Six Catholics on the Bench?

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Since my fellow religion writers are all over the question of what it would mean if six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholics, I should probably expand on my initial three sentence analysis.

I still think it’s unlikely that Judge Sotomayor will face the same kinds of protests and charges of being a “bad Catholic” that we’ve seen with Kathleen Sebelius, John Kerry, and the University of Notre Dame, mostly because she doesn’t call herself a Catholic. Again, the answer the White House is giving to questions about her faith is that she “was raised Catholic and attends church for family celebrations and other important events.” The careful description avoids saying that she considers herself a Catholic. And while there may be political reasons for downplaying her faith, in the end it doesn’t matter why.

That’s because all of the bishops’ documents and papal statements on the question of high-profile Catholics are focused on holding practicing Catholics responsible for abiding by church teaching. None of them provide a role for Catholic leaders to sanction lapsed Catholics who don’t publicly identify themselves as Catholics. That’s not to say that Sotomayor won’t still face criticism from conservative Catholic corners, but it won’t be on the question of whether she’s a good enough Catholic.

If Sotomayor doesn’t think of herself as a Catholic, then discussions about the impact of moving from five to six Catholics on the bench are obviously less productive. It’s not as if she and Scalia would be facing off in chambers over different interpretations of Catholic social teaching. And while it is somewhat astonishing given the history of the country that the Court will now be down to one Protestant justice (John Paul Stevens), Sotomayor adds diversity in another way: 44% of Americans have either switched religious traditions or otherwise fallen away from the faith in which they were raised. That’s as fascinating a perspective to have on the Court as one strictly grounded in Catholic thought.