The sad news of the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia affords reflection on his deeply rooted Catholic faith and spirituality. Justice Scalia was a devout Catholic who regularly attended the Latin Mass, who believed in the resurrection of Christ, miracles, Marian apparitions, the devil, heaven and hell, and was a supporter of Pope Francis’ evangelistic vision for the Church.
“Justice Scalia actively encouraged fidelity to the Church’s traditional values,” writes Scalia biographer Joan Biskupic. “A few of his clerks who were Catholic said the justice took a strong interest in commitment. He wanted to make sure they observed Ash Wednesday and all holy days and followed Catholic teaching. One of his greatest sources of pride, he said, was that all nine of his children attended regular Sunday Mass.” One of those nine children is today a Catholic priest, Fr. Paul Scalia of the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia.
Justice Scalia on Pope Francis
When in 2013 Justice Scalia was asked what he thinks of Pope Francis, Scalia replied: “He’s the Vicar of Christ. He’s the chief. I don’t run down the pope.”
Jennifer Senior of New York Magazine, who was conducting the interview, pushed Scalia on the matter, emphasizing that Pope Francis said that the Church should focus less on divisive issues like abortion and homosexuality and give more attention to caring for the poor. Scalia replied:
“I think he’s absolutely right. I think the church ought to be more evangelistic. . . .
But he [Pope Francis] hasn’t backed off the view of the church on those issues. He’s just saying, ‘Don’t spend all our time talking about that stuff. Talk about Jesus Christ and evangelize.’ I think there’s no indication whatever that he’s changing doctrinally.”
Scalia continued: “I spent my junior year in Switzerland. On the way back home, I spent some time in England, and I remember going to Hyde Park Corner. And there was a Roman Catholic priest in his collar, standing on a soapbox, preaching the Catholic faith and being heckled by a group. And I thought, My goodness. I thought that was admirable. I have often bemoaned the fact that the Catholic Church has sort of lost that evangelistic spirit. And if this pope brings it back, all the better.”
Justice Scalia on Heaven, Hell, and the Devil
When asked by New York Magazine whether he believes in heaven and hell, Justice Scalia replied, “Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?” Later in the interview, Scalia explained: “I even believe in the Devil.” Scalia would emphasize that the Devil is a real person and that it is standard Catholic doctrine to believe in him.
When asked how is the Devil working in the world today, Scalia stressed that the evil one is leading people to unbelief. “What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.”
In Search of a Reverent Mass: “Really, we’ve always traveled some distance.”
Joan Biskupic, in her biography American Original: the Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, explains that throughout their lives Scalia and his family traveled considerable distances to attend reverently celebrated Masses. The family often encountered priests whose homilies denigrated the sacred mysteries and teachings of the Catholic faith. And Antonin Scalia, even before becoming a Supreme Court justice, was not shy in confronting such priests.
“We have always traveled long distances to go to a church that we thought had a really reverent Mass, the kind of church that when you go in, it is quiet—not that kind of church where it is like a community hall and everybody is talking,” Justice Scalia explained in an interview. “We used to travel in Chicago . . . [At first] we went to the church that was closest . . . in Hyde Park. I remember the last straw there. And it was around Christmas time and they had some smart-ass young Jesuit who said the Mass and gave the sermon, and said, ‘Of course, we know that all of this about the manger and all . . . is fanciful.”
Biskupic explains: “Scalia, who was then a professor at the University of Chicago, was furious that a priest would denigrate the story of Jesus Christ’s birth in a stable. The remark cast doubt on the depiction of Mary laying Jesus in a manger, a story from St. Luke’s Gospel that Scalia and his wife, Maureen, taught their children.”
Justice Scalia would confront the priest about it and explain to him that he would not stand for such teaching, his family leaving that church for one with a more reverent presiding.
“So we used to go downtown [in Chicago] to a little Church near the Merchandise Mart,” Scalia continued, “a little church run by an Italian order, the Servites, and they had a very devout Mass. I did the same in Charlottesville. We had to go to that university church. They had some crazy Dominicans. After one sermon when it was relativist morality, I went up to the priest afterward and I said, ‘What is this stuff?’ And he said, ‘Well you know, the teaching of the church changes.’ . . . So I was out of there . . . Really we’ve always traveled some distance.” (Biskupic, 186).
“In the 1970’s, when he worked for Presidents Nixon and Ford, Scalia often drove his family over from their northern Virginia home to St. Matthew’s [Cathedral in downtown Washington, D.C.]. In those years American Catholicism was veering away from solemn organ music toward folksier guitar masses. But St. Matthew’s still offered the Latin Mass, and Scalia sought it out. The extra hour of driving to a just-right church became part of the routine of the Scalia children’s upbringing. When the family lived in Chicago and Charlottesville, too, Scalia looked for a church with a high Mass and the reverence he desired.”
“My father views the Catholic faith today as an inheritor of a cultural heritage, the great art, the music, the Latin tradition,” said Scalia’s eldest son, Eugene. “To him it’s Bach and Beethoven versus guitar Mass. I don’t think for him it’s a conservative thing, or right-wing thing. He wants the tradition.” (Biskupic, 185-186)
Justice Scalia on Marian Apparitions, the Supernatural, the Eucharist, and the Rosary
Six years ago in 2010 Justice Scalia spoke to members of the St. Thomas More Society who honored Scalia with their “Man for All Seasons Award,” given to members of the legal profession who embody the ideals of St. Thomas More, the Catholic martyr who was killed for standing with the pope and his Catholic faith against King Henry VIII during the 16th century.
During his talk, which took place in the Westin Hotel in Annapolis following the 52nd annual Red Mass, Scalia listed a core set of Christian beliefs that are greeted with disbelief and derision by the worldly-wise: dogmas such as Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and Virgin birth.
“Surely those who adhere to all or most of these traditional Christian beliefs are regarded in the educated circles that you and I travel in as, well, simple-minded,” Scalia explained. He referenced a story in the Washington Post that described Christian fundamentalists as “poorly educated and easily led.”
“The same attitude applies, of course, to traditional Catholics,” Scalia continued, “who do such positively peasant-like things as saying the rosary, kneeling in adoration before the Eucharist, going on pilgrimages to Lourdes or Medjugorje and – worst of all – following indiscriminately, rather than in smorgasbord fashion, the teachings of the pope.”
Scalia argued that Christians should embrace the ridicule of the world and be not afraid to be fools for Christ.
The emphasis that Justice Scalia placed on traditional Catholic devotions like the Rosary, pilgrimages to Marian apparition shrines, kneeling before the Eucharist, and obedience to the Pope, were an often-repeated emphasis in his speeches on faith.
Biskupic explains that in “a speech to a Kinghts of Columbus Council in Baton Rouge, he praised, according to the local paper, The Advocate, ‘traditional Catholics’ who say the Rosary, go on pilgrimages, kneel during the Eucharist, and ‘follow religiously the teaching of the Pope.'”
Biskupic quotes Leo Leonard, a Washington lawyer and friend of Scalia’s, who beautifully described the late Supreme Court justice’s faith:
“He is very much committed to the magisterial traditions of the Church. He believes those traditions have a purpose and meaning. You’ll hear the justice complain about church architecture and liturgies that are too modernistic. At first blush, you might just think he’s a rigid Catholic. In reality that’s not true. You come to realize that those traditions, that architecture, that music, the incense, all of those things are there to deliver up a sense of piety, reverence for the person attending Mass. What those outward manifestations allow him to do is to focus on faith and achieve a level of spirituality.”