent with the school’s religious teachings, commitments and mission,” said Garnett.
“It was a 9-0 ruling and so, obviously, Justice Scalia was not alone,” he said. “In the coming years, we will see an increasing number of employment-discrimination cases involving religious schools, and this decision by the Court will be important.”
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