Five Supreme Court justices, along with Vice President Joe Biden and a host of judges and legal luminaries were on hand this morning for the unofficial launch of the Court's fall term: the annual Roman Catholic Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
With soaring organ and choral music, smoldering incense, and enough red-garbed priests to cause a traffic jam in the cathedral's central aisle, the mass is a dazzling ritual that brings together civic leaders, diplomats, law deans and others to pray for a successful year in administering justice.
With the Supreme Court now composed of six Catholics, three Jews, and no Protestants, here is the official tally of Sunday's attendees: Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito Jr., all Catholics, and Jewish justice Stephen Breyer, all with spouses. Roberts' wife Jane is a leader of the John Carroll Society, which sponsors the event. There was one notable hands-across-the-aisle moment: Roberts and Biden shook hands during the traditional "sign of peace" exchange.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the sermons delivered at the Red Mass were sometimes laced with messages about abortion and the right to die. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stopped attending after one sermon that she later described as "outrageously anti-abortion." More recently, the homilies have been less heavy-handed, and today, the reference to controversial issues was brief.
Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, an American-born theologian and high Vatican official, began the sermon blessing "the distinguished justices, the judges, attorneys, and lawmakers, professors and students of the law, the law clerks and paralegals" who serve in the legal profession -- possibly the highest-level recognition of the importance of law clerks and paralegals on record.
The archbishop showed empathy for those in the legal profession. "No informed observer can fail to acknowledge that the social and cultural pluralism of our times -- not to mention the relentless and sometimes often pitiless public scrutiny to which you are subjected -- makes the work of judges and lawyers today very hard indeed."
Di Noia asserted that the principles of positive or man-made law are based on "respect for the natural law, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of innocent life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage, justice for the poor, protection of minors, and so on." That list could be read to include references to abortion, the right to die, and same-sex marriage.
Later, Di Noia lamented the perilous trend in society toward "exclusive humanism" that leaves no room for God. "That innocent human life is now so broadly under threat has seemed to many of us one of the signs of this growing peril." Washington archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said after the sermon that Di Noia told her this reference to "innocent life" was not an allusion to abortion.
Footnote: As in past years, the Red Mass was picketed by demonstrators from a roped-off area across Rhode Island Avenue from the cathedral. This year, protestors held up signs with messages such as "Arrest the Pope," and "Pope Protects Pedos." In a way the scene served as a prelude to this Wednesday's oral argument before the Court in the First Amendment case Snyder v. Phelps involving unrelated demonstrators from the Westboro Baptist Church at the funeral of a U.S. Marine near a church in Maryland. Westboro protesters have shown up at Catholic funerals in the Washington archdiocese as well.
And those who attended the 1997 funeral of Justice William Brennan Jr. at St. Matthew's will recall that the angry voices of anti-abortion protestors outside could be heard in the cathedral during the service.